Producers: James McTeigue, Lana Wachowski and Grant Hill   Director: Lana Wachowski   Screenplay: Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon   Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lambert Wilson and Daniel Bernhardt   Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Grade: D

One practically needs a PhD in Matrixology to parse much of what’s happening in this long-gestating (and, at two-and-a-half hours, long-winded) fourth entry in the franchise that began auspiciously in 1999 but quickly flat-lined in two benighted 2003 sequels.  When a character in “The Matrix Resurrections” disgustedly remarks “What a mess!” near the close, you may be inclined to nod in agreement.

To be fair, there are indications in the first act of “Resurrections” when it seems that the picture—the work of Lana Wachowski, going it alone without the participation of her former partner Lilly—appears ready to take off on a wild “Gremlins 2” trajectory.  Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a sullen video game creator, idolized for designing a fabulously successful trilogy called The Matrix.  Haunted by fears that the games represent actual experiences he had as Neo, he downs blue pills provided by his smugly stern analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) to control them.  The analyst’s black cat, as we learn in a revelation that lands with a resounding thud, is Déjà Vu.

When he’s informed that Warner Brothers, the parent company of the tech firm he heads with his bottom-line partner Smith (Jonathan Groff), is demanding a fourth iteration of The Matrix, the staff go wild riffing on the possibilities, ridiculing fans who found the first three installments deep and dense with meaning.  But for Anderson things take a highly unnerving turn.  A woman named Tiffany, with a startling resemblance to Trinity, Neo’s love interest who died along with him in the third Matrix installment, but also with a family in tow, wanders into a coffee shop where Anderson’s taking a break.  And a couple of rebels against the artificial-reality system, female warrior Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and an updated version of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) show up to drag him back into their fight of liberation, headquartered in the underground city of Zion, where wizened old General Niobe (Jada Pickett Smith) presides.

“Resurrections” thus becomes a sort of reiteration of the initial trilogy with some tweaks to the premise explained by the passage of years but similar reams of pseudo-scientific babble and—as a supposedly helpful memory aid—scads of clips from the original films, presented as Anderson’s flashbacks to a past he’d suppressed (editor Joseph Jett Sally is hard pressed to integrate them smoothly into the narrative, and they go by too quickly to be of much help to the uninitiated).  The basic thrust of the plot, though, is Thomas/Neo’s desire to reunite with Trinity, an effort that necessitates getting back into the fray and taking on the villains behind the simulations—whose identities are intended to be surprising but aren’t, the revelations accompanied by lots of banal dialogue and tepid twists.

There is also a good deal of action, of course, but the shocking thing is how poorly staged it is, and how shoddy the effects work.  Computer-fabricated visuals have come a long way in the intervening two decades, but the murky, rather ugly images here (Hugh Bateup and Peter Walpole are the production designers, Lindsay Pugh the costumer, Daniele Massaccesi and John Toll the cinematographers) pale not only by comparison to the superior ones offered in even the chintziest of today’s blockbusters but to the original “Matrix” trilogy.  (The old-age make-up for Pinkett Smith is terrible, too.)

When all is said and done, in any event, what the movie offers up is the message that all it takes is love, even when the lovers have to navigate their way through a rainstorm of bodies plummeting to terra not-so-firma from the upper floors of great skyscrapers.

Undoubtedly there will be devotees of the original trilogy—including the coterie who praise the last two installments as profound—who will find much in “Resurrections” to fawn over.  And in our conspiracy-wracked world, even a non-believer can find a degree of prescience in the dichotomy the Wachowskis drew between red and blue (along with the prophetic dystopian viewpoint of their “V for Vendetta”), as well as feel some sadness about it, and qualms about the way it can be read today.  But rather than saying something about that, “Resurrections” seems to have its pulse on little besides our contemporary desire for nostalgia and the habit of prizing the self-referential and turning everything into meta-narrative, despite the efforts of composers Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer to accelerate the heartbeat. 

Reaves brings an appropriately world-weary air to troubled Thomas, perhaps thinking about how nice it will be to get back to the relatively serene world of John Wick, while Moss, who career has been as erratic as his, again captures Trinity’s steeliness.  Neither the other returnees nor the raft of newcomers match the impression left by the likes of Fishburne, and some of them—Harris and Groff, for example—are so arch that they appear to be aiming at a parody of bad genre cinema.  But one never expected exalted acting of the franchise, and it gets none here.

What the latest “Matrix” definitely proves is that it’s difficult to go home again—whether it’s the real home or a computer-generated one.