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Everything You Need to Know About the Matrix Before Watching Resurrections

Photo: Warner Bros.

The future is defined by the past in both the real world and the Matrix. And so to appreciate every meta beat in The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski’s fourth film in the series she began with her sister, Lilly, you’ll need to recall a few details from the first three. The original films are intricate explorations of faith, philosophy, human progress, and where our reliance on technology meets technophobia all wrapped up in a gun fu love story that emphasizes the importance of knowing and believing in oneself. Those are the broad strokes, but the world-bending specifics are far more complicated. Before the franchise is resurrected, plug back in with us and reexplore all the dimensions of the Matrix.

The Second Renaissance

The Matrix trilogy hinges on a war between humans and machines. Unlike other great sagas like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, this war isn’t defined by good and evil but the survival of two species that cannot coexist. But what was the start of this conflict? The details of the Machine War that resulted in the creation of the Matrix and the enslavement of the human race aren’t fully explored within the films. For that context, you’ll have to turn to The Animatrix (2003), a collection of canonical short anime films that delve deeper into the world of the Matrix, with appearances from a few of the characters seen in the first Matrix sequel, The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and the second, The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

In “The Second Renaissance” parts one and two, written by the Wachowskis and directed by Mahiro Maeda, it is revealed that humans successfully created true artificial intelligence in the middle of the 21st century. These primitive, solar-powered robots were used for menial labor until one unit, B1-66ER, resisted being scrapped and killed its owners. This not only sparked a legal debate over machine rights but a fight for social justice with some humans siding with the machines and others seeking their destruction. But this isn’t some Skynet-style story about evil machines. This is a battle for existence and recognition.

In the end, rather than destroying the machines, humanity’s controlling forces segregated them. But free of their human programming, the machines found a new purpose. They built their own city, called 01, and requested admission into the United Nations (the “city” functioned more like a nation-state because of its power and influence). Their request was denied, but the machines’ city grew and mankind feared what they would be able to achieve. So humans did what they’ve always done: They started a war, one that led to a nuclear holocaust that blotted out the sun and killed most of the world’s population. Those who weren’t slain by the bombs were wiped out by the machines who fought for their own survival and a new energy source through the creation of the Matrix.

What Is the Matrix?

The Matrix is a virtual-reality simulation set near the beginning of the 21st century. It houses the consciousness of most of the world’s human population. The Matrix seen in the trilogy, as explained by the sentient program called the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), is only the latest incarnation of several attempts to create a faux-reality convincing enough to fool the human mind. The first Matrix that the Architect designed was a flawless utopia with no war, sickness, or human suffering. But humankind rejected it, seeing it for the false reality it was. The second Matrix implemented human hardships — plus, new programs in the forms of vampires, werewolves, and aliens, drawn from mankind’s lore about them. This version was also a failure, if only because it predated the creation of Twilight.

The third iteration, where the events of the Matrix trilogy take place, was achieved by a program called the Oracle (Gloria Foster and Mary Alice) and introduced one key element: choice. As she tells Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, she allowed humans to know somewhere within themselves, on a subconscious level, that their world was fake. And with the illusion of free will, humans could either accept (a choice represented by the blue pill) or reject (red pill) their reality. Ninety-nine percent of the population chose not to gaze down into the rabbit hole; they accepted the illusion instead.

The Desert of the Real

The real world, originally suggested to be set somewhere around the year 2199, is ruled by sentient machines that grow humans and keep their bodies in egg-shaped capsules, or pods, while their minds reside in the Matrix. Humans are used as energy sources to power the machines, most of whom dwell in Machine City, where they are led by their central interface, Deus Ex Machina (“God out of the machine”), who has the face of a giant baby made out of millions of individual machines. It’s just as terrifying as it sounds.

The one percent of humans who exist outside of the Matrix reside in the last human city, Zion, located deep underground. The Zionites, who are red-pilled, natural-born citizens, have strived for 100 years to reclaim their world from the machines. Some among the human resistance believe in the arrival of a messiah who will save them from the machines, while others don’t buy into that. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is an ardent believer who has dedicated his life to finding the One, based on the Oracle’s prophecy. Considered by some to be a zealot and by others a madman, Morpheus believes the One is Zion’s only hope. But Zion, it turns out, is yet another falsehood. It is actually the sixth iteration of the resistance’s home city and the year is actually closer to 2699. The machines allow Zion to exist so there can be those who believe in the coming of the One — a figure who also serves the machines’ purposes in a rather complicated way.

