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Wednesday 30 July 2003

The Animatrix

  • Directed by Andy Jones, Mahiro Maeda, Shinichirô Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takeshi Koike, Kouji Morimoto, and Peter Chung
  • Written by Andy & Larry Wachowski, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Shinichirô Watanabe, and Peter Chung
  • Starring the voices of Clayton Watson, Julia DeMita, Kevin Michael Richardson, Pamela Adlon, James Arnold Taylor, Hedy Burress, Melinda Clarke, Carrie-Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves

  • A DVD Review by Lawrence Person

At its best, The Matrix came very close to being the best film ever made from a novel Philip K. Dick never wrote. When the true nature of Neo's universe, and of humanity's plight as cradle-to-grave slaves trapped in a virtual reality ruled by unseen machine overlords, is revealed, that impressive ontological rupture brings The Matrix very close to being a great SF film.

Unfortunately, the fundamental stupidity of that film's 30 second explanation of why the Matrix exits in the first place (machines are using humans as batteries because humanity blocked out the sun in its war against them) seriously mars that universe's fundamental underpinnings. Dick may have been a singular talent, but he was well grounded in the field, and would never have made such a gross scientific error like violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Still, if you could overlook that (and numerous theatergoers did), the original's grim vision of a small band of rebels fighting on behalf of an unknowingly enslaved humanity against both "agents" inside the Matrix and hordes of vicious, eerily biological machines out of it, its stylistic obsessions with black leather and martial arts, and its philosophical underpinnings of second-hand Buddhism and biblical nomenclature, provided an unusually compelling film.

The Animatrix, a series of nine animated shorts released directly to DVD here in the U.S. just as The Matrix Reloaded hit theaters, explores more of the Matrix universe. The animation itself ranges from the competent ("The Program," "World Record") to the breathtaking ("The Final Flight of the Osiris" appears to have used the sophisticated computer animation engine used for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and "The Kid" features exceptionally good, and varied, animation, and possibly very sophisticated rotoscoping). By and large, the subject matter is less impressive, treading well-covered ground. "The Program" features virtual martial arts training with an obvious twist. In "World Record" a runner achieves just that after a brief glimpse of the Matrix's underlying reality. "Beyond" features several characters finding a Matrix anomaly where the normal laws of physics don't apply; it's well done, but slighter than necessary. "The Kid" features the titular skateboarding protagonist going through something like Neo's awakening in the first film; the realism of the early scenes is impressive, as is its move to impressionism during his flight from agents, but overall it breaks no new ground. (It's also the only segment where Matrix star Keanu Reeves reprises his role as Neo, though it's so small he could have recorded his lines during a coffee break.)

"Matriculated" does breaks new ground. A team of humans (and, I kid you not, a jacked-in lemur) capture and attempt to "turn" one of their machine foes to free will and the human cause, including a very trippy "computer dream sequence" as they interface with its mind. Alas, it's seriously marred by sheer idiot plot devices. ("Hey, what do you say we keep our super secret research station all lighted up right here on the surface where any killing machine can turn us into chunky salsa?")

"The Final Flight of the Osiris" looks beautiful. It starts with (sigh) more virtual martial arts, then moves to a frenetic tale of the ship running from a horde of "sentinels," only to run into a much bigger horde on the surface near digging machines right above Zion, the rebel's underground home. (There's a glaring inconsistency; here we're told that Zion is only 4 kilometers below the surface, but in The Matrix Reloaded it's hundreds.) Though adding nothing new, it looks so good and moves so swiftly that you don't really care.

Stylistically, "Detective Story," with its sepia tone look, 1940s cars and a retrofuturist typewriter-and-screen combination straight out of Brazil, is both the most interesting and least consistent with the rest of the Matrix universe, which looks nothing like this Computerized-Gotham-by-way-of-Dark City hybrid. But it suggests an interesting possibility, never explored: What if the Matrix we've seen isn't the only one, and there are countless subvirtualities within the greater Matrix, with differing histories, inhabitants, or even physical laws? (Frankly, that possibility is far more mind-blowing than anything in The Matrix Reloaded.) But "Detective Story" eschews that sort of conceptual breakthrough for a lighter but effectively amusing tale of detective Ash trying to track down the mysterious Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, reprising her role from the original film). The idea of a private detective unraveling the underlying nature of his pocket universe (again, shades of Dark City) has a much stronger appeal than the plot of the first film, where Neo literally gets handed clue after clue, then finally the entire solution in red pill form, on a silver platter. But it has an ambiguous and somewhat unfulfilling ending; structurally, Ash is denied the possibility of his conceptual breakthrough because Neo already made it.

