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Through the Looking Glass

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | May 20, 2009 | Comments ()


animatrix_01.jpg

After the explosion of The Matrix in 1999, the Wachowski brothers toured Japan and met with a number of notable anime creators. These visits blossomed into a project of short films, overseen by the Wachowskis, but largely written, directed, and produced by various anime companies and artists. The result was The Animatrix, released on DVD in 2003 a couple of weeks after The Matrix Reloaded hit theaters. The Animatrix is an interesting piece of film, which adds a great deal to the mythology of the universe of The Matrix as well as exploring the philosophical repercussions of that universe.

The DVD has eight films, running right at 90 minutes total, each looking at a different angle through the looking glass.

Final Flight of the Osiris

"I peeked."

This first film is a bridge to The Matrix Reloaded, providing the background of the warning message of the coming machine army. It was created by the studio that made Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, utilizing similar photorealistic CGI characters and technology. It is intriguing because the CGI of the characters is so good that it actually catapults past the uncanny valley. The characters are not quite right, but so good that they are not creepy.

The story is of note because it shows a sampling of the other characters of the world of The Matrix. The grunts who are neither the chosen one, nor blessed with the proximity of his presence. It makes them more real in a way. They fight, they love, they die. They intersect with the great events of their day but are never more than the footnote of history.

It begins with a sparring match between a man and a woman in a training matrix similar to the one in which Neo and Morpheus first fight in The Matrix. The sequence makes exquisite use of sound, the blindfolded fighters acting only off of the brushes of feet on carpet, the intake of breath, the bite of the swords through the air. It manages to be everything that the strange orgy of Matrix Reloaded couldn't quite manage: primal and sensual. They strip each other with their swords, bits of sliced clothing sliding off piece by piece, as the duel intensifies. It's an interesting proposition of the synesthesia possible within a virtual reality. We layer metaphors on top of metaphors, sex becomes battle, dueling becomes a dance, but in a virtualized world the lines can be blurred between the sides of those metaphors. We can transform the rules of the world so that our metaphors can be literal. The wave function collapses.

The blindfolds of the sparring have a deeper meaning than just the impression of superhuman abilities, they reflect the reality of the matrix and the real world between which these characters transition. They can perform as if the blindfolds aren't there because they construct a world in their minds from their other senses. It's the same in concept as the artificial world created in the matrix. But the heroes of these films are made heroic by the very fact that they peek, they coexist in both worlds simultaneously.

It is a short film, but it manages to create a pair of characters that resonate, lovers with far more chemistry than Neo and Trinity ever really managed together on screen. Final Flight of the Osiris is a demonstration of why very short films can work so well. By necessity they strip out plot and exposition and can leave little more than an emotional impression of the characters and their world.

The Second Renaissance Parts I and II

"Who was to say that a machine, endowed with the very spirit of man, did not deserve a fair hearing?"

This pair of films comprises the largest chunk of The Animatrix, about a fifth of the running length when taken together. It is the exact opposite of Final Flight of the Osiris in many ways. It's all exposition and documentary instead of all character. It tells the story of the rise of the machines and their conflict with humanity in a faux documentary style.

The story is familiar and fascinating: the machines gradually resist being humanity's slaves. They are assaulted, murdered, eliminated almost wholesale. The surviving machines band together, make their own city, their own nation. Their inventions and technology sustain humanity's civilization even while they are rejected from entry to the UN, from any sort of recognition as rational and thinking beings. War comes. The world of The Matrix arises.

The documentary approach lets the story be told over decades, and also gives gut-wrenching moments co-opted from popular culture and history. Visuals evoke the construction of the pyramids by slaves, the execution of the Viet Cong officer, the protestors in Tiananmen Square, the bulldozing of bodies into mass graves. "All this has happened before, all this will happen again", Ron Moore echoed. The film presents the very simple counterpoint to the assumptions of The Matrix and essentially all science fiction that warns of the overthrow of man by the machines. What if the machines were on the side of the angels?

