Wow, déjà vu.
Have you ever wondered why certain songs by certain bands do not lend themselves well to being performed by other bands as covers? Granted, many songs – in fact, probably most of them – do lend themselves to such treatment. You will always hear perennial classics of pop music recreated by young musicians, rearranged and reharmonized by pros, or translated into other genres, which is all great. I do enjoy the novelty of hearing George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” reimagined by post-grungers of Seether just as much as I always had a soft spot for Metallica’s version of “Whiskey in the Jar” or Marilyn Manson’s rendition of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”.
But some bands have either successfully evaded being covered or their covers never reached the surface of the zeitgeist to gain enough attention or notoriety and Rage Against the Machine is one such band. Why is that, you’d ask? I mean, I myself have learned and played many of their songs. They’re not hard to pin down in terms of structure. Tom Morello’s solos may present a considerable challenge but a band of four twenty-somethings with a guitarist, a bass player, a drummer and a singer should be able to familiarize themselves with their music and perform it in front of crowds in pubs, night clubs and arenas. But many such bands do not do that and if they want to incorporate a cover into their set lists, they will look for other bands to tribute with their interpretations of some of their hits.
I suppose, the reason why songs by bands like Rage Against the Machine are hard to pin down has to do with what their music meant. You see, it’s not always about chords, melodies and rhythm, but about emotions and energy. Granted, some songs can be and usually are performed with the requisite respect to the artist’s intent and I suppose you’d never have to hear a punk rock rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”, a song he wrote after the tragic death of his son, but some require much more personal investment. Suffice it to say that the music of Rage Against the Machine is a composite of not only the musical acumen of its members but an amplification of Zack de la Rocha’s strong political convictions he screamed into the microphone with utmost authenticity that gave all of their songs a meaning and persistent cultural gravity. They were the voice of their generation protesting the inequities and injustices they saw around them and thanks to this raw energy infused into their already insanely charged tunes, they took the world by storm.
Thus, it was not an accident that The Wachowskis chose to end their iconic breakout hit The Matrix with the image of Neo reincarnated as The One flying into the camera to the tune of the iconic riffs of “Wake Up”, an anthem calling for social reinvigoration and cultural uprising against the oppressive governments. The movie itself fit as a culmination to the angst suffused throughout the 90s, a result of years of disenfranchisement of the youth who were sick and tired of old men telling them how to live their lives. The Matrix was at its core an anti-establishment anthem that spoke to youngsters the world over and reinforced the possibility they did not have to spend their lives plugged into the system, coddled in rhubarb jelly and playing by the rules of the game that was innately rigged against them. The movie tapped into a supple groove of growing disapproval of the cultural status quo and became not only a smash hit but a cultural phenomenon. The Matrix spoke with the angst and fury of Zack de la Rocha’s vocals.
This brings us to 2021. At this point I don’t think I want to get into the peculiarities of preceding sequels because they have their own identities that shift somewhat (and perhaps temper) the edge of the original movie, so I shall leave it to one side. Let’s just focus on The Matrix Resurrections, a movie that nobody ever expected would be made because there didn’t seem to be enough cultural momentum to will it into existence. I think it’s safe to say that the film came together out of obligation rather than pristine artistic drive to tell a new story in this universe and in fact it just might be the case that Lana Wachowski (who returned behind the camera unaccompanied by her sister Lilly) felt forced into making this movie because the alternative would involve the studio doing it anyway without her involvement and not only butchering the project but perhaps endangering the legacy of the preceding trilogy. Therefore, she felt the obligation to step up to the plate as though to say, “If someone is to make a mess of it, I’d rather do it myself”. And boy, did she…
I have been scratching my head about this for a little while now and thinking about the way to express my feelings on The Matrix Resurrections that would aptly reflect the level of my disappointment with this movie as a whole. I did my level best to avoid most of the marketing and entered the screening with my mind wide open (despite the fact I have never been the biggest fan of Reloaded and Revolutions). Unfortunately, I squirmed in my seat all throughout the film, torn by a mixture of anger, disappointment and utter dismay at what was unfolding on the screen. As the film was drawing to a close, I was already trying to parse this onslaught of emotions enveloping my mind and failing terribly at identifying the backbone of what’s wrong with the movie… until the screen cut to black and I heard a familiar melody. Similarly to the original, Resurrections ends with “Wake Up” but you don’t hear the iconic riff performed on a guitar. You hear a reharmonized horn section. Lana Wachowski chose to close her film with a cover by Brass Against instead, which is what apologists of this movie will insist is a joke… to which I will reply that a joke needs to be funny to work.
Why isn’t it funny? Well, let’s just say a few words about the band Brass Against itself. As the name might suggest (and it is corroborated by information found on their own website), Brass Against is a musical collective of artists singing and performing with a goal to inspire social and cultural change. Problem is, they only play covers. Don’t get me wrong, their reharmonizations of “Killing in the Name of”, “Bulls on Parade” and even the aforementioned “Wake Up” are musically accomplished, professional and interesting to listen to, but they are emotionally hollow. And that’s despite Sophie Urista screaming her lungs out and giving it her best. That’s because when she shouts into the microphone, she is not channelling her own frustrations with the world at large, but reciting the words written by others. I suppose on some level you could argue this is a reflection of today’s zeitgeist and a sad realization that Generation Z doesn’t have its own original voice and instead chooses to reappropriate, remix and reharmonize the angst of their elders, perhaps ironically turning it into a meme they can share on TikTok while making fun of the self-seriousness of Gen-Xers and the impotent frustration of Millennials.
