Spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections follow. Proceed with caution!
Thomas Anderson’s world is unraveling before his very eyes. He knows that he put a lot of himself into Neo, the protagonist of his groundbreaking Matrix trilogy of video games, but he’s started to think that the stories of those games aren’t fiction. He’s starting to think that he really does live in a simulation, and machines really are trying to keep him from realizing the truth of his existence.
This unraveling culminates in a bravura action sequence when a new incarnation of Morpheus (who, again, Anderson thinks is a character in a video game he created) faces off with a new incarnation of Agent Smith (ditto), while Thomas cowers behind a desk, terrified, insisting the fight isn’t happening. Matrix fans will recognize all of these characters as coming from the original series, but outside of Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson/Neo, the actors playing them are new. It’s neatly discombobulating, in a way that mimics Thomas’s confusion about his own reality.
Yes, we in the audience know there’s probably a new Matrix. We know the title of the movie we’re watching, after all. But we’re also stuck in a space where we’re not yet sure how the pieces fit together. And since Thomas, too, knows the rough story of the original Matrix (albeit as a video game), both he and we are going through roughly the same thing. All of us want answers; we’re not getting them just yet.
Yet just as the scene reaches its apex, just as Thomas is about to realize he’s Neo and break free of his simulated shackles, he finds himself in his therapist’s office. His therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) tells him to focus on the details in the space around him, the feel of his jeans against his hands, the seat against his body. He’s been reminded of traumatizing incidents, the therapist says, and his brain has conjured up a narrative to explain them.
“Wait,” I thought. “Is this movie about me?”
The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t give us a lot of time in Neo’s therapy sessions. But the use of grounding exercises — the therapist asking Neo to feel the roughness of his jeans, etc. — and the emphasis on separating traumatic thoughts from what’s really happening are highly reminiscent of something called “cognitive processing therapy,” albeit a version that’s been simplified for a movie.
Cognitive processing therapy is a highly regimented form of therapy. It progresses along a specific path designed to get trauma survivors not to overcome their dark memories (which is not really possible) but to find a way to separate past from present. In the midst of a traumatic flashback, your brain more or less forgets when it is. Instead, it begins to reexperience the events as though they were happening in the present, which can place you in danger.
CPT uses common therapeutic tactics like grounding to jolt the brain back into the present. I can’t be stuck in my childhood bedroom in the past because I’m in my apartment in California in 2021, and I’m petting my furry black-and-white cat, and I’m under a bright-orange blanket. The better a survivor gets at reorienting themselves in the present, the more able they are to use those tactics to reduce the hold their trauma has over them.
The goal, as I understand it, is to properly recontextualize one’s trauma, to shrink it down enough that you can reclassify it as something horrific that happened to you. The tense is important. It happened. It is no longer happening. You have escaped its clutches.
But I also don’t understand the goals of CPT, not really. My therapist is currently using CPT to help me move past some pretty severe childhood trauma stemming from abuse. I know it’s working. I know I’m exiting 2021 in a much better place than I entered it. Maybe that should be enough. But I also feel a primal need to know what’s happening.
I have done enough research into CPT to understand what my therapist is doing, but reading about these techniques is very different from experiencing them. The effect of CPT is very much like talking yourself out of believing the simulation is real because that’s what’s really happening. Your brain has conjured up something terrifying; you talk yourself out of the past and back into the present.
So when Neo’s therapist uses common trauma therapy techniques to convince Neo that his experiences in the Matrix are just traumatic hallucinations and regurgitations of past events he really doesn’t understand, when we know he’s stuck in the Matrix, just what is this movie trying to say about trauma therapy?
There are two possible readings of The Matrix Resurrections’ take on trauma therapy, one of which is kind of gross and one of which is incisive — and not only about trauma therapy. I lean more toward the latter reading, but it’s worth examining why we might read the take as just a little gross.
Broadly speaking, Resurrections is about systems of control that are used to keep us blinded to the nature of reality. For instance, the system of control that keeps Trinity from accessing her full power is her family. She’s so focused on keeping up with her husband and kids that she loses sight of anything but them. The movie is not saying “having a family is bad.” It is saying that making any one thing — including your family — the only thing in your life is an easy path to losing sight of the ways in which you are capable of working with others to change the world.