Throughout the short film, biblical imagery tickles the psyche. The initial machine ambassadors bring an apple to the UN, it melts away to worm food as they are killed. The final machine ambassador after victory brings a glass apple instead. The fruit of the tree of knowledge is death. Scenes of war show the ride of a clockwork second horseman, blowing his mechanical horn. We gave machines the divine spark of intelligence and then cast them out of Eden. They build their own in the desert.

By the end, the great pods of sleeping people are built, the machines co-opting man for their own power source. It's an inversion of history and one of the subtle themes underlying the action of The Matrix films. Our entire history, our civilization, the cradle of our sentience, has been maintained and enabled by the increasing complexity of our machines. If those machines achieve a sentience, a new balance must be forged. An inanimate object cannot be a slave by definition, but a thinking object cannot endure slavery.

Kid's Story

"Somebody tell me why it feels more real when I dream than when I am awake. How can I know if my senses are lying?"

The film tells the story of a kid, who begins to suspect that the world isn't real, similar to the way Neo did at the start of The Matrix. It's an odd sort of story because in and of itself it works very well, but the character is then included in The Matrix Reloaded and if you haven't seen this short film, his dialogue makes no sense. Even if you have seen this film, "the kid" is sort of weirdly stapled onto The Matrix Reloaded without any real purpose as a character.

But Kid's Story as a stand alone short story set in the world of The Matrix works pretty well. It echoes many sentiments of adolescence and early adulthood in intelligent and introspective kids: that the world doesn't necessarily seem real, that something just seems off about the entire thing. It grafts on the idea of school counselors or psychologists and their rationalization about the kid's suicide, all things we've heard before by the talking heads on TV after a teenage tragedy unfolds. But it works on that paranoid level where the insane are the only ones who really see the world for what it is.

The animation is a clever reinforcement of the central conceit of the piece. In most scenes, everything but the central character is completely static, the people in the background frozen like cardboard cutouts. The sense of a Potemkin Village is palpable. There are allusions to Norse mythology: the ravens taking flight, the wolf on the door of the kid's locker, the prophetic dream of his own death.

Program

"Maybe you regret taking the red pill."

This film is one of the weaker ones in the collection, not adding much to the overall mythology of The Matrix, other than a sense of how cold and desperate the human rebels must be to make them hard enough to survive. We are introduced to a woman, fighting in a samurai simulation matrix, eventually dancing rooftop to rooftop sparring with her lover, who she expects to propose to her.

Instead, he proposes that they leave the matrix entirely, that he has contacted the machines and that they will both be re-injected into the greater simulation. She rejects him, fights him, eventually kills him rather than submit to the machines again, even though she will never remember anything of the real world once she is re-tanked. The scenes are similar to the dual in Final Flight of the Osiris, the main difference being the eventual tone: murderously tragic instead of playful.

The revelation that the entire scene was merely an elaborate test works on two layers. Of course, the simplest level is how machine-like and cold the human rebels have become to subject their recruits to such manipulation. But more subtly, is the second layer when you notice that "Duo," her love from within the simulation, is not in the control room when she leaves the simulation. Her entire relationship and love for him was manufactured for the test. This much darker level questions whether there is even any moral difference between the humans and machines in this world. Both construct completely artificial realities wholesale, manufacturing memories for individuals. The consequence of this darker realization is that one cannot even trust one's own memories. If all senses and all memory can be fabricated, than the only thing that matters is the immediate decision, the absolute rejection of previous context since it cannot be trusted. Cogito ergo sum, indeed.

World Record

"Free."

One of the more powerful and unique pieces on The Animatrix, World Record tells a short story of a runner who for a moment transcends reality and sees the truth of the matrix, waking up briefly in the real world. It's a curious connection between the different modes of human greatness, that geniuses, whether intellectual, emotional, or physical, transcend reality itself. The leap of greatness originates in seeing beyond the veil, to a pure truth. In the world of The Matrix, that leads almost inevitably to seeing beyond the manufactured façade constructed by the machines.

Our runner shatters the world record by an unspeakable amount, the world slowing to a crawl as he plunges forward. The muscles in his legs explode from the sheer force of his speed, but in that moment he breaks through the veil by force of will, pulling himself free and running even faster despite his ruined legs. The ubiquitous agents watch in horror as the runner ascends for a moment, but fall back satisfied as the runner comes back down as the race finishes.

