The Matrix: The Animatrix (2003)
The massive and unexpected success of The Matrix in 1999 heralded its status as a new pop culture phenomenon. Comparisons to Star Wars were entirely appropriate, given the mythic aspirations and technological innovations dominated the public reception of the film in the early 2000s. Thus, in the Star Wars vein, the Wachowskis began to expand and delve deeper into the complex mythology of the world of The Matrix that undergirded their first film. This would result in a multi-pronged, multimedia project including sequel films, a video game (Enter the Matrix), and a series of animated shorts. Each of these in different ways would expand and alter the very idea of The Matrix, attempting to systematically create an immersive and commercial engagement with the mythology for the fans of the original film.
The way that these various media would interact with each other would be more complex than what most franchises would attempt. The sequels attempted to deepen and transform viewers’ understanding of what the Matrix was, but the accompanying video game would be more than a mere adaptation. Released a week after the first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, debuted in theatres in May of 2003, Enter the Matrix played an integral accompanying role to the film, with live-action filmed sequences and new characters who would appear in both the films and the video game. The Animatrix, a series of nine animated shorts released variously online on the official website, in theatres, and then on DVD in June of 2003, would have multiple purposes and functions. Ostensibly an homage to the anime, that inspired the Wachowskis in their creation of the original film, such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira, the series also allowed them to expand plot threads, provide backstory, and simply explore the possibilities of the world of The Matrix. Recruiting various animation artists and employing different modes of animation, from CGI to traditional hand-drawn forms, The Animatrix is an uneven contribution to The Matrix series, but fascinating for all the ways it expands the possibilities of the world the Wachowskis created.
The first of the Animatrix films, and the only one that has immediate bearing on the events of the sequel films, is “The Final Flight of the Osiris.” Directed by Andrew R. Jones, an animation director on the 2001 film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it is a fully-CGI animated film, replicating the unique aesthetic of the Final Fantasy film. Written by the Wachowskis themselves, the film opens inside the training program aboard the hovercraft, Osiris, returning the viewer to a setting of martial arts sparring, recalling the match between Neo and Morpheus in the first Matrix film, but adding a playful blindfolded striptease element, as the two characters use swords to cut away layers of clothing. The two characters are then pulled out of their seductive swordplay back to the ship as their crew discovers that the machines are assembling a massive drill over the site of the human city, Zion, in preparation for an assault. The crew is eventually overcome by the machines, but not before they succeed in escaping long enough for the one character, Jue, to enter the Matrix and drop the information to Zion, warning of the impending attack.
Debuting in theatres before the forgettable Warner Brothers film Dreamcatcher earlier in spring 2003, the short explains how Neo and Trinity receive the information about the machine invasion of Zion at the start of The Matrix Reloaded, and sets up the stakes for the subsequent films. I recall the CG imagery was impressive in the PS2-era of video games, but while it is no longer impressive, it hasn’t aged as badly as some other CG films from that era (such as The Polar Express), though there is still a slight woodenness to characters’ facial features. Still, the sword fight is genuinely playful, rather than creepy as I had feared it would come across, and the short film further establishes the multi-racial makeup of the cast of characters that would become a pronounced feature in the sequels (though, I noted that the main character, Jue, though East Asian in appearance, is voiced by comedian and voice-actor, Pamela Adlon, who is not East Asian). “Final Flight” is simple, though effective, but never really pushes beyond the function of extra feature shorts that have become somewhat popular in the current pop culture media environment, in promotion of, say, superhero films.
“The Second Renaissance, Part I” and “Part II” goes further in directly linking The Matrix to the history of Japanese anime and science fiction. The shorts are directed by Mahiro Maeda, a Japanese animator who had worked on early Miyazaki films, including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, as well as the TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The visual style is perhaps the most in line with popular notions of what Japanese animation looks like, and its large-scale storytelling and scenes of violence work well in this mode, with robot versus human battles featuring armored super soldiers and tanks.
“Second Renaissance” essentially acts as the expanded backstory to The Matrix, explaining how the original machine “uprising” occurred and narrating the subsequent war between the humans and machines that leads to the creation of the Matrix. A seemingly straightforward backstory in some ways, the story is narrated by the Zion Archive, a computer narrator and historian represented as a kind of Hindu goddess figure. “Second Renaissance” begins to complicate the narrative in some important ways, particularly in the way that its narration and use of loaded imagery, reminiscent of the Holocaust, Tiananmen Square, nuclear war, and sexual violence perpetrated on machines, forces the viewer to reconsider the “blame” for the world of The Matrix. Upon watching it, it’s hard to fault the machines for seeing humans as a threat to their very existence. The film even explicitly shows what Morpheus tells Neo in the first film, that “it was us that scorched the sky,” in one of the most horrifying moments of the short film.
Furthermore, the film primes the viewer to begin questioning the narrative, something that would be expanded upon in The Matrix Reloaded. While the Zion Archive is ostensibly something that humans in Zion would consult for historical knowledge, it is itself a machine and very sympathetic to the machine’s narrative. The short also shows how almost everything the human resistance uses, from its hovercrafts to its armor, was created by the machines. How do we square this knowledge with the very notion of resistance? “Second Renaissance” lacks individual characters for us to get to know, but in its big questions and deepening of the mythology of The Matrix it is among my very favourite of these short films.
Each of the remaining short films tells stories set in the world of The Matrix, some inside the Matrix itself, some outside in Zion. The best of them elaborate on the possibilities of what the Matrix might mean for those trapped inside its simulation. Others suggest side-avenues, or failed attempts to try to grapple with what resistance to the machines might mean or what it might look like to live amongst the machines in peace. A couple of them even feature Neo and Trinity, with Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss providing the voices and giving them a sense of continuity with the feature films that is rare in such spin-off media.
