The Matrix 4, huh. Does this mean the end of the franchise’s climactic chases to payphones? Can’t they just escape through their cell phones now?
Hollywood used to know how – or at least occasionally remember – to ponder the following question: who is actually asking for this movie? Are we actually meeting a demand? Or are we just spinning our wheels?
Now, the question doesn’t even seem to matter anymore. The audiences is always there for IP, and if not, just wait a little longer and you can reboot again. You have to. It’s the only way to both keep up with Disney’s IP dominance and cut through the cultural glut.
Given this environment as well as the recent corporate changes at Warner Bros (hello AT&T) and Lana Wachowskis’ run of box office bombs, some kind of continuation of The Matrix franchise seemed inevitable. A direct sequel directed by Wachowski (just Lana, her sister Lilly is sitting this one out) and starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie Ann-Moss, however, is more than most expected. For years, there had been rumors of a spin-off starring Michael B. Jordan. Instead, we’re getting something far closer to the original recipe Matrix at a time when Reeves’ is practically being anointed for sainthood in gushy profiles and continues to thrive as the internet’s boyfriend. So, color us intrigued.
The question remains, even if Hollywood doesn’t seem to bother worrying about this anymore: who is asking for The Matrix 4?
Let’s Talk About Charlie’s Angels. No, Seriously.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the trailer for the new Charlie’s Angels movie. No, I’m not a huge Angels head or Kristen Stewart stan. I don’t ride or die for Elizabeth Banks, though it has been a delight watching her morph into a successful director. I haven’t been obsessively refreshing the trailer on YouTube just to hear Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus’s new song they made for the movie.
Instead, I’ve just been going to a lot of movies, and for whatever reason AMC has chosen to stick this trailer in front of pretty much everything. Horror, family drama, a superhero story, animated silliness – doesn’t matter, if it’s playing in an AMC it’s coming with the Charlie’s Angel trailer in front of it. This means, if I stop to actually count it up, I’ve probably seen the trailer 15 or 16 times over the past two months. Small sample size, I know, but based on what I’ve witnessed there has been one common response to the trailer every time it has played: at least one person, always sitting somewhere close to me in the theater, whispers in a frustrated voice to someone else, “I can’t believe they made another Charlie’s Angels movie.”
If the people I can overhear are saying that every time, how many of the people I can’t hear are saying or at least thinking the same thing?
Scientifically speaking, this anecdote is useless. It’s not generalizable in any way, but it has colored my impression of Charlie’s Angels. I share that here – in what is supposed to be my reaction to yesterday’s big The Matrix 4 news – because I think it does actually get at the existential crisis facing the entire film industry today: how do you tell the difference between IP awareness and actual want-to-see?
The industry is flush with big-name franchises which everyone is at least vaguely aware of, even if just through cultural osmosis. However, there’s a big difference between being kind of aware of something and actually wanting to see more of it. Yet, as reboots – both on TV and in theaters – continue to be as plentiful as Trump tweets we’ve entered this weird stage where no story is ever allowed to end, especially when films like the 2018 Halloween and this year’s Terminator: Dark Fate can selectively ignore all the sequels we didn’t like and even some that we did.
So, who was asking for more Charlie’s Angels, an of-its-era 70s TV show which turned into a moderately successful Drew Barrymore-Cameron Diaz-Lucy Liu vehicle in the early 2000s before flaming out with a disappointing sequel? Doesn’t matter. The fact that a lot of people already know the basic concept gives the marketing department more of a fighting chance than if they were trying to sell something completely new.
Similarly, whether there is an actual ticket-buying audience for more of The Matrix remains to be seen, but it’s an investment work making because the franchise amassed over $1.6 billion in ticket sales across three movies, the first in 1999 and the two sequels in 2003. The sequels might have tarnished the brand at the time, but as the history of online film culture tells us whenever there’s a chance to latch onto a “misunderstood classic” narrative a movement will soon follow. Thus, search through Google and you’ll find plenty of people defending The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
Let’s Talk About the Sequels.
