Fear of Flying
By Sam Bodrojan
The Matrix Resurrections
Dir. Lana Wachowski, U.S., Warner Bros.
The following essay discusses trans suicide and transphobic bullying.
In Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections, suicide and flying are one and the same. In a shot we see first through the eyes of Bugs, a young woman working for the revolution, Keanu Reeves’s Neo steps off a building in slow-motion, surrounded by a swarm of bodies, all reaching to stop him in distorted angles reminiscent of an Artemisia Gentileschi painting. We revisit this moment throughout the film, each time from a slightly different angle. According to the psychiatrist who prescribes him the infamous blue pills, Neo’s had a psychotic break, believing himself able to fly off a building, as he does at the end of the 1999 original film. In the present day of The Matrix Resurrections, the events of the first three Matrix films existed only within video games that have been designed by Neo himself. Thomas Anderson, as Neo is once again known, now at work on a new game entitled Binary, does not want to talk about The Matrix anymore—even as he visualizes himself within the walls of the simulation that replays and resets what he cannot remember as his own life. He would rather die than live in the Matrix. And the Matrix will not stop him from dying again and again.
The Matrix Resurrections follows 20 years after the original trilogy, in which Neo, his lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and mentor, Morpheus (once played by Laurence Fishburne, now exhilaratingly embodied by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), defeated the robots that trapped humanity inside a simulation. After Neo sacrificed himself so that humanity could be given an opportunity to leave the Matrix, the machines secretly kept him alive and wiped his memory to keep the simulation stable and controlled under the watchful eye of The Analyst. When he is discovered by Bugs, who works for a small group of humans who still hold out hope that Neo may be alive, Neo is a game developer for a Warner Brothers subsidiary, pining for Moss’s “Tiffany” from across his nearby coffee shop while he is forced to make a sequel to his magnum opus.
In any early montage, a table of game developers discuss the “meaning of the Matrix” and throw out terms like “free will,” “climate change,” and “trans politics,” none of which are quite correct. In writing a review for such a dense “event film,” there is the urge to try and be comprehensive: to discuss the excellent action choreography; the limits of its political imagination (which broaden as they become more optimistic); the wanton evocations of racial histories that Lana Wachowski and cowriters Aleksandar Hermon (Nowhere Man) and David Mitchell (who previously collaborated on, amongst other things, the embarrassing Cloud Atlas) lack the toolset to fully express; the idea of revolution as interpersonal and solely ideal-driven as opposed to material, institutional, pragmatic; and then to tie all this back to the limits of the body. The refrain is easy: “Did you know The Matrix is an allegory for transition?” which is thrown out as though it’s self-explanatory.
To do the same for Resurrections would lead to the exact kind of literalized criticism trans film writers have ostensibly rallied against for years now. Andrea Long Chu already wrote the essay decrying the rigid application of trans thought onto the original film, and there is a part of me that wants to echo her nihilism. The Matrix does not have to be one thing so cleanly, and I think Lana Wachowski would agree. We as trans people don’t have to see ourselves on-screen to feel seen; we can live in the corners as we always have, hidden in platitudes about “becoming.” The script for Resurrections shatters easy red-blue dichotomies with reckless abandon (the villain’s eyes may glow red, a rebel’s hair might shine blue) and transforms the Merovingian, a villain from Reloaded, into a babbling idiot spouting on about the inherent inferiority of sequels. This is a series so informed by the capital-T Trans Experience that it cannot help, by nature of its fabled form, but become allegory.
Jonathan Groff takes over Hugo Weaving’s role as Agent Smith, recast in this film as Neo’s boss, who carries a deep, newly foregrounded affection for him. (The arc of Groff’s character could only be written by a person who understands the pain of having a fellow closeted trans girl resent you when you come out.) When the carefully orchestrated illusion of Neo’s reality first breaks, Neo scrambling in a haze of gunfire, Groff, doused in rain, whispers to him a quiet “I’ve missed you.” This dysfunction is not an Easter Egg or free-associative connection but a brutally specific emotional dynamic unique to a particularly trans situation. I looked at Agent Smith and saw a former roommate who overdosed two years ago. It is inevitable that the Matrix movies become personal; they earn and encourage that very projection. The original trilogy is no less rife with queer-coded characters, no less allegorically minded, but those films’ preoccupations were in hidden desires, in dreams of “becoming” something beyond what mainstream visions of the flesh could offer.
Resurrections is born from a different era; its text is concerned with the matters of trans people who have lived openly as themselves long enough to have actualized those desires and develop new fears. This fourth film again relies on the mythic translation of queer thought, but its signifiers often belie a friction not previously present. For the first time, there is a tension between the cultural context Wachowski evokes and her unabashedly corny method of delivery. In a tossed-off remark, we learn that Tiffany’s husband’s name is Chad, a reference to both the actor who plays him, Chad Stahleski (the John Wick director who did stunt work on the original trilogy) and to the term for those who embody peak masculinity on sites like 4chan, the same forums where trans women will often post selfies to ask if they pass and receive a memeified statistic in reply—a study, of suspiciously researched origin, claiming that 42% of trans women have attempted suicide. Such markers of the outside world, our world, are omnipresent throughout Resurrections. Even as the film functions within a vacuum, closer examination requires obligatory disclosure on the part of a trans audience, turning the film into aspirational viewing, ironic given that for the first time, the series is dealing with feelings that are lived as opposed to dreamed.