These systems of control are everywhere in Resurrections, and the one that seems most specifically tied to Neo is therapy. For much of the movie, Neo’s therapist seems to play into an unfortunate but probably harmless trope: the therapist in the sci-fi or fantasy movie who exists to convince the protagonist they’re not superpowered or not really an alien or not actually the reincarnation of King Arthur or something.
Where the trope gets muddied is when Neo’s therapist turns out to be the movie’s main villain, a successor to the first trilogy’s Architect known as the Analyst. Both the Architect and Analyst built their own versions of the Matrix, and both relied on Neo to keep their Matrices running. But where the Architect was a stuffy old man in a suit, the Analyst uses the language of a modern therapy session. He says that Neo seems very “triggered,” he encourages Neo not to use the word “crazy,” and he literally prescribes blue pills.
I do not have to work very hard to take this character and use him to say some pretty reductive things about the uselessness of therapy or all the ways the current generation is too coddled. The literal text of The Matrix Resurrections is inviting you to do just that. It’s almost daring you to believe that modern therapeutic practices are designed to blind you from the harsh truths underpinning reality.
“You need to wake up!” you can imagine this version of the movie saying. “The world is a mess, and fixing it is more important than your feelings!”
Except ... this movie was made by Lana Wachowski, one of the most sincere directors working right now. If anyone was going to make a movie about how fixing the world requires feeling all your feelings, it would be her. There’s more going on here.
When I first started grappling with being a trauma survivor, I looked around for stories in pop culture I could find some sort of solace in, stories where I might see myself reflected.
I really thought I wouldn’t have too much trouble. We are living through a gold rush of movies and TV shows that proclaim they are really “about” trauma. Whether it’s every other Marvel project or the new Halloween movies, somebody on the creative team will be right there to insist that you understand how central trauma is to the storytelling.
But few of these movies or TV shows spoke to me in any capacity. In my experience, these projects often cheapen trauma. Many superhero stories, for instance, correctly understand that the world-shattering events the characters live through and the sheer stress of having to save humanity so many times would eventually have serious psychological consequences. But because these are superhero stories, those consequences are usually turned metaphorical, into something that can be punched.
I often find the mere attempt to make these stories “about” trauma vaguely insulting, as though the word trauma is a coat of paint being used to give the stories a veneer of seriousness they didn’t remotely earn.
But The Matrix Resurrections did speak to me on some deeply affecting level. Specifically, it seemed like it was talking about trauma in a way that hit me on a bone-deep level. That response confused me, because the scenes in which the movie explicitly talked about trauma felt so antithetical to my entire therapeutic journey.
The Matrix Resurrections is consciously in conversation with modern blockbuster culture. Its entire first act is, in essence, a digressive meditation on why we might want a new entry in any long-running blockbuster franchise, and the very first scene is a largely faithful re-creation of the first scene from the first film, with characters who amount to Matrix superfans offering commentary on what’s new and different.
So let me posit this: The Matrix Resurrections’ use of trauma as a seemingly trendy buzzword is similarly in conversation with modern blockbuster culture. The Analyst’s invocation of trauma isn’t meant as a strike against the concept of trauma as one that blinds us to the true nature of reality. It’s a strike against anyone who would use trauma as an all-purpose boogeyman. It’s a strike against trauma as a cheap storytelling device.
If we fans demand that our favorite characters return again and again, then we never afford them any sort of final peace or closure. We are asking them to constantly relive their own worst moments, in the name of our entertainment. We are inadvertently trapping them in a trauma spiral, and then in stories that insist you can confront your trauma and blow it up if you’re sufficiently motivated.
I mentioned earlier I think Resurrections’ use of trauma within its story is incisive, and those nods to broader blockbuster culture are why. The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t just have a complex understanding of trauma and how it affects people (though it does have that). Deep down, The Matrix Resurrections is making the audience undergo CPT right alongside Neo.