The One

Okay, here’s where things get heady. The One is both a messiah for the humans and a means to control them; the “Integral Anomaly,” as the Architect calls them in The Matrix Reloaded. The One is part program (also called the “Prime Program”), making them an essential bridge between human and machine, and written with a special code that attracts all anomalies within the Matrix’s system. Anomalies are system bugs that tip humans off to the fact that they live in a false reality — think instances of déjà vu, feelings of derealization, and dreams of things that haven’t yet happened before they do. The One’s ability to contain all of these anomalies not only grants them what we perceive to be superhuman or supernatural abilities within the Matrix but also prevents the anomalies from spreading and crashing the system by alerting humanity that they all live in a false reality, which would result in the death of all humans and machines. The One’s directive is to return to the core machine mainframe, a.k.a. the Source (it exists as both a physical place and as a code), with the anomalies to stabilize the Matrix. From there, the One is allowed to choose 23 humans to rebuild Zion, ensure humanity’s survival, and reprogram the myth of the One into humanity’s beliefs, playing on their need for mythology and a higher power on their side.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who later takes the name Neo, is the sixth and most recent iteration of the One. The stories of the previous five have not been told. But we know Neo differs from his predecessors in his ability to form strong human connections, such as his friendship with Morpheus and romance with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Neo confirms the existence of free will by straying from the prophecy that gave him the choice to either wipe out humanity or destroy Zion. He manages to preserve both by making a pact with Deus Ex Machina to defeat Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, more on him later), which ultimately leads to his death in the Source and allows the Matrix to be stabilized. Like the allegory of Christ, he, too, is foretold to rise again.

The Merovingian and Sentient Programs

Certain sentient machines exist within the Matrix and take human forms; these are referred to as programs. Each serves a specific task, but sometimes those tasks become unnecessary or obsolete, especially when a new version of the Matrix is created. Those programs are then exiled and given sanctuary by the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), an information trafficker who represents “cause,” while his wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci), represents “effect.” The Merovingian has built a criminal organization out of exiles from previous iterations of the Matrix, including the aforementioned vampires, werewolves, and ghosts.

One young exile, Sati (Tanveer K. Atwal), a program created without purpose, is given refuge within the Matrix by the Merovingian. She is later taken in by the Oracle, who believes that Sati will one day be instrumental in the future of both humans and machines. She is played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas in The Matrix Resurrections.

Agents and Smith

Agents, meanwhile, are sentient security programs with seemingly superhuman abilities within the Matrix tasked with eliminating anyone who might reveal the false nature of the Matrix. They are unaware of the One’s true purpose and thus frequently engage in a battle they are not meant to win. But one Agent, Smith (Hugo Weaving), breaks away from his directive and becomes an exile, morphing into a computer virus whose obsession with defeating the One threatens to destroy the Matrix.

Once he became a virus, Smith was able to assimilate anyone within the Matrix, whether they were a program or human consciousness. He was also able to jack into the real world, taking over the body of Resistance member Bane (Ian Bliss). Whereas the One’s goal is to preserve life, Smith’s was to destroy it. A nihilist who believed the purpose of life is to end, Smith was ultimately killed by Neo, who sacrificed himself so that life can continue.

The Truce

The Matrix trilogy concludes with a truce forged between humans and machines, but not without a cost. Before Neo sacrificed himself, Trinity was killed in an attack on the resistance’s ship, the Logos, outside of Machine City, where her body was presumed lost.

The film series ends with the survival of Zion and Machine City. Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) lives on to help rebuild. But even with the peace Neo desired finally achieved at the end of Revolutions, the Architect and the Oracle suggest it is impermanent — it will only last “as long as it can,” they say. Neo’s consciousness is absorbed into the Source and his body is taken to Machine City for unknown purposes. The Oracle says she expects they’ll see him again one day because she believes.

The massively multiplayer online role-playing video game The Matrix Online picked up where the film trilogy left off. In it, the truce crumbles and Morpheus is killed by a mysterious assassin after attempting to reclaim Neo’s body from Machine City; he had hoped to reawaken the One and free those still inside the Matrix. Niobe goes on to investigate Morpheus’ death, which gets her kidnapped by the Machines and eventually rescued; she returns in The Matrix Resurrections. Some players say they discovered a signal within the game that may have been coming from Morpheus, but the game was shut down in 2009 with many of its mysteries unanswered. (Accounts of what some players experienced, meanwhile, are archived on the Matrix Wiki.)

At the time, the game was considered official Matrix canon, and neither Wachowski nor the stars of Resurrections have indicated it no longer will be. Expect to see familiar faces and names invoked in Resurrections, which is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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