The Matrix Resurrections plays like an apology to the small audience of fans who like the Matrix sequels but felt burned by the ending of The Matrix Revolutions, a film few remember and even fewer liked. It’s hard to start this review without saying up front that I like all three of the original Matrix films, flaws and all, but I hold no illusions that the sequels might someday find wider recognition. Every few years critics re-appraise them, sure, but the story can never reach the high bar set by the original.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions play well to a devoted audience who forgive their flaws for the sake of their considerable ambitions. Beyond the convoluted philosophizing, though, both those sequels had state-of-the-art action sequences and the benefit of translating counter-culture and foreign cinematic aesthetics into the American mainstream. To open minds, they glisten with a feeling of originality and inspiration. The Matrix Resurrections does not. It’s by far the weakest of the series, a disappointing film that spends its most interesting moments admitting to its own superfluous existence before descending into a been-there, done-that finale that renders its much-ballyhooed “meta” elements frustratingly shallow. As someone who eagerly anticipated the film and loves the others, the sinking thought as the credits rolled was: “This was the best they could do?”

Series co-creator Lana Wachowski returned to direct the film, with a script co-written with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon. Notably absent is her sister, Lilly, who opted to stay retired from active filmmaking and continue her work on Showtime’s Work in Progress. The sisters have always been a creatively audacious duo, although none of their films after the original The Matrix in 1999 brought the same level of critical and commercial success. Reloaded and Revolutions have their staunch defenders but by and large remain cautionary tales on a financial level. Cloud Atlas (yellowface issues aside) was one of the best films from 2012 and made basically nothing. Speed Racer remains a cult hit, which is what Jupiter Ascending might have become if it wasn’t absolute garbage. What binds the Wachowskis’ films together, if not success, is the level of idiosyncratic ambition at play in all of their projects. The Matrix, which follows the traditional Path of the Hero in a story that spoke to late-20th century malaise and distrust of authority, feels like a safe bet by comparison.

Again: Resurrections is a film that will appeal largely to those already devoted to following Lana wherever her creative impulses take her. Frankly, that’s what makes it so deeply frustrating. It does not feel as ambitious as the other films in the franchise. It doesn’t even feel as creatively exciting as Ascending, which felt like the hyperactive fan-fiction of a 12-year-old girl on Tumblr. There are a number of neat ideas at play here, but none are developed enough to feel substantial. It’s all surface-level fluff and expository dialogue and nostalgic callbacks for characters stripped of their personalities and human weight … which is precisely the kind of movie Resurrections claims to be afraid of becoming in an extended prologue to the actual film, which reintroduces us to Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), living his life as a software programmer whose experiences with the first three films were, it turns out, as a designer of a hit video-game trilogy titled The Matrix. He’s devoted to his work and detached from the world around him. His psychoanalyst (Neil Patrick Harris) prescribes him little blue pills to quell psychotic episodes where he believes he’s Neo, the hero of the games he built. Anderson is living a sorry excuse for a life, but it’s a life — until his boss, Smith (Jonathan Groff), tells him Warner Brothers wants to make a new Matrix game to cash in on the franchise.

Cue a prolonged sequence of scenes where Wachowski openly complains about having to come up with another story to tell with these characters because the suits demanded it. The audience knows Thomas Anderson is going to end up leaving the Matrix to become Neo again. We know that Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) is really Trinity, also newly plugged into the Matrix. It’s just a matter of when the story will move on from the “meta” aspect to actually give us a new Matrix story. That’s not to say the first act isn’t funny and occasionally thrilling, but simply that it promises a new take on the material that inevitably slides into the familiar, and not in a particularly interesting way.

What follows isn’t really worth spoiling here except to say it’s relatively tensionless. Wachowski tries to toe the line between commenting on “making something new with old code” and also telling a very Matrixy story about star-crossed lovers trapped between realities. The former is generally frustrating because it’s all surface-level bullshit; the latter is functional but never as good as its predecessors. At least with Reloaded and Revolutions, audiences could enjoy mind-bending action sequences and cool visuals along with the straight-faced science-fiction exposition. Here, the fight choreography and editing no longer feels true to the Wachowskis’ Hong Kong fandom. It’s all quick cuts, close-ups and blurry motion. The bullet time no longer looks crisp and clean. Several sequences feel like they tried to film slow-motion with cameras that did not cooperate and a budget that didn’t allow for reshoots. It’s honestly unbelievable these fights passed muster during the creative process. Compared to the original trilogy, this oftentimes feels like a fan film.

Most damningly, Reeves sleepwalks through his role. The first Matrix made him an action star and it’s a shame this one can’t capitalize on it. Neo is given one new ability, which is basically a Force-push that feels more like a compromise to avoid putting Reeves in any physically risky situations so as to not mess up his John Wick: Chapter 4 shooting schedule rather than any interesting trick. The big finale mixes elements from all three of the other films but never looks as impressive as any of them. It’s all completely unmemorable.

I’ve been a fan of the Matrix sequels for a long time and enjoy my time with these characters. Some of the sci-fi ideas thrown down by Lana Wachowski here feel like natural extensions of the first trilogy, with room to explore in better sequels if this one makes any money … which it won’t. And she seems to know it. It’s not a movie made for a mainstream audience and it’s not really a movie made for all fans of the other films, either. It pulls most of its punches and the ones that land barely bruise. Resurrections grapples with whether it needs to exist or not, and the answer its creator returns to is a basic, honest one: No, but I might as well give my characters a happy ending if they’re paying me to do so. I can admire that verve. I just wish there had been a more compelling creative vision behind it all.