I was an anime fan as a teenager, but then graduation, work, and marriage compelled me to set aside my old hobbies. Seeing the first "Matrix" film was not as mind blowing for me as it was for most people since I had seen the concept of a simulated world in anime features like the "Megazone 23" series. I was also bored to tears with the whole "Messiah/Chosen One" concept as it had been done more effectively in books like "Dune," and in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Luke was a messianic figure without every one in the film having to bellow at the top of their lungs "HE IS THE ONE!" as they have in "The Matrix", "Titan AE" and the dull-as-dirt "Star Wars" prequels.
Okay, that being said, on to the Animatrix. What I loved the most about the shorts is that the characters that live both within and outside the Matrix inspire true sympathy from the viewer. They are characters that are truly struggling with the revelation that their hum-drum comfortable world is false and the true world has been devastated by the callousness of the machines and the short-sightedness of their human ancestors. For me, this is in stark contrast to the heroes in the feature films, all of whom come off as flat and emotionless as the Agents they battle against. The best way I can demonstrate this is by summarizing each short one by one...
1) "Final Flight of the Osiris" - The erotic relationship between the two principal characters, Thaddeus and Jue, is run-of-the-mill, though their use of simulated combat as a form of foreplay was very amusing. The dogfight between the Osiris and the Sentinels reminds me of every chase scene between the Millenium Falcon and the TIE fighters. Unlike the Falcon, the Osiris dosen't escape the battle intact as the title promises, which grants the Osiris' crew a doomed heroism. What I liked most of all was Jue -the heroines'- encounter with the old woman at the mailbox. Unlike Neo and company, who use the slumbering citizens of the Matrix as flak shields or moving targets, or simply regards them as obstacles in a video game, Jue sees the woman as a true human being even as the urgency of the mission and her own impending death weigh on her shoulders. An interesting moment is a close up of the old woman narrowing her eyes at Jue. It makes the viewer suspect - if only briefly - that she may be an Agent in disguise. In the end, the interaction between the two was poignant for me. Neo relates to no one still slumbering within the Matrix, which is unfortunate as it would give him some much-needed character.
2) "The New Renaissance, Part I" - This two parter introduced an interesting scenario for the viewer: a story with no neat dividing line between good and evil. No Zion vs. Matrix, no Neo vs. Smith, no Jedi vs. Sith for that matter (heh.) The story is a darkly funny inversion of the typical man vs. machine scenario we are used to seeing in films like "The Terminator," or any 50's sci-fi. It is narrated by the Zion Database, the library of the last human stronghold. In cyberspace the Database manifests itself as a Mandala pattern populated by merciful "Goddesses," somewhere between the Hindu Mami and the Shinto Kwannon. The tale of the Database begins: Humans are hedonistic and wasteful, and machines are left to be the caretakers of the world. This role as caretaker belies their servile roles as streetsweepers, construction workers, and helpmeets. The "Million Machine March" came off as heavy handed in my opinion, but that was redeemed by the trial of the android "B1" which invoked - with great subtlety - The Dred Scott Case, which sparked the abolition movement in the 1800s. After revolt and rioting in the streets (bringing to mind "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,} the first chapter ends with the machines establishing an independent state, Zero-One (A successful version of Liberia, if you will.) The machines begin their conquest not through warfare, but through commerce. This is another amusing concept, as the machines are not driven by calculating, genocidal malice (like the Terminators or the Daleks in "Doctor Who,") but simply by doing what they do best, creating efficient, environment-friendly products. When Zero-One sends an embassy of "user friendly" androids to the United Nations, they are torn limb from limb. "But," as the narrator (The Zion Database) warns, "it would not be the last embasssy of the machines sent to the UN."
3) "The New Renaissance, Part II" - The independent state of Zero-One has outstripped its human competitors and nearly bankrupted every other nation on earth with their superior products and services. The human nations of the earth blockade and then declare open war on Zero-One, unleashing the deadliest weapons in their arsenal. Though Zero-One is devastated, the infinite adaptability of the machines renders that victory meaningless.
