What do The Matrix Resurrections, Spider-Man: No Way Home, West Side Story, Macbeth, Drive My Car, and the new Scream have in common?
They all make their bones by being in deep conversation with a pre-existing piece of art. Ahistorical trendsters (philistines?) might be inclined to label 2021 as the year that cinema really went into the meta-verse, and though this predilection is definitely more popular in a concentrated way now than before, postmodern referentialism ain’t new.
Which is why simply referencing prior art isn’t a virtue in itself. As always, people: it’s not the what, but the how. What’s the nature of the conversation, and what’s it in service of?
The Matrix Resurrections explores the underpinnings of this artistic cyclicality, and the franchise’s role in perpetuating it, satirizing our desire for the same stories in recycled — but slightly different — forms. Most sequels in some way reinterpret previous installments…but Resurrections delves into literal re-interpretations of the first movie; we see clips from it, and then the characters debate possible explanations of what the scenes could possibly represent. Can you say: exegesis (I mean, the religiosity is right there in the title)!
As such, the entire movie can be understood as Lana Wachowski using the world she created — and is recreating — to wrestle with her own legacy, specifically her specific place in the aforementioned cycle. It’s the artist’s journey writ large on a giant scale, a personal reckoning with the hamster wheel on the factory line of commercial re-commodification.
This navel-gazing thematic framework acts as a form of artistic lampshading. Oh, you think certain parts reek of uninspired rehashing? Well, that’d be thematically on-point, and thus justified! It’s like how designing a dog to chase its own tail inoculates the designer from criticisms that their dog ain’t going anywhere new.
Perhaps that’s one reason artists are so obsessed with the rearview mirror.