In the early scenes featuring the Analyst, I felt at once alienated by the film’s portrayal of mental health care and deeply drawn to it. The alienation stemmed from how the movie seemed like it was portraying the therapeutic processes that had saved my life as literal tools of the machine.
The Analyst, if we look at him more closely, isn’t a particularly good trauma therapist, even if his actual goal is to keep Neo blinded to the nature of his reality. He writes off Neo’s viscerally unpleasant “hallucinations” as no big deal. Any good trauma specialist will understand just how painful a deeply disorienting traumatic flashback would be for their patient.
What’s more, the Analyst reveals late in the film that he recovered Neo and Trinity’s dead bodies and rebuilt them. He’s the one who literally resurrected them. If we’re talking about super-fans trapping characters in traumatic spirals, then the Analyst does that very thing with Neo and Trinity. He doesn’t allow them even the closure of death. He resurrects them and forces them back into the roles he likes best: ineffectual drones who are forever yearning to be together but never quite connecting. (It’s worth noting here that Resurrections is at its core a swooning, wonderful romance.)
But look beyond the Analyst’s purposeful incompetence, and the scenes featuring Neo in therapy capture the weird allure of trauma.
Here is what I mean: Very early on in my own journey through my darkest memories, confronting my past felt so painful that I could hardly stand it. But it also felt visceral and real in a way too few things in my life to that point had felt. It really did feel like I was breaking free of a simulation designed to anesthetize me.
And the deeper I traveled, the more I realized my brain had simply boxed up dozens of memories vaguely related to my pain in the name of keeping me safe. Yes, I didn’t have access to memories of the abuse, except in fleeting memory bursts that I left myself as signposts to get myself where I needed to go. (Neo, who frequently has quick flashes of memory from the original trilogy, has these too.)
But I had also buried happier memories — a boy I made out with at camp, a girl I loved in high school, a night when my wife and I had an affirming conversation about my gender long before I came out. My life was kept from me. I should have always had the good and bad. Instead, I had the anesthetizing effect of a story agreed upon, a simulation my abuser had trapped me in.
There’s a dangerous magnetism to trauma early on. You know it might kill you if you look too closely at it; you also can’t imagine looking at anything else. It feels more real than what you think of as reality. And in the scenes in Resurrections when Neo forces himself to start to look at all of the painful things in his past, things he believes are simply story points in his video games, he’s experiencing that powerful, painful feeling of the bottom of reality dropping out.
The Analyst isn’t using therapeutic techniques to help Neo; he’s using them to control Neo. The Analyst is an abuser, trapping Neo in an endless simulation to keep him placated.
Once Neo breaks free of the Analyst and actually starts confronting his own past, he meets people who actually know how to help him process and move on. A new character played by Jessica Henwick, the super-rad ship’s captain Bugs (who rescues Neo from the Matrix), isn’t textually a mental health professional, but she serves as a mirror image of the Analyst: She, too, is a Matrix fan, but she’s a Matrix fan who wants to help Neo move on to another phase of his story and his life. She wants him to change and be capable of change. We can want that for him too.
As Resurrections enters its second half, Neo goes on what amounts to a cognitive processing therapy speed run. He is able to ground himself in the actual present and realize how much time has passed since the events of the original films (60 years, it turns out!). He is able to recognize the systems of control that held him in place. He is able to fight back against them and destroy them. He is able to save the love of his life from the similar prison she is held in, because he recognizes it for what it is. He grows, he changes, and he matures.
Too many stories about trauma believe that trauma is a singular event, a monstrous occurrence the survivor can never outrun or escape. But what I’ve learned and what The Matrix Resurrections understands is that trauma is not an event but a continuation. A terrible thing happens, or many terrible things happen, and shadows elongate all around you until they seem to make up the very world you inhabit. They rob you of your memories, of your power, of your ability to change. They place you in a prison that they trick you into building for yourself, then convince you escape is impossible.
Yet The Matrix movies have always been about rising above the prison of the self. This newest film is, too. As Resurrections ends, Neo and Trinity have taken control of the simulation. They finally have the perspective they need to take control of their lives. They fly through the sky, flirting, dancing. Up here, they can see everything.