‘The Matrix 4’ gets a red-pill thumbs up and a blue-pill thumbs down

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Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, are back with their fifth film review for the News + Record, channeling the great Luigi Pirandello, known for writing a story within a story within a story. This time Ryan & Jiao offer something new in their pursuit of cross-cultural understanding — a pro-and-con exchange: “If the Matrix can present two world views, so can we!”

“I’ll take the blue pill, Lei.”

“No, Buck, are you crazy?!”

“Remember, Lei, we don’t use that word in here, as the mild-mannered therapist tells our Matrix hero.”

“Sorry, Buck. I just mean the red pill is the only way to go.”

“Lei, it’s just this whole Matrix thing is too weird and complicated for me. It makes me have dreams that just aren’t dreams. I don’t see the appeal.”

“What?! It’s legen … wait for it … dary! As Neil Patrick Harris would say.”

“That’s funny, Lei. I see Harris made the cast for the first time — as the therapist. The third time may have been the charm for the legendary triology, but this fourth film, yikes!”

“It’s been a long road since the 1999 debut, Buck, long enough for the directors, the Wachowski brothers, to become sisters.”

“Yes, I noticed only Lana Wachowski directed ‘The Matrix: Resurrections,’ not her younger sister, Lilly, too.”

“You know, Buck, their parents died and the idea for ‘Resurrections’ came to Lana in a dream that brought her loved ones back to life. And that inspired Matrix 4, which revived Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who died at the end of the triology.”

“I see. So there was a little controversy over whether Matrix 4 would be made at all?”

“Warner Bros. put a gun to the directors’ heads, or so the story goes.”

“Oh, Lei, so that explains the crazy opening scene with the lines, ‘They informed me that they are gonna do it with or without us’ and ‘They’ll kill our contract if we don’t cooperate.’”

“Yes, Buck, but remember we don’t use that word ‘crazy.’”

“Touché, Lei!”

“Let’s just say it was not sane for Hollywood to release the film like it did, handing the keys to intellectual-property ripoff artists. Warner Bros. lost a lot of almighty yuan.”

“What do you mean, Lei?”

“Warner Bros. released ‘Matrix 4’ on December 22 last year in the U.S., internationally and on the HBO Max streaming service. But it was not released simultaneously in China like the third one. Instead, ‘Matrix 4’ did not officially open here in China until January 14.”

“So you mean there were plenty of ‘unofficial’ viewings, eh?”

“Yes, Buck, I saw ‘The Matrix: Resurrections’ at a friend’s New Year’s party. She just flipped on the TV, found a live stream and, voilà, there came a high-quality version of the film for all to enjoy for free.”

“Oh gee. Did you really like it?”

“Honestly, I had my doubts — even before I watched it. The triology was perfect enough. Creating a deplorable sequel to a masterpiece is like using a dog’s tail as the substitute for mink, as the Chinese idiom goes.”

“Doggone.”

“What I admired about The Matrix trilogy were the philosophical references, especially about free will and consciousness. Even the computer programs and the viruses gained consciousness and human emotions in an effort to survive. Then again that human free will turned out not to be free at all, just an illusion.”

“What about ‘The Matrix 4’?”

“It all boiled down to love. The film lost its original sharp edges, opening it up to ridicule.”

“But you still give it a thumbs up, right?”

“Yes, Buck. The sole reason for me to watch and somehow enjoy ‘The Matrix 4’ is the one and only Keanu Reeves. He’s an international treasure and should be protected at any cost. But I wouldn’t say it’s the best foreign film in China right now.”

“What would that be?”

“Probably ‘Chhichhore,’ a film from India released in 2019, no less.”

“What?”

“Yes, Buck, sometimes Bollywood trumps Hollywood in China. The title, which translates to ‘Immature,’ is a coming-of-age comedy and drama.”

“Why is it so popular in China, a lot more than Warner Bros.’s ‘Matrix’?”

“It resonates with a lot of the same social issues in India that are experienced in China, particularly for students who face similar high academic pressures. But it does it in a funny way — ‘The Matrix’ is no comedy.”

“You know something else that’s not so funny, Lei?”

“What’s that, Buck?”

“How China blocks some movies like ‘Spider-Man’ but allows others like ‘The Matrix.’ Do you think it’s because Reeves is part Chinese and he is sensitive to Chinese culture, dating back to his ‘Man of Tai Chi’ film in 2013?”

“Wait, Buck. Let me ask the Oracle. ‘Ha-huh, ha-huh, I see. OK, thanks.’”

“So, Lei, what’s the answer?”

“I have no idea, Buck.”

“What can you tell me?”

“Of the 42 films currently running in China’s theaters now, there are only six imported ones: Disney’s ‘Encanto’ and Warner Bros.’s ‘The Matrix 4’ from the U.S., ‘Chhichhore’ from India, ‘Barbie Princess Adventure’ from Mattel Northern Europe, ‘Ice 2’ from Russia and ‘The Stolen Caravaggio’ from Italy.”

“Somehow I guess the subject of our last film review, ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ is still going patriotically strong.”

“Roger that, Buck.”

“Back to The Matrix, Lei. For the uninitiated who may want to binge-watch the series on Netflix during the next, God-forbid ice storm, what would you say it’s all about?”

“So basically it’s about in the future humans are enslaved by machines and there are a few ‘woke’ humans who are trying to find The One (Neo, portrayed by Reeves) to lead their fight for a free world … But the truth is far more than that.”

“Which bring us to the blue pill/red pill thing. So for somebody who keeps hearing about that, but doesn’t want to endure The Matrix, how would you explain the difference?”

“Well, a red pill person like me seeks a radical new awareness of reality — the story behind the story — dislodging from space and time to see the world from a new dimension.”

“And a blue pill person like me?”

‘Well, Buck, you prefer to dwell in an ignorant narcotic bliss.”

“Lol! Get me Luigi Pirandello on the horn! Do you know Luigi?”

“Nope.”

“Pirandello lit up Italy and the world with his plays, novels, poems and short stories. He won the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘his almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre.’”

“Oh, I see, Buck. Pirandello turned a switch on a glitch in the Matrix — you know, having something inexplicable and surreal happen in an otherwise normal situation.”

“Yes, like going to ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.”

“You crack me up, Buck. We’re talking about the deja vu black cat here in the Matrix, not the white rabbit. Pirandello’s art reminds me of ‘Inception’ or ‘breaking the fourth wall’ like the self-mockery in ‘Deadpool.’”

“Yep. Those films make it easier for me to ‘unplug’ than by watching The Matrix.”

“Now, Buck, you owe that verb to The Matrix, you know. Who can forget Neo unplugging his connection to the Matrix from the port in the back of his neck.”

“Lei, there has to be some deeper meaning in all this.”

“Well, Buck, I’ll match your Pirandello with a scholar who believes that ‘The Matrix’ is actually a World War II film. The Zion camp in the last human city of the planet Earth alludes to Leninism, the Matrix to the capitalist world, and Agent Smith, the main antagonist, represents the fascists.”

“Oh, Lei, you’re making my head spin. Maybe that red pill is not such a bad idea.”

“When I give my lecture on one sci-fi episode of ‘Black Mirror’ dealing with virtual reality, I often ask my students the blue pill/red pill question.”

“How many are like me?”

“A precious few, Buck. I can’t keep them off their cell phones. But lots of them actually chose the red pill.”

“Well, then leave us precious few to our blue pills, Lei. We’ll watch ‘Encanto’ and sing ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ while you party in the Matrix with the Architect.”

“Good idea, professor! That’s not crazy at all.”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China, including Jiao’s WUT.

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