Some early reviews suggested that the new film was primarily offering a metaphor for the loss of artistic freedom and the death of originality in the Hollywood blockbuster, as though it was a sly satire built on easy targets and jokes that winked to the audience. However, we’re watching Neo kill himself. Even he cannot escape the central contradiction that subsumes contemporary trans thought: aesthetic beauty obscuring visceral pain. The Matrix Resurrections is stuck here too. It can make Neo and Trinity die over and over, their bodies torn apart as they reach for each other, but Lana Wachowski refuses to let such a meaning become explicit, despite how close it is to the surface. The film loops itself to death for fear of letting its images speak for themselves.
As Resurrections’ antagonist, The Analyst (played by everyone’s favorite assimilationist gay, Neil Patrick Harris), explains, Neo and Trinity must keep each other close enough to orbit one another in yearning but not close enough to actualize their love within the simulation. Here we have a neat analogy for the longing that propels the text itself—close enough to make a trans reading possible, even intended, but never close enough to be legible outside of the very brand of analysis that the film itself so obviously wants to reject. In the film’s finest, most groundbreaking set piece, Harris, filmed with two cameras each set at different frame rates so that he moves at variable speeds throughout a single image, suspends Neo in perpetual longing for Trinity as he runs to protect her from a bullet. It’s an apt indictment of the state of queer cinema, stuck in perpetual fear, of unconsummated touch, of death, of using the exact thing that defines you to control you. The trap Wachowski rather understandably falls into time and again throughout the film—a trap so easy to fall into as a trans person surrounded by persistent and silent death—is that we cannot verbalize what we feel into existence and must instead urge ourselves to speak in code, relive suffering in order to keep our ghosts alive. The recreations of the first film, though initially clumsy, become a eulogy for that crushing inability to move on from the death of every trans person you’ve ever loved. It’s impossible to move on from SOPHIE’s death, or Venus Xtravaganza’s death, or your cousin’s friend’s death; from Isabel Fall’s harassment; from the kid in rehab you knew from high school; or your best friend. We live in these moments as if we can make their deaths any less cruel, or any less of an abstract symbol to outsiders. As Bugs says of Neo’s heroics: “They turned something that meant a lot to a lot of us into something trivial.”
The film, too, through no fault of anything except the very theoretical framework that has been levied by every trans person who has ever watched a film, turns the most unspeakable pain into fodder for a YouTuber’s Patreon. The majority of explicit trans representation in media, from Pose to Sex Education, preemptively exhausts itself, eager to reaffirm that it is researched and terminologically correct and attuned to the fashionable markers of positive representation, to sell the very existence of trans people. What is so freeing about the freeform reclamation of slasher villains and hysterical women is that such films more acutely examine the emotions we feel, where concrete representation has heretofore mostly sought to sanitize our pain and imperfections. My dissatisfaction with Resurrections, then, is a kind of happy accident. There has never come a point in trans film criticism where I have been forced to doubt the comfort of double entendre. I did not consider that metaphor could be insufficient.
I want to bemoan Resurrections for not going the extra step, for not just Saying It—that trans people die all the time, and that this same suicidality reverberatesamongst the communities that they once occupied—and for letting viewers who could never understand off the hook. I loathe the compulsion to offer my trauma as a mathematical proof, as if it is a projection onto the film and not the text itself. Yet there’s real beauty here, worth articulating as much as the film’s shortcomings. Neo’s aging body is treated with tenderness by the camera and story, never judging or condescending to his physical ability. Robots, now called Sentients, have joined the revolution alongside humans. The original Morpheus had the opportunity to die of old age, though he is given a new body in the form of a magnetic rendering of his digital spirit. While Neo was relegated to a cycle of perpetual pain, his actions have propelled a bigger movement and community outside the simulation. At the film’s climax, Neo returns to the simulation to save Trinity, choosing to risk that pain for love. Such a wildly romantic gesture guides the film’s final moments, where Trinity grabs Neo and jumps off a building, soaring towards the camera with a power he could not muster on his own. As the characters have gotten older, they have grown beyond their individual bodies thanks to the help of others, indicating that The Matrix Resurrections knows that trans people die in a vortex and live in an amoeba-like hoard of intimate mutual aid.
In spite of itself, The Matrix Resurrections is a death knell for the unspoken modus operandi of trans cinephilia, insistently upsetting and unabashedly angry. The inevitable collapse of the individual body in a world not built for it is the theme that dominates most of the film’s runtime and most of the space it takes up in my memory. It’s a film about what a single artistic voice can do in a studio system, and it’s about a school of film criticism for an audience never considered by those who set the frameworks. It is the exact movie I have dreamed of watching my entire life. Of course, then, I can only see its failings. Trans people deserve more than The Matrix Resurrections could ever offer. Yet at that final shot, I could swear that we were flying.