The Resurrected Matrix Franchise Recognizes the Climate Crisis

Hidden somewhere in the Matrix is now a reference to the climate crisis, but few people will see it (Warner Bros 2021).

The original Matrix film was a pop-cultural phenomenon that made a huge impact on cinema when it landed in 1999. However, its enduring legacy in the world at large can’t be seen as an entirely positive one: As increasing numbers of people today unplug from reality (and reality-based thinking) to jack into the conspiracy mindset of the deep Web, we should remember that The Matrix was a significant, zeitgeist-shifting event that made it cool to view reality as a fabricated illusion, to be distrustful of all authorities and, ultimately, to believe whatever we choose to believe. While we’re not saying that the movie alone caused the deterioration of reality-based thinking and the rise of conspiracy theories, we can say that it played a role in bringing the philosophy of denialism further into the mainstream.

Now, some two decades later, we have a third sequel, aptly titled The Matrix Resurrections (2021) and touted by its star, Keanu Reeves, as a film “for our times and our days”. Perhaps Lana Wachowski — returning to the director’s chair without her sister, long-time collaborator and Matrix co-creator, Lilly Wachowski — was hoping to set a philosophical course correction for the franchise? With Lilly going on record just a year prior to acknowledge climate change as an existential crisis, our curiosity in the new Matrix installment was more than piqued.

Like our previous reviews, we’ll run the film through the Climate Test before commenting on the outcome and its implications for the Hollywood industry. For those unfamiliar with this new measure of climate representation in fiction, you can get up to speed on the three rules of the Climate Test in our first Medium article here. Spoilers below.

Rule One: Does it acknowledge that the Earth’s climate is changing?

In our previous article — a critical analysis of the climate messaging in the divisive film Don’t Look Up (2021) — we lamented on how the word ‘climate’ seems to have become the new C-word that shall not be uttered in a Hollywood film. Now, we stand corrected. Sort of.

The Merovingian as we last saw him in the 2003 Matrix sequels — with ‘grace’ and ‘style’ yet just as raving mad (Warner Bros 2003).

The character of the Merovingian, who appeared in the 2003 Matrix sequels as a refined and sophisticated leader of a crime syndicate, reappears in Resurrections as a vagabond-like shadow of his former self. On recognizing our hero, Neo (reprised by Reeves), the Merovingian launches into a tirade, accusing Neo of destroying his life: “You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass-thing! We had grace. We had style. We had conversation! Not this beep beep beep.” As he verbalizes the sound effect, his fingers mime the action of mashing an electronic device, like a smartphone or gaming controller. Interestingly, he then adds, “Art, films, books were all better. Originality mattered. You gave us Face-Zucker-suck and cock-me-climatey-Wiki-piss-and-shit!

What does he mean? At first, we simply took the final statement as some form of acknowledgement of climate change, even if only a brief one lost in an incomprehensible rant which required switching on the subtitles. But we delved deeper: If we take “Face-Zucker-suck” to mean the Facebook-Zuckerberg phenomenon which began in 2004 — one year after the 2003 sequels in which the Merovingian first appeared — then we can only take “Wiki-piss-and-shit” to mean WikiLeaks, which was founded by Julian Assange in 2006. (Wikipedia launched in 2001 and would therefore predate the developments that the Merovingian is mocking.) Since WikiLeaks is associated with whistleblowing and hacking, could “climatey-Wiki-piss-and-shit” be a reference to the so-called ‘Climategate’ scandal of 2009? This fake and disproven scandal saw the emails of climate scientists hacked and falsely taken out of context by deniers to manufacture the impression of a scientific conspiracy. And because WikiLeaks wasn’t actually involved in the incident, “climatey-Wiki-piss-and-shit” could be a mash-up of words to denote conspiracy theories in general, similar to how the Facebook-Zuckerberg reference may denote social media in general. As the entire film is quite self-aware and ‘meta’ (as seen in the Merovingian’s remark on the lack of originality in a sequel), this could be the filmmakers’ way of acknowledging the Matrix franchise’s legacy of popularizing online misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Of course, this is all conjecture. But if we go along with this interpretation, it would seem that the word ‘climate’ is indeed spoken in the affirmative sense, or in the sense that acknowledges the reality of the climate crisis. However, it’s worth noting the mental gymnastics needed to arrive at this conclusion — a lengthy process that few viewers are likely to undertake. And because there are no clearer or stronger forms of climate acknowledgement in the film, we think it barely passes the first rule of the Climate Test. A problematic yet interesting start.

Rule Two: Does it portray unchecked business-as-usual as the cause of climate change and as a negative character trait?

The main antagonist in Resurrections turns out to be Neo’s shrink, a powerful program known only as the ‘Analyst’, who’s revealed to be the architect of the new-and-improved Matrix. He doesn’t cause or contribute to climate change which, as we’ve discussed, doesn’t feature in the story in a meaningful way. But he lets us know that it’s a human flaw which keeps many of us plugged into the false, delusional world of the Matrix: “…You don’t give a shit about facts. It’s all about fiction. The only world that matters is the one in here.” At this point, his index finger goes to Neo’s head while our hero is frozen in bullet time. “And you people believe the craziest shit,” the Analyst continues. “Why? What validates and makes your fictions real? Feelings.