“Kid’s Story” is about a young man, not unlike Neo in the first film, who is plagued by the sense that his world is not right, and seeks answers online. Eventually, he rejects his world and escapes without the help of Morpheus or his group, something Neo and Trinity refer to as an attempt to “self-substantiate.” This results in the kid’s apparent death within the Matrix, but the ending shows that he has survived his attempt to break free and lives in Zion (he becomes a supporting character in live-action films, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions).
With its sketch-like and distorted animation-style and storyline involving teenage rebellion, “Kid’s Story” is one of the most explicitly Gnostic stories told in The Matrix series. It’s story, if taken literally, is fairly disturbing in terms of suggesting the possibility of self-harm as a kind of freedom. But it shows the intense mental anguish that a sense that the world is not right can have on someone’s subjectivity (in attempting to escape from his school, the young man leaves through a women’s restroom, perhaps another subtle foreshadow of how The Matrix functions as an urtext for transgender issues). It’s a good short, but thematically heavy and lacks the play that many of the other shorts do. It connects to the later films, but its function is to thematically flesh things out rather than contribute to the plot.
Not everyone who becomes attuned to the strangeness of life in the Matrix escapes, however. One of the most intriguing ideas in the series is that the simulated nature of reality might manifest itself in strange expressions. A “glitch in the Matrix” might cause deja vu, as in the first film, or it might manifest supernatural-seeming phenomena. Perhaps my very favourite of all these shorts is “Beyond,” directed by Kōji Morimoto, who was one of the chief animators on the classic anime Akira, in which a group of young people in Tokyo discover a “haunted house” which is revealed to be a “glitch” in the Matrix. Within this zone, recalling the “Zone” from Tarkovsky’s Stalker perhaps, the kids are able to break the laws of physics, float in the air, etc. In the end, the machines discover this and wipe it off the map and reprogram it, but the playful sequences of exploring this “zone” and how the kids experiment and try new things is delightful.
Likewise, in “World Record” a runner who pushes himself to the edge becomes aware of the distorted nature of reality and is able to view the Matrix surrounding him. Not quite as lovely and playful, it likewise adds to the idea that The Matrix might explain unusual elements in our own world, as well as the pain of losing these elements. As Aren noted in his review of the first film, one of the things that makes The Matrix mythology so powerful is the way it brings the story into the viewers’ own world, and these shorts posit supernatural or extraordinary happenings as confirmations of the unreal nature of our world.
“Program” and “A Detective Story,” are perhaps my least favourite of the shorts, but each narrates aspects of the fight to free people from the Matrix and the challenges faced by those both still trapped inside and those fighting to free people. “Program” expands on Cypher’s rationale for betrayal from the first film, that fighting the machines is useless and that it might be better to “embrace illusion” and be re-inserted back into the Matrix. It challenges the idea that one might be “more at peace” in the virtual world, as two characters spar in a training program modelled after feudal Japan, complete with samurai costume and forests. It also shows the lengths that the resistance groups will go to to combat the kind of psychological pressures that broke Cypher and nearly threatened Neo and Trinity in the first film.
“A Detective Story” focuses on the film noir elements in The Matrix, with a private detective attempting to track down Trinity within the Matrix in a world that is much more retro, with rotary phones and black and white imagery. Directed by Cowboy Bebop creator, Shin’ichirô Watanabe (who also directed “Kid’s Story”), it repeats and expands on the allusions to Alice in Wonderland in the first film, with the “Red Queen” and “through the looking glass” helping the main character, Ash, in his communications with Trinity. It’s a fine little story, but inessential. The noir trappings are not as successfully merged with the cyberpunk aesthetic as they are in something like Blade Runner.
Last, is the ambitious and complex “Matriculated,” directed by Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung. It concerns a human resistance group who create a separate “matrix” and attempt to lure a machine into it, in order to try to teach the machine human values such as empathy, with the end game of gaining a machine that will help humanity in its struggle against machine control. However, success of their gambit shows some unintended consequences after they are attacked by a group of hostile machines. “Matriculated” is willing to challenge some of the assumptions about how the world of The Matrix works and what a victory might look like, but it also delves into existential horror at times, and for that reason I especially like it. Much of The Matrix deals with not only the duality between freedom and bondage, but knowledge and ignorance. “Matriculated,” the term literally having to do with graduating from a course of education, explores some of the consequences of “education” and knowledge for both machine and human.
On the whole, The Animatrix is not essential, but for anyone who has enjoyed The Matrix or its sequels it serves as a solid expansion of the world and exploration of its premise in ways that might not be feasible in more big budgeted media, like feature films or video games. For this reason, its biggest strength is the willingness to ask more thematic questions or explore the philosophical implications of The Matrix. Often, animation allows filmmakers and storytellers to do more than what would be possible in live-action filmmaking. So, it’s a testament to the strength of The Matrix live-action films that they are are able to live up to the visuals shown here. There’s nothing here that made me think, “They could never do that in the film.” All that’s necessary is the desire and the material means to do so. The promise of animation in short format is to free up the creators from having to create something with mass appeal and generate big profits. It’s an example of more dedicated and niche marketing of fan culture. The Animatrix is good, but it’s not to all tastes. But it’s worth checking out to see some of the possibilities of what the world of The Matrix can offer.
7 out of 10
The Animatrix (2003, USA/Japan)
Directed by Kōji Morimoto, Shin’ichirô Watanabe, Mahiro Maeda, Peter Chung, Andy Jones, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takeshi Koike; written by Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Kōji Morimoto, Shin’ichirô Watanabe, Mahiro Maeda, Peter Chung, Yoshiaki Kawajiri; featuring the voices of Hedy Burress, James Arnold Taylor, Clayton Watson, Julia Fletcher, Kevin Michael Richardson, Pamela Adlon, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss.