The Matrix is fast turning into the Star Wars of the new century, not just in terms of its popularity or its coolness factor, but its creative breadth. Aside from the trilogy of films spawned from it, a videogame, Enter the Matrix, was also rolled out as part of the canon (apparently some of it explains plot points left mostly undescribed in the films). But the most interesting spinoff so far has proved to be The Animatrix, a series of canon short films produced by some of the most audacious and respected animators working today.
Most of the time, anthology products don't work for me. The Twilight Zone movie, for instance, consisted of four reworked episodes from the TV show — one bad, one mediocre, and two very good — which added up to a movie that wasn't worth repeating. The made-for-TV-but-shunted-to-theaters Nightmares was equally patchy: one segment was a Tron ripoff; another a rather slummy reworking of Of Unknown Origin; and so on. (Anyone here remember Asylum?) The main problem is that the long form lends itself to a total story bound together by more than just a vague concept.
The Animatrix steps around this problem by having a universe ready-made for it with a cohesive set of ideas. Anyone who has seen the first film is familiar with the basics: the machine-and-human war, the subsequent enslavement of mankind, the plastic nature of the Matrix, the various nuances and subtleties of the Matrix philosophy and mythology, and so on. Because we already know the basics, but we are also sure there is so much more territory that can be covered, the set avoids the problems inherent in most anthology productions and charts some amazing new territory. This set expands on everything we know, and introduces a great many things we never would have suspected.
Final Flight of the Osiris (written by Larry and Andy Wachowski; directed by Andy Jones; animation by Square USA, Inc.) is the most visually stunning of all the segment s, having been prod uced by the same animation house that gave us the sadly ill-fated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Unfortunately, it has the shallowest story of all of the segments — it seems to have been conceived as a filler to explain a bit of the backstory from The Matrix Reloaded. Nevertheless, it looks sensational, and was good enough to earn a theatrical release in front of Dreamcatcher.
The story is simple. The commanders of the human rebel hovercraft Osiris engage in a bit of simulated blindfighting that turns into a striptease. They are rudely jerked out of their "practice" by the general klaxon, and discover that a massive contingent of Sentinels and machine vessels are drilling straight down to Zion. This leads to an elegant two-front struggle, where the Osiris holds off the Sentinels as long as possible while the female commander jacks in to deliver the warning. Square USA's amazing sense of detail pervades throughout: when the camera glides in close to caress the bodies of both, the pores in their skin can be made out.
The Second Renaissance (written by Larry and Andy Wachowski; directed by Mahiro Maeda; animation by Studio 4°C, Tokyo) delves back into the past to show us a historical recollection of the machine rebellion. "In the beginning, man made the machine in his own image," the narrator reflects, "and for a time, it was good." We see the machines begin as mere servants, then rise to the status of artisans, then break away from mankind entirely and form their own nation-state in the middle of the Arabian desert. For a time humanity and machinekind manage to cooperate economically, but before long economic war turns into an actual shooting war.
This segment is particularly effective in touching on images and conflicts still fresh in our collective consciousness. When the machines and their human sympathizers turn out in force to march on Washington, I was reminded of everything from the bus boycotts to the massacre of Tienanmen Square (and there's a shot of a robot being mashed under a tank that explicitly reinforces this connection). When the war breaks out, Maeda uses even graver horrors: the pits full of bodies from Auschwitz, the jagged ruins of post-war Dresden and Tokyo. The ending is particularly chilling, implying that mankind was the architect of his doom in more ways than one.
Kid's Story (written by Larry and Andy Wachowski; directed by Shinichiro Watanabe; animation by Studio 4°C, Tokyo) is another piece of backstory from Reloaded, but told with a level of verve and visual flair that is extremely striking. Popper, a teenaged boy (his name is an explicit reference to Karl Popper, he of the philosophical tenet of falsifiability), has disturbing dreams that feel more real to him than reality itself. He chats at night with Neo on his Internet connection, wondering if he is going mad, losing focus in his classes.