And that my dear reader reflects what I think The Matrix Resurrections is at its core – hollow. It is nothing more than a cover song, re-harmonized and rearranged to appeal to people who don’t hold the same values as the people who responded so beautifully to The Matrix in 1999. This is an anti-establishment movie for people who are more likely to go to a protest ironically or form anonymous cancel mobs from the comfort of the houses bought and paid for by their parents,who ironically enough would organically know what the angst of Rage Against the Machine smelled and tasted like.
It’s probably no longer appropriate to characterize what happens in this movie as fan service in the vein of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Ghostbusters: Afterlife a review of which I have yet to write), because Lana Wachowski purposefully and methodically undermines her own legacy to create a meta joke about The Matrix while still trying to be The Matrix, which reeks of desperation, to put it quite frankly. I suppose to best approximate what I have in mind would be just to recount the beginning of the film which is set to evoke stunning symmetry with The Matrix. We see armed police officers advancing slowly through an abandoned building where they happen upon a black-clad woman at a computer. All familiar stuff but we are observing it from the side-lines through the eyes of Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a new character in the growing lore of this series and our bespoke conduit. As the events on the screen begin deviating from what we know happened in The Matrix, Bugs immediately remarks upon it, as though to reinforce the film’s meta self-awareness. She then becomes embroiled in the well-known rooftop chase scene, finds herself in a key shop – another wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment aimed to get the fans to whisper ‘I know this. It’s the key-maker’s place’ under their noses – only to be whisked away into the familiar white corridor by an agent who reveals himself as Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Yes, you got that right. He is an agent and Morpheus. He is what they call a sentient.
At this point I can only imagine the audience will divide into two camps: (1) people who enjoy being pandered to with elements of tangential lore found in The Animatrix and characteristic moments lifted from the previous three films, some of which have been re-harmonized and rearranged to function as a meta joke, and (2) people like me who feel like the act of being pandered to is nowhere near enough to ensure a satisfactory cinematic experience and require the film to be fundamentally entertaining at the very least. Sadly, The Matrix Resurrections forgets that the original movie and even its sequels functioned predominantly as action pieces and thrived on the adrenaline generated in the viewers’ bloodstream. What is more, the movie fails to realize that one of the greatest strengths of The Matrix compared to Reloaded and Revolutions was that it was incredibly easy on the uptake despite pumping metric tonnes of exposition into the viewers’ heads. This was a direct effect of Neo being an effective conduit for the audience as he had no idea what was happening and as a result, we learned kung fu together with him.
This is not the case in here because, despite the fact Neo lives in a state of orchestrated bliss, he is still the same Neo. He still knows what he knows and remembers what he remembers but a chunk of the narrative is devoted to him figuring out that what he is told are projected memories or figments of his imagination are a deliberate ploy to keep him from being whisked out of the pod of rhubarb jelly. Hence, even when the characters introduce Neo to modals, evolving scripts, sentients, magnetic particles, using mirrors as doors, not having to use landlines and everything in between, Neo assimilates this knowledge instantaneously, leaving the audience on their own to either rely on their expert memory of the lore or to just look at what’s happening the way a deer gazes upon the headlights of an approaching truck – in doomed mesmerized confusion.
What we end up observing is a mishmash of fan service filtered through an ironic lens the Gen-Z crowd is likely to find exceedingly familiar. Remember that scene in the original where Neo sees the same cat twice and erroneously describes what he sees as déjà vu? Well, Resurrections pays homage to this scene by introducing a cat whose name is Déjà vu, which recontextualizes the quote “Wow, déjà vu” as just an acknowledgement of the cat. That’s the movie in a nutshell – an ironic cover of the original that makes fun of itself, tries to tell a story within its universe while constantly winking at the audience and at the same time weaves in elements of self-deprecating humour suggesting that the very idea of making this movie was ill-thought to begin with, as though to disarm any voice of dissent by acknowledging it first. Well, it doesn’t work like that. The movie is still a glorified mess that brazenly taunts the viewer with elements of nostalgic reverence, reconstitutes its own tropes to function as a meta commentary on its own legacy and in effect dismantles itself as it is doing so shortly before realizing the film needs its own agency to survive independently. By then it is already too late and the final set piece – functional as it is – unfolds in front of a disgruntled customer already wishing this whole ordeal was over… and who was eventually put out of his misery by a tone-deaf cover of “Wake Up” blaring through the speakers, as though to reinforce the notion that The Matrix Resurrections is a joke.
But I won’t be fooled. The film might be a joke and a self-referential piece of meta awareness of its own cultural status, but it is fundamentally antithetic to what The Matrix had in spades, which was visual uniqueness. This movie’s originality is capped at the amount of permutations one can find in the scope of a remix. It is a clear example that Lana Wachowski did not have a great idea to make a solid movie and was likely hounded into making it out of fear someone would do a worse job than she did. Well, I suppose congratulations are in order because Lana Wachowski succeeded in making a movie I actively hated. As a fan of the original and someone to whom the anti-establishment sentiment of The Matrix spoke on a personal level, I am sad to report that The Matrix Resurrections is a steaming pile of disappointment comparable in scope, aspirations and effectiveness of its constituent elements to another sequel to a movie I adored as a youngster, namely Terminator: Genisys.
For shame. To see the fury of your generation reduced to a meme… For shame.