Keanu Reeves, Priyanka Chopra on 'The Matrix,' respecting Asian cultures in filmmaking
by Diep Tran
In 1999, “The Matrix” was released and with it, the phrases “red pill,” “bullet time,” and “free your mind” entered the cultural lexicon. That was a different world then, when technology taking over our brains was the stuff of science fiction. To Keanu Reeves, our current overreliance on technology is what makes “The Matrix: Resurrections,” the newest installment in the franchise, all the more relevant.
“I think it folds technology, or how we’re interacting, and also has a futuristic aspect to it — in terms of programs, artificial intelligence, machines, all kinds of sentients, and the interactions of such. And I feel like it gives us a perspective to, hopefully, sit back and question where we are. And what are we doing?” Reeves tells NBC Asian America.
Does this mean that Reeves is hyper aware of technology in his own life and is stepping back from it? “Both are true,” he answers.
“The Matrix Resurrections” will be released in theaters and on HBO Max on Wednesday, Dec. 22. It takes place in an apocalyptic future where robots have become sentient and have imprisoned the human race into a computer program called the Matrix, so their bodies could be harvested for energy.
Reeves plays Neo, who in the original trilogy tried to free humanity from the machines. He died at the end of the original trilogy. So how does he return in this new film?
Without giving anything away, “Resurrections” is set after the events of the trilogy and reunites Reeves with his “Matrix” costar Carrie-Ann Moss, who plays Trinity. And it also introduces some new faces. One is Bugs (named after Bugs Bunny), played by Jessica Henwick, who is on the mission to find Neo and rescue him from the machines, who have once again trapped him in the Matrix.
To Henwick, who is British Chinese, the film is significant for having Asians in prominent roles without it being about identity. Bugs was not written to be Asian, and “it wasn’t a conscious decision to choose an Asian person for Bugs. But I know it means a lot to the community, and that’s amazing,” Henwick said. “And obviously Keanu was way ahead of the game and has been a shining pinnacle.”
In recent years, headlines have come out that positioned Reeves, whose father was Chinese Hawaiian, as a person of color. “I don’t know if I agree with that statement. But I don’t not agree,” he admits.
At the same time, though he’s rarely spoken about his ethnicity, Reeves does consider himself Asian. “My relationship to my Asian identity, it’s always been good and healthy. And I love it,” he said with a smile. “We’ve been growing up together.”
Similar to the previous movies in the franchise, “Resurrections” blends Japanese anime and Chinese kung fu films, with a contemporary action-adventure sensibility. It also takes tenants from Eastern and Western philosophies and religions, with Neo having been interpreted as a Christ figure and as Siddhartha leading his followers to Enlightenment.
It’s directed and co-written by Lana Wachowski, who co-created the “Matrix” franchise with her sister, Lilly. In casting, it was important to make sure the film wasn’t just entertaining, but also respectful of the Asian cultural sources it was drawing from.
“I think that ‘The Matrix’ movies really respect that,” said Priyanka Chopra, who is also in the new film. “To bring in Eastern philosophy, which I — having been raised in the East and grown up in India — feel like there’s something so powerful about the ancient wisdom that comes down, from cultures that are so old, and have been passed down from generation to generation.”
In “Resurrections,” Chopra plays Sati, a sentient computer program who decides to help the humans. The name Sati also comes from the Buddhist term for mindfulness, which Chopra sees as being reflected in her character. “It’s really cool for me to play the character of Sati,” she said. “She’s a program, but at the same time, the philosophy that she stands for is peace, humanity. And peace between humans and machines, and is that ever going to be possible.”
There’s also plenty of kung fu fights and gun fights in the new film. To help choreograph the stunts, “Resurrections” employed Jonathan Eusebio, who worked with Reeves on the “John Wick” franchise” and Tiger Hu Chen, who worked on the original “Matrix” franchise.
“Chen was my teacher on the trilogy, and it was wonderful to work with him on ‘Resurrections,’” Reeves said. “We know each other, he’s a wonderful martial artist. So I feel really grateful and honored to be able to spend time with him.”
In the film, Reeves has a pivotal hand-to-hand fight with actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II — who plays Morpheus, but a different version of the character played by Laurence Fishburne in the original trilogy. They're in a setting reminiscent of a Japanese dojo (where Abdul-Mateen is dressed in a men’s kimono robe and trousers).
“With the martial arts, [we’re] presenting those art forms in an artful way, in a respectful way. Not in a way where it’s experienced as a caricature, but from a place of reverence,” the actor said.
Henwick also points out that the Wachowskis were “ahead of the curve in terms of diversity,” when casting the original “Matrix” films. And that the new film continues that trend by making sure the players on-screen and offscreen come from an array of backgrounds. Lana Wachowski herself is trans, and came out in 2010. “Lana is a self confessed, huge fan of martial arts cinema, of anime,” Henwick said. “She’s seen more anime than I have, actually. So I know that she would only ever come at it from a place of real love.”
Warner Bros. had been pressuring the Wachowskis for decades to make more “Matrix” films but the duo refused. It was only in the past few years, after their parents died, that Lana was inspired to make another film.
So “Resurrections” isn’t so much an end-of-the-world action-adventure, but a more existential film, about grief and loss, and about perseverance. In the new film, Neo remarks that “I feel like nothing I’ve done in my life has mattered.” This time, Neo isn’t a Christ figure who will save humankind. Instead, he is a beacon to the characters, for how to strive for something beyond survival.
Wachowski was clear about the story being one of hope. Chopra said she found that the film isn’t so much a story about one savior. Instead, it’s about a group of people coming together toward a higher purpose. “The collective is such a large part of this movie, and that makes me just really happy.”