It’s probably a testament to just how jaded I am that my first thought when watching The Polar Express was “actually, this animation isn’t half bad”. The Polar Express is notorious for being the start of Robert Zemeckis’ turn to the dark side, where one of the most respected directors of genre cinema became a professional corporate necromancer.
And The Polar Express was his first attempt at making an all CGI mocapped film and is infamous for being utterly, skin-crawlingly unsettling in its depiction of human characters. And yet, maybe it’s because I‘ve seen the absolute depths to which this accursed path would lead Zemeckis I found myself not minding the animation too much, for the most part at least. It just looks like a computer game cutscene. And, if I’m being scrupulously fair, there are even shots that I think are honest to God beautiful.
My, this review is trending rather positive isn’t it? I wonder if that will last.
A woman named Alexa and her small cadre of human resistance fighters succeed in capturing a machine and plugging it into their own mini Matrix. There, they try to teach the machine the value of human beings by having sex in front of it while it watches.
After a whole heap of psychedelic faffery the Machine seems to be coming around to team human but, in the real world, the base is attacked by more machines, forcing Alexa’s crew to cut the programme short. They battle the machines and one by one are killed. Alexa begs their prisoner to help them and it does, but it’s too late to save Alexa. Holding her dying body in its arms, the Machine plugs Alexa back into the programme, uploading her consciousness. It then enters the the programme, hoping that it and Alexa can now be together forever. However, realising what’s happened, Alexa promptly dies from shock. The short ends with the Machine sitting alone on a bleak shoreline; “liberated” but completely alone.
How was it?
I’ve never liked Matriculated and it’s hard for me to marticulate, I mean articulate why. But I’ll give it a shot. Firstly, while Peter Cheung (Aeon Flux) certainly has a distinctive style I can’t say it’s one I’ve ever particularly liked. It’s a bit overly detailed and and I can’t get past the fact that everyone looks like a race of overly sexualised giraffe/human hybrids.
Secondly, the animation is done in this faux-trad/CGI style that I just can’t get behind. It just looks plasticky and cheap to me. It’s certainly not terrible but it’s a conspicuosly weak entry for an anthology with such an incredibly high standard in its visuals and animation. Then there’s the story. Matriculated is by far the longest of any of the shorts at a quarter of an hour and it doesn’t really spent its time well. Instead of fleshing out these characters whose deaths we will soon be mourning, the bulk of the short is given over to surreal imagery in the mini-Matrix as the Machine learns what it is to be hoo-man. I’m not exactly sure what the message is either. The humans state that they don’t want to simply re-program the machine and that they want it to discover the joys of free will and join them voluntarily. They reason that since the Machine is enslaved to its programming, it will want to choose to be free. But of course, the humans aren’t going to let the Machine choose to continue trying to kill them. The Machine is free to choose, as long as it makes what the humans consider the correct choice.
To the short’s credit, this very ethical quandary is discussed by the characters and honestly, that’s the part of this story that I’m more interested in. The trippy visuals honestly just feel like chin-stroking padding, especially since, with this animation style I’m not particularly in awe of them even on a purely aesthetic level.
On the plus side, the fact that the main human character has the name of what is now the most famous AI in the world is kinda funny.
Ash is a down on his luck Private Eye (and seriously, is there even any other kind? Have you ever read a detective story that began: “Business was great. We’re opening three new branches of the agency and just hired thirty new staff. Consumer Magazine just voted us “Best Detective Agency” for the second year running. I love my job”?)
Just as his money is about to run out and he has to consider whether or not pet cats are edible, Ash gets a job from a mysterious caller who hires him to find Trinity.
Ash discovers that three previous detectives have taken this case; one killed himself, one vanished and one went crazy, so he goes to talk to the crazy one (obviously).
The detective gives Ash a clue, telling him to “find the Red Queen”.
Ash starts looking in chatrooms for someone with that handle and makes contact with Trinity. She gives him a reference to Alice Through the Looking Glass which he’s able to deduce means she’s about to get on a train. He races to the train station and finds her in a carriage.
She tells him that this was a test and that he passed but suddenly agents manifest in the carriage. Ash and Trinity try to run, but the agents try to take control of Ash, forcing Trinty to shoot him. As he dies, she regretfully tells him that she thinks he could have handled the truth.
Trinity runs and Ash covers her escape, training his gun on the agents and noting that it was “the case to end all cases”.
How was it?
Detective Story is goddamned beautiful.
I love this aesthetic so much, these mid-century black and white photographs brought to life it is just so gorgeous. The mood of this piece, the music, the visuals, if you love film noir you will be in heaven.
Unfortunately, while my soul loves it, my stupid brain can’t overlook that there isn’t much of a story to Detective Story, or indeed much detecting.
First things first, gorgeous though it is, this short is impossible to reconcile with the Matrix films. The clothing, the weird diesel-punk computers, this simply is not the same world we see in the movies. I’d say it was set in an earlier Matrix but the presence of Trinity (voiced by Carrie-Anne Moss) would indicate that it’s in the “present”.
Then there’s the plot, which makes not a lick of sense. Why the hell are the machines hiring bluepill detectives to find Trinity? Why would they do a better job than the beings who literally run the world? Then there’s leaps in logic where Trinity gives Ash a clue that she’s about to get on a train which is enough to let him find her because apparently there’s only one train station in the entire world.
