And for a time, it was good.
One of the best traits about The Matrix was that it provided only what was necessary to understand its specific narrative. Exposition was often truncated or spoken matter-of-factly without detail or explanation to move us from point A to point B without much excess. This was crucial considering the film was already over two hours and none of those minutes could be wasted. Subsequently creating a two-film continuation of Neo’s (Keanu Reeves) rise as a Christ-like figure to save humanity from the machines was always going to be a massive undertaking because of the logistical need to dig deeper. All those things talked about before (Zion, darkening the sky, manipulating the Matrix, etc.) wouldn’t work without context this time around. So why not provide it via supplemental material?
This was still early days of internet, though, so the choices were limited (Southland Tales would go the comic book prologue route a couple years later). Because Lana and Lilly Wachowski were inspired by anime in the creation of this world and were in Japan during their marketing tour, why not seek out some of their favorite artists and pitch a collaboration? Making this project it proved a rather ingenious plan because there’d be added intrigue beyond the subject matter. While The Animatrix‘s goal was to enhance the mythology, it also provided a showcase for mainstream audiences to be exposed to a foreign aesthetic and perhaps a massive catalog of films from those artists that they wouldn’t have otherwise known about. It was a marketing dream come true.
As someone who recently turned twenty and had begun delving into anime myself, the prospect was hitting multiple interests simultaneously. It’s no wonder then that I found myself loving every minute of what the Wachowskis and their collaborators brought to the table. Even so, however, my memory of the experience never matched that initial reaction. As such, it’s not surprising that I would come out of a re-watch almost twenty years later with disappointment. Not of the exercise itself, though. This is a direct-to-DVD world-building offshoot and therefore didn’t need to look as good as or possess the sort of relevance it did. Maybe only half achieved such levels of success, but those are pretty good odds regardless. On paper, this could have simply been a throwaway cash-grab.
On some level it was, but it was a cash-grab with purpose. Look no further than the first two chapters entitled “The Second Renaissance Part I & II” to see it. Written by the Wachowskis and directed by Mahiro Maeda, these two archival-driven vignettes transport us back to the machine uprising and the creation of the Matrix. They’re very heavy-handed with their homage to historical atrocities, but you can’t say they don’t make their point as a result. What’s interesting too is that those homages rightfully present the machines as the victims—forcing us to empathize with their plight and understand their reasons to want to destroy mankind. That’s an outside-the-box perspective at the very least considering Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are our heroes purely through kinship.
On the flipside is “The Final Flight of Osiris” and “Matriculated”—the weakest of the bunch. The former is a product of animation due to the computer-graphics look being so boring by comparison to the rest. Because the opening fight-scene-as-foreplay is narratively forgettable on its own, marrying it with a graphics engine that’s no better than the one used on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within two years prior does no favors. The story is critical for the plot of forthcoming movies, though, (it was written by the Wachowskis and directed by Andrew R. Jones) so it is what it is. “Matriculated” is at least pretty to look at thanks to Peter Chung. The notion of recruiting machines to the human side just isn’t all that compelling.
Shin’ichirô Watanabe‘s “A Detective Story” hits its faux hard-boiled tonal beats too bluntly to let its melancholic climax be as potent as it should. Kôji Morimoto‘s “Beyond” has a more traditional animation style, but it works well with one of the more captivating plots of the whole that asks the question, “What would a glitch in the Matrix look like and how fun could its fractured physics be for the feral children who discover it?” And the last three are the best of the bunch both visually and thematically. I don’t love the rotoscoped look of Watanabe and the Wachowskis’ “Kid’s Story”, but the animation on Takeshi Koike and Yoshiaki Kawajiri‘s “World Record” and Kawajiri’s “Program” is fantastic. Where the others reveal the project’s limitations, this trio embraces its potential.
You have a boy who somehow dies in the Matrix but survives within reality—something even Trinity can’t believe. There’s a man who pushes his body to its limits and somehow goes even further to suddenly awaken to the Matrix’s fabrication without prompting. And there’s the effective yet manipulative training techniques that gauge whether humanity can trust new recruits drawn and orchestrated with the film’s most memorably gorgeous style. Some of the line readings leave a bit to be desired, but the look and choice to introduce new facets of the universe overcome any such limitations. I only wish they went even bolder. Going the animation route should have freed the Wachowskis to go bigger and wilder. But it’s lazy to call a trendsetter safe two decades later.