In open combat the machines are shedding their user-friendly android shapes, in place of more efficient and adaptable arthropod forms which forshadow the Sentinels. The human foot soldiers prepare for battle, at first finding solace in the myriad religions of the world. In the killing fields however, they shed their humanity by injecting themselves with stimulants to enhance aggressiveness, and donning armored exoskeletons. This implies that humans can only prevail by becoming more machine like.
The humans' last ditch effort to vanquish the machines is a tactic named "Dark Shield," where bombers unleash a black vapor (like volcanic ash or smokestack fumes) which engulfs the earth and blots out the Sun, which was the primary source of energy for the machines and their city Zero-One.
Now this is an important point to dwell on, our civilization is one driven by fossil fuels, and reckless ambition. The machines in "Renaissance" created an energy-efficient and environment friendly civilization which suggests a degree of foresight and sound logic, if not compassion, which machines are not capable of. The human nations unleash a doomsday weapon that is meant to destroy the machine nation, without giving a single thought to the devastation it would unleash on the human race. What "Renaissance" suggests is that it was HUMANITY that was the spoiler of the earth, while the MACHINES settled into the role of stewards!
As I stated before, however, the machines are simply efficient and logical, not compassionate. Needing an available energy source to replace the screened out Sun, the Machines turn to their vanquished foes as cattle: Their body heat and neural activity become the batteries that maintain the machine civilization. The environment friendly Zero-One gives way to the Matrix at long last.
Two final scenes. The new ambassador of the machines appears before the UN, not in a supplicant android guise, but as a multi-eyed arthropod, who seals the covenant between men and machines and then triggers a nuclear explosion that destroys the ambassadors of humanity and the city of New York. Fallout showers down on the slagged wreckage, which dissolves to a scene of a boy frolicking in the snow. The boy's playful dream gives way to a nightmare of flame as his parents are revealed as watchful agents. In the waking world, the boy twitches fitfully in his battery chamber as the Narrator, in the guise of a Mandala Goddess, hovers over him as an angel of mercy.
Afterthought: The cyberscape of the Zion Database bears a startling contrast with the cyberscape of the Matrix. The Matrix is depicted as vertical linear threads of binary code using asian characters which are colored a sickening shade of green. Zion Database is a radiant tapestry of warm reds, oranges, and yellows using visual archetypes of mandalas and antique goddesses rather than strings of linear code. Both worlds are electronic in origin, but the Matrix subjugates while Zion Database serves. Is Zion Database the last
relic of Zero-One, the Machine Utopia? Just an idea...
4) A Kid's Story - The free flowing lines and coloring technique in this short is a welcome break from the super-realism of "Osiris" and "Renaissance."Y'all remember the fidgety teenage kid who keeps running after Neo, trying to scam his way aboard the Nebuchadnezzar in "Reloaded"? Well this is his story, which explains the title. The Kid is in despair of the drab world he inhabits, and surfs the 'Net trying to find an escape from it all. He strikes up an instant messenger correspondence with Neo (AOL: agent of salvation?) The kid immediately clings to the unseen Neo as his Savior, though for all he knows Neo could be some grubby, crotch scratching chickenhawk. At school, he scribbles the names of Neo and Trinity into his notepad as though they were a Metallica logo or an Anarchy symbol. The Kid's cell phone disrupts the class, and sure enough it's cyber-chickenhawk... uh, Messiah Neo to warn him of the Agents stalking him. A daringly illustrated skateboard scene follows, which climaxes with the Kid taking a leap of faith/suicide jump off the high school roof to escape his pursuers. In the Matrix, the Kid is another suicide, his burial attended by his homeroom teacher (no parents to be seen.) In the cruel, cruel outside world, The Kid has been salvaged by the Nebuchadnezzar crew, who marvel at his ability to awaken himself from the Matrix independently. Now let me take a quick aside at this point and say a kid like "The Kid" would be a far more intriguing central character for the "Matrix" movies than the duller-than-sin Neo. Neo's entire existence is predestined, whereas The Kid, through his abilty to break away from the Matrix through sheer force of will, is an anomaly - a Wild Card. Autonomous characters and chance encounters are far more interesting than some pseudo-Savior who has his whole future mapped out. That's the nature of "adventure" folks, the very word itself is derived from the French for "chance."
Okay, let me get off of my soapbox...