One day his cellphone rings in class. It's a warning: "They're coming for you." Agents are surrounding the school. He seizes his skateboard and makes a break for it (in one of the best-animated sequences in the whole production), and then finds himself having to make the most important decision of his short life. The animation is deliberately rough-hewn, but with a digital polish, and it stands ou t from all the other shorts immensely. It also suggests something in the Matrix mythos that I had wondered about all along: whether or not intervention is required to "unplug" someone.
Program (written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, animation by Madhouse Studios, Tokyo) opens similarly to Final Fight (a training simulation in a highly stylized environment), but with a wholly different flavor. The animation is strongly reminiscent of Blood: The Last Vampire or Kaidohmaru, with strong, vigorous lines and clear-cut characters. (Kawajiri directed Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, which explains a great deal about its look-and-feel.) In it, the human rebel Cis, embodied as a female samurai, clashes with her mentor Duo; the two of them seem about evenly matched. Then Duo drops a bombshell: he wants Cis to come back with him into the Matrix for keeps.
Most of the segment is taken up with a magnificent, bombastic fight, but the implications of the decision that Cis makes are equally important. Unfortunately, the story is slightly fumbled at the end, because a couple of key pieces of information about the real nature of Duo at the time are left out, and we're forced to fill in a great deal of the gaps on our own. Despite this lapse, this is easily my favorite segment, if only for the lushness of the images and the vigorous action.
Despite having the most off-putting animation of all of the stories listed here, it's used to good effect. While watching Tokyo Olympiad I remembered how the sprinters were filmed in such extreme slow motion that they were turned into grimacing, sweat-spraying gargoyles; Morimoto's designs and renderings are used here to the same effect. It's certainly a break from the usual polished, "product" animation that most Japanese production houses are known (and lauded) for.
This installment merges clean-line cel animation with photogrammetrically-rendered environments to produce strikingly lifelike results. The camera moves into and through houses, streets, and the infamous "dead zone"; we feel like we're inside this place, not just looking at it. There's also a moment involving another bit of Matrix trivia that is unique at the least: the possibility that errors in the Matrix can rupture causality as well (as when the girl opens a door and hears a conversation she had an hour ago). (Morimoto was responsible for the Magnetic Rose segment of Memories and is also the producer of the cult anime .hack//SIGN.)
A Detective Story (written and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe; animation by Studio 4°C, Tokyo) is second only to Final Flight as being the most visually impressive, if only because of the style and feel of its animation. Shot in grainy, xerographic gray-and-green tones, it perfectly captures the feel of an anime film noir — which is doubly credible when we learn that Watanabe's other major animation opus was the outstanding space-noir Cowboy Bebop.
The plot is straight out of every issue of Black Mask ever written: a grimy private eye is hired to find a femme fatale. This time, however, the femme in question is Trinity, and everyone who has come looking for her in the past is either dead or insane. The reasons for this become abundantly clear to our hero as he closes in on his quarry. What is even better is how the movie uses the noir code of honor to provide us with a thoroughly satisfying ending, one which makes the opening lines of the story resonate all the more.
Matriculated (written and directed by Peter Chung; animation by DNA, Seoul) introduces a wholly new wrinkle into the fabric of the Matrix universe: If the machines are themselves sentient, is it possible to "unplug" them as well? Matriculated deals with a small band of human rebels who have been doing just that. They capture one of the smarter breed of land-based Sentinels and subject it to a kind of "deprogramming" (!) in an attempt to reorder its priorities. It works — at first.
Peter Chung is of course the talent behind the incredible Aeon Flux, and his trademark lean-and-compressed artwork style is in full force here. He also merges it with some amazingly fluid CGI (when it's needed) to show the story from the point of view of the beleaguered machine as much as he does from the perspective of his human heroes! Don Davis (who scored the feature films) provides an excellent and idiosyncratic score for this and every other segment.
The Animatrix is more than just a piece of tie-in product: it's like a State of the Animation Union Address, showing us what is possible now and hinting at amazing future directions. Seeing the talent at work here, pushing their technique towards common goals, is nothing short of exhilarating at its best.