The Hollywood Reporter revealed this week that Warner Bros. is working on a follow-up to the Wachowskis’ 1999 classic, The Matrix, with Creed’s Michael B. Jordan in talks to play a major role. Despite the franchise’s star falling thanks to a host of misfires and failures in the 2000s, the original film remains one of the finest movies to come out of the heady, tech-addled days of the late 20th century pop culture. With virtual reality and expanded universes enjoying a resurgence, now is as a good a time as any for the series to make its return.
It’s not entirely clear yet if the studio wants a remake with Neo, Agent Smith, and the rest of the core characters, a new film set in the established world, or something between the two. There’s certainly an argument for why a traditional remake might work. Even if its late-‘90s goth aesthetic can’t really be applied to the present day, The Matrix is plenty relevant in 2017. Its built-in suspicions of authority and life online, along with its thoughts on identity and alienation, proved to be prescient. Plus, it has an opportunity to let go of the franchise’s many mistakes: namely, the sequels and the failed video games.
But starting from square one and without the original directors at the helm seems like a waste. It was the Wachowskis’ weird and commercially unsound experiments that actually helped take the series to new and interesting places, calling the original’s savior narrative into question and offering a clearer picture of why humans and machines are at war.
A new movie should embrace the mythology that came out of those efforts.
One of the best things about The Matrix was the world-building. The film might best remembered for inventing “bullet time,” but the storytelling the Wachowskis did with that film — borrowing from the likes of Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, and Dark City — developed a world so vast that it extended well beyond what we saw in that film. Even though the film stands perfectly on its own, the ideas it explored — the birth of strong artificial intelligence, the destruction of the world, and the legend of the One — were compelling well after the credits stopped rolling.
Of course, the years that followed are littered with attempts to explore these unvisited spaces. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions both doubled up on the philosophy and visual flourishes, but failed to hide the robotic performances and stilted action. (Remember the “Burly Brawl?”) Meanwhile, convinced that the films were merely a portion of a greater transmedia experience, the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. poured resources into three games, Enter the Matrix, The Matrix: Path of Neo, and an MMORPG titled The Matrix Online that were received with critical apathy and growing fan skepticism. After so many missteps, it’s easy to imagine why Warner Bros. and fans might want The Matrix to start fresh.
But those sequels, side projects, and games all featured some genuinely good, ambitious ideas that are too tantalizing not to explore, so long as they’re better executed. The notion that there were multiple iterations of the Matrix was perhaps too much for the time, but fits snuggly alongside modern mainstream brands like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even animated television like Adventure Time, both of which play with interdimensional narratives. The idea that there were five savior figures before Neo effectively upended how the movies could be understood, and a look into their lives would be more than welcome. And a future where sentient robots and humans have an uneasy truce both inside and outside a massive simulation is a foundation worth building on — if not the perfect conceit for a Matrix theme park. (Not that we actually need a Matrix theme park.)
If you need proof that a good follow-up to The Matrix is possible, look no further than The Animatrix, where stories like “The Second Renaissance” and “Program” expanded on everything we already learned about the human-machine war and the sacrifices that come with being a soldier in that conflict.
A remake simply can’t offer that kind of opportunity. The world has absolutely changed since the initial film’s release, and our relationship with technology and the themes that movie explored are much more complicated. Ideas about the digital self are more nuanced now that platforms like Facebook and Twitter mediate our selves in different ways. And returning to anything like the red pill / blue pill dichotomy would seem strange when the follow-ups exploded that entire idea. (Not to mention the red pill monologue has been co-opted by Men’s Rights Activists, a group in direct conflict with ideas of the Matrix films.)
There are so many stories set in The Matrix’s world that retelling the original would be a step backwards. Meanwhile, the benefits of moving forward are obvious. Even though the Star Wars prequels failed, The Force Awakens was able to capture the magic of the original trilogy while also forging its own path into the future. Warner Bros. has the same opportunity with The Matrix. It just needs to resist reboot hysteria and try something truly audacious: tell a new, good story.