The Matrix Resurrections is one of those movies that makes you think: not unfortunately about the nature of reality, but about what went wrong in the movie.

In my opinion, the original movie worked because there was slick exposition and they stuck to the narrative rules. Our heroes were always vulnerable in the matrix. They had to run, and that gave heft to the occasions when they did fight an agent. The ending of the first movie, however, removed that dramatic element by making Neo all but invincible.

The mistake of the sequels was to move away from the matrix itself, and into the outside world. In the outside world nothing exciting or unpredictable happens. The leaders of Zion are cantankerous apparently for the sake of being cantankerous. My recollection is that something like three fourths of the third movie was dedicated to characters we cared nothing about. When we did get into the matrix, Neo was too powerful to be interesting. We get to watch a bunch of CGI avatars get flung around, with no sense of peril whatsoever.

The Matrix: Resurrections has been praised for its ‘meta’-ness, and I can only guess that repeating the narrative mistakes of the second and third movies in the fourth demonstrates the director’s commitment to that theme. One again we have unneeded exposition about Io—an underground city about which we do not care, now headed by an old character (about whom we still do not care) who has become cantankerous in her turn, for the sake of being cantankerous. And within the matrix, we still get little more than CGI bodies being flung around and shot at. Is there new spectacle? Somehow “swarm mode” is what they came up with for this movie—I can only guess that the software used to generate the same scenes in World War Z was available at a discount rate. And Neo finds it more convenient to do the Street Fighter forcefield move than to move his body. But that is just as well. I’m watching a movie where the fighters crumble concrete with their missed blows, but land those same blows on one another without consequence.

The plot holes. Why does Neo, otherwise depressed to the point of suicide, refrain from playing along with what he takes to be a hallucination by taking the red pill? If you’re able to open a door on a rooftop to a train to Tokyo, what reasonable person would question that something funny is going on, from that fact alone? Why is it a high stakes event to exfiltrate Trinity, when the same has already been accomplished for Neo literally before the arc of the story begins? (That bit of critical infrastructure isn’t worth a sentinel, in the machines’ estimation? Not even after they lost Neo?)

Meanwhile, the myriad of thematic questions that could be raised are left unraised. In 2021. After social media silos. After fake news. After alternative facts.

The key question—not only because of social media, but for anyone who’s even read one book about philosophy—is how to judge between competing visions of reality. I could imagine a movie when that was taken seriously, and it would have been an interesting movie. It would have required the audience to be as uncertain about what’s happening to Neo as he is himself, which we never are in this movie. From the filmgoer’s perspective, the rule is: if you’re in a green- or gold-tinted world, then that’s the matrix; otherwise it’s the real world. We don’t even so much as hear a character say, Hey wait a minute, how do I know that this isn’t a simulation? A more daring move would have been to have a matrix within a matrix, and to explore what the characters might choose to do in that situation.

But even withing the matrix there are no stakes, because what’s the consequence of swallowing a red pill in a hallucination? There’s a bit of dialog around the cost of rejecting the matrix, as opposed to staying in a reasonably comfortable reality. But what does Neo have to lose? Nothing. What does Trinity have to lose? Well, quite a bit—not that that’s ever explored. (And really? The woman turns her back on her family without ever speaking a word about it? Really? Really?!)

So somehow The Matrix movies avoided asking the question for four movies that Inception asked and explored in one. I suppose the mature thing to do would be to grateful for Inception rather than griping about the Matrix sequels.

The historical puzzle for me is whether some key creative person was involved in the original movie, but was for some reason unavailable for the others. It’s really difficult to imagine such a drop-off in quality absent some such factor.