5) The Program - An excellently animated fanfic. The sparring partners, Cis and Duo have boss samurai gear, their duel evokes every wu xia battle ever made. (Yeah, I said wu xia, sue me!) The whole story of Duo trying to seduce his lover, Cis, into returning to the Matrix echoes Cypher's plans to defect. The emotional conflict ups the ante until, SURPRISE! The treachery was simply a part of the simulation. The protagonist downs the programmer with one punch, vindication for the lame cop-out ending.
6) The World Record - A sprinter strives to best a world record. He pushes himself to the limit. A career-ending injury suffered during the sprint jolts him out of the Matrix. He is subjected to the nightmare image of himself trapped in artificial amnion and the spectacle of being monitored up close by a Sentinel. The breakthrough is temporary, but devastates the runner's mind. An uneven effort since the animation... exagerrates... every... single... gesture...
7) Beyond - In my youth, I heard of a legendary spot in New England called Spook Hill. So named because
the hill in question thumbed its nose at the Law of Gravity: balls and tires rolling uphill and so forth. The
heroine in the story, along with her cats and a small gang of kids, stumble across an anomaly in the Matrix
that manifests itself in a similar manner as Spook Hill. Rather than unveiling the mind-warping conspiracy
that the Matrix embodies, these kids just have fun with the anomaly watching themselves somersault and
fall in slo-mo or hover centimeters away from the floor. Yoko, the heroine of the story, comes across a lone door in the dilapi- dated building that plays hosts to the Zero-G anomaly. The door opens into an indeterminate darkness. She stands at the threshold, and the viewer is left to wonder: Is this a potential exit from the Matrix, or is it a literal dead end for Yoko should she enter? She never gets the chance to make a decision, as the Agents come along to eliminate the anomaly, which shows an even more sinister side to the synthetic watchdogs: They discourage wonder and contingency as much as they discourage rebellion The closing shot of faceless pedestrians scurrying along crosswalks which dissolve into a continuous data stream illustrates the point perfectly.
8) A Detective's Story - Once again, we are presented with a character far more intriguing than the heroes
of the feature films. The pallette of the animated short is a grainy black, grey, and white. A freelance detec-
tive, named Ash, is hired by the agents to track down a hacker named "The Queen of Hearts." He is presented with the puzzle of what happened to the previous gumshoes who were put on the case: one killed, one driven mad, one missing (most likely converted to Zion's cause.) After interviewing the insane freelancer, he plies his deductive skills and knowledge of Alice in Wonderland to track down the elusive hacker. Aboard an outbound train, he comes across the "Queen of Hearts," which - surprise, surprise - turns out to be Trinity.
Three agents bear down on our two heroes and a chase ensues from car to car. Ash proves to be
a worthy candidate for rebelling against the Matrix due to his honed talents. Unfortunately, he is slain by
Trinity because he is almost posessed by an Agent. As he dies, Trinity informs Ash that she believed he was ready for the mystery and revelations that she represents. Another character with great potential gone to waste, in this author's opinion.
9) Matriculated - Visually stunning, well animated, a Pinocchio-like story in which a candidate for escaping
the Matrix turns out to be an unusually cunning Sentinel. Peter Chung's obsession with mind-bending
visuals ruins the overall impact of the story.
After reviewing all nine segments, the viewer finds a patchwork of interesting stories that would have been a better basis for The Matrix than all the acrobatic warriors, wooden characters, and whiz bang effects in the
features. It's understood that the vertigo-inducing effects are an unavoidable feature of the films, but imagine those revolutionary effects rooted in a story populated by intrigiung and sympathetic characters such as Private Detective Ash, The Kid, the young woman in "Beyond", the Sprinter from "World Record", the "citizens" of Zero-One, the doomed crew of the "Osiris," even the Sentinel-with-a-heart-of-gold in "Matriculated." The Wachowski Brothers would have established a golden balance between character, concept, and fantastic environment equivalent to Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Such a balance is hard to establish, as the latest CGI driven features prove (Pixar Entertainment boast a superb track record.) Animated stories once again triumph over the bombast of live-action/CGI hybrids. The Animatrix proves to be a glimpse of the genuine wonder and mystery that the "Matrix," and "Reloaded" fail to deliver.