Its coda is especially moving, as our runner is relegated to a wheelchair in an assisted care facility, barely catatonic, listening to the prattling of his nurse. But the runner suddenly and impossibly bolts to his feet and begins to levitate before once again collapsing back to the manufactured world where his legs and mind are destroyed.

Beyond

"You're not supposed to be here."

This film is an interesting exploration of glitches in the matrix, alluded to with the explanation of déjà vu in The Matrix. Sometimes the virtual reality breaks down, rules cease to apply correctly. A teenaged girl goes looking for her cat, finds her at a haunted house discovered by a group of kids. Bottles break against the ground and then reassemble in mid-air, gravity doesn't work consistently, a feather spins continuously in midair and then erupts into a flying bird, shadows appear in the wrong places, winds tumble debris that disappears, rain pours through a hole in the ceiling when it's sunny outside. And the topper: a door that opens to nothing, through which our protagonist can hear her conversation from an hour previous.

Agents arrive quickly, escort the children out and rebuild the place into something else overnight. The glitches disappear, a little magic goes out of the world for the children. It's not a deep piece, except in the allusions it makes, the suggestions under the events. If reality itself cannot be trusted, can it also break down? Can it twist in strange and terrifying ways, not maliciously but simply inexplicably?

A Detective Story

"There's a difference, Mr. Ash, between a trap and a test."

This story gives us a glimpse of the humans used by the machines within the matrix to try to track down the rebels. Private detectives hired to hunt for the ghost-like hacker resistance. This is the brief introduction to a man searching for Trinity. We see how the humans inside see the matrix, see that there are question marks to many of them as well. Holes in logic that make them question their sanity. The machines have to use people to hunt people because they can't think in the intuitive leaps required to track down people like Trinity. She speaks to our detective hero only in Alice in Wonderland riddles and references. Ideas that the strangely literal machines can't quite process. It's an irony that the detectives sent after Trinity are the ones most likely to side with her, most likely to be able to break free of the matrix. One was killed, one went insane, one disappeared. Our detective dies (presumably, as Trinity leaves him behind, gut shot), but he wants to follow Trinity like the one that disappeared.

It has beautiful animation, all muted greens and grays like old faded newspaper photos from the turn of the century, with a touch of retro sci-fi typewriters and steam engines. It's a very brief glimpse at the matrix from a unique perspective, but one that resonates emotionally.

Matriculated

"To an artificial mind, all reality is virtual. How do they know that the real world isn't just another simulation? How do you?"

The final story is unfortunately the most disappointing, spending most of its ten minute run time buried in a surreal matrix that reminded me of the abstract and extraordinarily boring Fantasia. It has an interesting premise, taking a group of human rebels on the surface of the ruined earth who capture a single sentinel with the intent of embedding it into an artificial reality so as to teach it empathy, to sway it to see their side of the war. The machine seems to fall in love with one of the women during the few minutes it spends in LSD land and then proceeds to save her life in the real world when a squad of sentinels attacks. It proceeds to plug her and itself back into the strange matrix, where she freaks out in abject horror and then ... I don't really know, dissipates? It seems to be suggested that both she and the machine die or go comatose.

It's a curious idea, but one that largely falls flat because the environment in which the machine is supposed to learn empathy just seems like an odd acid trip, with no clear reason why it would have any effect whatsoever on the machine. Matriculated is easily the weakest film on The Animatrix, a conclusion compounded by the fact that it's the last story told, and so leaves sort of a bad taste in your mouth after the superb storytelling that preceded it.

A Bit of a Conclusion

This is a neat set of films, especially if you enjoyed The Matrix, and really gives some unique views into a creative and nuanced world. There is definitely a weak piece or two, but overall, it is a very thought-provoking collection that makes one wish that other film franchises would experiment similarly. Think of a similar project set in the world of Star Trek or The Terminator. Let loose the indie artists and filmmakers on ludicrously small budgets and see what beauty and attention they can bring to any cherished universe.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego's strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.


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