One day in 1999, when novelist David Mitchell was teaching English in Hiroshima, Japan, three of his students walked in wearing full-length leather coats. “I said, ‘Why are you all wearing the same coat?’” he recalls. “That’s how I learned about The Matrix.”
Nearly two decades later, Mitchell found himself in a hotel near where he lives in the south of Ireland, co-writing the script to The Matrix Resurrections – the fourth film in the series that gave the world not only noir cyberpunk fashion but also balletic “bullet time” action, and what Mitchell describes as the “photon torpedo idea that reality is a virtual reality.” Along with him were fellow novelist Aleksandar Hemon and Matrix co-creator and director Lana Wachowski: two authors and an auteur. “Why would she choose us?” Mitchell wonders aloud. “Heaven only knows!” Hemon adds, “I ask myself that question every day!”
Modesty aside, they’re kindred spirits with credentials. Hemon, who grew up in Bosnia and for a long time lived in the Wachowskis’ hometown, Chicago, holds a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for his formally inventive fiction. Having read his post-9/11 novel The Lazarus Project, Lana and her sister (and Matrix co-creator) Lilly Wachowski tapped him to collaborate on an as-yet unrealized film about the Iraq War. Mitchell has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, including for the intricate, sweeping Cloud Atlas (2004) – adapted, in 2012, by Lana, Lilly, and co-director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), as one the most ambitious (and expensive) independent films ever made. In 2017, Lana, Mitchell and Hemon wrote the two-hour finale of the Wachowskis’ Netflix series, Sense8.
On Zoom from a quiet back stairwell in Lana’s house, the day before The Matrix Resurrections’ gala premiere, Hemon and Mitchell describe the trio’s continuing collaboration in terms of intellectual ferment and deep friendship. It unfolds in a conceptual space Hemon has dubbed “the Pit,” where ideas are bounced around in a non-judgmental way. Writing this film, he says, was an “investment in a space of love that could generate the story” that would be devoted to Lana’s parents.
Both sisters had long resisted following up the original trilogy (which includes The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both 2003). Instead, they had handed off the continuation of the story – in which the everyday world is a virtual construct devised by malignant machines to keep humans compliant while secretly harvesting their energy – to others, including the creators and players of the game The Matrix Online. One night in 2018, however, during a tumultuous period when the Wachowskis’ parents both became ill and passed away, Lana woke up with a story in her head, featuring Matrix hero and heroine Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).
“She came up with the entire opening scene in her dream,” Hemon says, “so we had this premise, and also the horizon – where it would end – but there was a lot of space to cover.” Lilly sat the project out, citing exhaustion and grief, and Lana turned to Mitchell and Hemon. Both have written works where characters reappear from other stories, but not traditional sequels. “None of us wanted the film to be one more reboot,” Mitchell says. “Lana was more interested in a ‘fractal’ – a housing in a fourth film, containing the trilogy.”
In the first movie, Trinity leads Thomas Anderson, Neo’s Matrix-based alter-ego, to discover the existence of the real world; in Resurrections, both characters are older, but they’re stuck in the Matrix with no memories of a world outside of it – or of their romantic relationship. Anderson is an unfulfilled, single game designer, and Trinity is “Tiff,” a motorcycle builder who wonders if she got married to a guy called Chad and had a family because her middle-class upbringing “programmed” her to do so. Anderson gazes wistfully at her whenever she comes into his coffee shop of choice, called Simulatte.
The screenwriters realized that if the Matrix is a virtual construct based on the life we are living now, given the trilogy’s influence on contemporary culture, the construct should, on some level, include The Matrix itself. In Resurrections, Anderson has designed the Matrix series of games, which tell story the movies did, with Neo, their hero, based on himself.
Everything starts to unravel when Anderson is pressed to make a fourth video game, and as the self-referential jokes go into overdrive, questions abound: Do Anderson’s games process memories he has buried, or that have been somehow buried for him? Why does he feel as though he keeps slipping into another plane of existence, despite the blue pills he swallows to keep what seem to be delusions at bay? Are his sessions with his analyst (played by Neil Patrick Harris) helpful in explaining his wayward perception? Or could it be that the “reality” he experiences is in fact a kind of deep-fake?
Mitchell waxes philosophical. “Reality is overwhelming for the human mind. We deconstruct it into little components and reassemble those into stories. Lana, Sasha and I do it professionally as well. Why not use it as a theme and bring it into the heart of the film?”
Hemon unspools the thought: “Nothing is ‘real’ until it’s imagined as real – until it’s narrativized as a reality. It has to be sequenced in some way to make sense. We are all in a crisis right now because narratives of reality that we saw as eternal and absolute and self-generating have collapsed. ‘We’ll just let people be people, and they’ll just choose democracy.’ Somehow it’s not working. The narrative is collapsing before our very eyes.”
Aspects of The Matrix have been appropriated to nefarious ends – most notably the concept of the red pill. In the films, it indicates a choice to discover “true” reality; for alt-right provocateurs, it’s a means of promoting conspiracy theories.
In the original script, Hemon says, “there was a sentence referring to this; we took it out. With our full consent, Lana decided that entering in direct dialogue with fascists in that respect would be legitimizing their position.”
And yet, The Matrix Resurrections remains a stirringly anti-fascist film, with its focus on how emotion and interpersonal connection give meaning to our lives. “Lana’s work is about the real world,” Hemon says. “The Matrix was always pointing [to] things that are – as of yet – unimaginable. I hope this movie provides us with tools to think about things that are yet to happen.”
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