My take: Reloaded is a mixed bag, but still interesting. The cliffhanger reveal that Neo is but the latest in a long line of inevitable aberrations is a legit shocker, directly negating the first film’s – um, spoiler warning from 1999? – rah-rah “He is the one!” climax.
Reloaded arguably predicted much of the hero’s journey deconstruction and reconsiderations we’ve been seeing from films and TV shows like The Magicians over the past decade. Everyone is busy dunking on Joseph Campbell these days, but Reloaded got there 16 years ago. Granted, then Revolutions elevated Neo to Messianic heights, but the franchise still left us with the hint that everything we saw would likely repeat itself. Interesting to ponder, but not always interesting to watch.
For example, Revolutions – a jingoistic war movie awkwardly married to a prolonged road trip leading to a climactic Superman fight that ultimately means nothing – is a cinematic experience best left forgotten.
As Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the lack of limitations.” The sequels play like movies operating without limitations. It’s as if WB handed The Wachowskis a blank check to go nuts. In response, the directors cranked out ponderous treatises on the self, society’s cyclical need for revolution, and one fucked-up trip to a digital Wizard of the Oz. It all helped fill countless pages of The Philosophy of The Matrix books while veering too far afield from the kung fu and techno inspirations which gave the first film its cinematic heft.
Chasing the Dragon
The Wachowskis have been chasing that dragon ever since, burning their “you made The Matrix so we’ll bet on you a couple more times” bridge on overcooked, overpriced projects like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending before discovering that their increasingly long-winded work is now better suited to streaming. The best thing they have done since The Matrix is Sense8 – a global production about far-flung individuals who discover they can share a consciousness across continents and are now targeted by top-secret, shady government types – but Netflix canceled it after two seasons and a fan-petition-mandated wrap-up movie.
The Matrix Reborn
Meanwhile, The Matrix has morphed into somewhat of an online totem – the thing people cling to in response to their legit inability to accept that this increasingly fucked up world which is bound and determined to march toward WWIII is real.
“What if we’re all actually living in The Matrix?” has been the basic lede of countless think pieces and YouTube videos. It’s a theory which likely seems more plausible – or, for some, just fun to think about – because of the massive technological advances in the 20 years since the first film’s release. We can’t yet download kung fu into our brains, but we can use an Occulus Rift as a basic fight simulator. We’re not under imminent threat of being Skynetted by some self-aware machines, but we are surrounded by countless AI devices which record everything we do.
What will The Matrix 4 do with all of that? Hopefully something better than before. As Lilly Wachowski recently told SlashFilm, “I like it when stories go out into the world and then come back to you in different ways. I mean, that’s what storytelling is all about. I’m part of a bigger thing. I don’t have any ownership over stuff like that, so whatever story anybody wants to tell, I can’t wait to hear. I hope it’s better than the original.”
Where Did We Leave Off?
Revolutions – it’s worth remembering and spoiler from 2003 – doesn’t actually end in victory. In exchange for a truce between human and machine, Neo clears The Matrix of its out-of-control virus problem known as Agent Smith. He seemingly, but not definitely dies in the process, which is more than we can say for Trinity, who is 100% dead well before the finale. Thus, the films end with two-thirds of its central trio – Neo, Trinity, Morpheus – gone or assumed gone. Their sacrifice leads to peace, but it’s a peace the film acknowledges will only last “as long as it can.”
In the film’s world, any number of things might turn out to disrupt the peace. One possibility: in the next movie, what if humans, not machines, are the villains? What if all the humans Neo helped free from The Matrix now want to go back to the way things were, opting for Cypher’s “ignorance is bliss” defense from the first film? Feels like a very now storyline, even if would be a retread. My guess is they’ll do something totally different, if only because I can’t imagine everyone would be coming back just to do more of the same.
In the real world, however, Revolutions’ peace didn’t even make it two decades mostly because industry trends demanded a revival. How will Neo come back? Ditto for Trinity. What about Morpheus? And will get another classic MTV parody video out of this?
All big questions. (Well, maybe not that last one.) However, the biggest question remains: are audiences actually asking for The Matrix 4? Either way, we’re getting it.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.