But all the above are essentially filler for the intellectual centerpiece of the DVD: "The Second Renaissance Parts 1 & 2." Here, at last, the full backstory of The Matrix is finally revealed. Moreover, since these segments were written by the Wachowski brothers themselves, they must be regarded as definitive. The foundations of the Matrix future are uncovered, providing an opportunity to repair the cracks caused by the idiocy of the "human battery" revelation.

Given the opportunity to correct the stupidities committed in the first film, the Wachowski brothers have, alas, made mistakes even stupider.

Framed as an historical record in the Zion archive, it starts out showing a decadent humanity served by armies of robots. Barely a minute into the piece, the Wachowski brothers bring out the MESSAGE sledgehammer, with hundreds of robots pulling large cargo containers up ramps with ropes, Egyptian slave style, indicating we've entered the realm of the "designer dystopia," where the entire world is constructed to oppress the characters (or, in this case, machines) without any internal logic. Why use hundred of robots and inclined ramps when we already have miraculous devices known as "cranes"? Next we're told "it was not long before seeds of dissent took root. Though loyal and pure, the machines received no respect from their masters." And thus do they blithely skip entirely over perhaps the most crucial moment in the Matrix's genesis: how machines became sentient in the first place. We're merely told that B166ER killed his masters, not how he reached this remarkable breakthrough in free will that soon spreads (unexplained) throughout the machine race. Next we see robot riots and a recapitulation of the famous Viet Cong execution shot. The sledgehammer swings again, and again, this time literally, as a female android is attacked by a mob and denuded of her false flesh. The later might have been disturbingly effective if I hadn't kept flashing on the Hookerbot 5000 from Futurama.

"Banished from humanity, the machines sought refuge in their own promised land" in the Middle East (insert your own comment on the symbolism here), dubbed Zero One. (Just how they managed to found this machine nation with all the world howling for their motor oil is never explained.) Soon Zero One's tireless automatons have developed better AI and consumer goods (wait a minute, this isn't the U.S. buying from Japan after World War II, this is Nazi Germany buying from a newly created Israel), and Zero One's currency soars while those of human nations crash. (OK, I find this almost believable; if it's a sly commentary on "inhuman capitalism," it's a lot subtler than (and cuts against the grain of) their previous philosophical stance.) Part 1 ends with humanity instituting a blockade and Zero One being denied admission to the UN.

Part 2 begins with humanity nuking Zero One, but the voiceover tells us "unlike their former masters with their delicate flesh, the machines had little to fear of the bomb's radiation and heat," one of the most manifestly absurd statements in the history of science fiction cinema. Even ignoring the effects of EMP and overpressure, no metal is able to stand temperatures of tens of millions of degrees (C or F, take your pick) at the center of a single nuclear explosion, much less the repeated thermonuclear strikes depicted here, after which Zero One would be Zero Zero.

After Zero One launches its counterattack, mankind implements "Operation Dark Storm" to block out the sun's light (and thus the machines' solar power source), with planes laying thick clouds of black smoke across the sky. OK, fine, if you want to block out the sun for a day, or even a week. But the Matrix films lead us to believe that the skies have been dark for centuries, if not millennia. If it's only a smokescreen, no matter how dense, it's going to dissipate in a short period of time due to that sophisticated atmospheric process known as "rain." After extensive carnage and human soldiers being wiped out, there are some effectively disturbing scenes of humans being torn from their mech armor and turned into battery slaves for their new machine overlords (and the creepy realization that this new servitude constitutes the title's Second Renaissance), but those virtues aren't nearly effective enough to make you forget the gross scientific inaccuracies preceding them.

If you start with a cracked foundation, chances are you're going to spend for more time and effort repairing it than it would have taken to do the job right in the first place. Taken together, The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Animatrix suggest that the Wachowski brothers understand the look and feel of Science Fiction, but not the deep commitment to scientific plausibility that gives SF so much of its unique resonance. Unless they pull off yet another ontological revelation in The Matrix Revolutions (say, the whole battery backstory is disinformation, and the machine are actually using peoples brains to run both the Matrix and their own mechanoid world, ala Dan Simmons' The Fall of Hyperion), the Matrix universe will continue, like the Sex Pistols song, to be pretty, pretty vacant.

Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.

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