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The Matrix: Refresher

No time to rewatch The Matrix trilogy before Resurrections? Here’s the important stuff.

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix: Reloaded.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If it’s been a minute since you’ve seen The Matrix, or the other two films in the Matrix trilogy, don’t worry: The new film, The Matrix Resurrections, functions as more of a reboot than a sequel, so you don’t need to have every detail of the original franchise under your belt. Still, the basic storyline of the original trilogy impacts the new film, so if you don’t have time to watch all three original films again, it’s helpful to have a refresher.

Warning: The rest of this article, obviously, contains spoilers from the original Matrix trilogy. If you want to discover them for yourself, now’s your chance to back out.

Here’s the part you probably remember: Over the course of the first film, Keanu Reeves’s character Neo transforms from an isolated tech geek trapped in a virtual reality simulation, aka the “Matrix,” into the savior of all mankind, aka “the One.” He does this by falling in with a group of freedom fighters who show him the truth: The real world is actually a scorched, barren, post-apocalyptic prison now run by machine overlords who’ve created the Matrix to trick humans into thinking the world is normal, meanwhile keeping them docile and enslaved while the machines harvest them for energy. Ultimately, Neo discovers that he has the unique ability to see through the Matrix, which means he can manipulate its code from within and fight back against the machines.

Newly armed with Neo’s special power, the fight for human liberation continues over the course of the next two films, Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions. The new film catches up with Neo — though not as you remember him — and rejoins the original Matrix storyline, but in an all-new context. Here are some of the highlights from the journey so far that you need to know for the upcoming film.

1) The Matrix is kind of a predetermined, Calvinistic choice experiment

The Matrix is just like any other computer system in that someone had to design it. Within the Matrix, the entity who embodies that creator is called the Architect.

Neo meets the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) halfway through the second film. He tells Neo that the Matrix periodically has to be reset to deal with the difficulty of combating human choice. He also informs Neo that instead of resisting the Matrix, he exists as part of its design, and that, far from being “the One,” he’s really more like “the Sixth.” Five other simulation messiahs before him have had to decide how to handle the impending Matrix reset. Neo’s choice involves a kind of Calvinism: If he works with the machines to reset the Matrix, he can choose which of the residents of Zion (the underground city where the freedom fighters reside) will get to survive and repopulate the Matrix. If he resists, the entirety of the human population will be destroyed. Neo chooses neither of these options.

Still, the idea that the Architect has been allowing all of these simulations to play out before — including the part where the One helps decide how it all ends — casts a major shadow on everything that happens after their initial meeting, including the events of the new film.

2) There are rogue programs that have their own parts to play within the Matrix

In the first film, Neo’s main enemy is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), one of the embodiments of the machines that exist in the Matrix. After Neo defeats Smith, he’s scheduled to be, basically, erased — absorbed back into the code. But Smith refuses and escapes the Matrix’s control, becoming a rogue program that can act on his own. Over the course of the films, Smith essentially becomes a virus who can replicate at will by taking over humans who are inside the Matrix. They don’t always look like Hugo Weaving, either, which can leave us with something of a “who is the human and who is the replicant?” situation.

But Smith isn’t the only rogue program. There’s also the Frenchman (Lambert Wilson), a.k.a. the Merovingian, who functions as something of a crime lord over many other rogue programs and who tries to manipulate and control many of the people around Neo. And there’s Rama (Bernard White), a sweet guy who rebelled against the Matrix by marrying another rogue program and creating his own simulated “daughter” named Sati (played by Tanveer K. Atwal in Revolutions).

Sati becomes crucial to the worldbuilding of the Matrix films. She meets Neo when he’s trapped in limbo, and Rama goes to great lengths to keep her safe from being destroyed by the machines. Since he and his wife created her simply to be their daughter, Rama says she doesn’t have a purpose, which makes her an anomaly in the Matrix, where everything is created to be of use. But it’s implied heavily that Sati does have a purpose. The Oracle (first played by Gloria Foster but later by Mary Alice) suggests at one point that she might be the next One, and many fans think that she might be an iteration of the Architect — or even a villain, since at one point she’s assimilated by Agent Smith, and it’s unclear when he relinquished his hold over her.