The blue-spectacled Analyst is the villain of ‘Resurrections’ (Warner Bros 2021).

That is, while the Analyst has constructed a false reality that panders to all our emotional needs and fantasies, humanity is at least partly responsible for falling into its trap. As any communications specialist will know (especially those working in the area of climate science), it’s not enough to simply state a fact: Communicating a message effectively, so that it truly reaches people, requires that their feelings be taken into account. If a fact is too difficult to swallow, it will be rejected no matter how true it is. In this way, humanity is shown to be its own worst enemy, particularly on problems where our very survival depends on the collective acceptance of facts over falsehoods — problems like climate change. We appreciate the film’s climate subtext here.

In the era of ‘alternative facts’, however, when increasing numbers of people believe that they alone have the best grasp of the facts, we have to consider the question: Which version of the facts could the Analyst be referring to? Since the film appears to acknowledge the climate crisis, we may assume that the Analyst means only true and proven scientific facts, such as those that confirm the reality of climate change. But will every viewer of every persuasion make the same assumption? Given that the film’s acknowledgement of climate change is very weak and unclear to begin with, it’s likely that the climate subtext will be lost on viewers who aren’t already on board with the issue. Instead, they may well interpret the Analyst’s speech as confirmation of their own take on the facts.

Rule Three: Does at least one character do something at least once to help solve the climate crisis?

Here, we can conclusively say that the film fails the Climate Test. Our heroes and seemingly star-crossed lovers, Neo and Trinity, end up reuniting in body and in purpose, thwarting the Analyst’s efforts to keep them apart. And their union somehow bestows them with greater power than ever before, enabling both of them to fly off and “paint the sky with rainbows”. Why? To remake the world and to remind people what a free mind can do. But this only means that the false world of the Matrix continues to exist and, if this false world serves as a metaphor for delusion and denialism — including climate denial — then the most our heroes can do is to tinker with it through more fantasy and mental manipulation, like painting the sky with rainbows. There is no final denunciation of denial or complete embrace of factual reality. As the Analyst says, “The sheeple aren’t going anywhere. They like my [false] world.”

Like Don’t Look Up (2021) and Mother! (2017), the latest Matrix moviecodes’ its climate themes with metaphor. While this may make the message subtle and more palatable to broad audiences, it also becomes a challenge to correctly perceive or interpret the message at all. Resurrections goes a step further by actually mentioning the word ‘climate’, but if this is supposed to be an explicit acknowledgement of the issue, it’s lost and hidden in the incomprehensible ravings of a lunatic. The climate crisis is thereby reduced to an inconsequential thematic layer, rendered indecipherable except for the few climate-conscious viewers who look for it. In this way, Village Roadshow and Warner Bros Pictures (the film’s production company and distributor, respectively) succeed in creating another trivial talking point about how ‘green’ they are, but risk nothing real for the climate cause.

Stories are how people make sense of the world, and the world today is in urgent need of more helpful and meaningful climate stories.

As we’ve previously analyzed, Warner Bros’ films haven’t really done many favors for the climate movement. Apocalyptic movies like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Reminiscence (2021) mire us in tired and despair-inducing narratives of ‘doom and gloom’. Other Warner Bros titles like Aquaman (2018) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) perpetuate the unhelpful eco-terrorist stereotype, while false techno-fixes and collective defeat are offered in place of any real solutions in Interstellar (2014) and Geostorm (2017). Even Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), which we previously praised for tackling an underlying driver of climate change, only acknowledges the issue in a very brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

Stories are how people make sense of the world, and the world today is in urgent need of more helpful and meaningful climate stories. While Hollywood studios like Warner Bros may be greening their productions and operations, they still seem reluctant to produce good, clear climate storytelling, perhaps fearful that these films will be boring, preachy or politically divisive — but a good climate story doesn’t have to be any of these things. With the support of climate storytelling initiatives, emerging writers working in television, comics and other mediums are demonstrating that it’s possible to craft climate stories that properly represent the issue while also offering great entertainment value to broad audiences.

This work of transforming culture through storytelling is arguably the most significant way that the Hollywood studios could be making a difference on the climate crisis, which is nothing less than the greatest story of our time. So the continued refusal and failure of studios to step up to this challenge is deeply concerning. Certainly, it’s not something that should be rewarded. Is it time for climate activists to start boycotting studios that neglect this social responsibility?

Join us in petitioning Hollywood’s major studios including Warner Bros to step up and do better. If you’d like to see them make more courageous and effective climate stories, please consider supporting our campaign. In collaboration with the Fridays For Future youth climate movement begun by Greta Thunberg, we’re calling on the studios to take a stance on climate change by committing to more, and better, climate stories. You can find out more on our Action Network page:

https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/hollywood

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We call for more & better climate stories in popular culture to help the world confront and tackle the unfolding climate crisis.

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