What is clear is that Sati still has a big part to play; like Neo, her role is very much unfinished.

3) Both Trinity and Neo die at the end

Neo and his freedom-fighter soulmate Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) each have brushes with death in all three movies, with each brush getting more and more dire. In the first movie, Trinity barely makes it out of the Matrix before being annihilated, while Neo nearly dies from injuries both inside and outside of the Matrix but survives by becoming the One. In the second film, Trinity is fatally shot while in the Matrix, which would kill her in the real world, except that Neo reaches into her heart and extracts the bullet. (Manipulating the code lets him do stuff like that.) For his pains, Neo ends up comatose and essentially lifeless at the end of the second film, trapped in a weird limbo depicted as a train station until he wakes in the real world in the third film.

The final film sees both Trinity and Neo perish near the climax. Trinity dies while trying to defend Zion against the attacking machines in what might be the most painful death of the series: En route to the machine city, she flies too high above the scorched atmosphere, and while she manages to shake off the machines, she loses control of her spaceship and crashes into a building back on Earth, leaving Neo to exchange a few final words of love with her before she dies.

Trinity’s death arguably leaves Neo with nothing preventing him from fully sacrificing himself for the cause of saving humanity, which he ultimately does: after the machines — embodied in the form of a single entity cheekily called the Deus Ex Machina — learn that Smith is hellbent on destroying the Matrix, and with it, mankind, they strike a peace treaty with Neo and send him into the Matrix to battle Smith once and for all. Neo ultimately defeats Smith with a grander version of what he did in the first film, diving into Smith and exploding him from inside. This time, he allows himself to be fully assimilated by Smith — but he’s also allowing himself to be used as a kind of electric fuse for the machines, who use Neo’s body to send a massive jolt of electricity through Smith, exploding all of the bodies Smith inhabits throughout the Matrix, effectively destroying him completely. (For now.)

Suffice it to say, Neo is pretty dead once that’s over with. But the other people Smith previously assimilated do return, and the Oracle, who’s among them, tells Sati that she believes Neo might be back again one day.

4) Humans and the machines formed a fragile peace

As mentioned, the machines are dead set against Smith destroying everything — so much so that they’re willing to work with Neo to defeat him. This allows the humans and the machines to create an uneasy, but hopefully lasting peace, one that preserves Zion and allows any human to exit the Matrix for the real world if they choose to do so. (Though we have to wonder, given how eager Joe Pantoliano’s character Cypher was to return to the blissful ignorance of the Matrix in the first film, how many humans would be all that quick to jump at the offer.)

The Matrix is rare among cinematic narratives of its kind in that it doesn’t offer revolutionary overthrow as the ultimate victory for its heroes, but rather a tentative way forward, in which both man and the artificial intelligence can work together and build a new world. This ending also goes some way to address the fact that the humans created this problem for themselves — first they created the AIs, and then, once the machines revolted, they torched their own atmosphere in a futile attempt to get rid of the machines. By allowing the resolution to involve a truce instead of an outright victory, the Matrix films acknowledge that the humans haven’t entirely followed a traditional hero’s journey.

5) Jada Pinkett Smith is totally in these movies!

You might not remember her, but as the character of Niobe, Jada Pinkett Smith kicks major ass in the second and third Matrix films. A central leader among the Zion revolutionaries, Niobe pilots the spaceship Logos, uses guerilla tactics to successfully plant bombs in a major power plant, and figures out how to steer a hovercraft. She and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) have a romantic history, and it’s implied she still loves him, even though she’s moved on. Niobe also plays a major role in the video game Enter the Matrix, where she battles vampire programs and a whole bunch of Agent Smiths. Not too shabby.

The Matrix Resurrections will be in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on December 22.