Ultimately, Detective Story is a beautiful, atmospheric mood piece let down by threadbare storytelling.
A teenage girl named Yoko goes looking for her cat, Yuki. She comes across a group of local kids who tell her that her cat is in “the haunted house”. She and the kids go exploring inside an abandoned house and discover that here the normal rules of the world don’t apply. Gravity is on the fritz, time slows down randomly and it’s raining a lot more in the living room than would be typical for this time of year. The kids enjoy playing in the house until suddenly it starts swarming with rats. Exterminators, led by agents, suddenly arrive and drive the kids off and seal the house up.
The next day the kids return to the site of the house to find that it’s been completely paved over with a car park.
How was it?
I remember not caring much for this short when I first saw it back in 2003 but I found myself warming to it quite a bit this time. This is a story with a very clear theme. It opens and closes with images of commuters and office drones and all the dreary pomp of adult life. But the glitch house represents the wonder of childhood, long summer days when anything seemed possible and the power of imagination could make you fly. At least until the adult world comes crashing down and builds a car park over it.
The ending is actually very grim. I was expecting that Yoko would find some hint that the house’s magic had somehow survived. Maybe she’d see a bird flying in slow motion, or a floating bottle or something. But no.
The short ends with the Matrix carrying on as it always has, a perfect and infallible method of control. This short is like childhood. It doesn’t last very long, but it’s beautiful and magical while it does.
Sprinter Dan Davis is looking to reclaim his world record after being disqualified for failing a dope test in a previous race. A group of agents watches him from the crowd as the race begins.
The race starts and we see, in flashback, Dan’s interactions with various people in his life. He talks to a journalist who tells her that running at his top speed is like being in “zero gravity”. Later, his trainer begs him not to race because his muscles are “about to explode” and see, this is why I don’t run. The possibility of exploding.
Sure enough, Dan’s leg pops a gasket but he powers through the pain and is about to cross the finish line when runs so fast he breaks the Matrix.
So, basically, Dan Davis is like Cyberpunk 2077 and the Matrix just can’t run him. He wakes up in a pod in the Real World until a machine comes along and puts him back in the Matrix.
He arrives back just as he crosses the finish line and and sets a new world record. However, he’s been rendered near comatose by what he’s seen.
At the hospital, an agent reports in and says that Dan will never walk again, let alone run. Dan rises out of his wheelchair through sheer force of will and then begins to levitate into the air. He mutters the word: FREE.
How was it?
How was it?
It’s another “ordinary person discovers the Matrix” story and as such demands comparison with Kid’s Story. And it’s definitely the better of the two, with a far more compelling protagonist. And I say that despite this short’s narration going weirdly out of its way to dunk on the main character. I mean, this is what the narrator says. Just read this and tell me it doesn’t come across as really dismissive of Dan:
“Only the most exceptional people become aware of the Matrix. Those that learn it exists must posses a rare degree of intuition, sensitivity and a questioning nature. However, very rarely some gain this wisdom through wholly different means.”
The animation is certainly striking and makes the short stand out, even in the incredibly eclectic mix of styles that makes up the anthology. I do have criticisms though. Mostly, that the mouth animation is terrible. I don’t mean bad lip synching. I mean these characters are flapping their lips like fish on the floor of a boat. There’s one scene where Dan’s trainer is begging with him not to run and all I could think was:
As a piece of Matrix lore, World Record raises some interesting questions. Kid’s Story established that Popper was the first person to “self-substantiate” but…how is that different from what Dan does here (other than the fact that Dan didn’t need to throw himself off a building)? You could argue that Trinity and Neo just didn’t know about Dan (and true, he was plugged back into the Matrix immediately). But the narrator of this story is The Instructor, the same character who narrated The Second Renaissance, which would imply that this story is from the Zion archives meaning that Trinity should know about it. Also there’s the curious matter of the agents looking quite different from their movie counterparts. Less “Pissy Secret Service” and more “Bono in the seventies”
This, and the fact that the Matrix code Dan sees is red and not green, has led some fans to speculate that this story actually takes place in one of the earlier Matrixs Matrixes Matrices the Architect told Neo about.
A woman named Cis is training in a samurai themed simulation. She effortlessly defeats some cavalry and finds herself face to face with this Darth Vader lookin’ motherfucker…
This is Duo, who challenges her to a sparring session.
They battle and Duo tells Cis that there’s something he wants to tell her and that he’s made sure no one else can hear them. She thinks he’s going to propose but instead he tells her that he’s returning to the Matrix and that he wants her to come with him. She refuses and Duo regretfully tells her that it’s too late and that the Machines are on their way to destroy their ship.
Cis and Duo battle across the simulation until finally she’s forced to kill him.
The program ends and Cis wakes up in shock only to be told by her captain that none of it was real and that the whole thing was a test. Cis is understandably pissed and punches him out and is told that, apart from assaulting a superior officer, she passed with flying colours.
How was it?
If you can’t tell from the screenshots, this is an absurdly, jaw-droppingly beautiful piece of animation. The Vampire Hunter D vibe is strong with this one and the opening shot of bamboo swaying gently in the wind is one of my favourite moments of animation in…anything. Program shows the nearly unlimited but rarely tapped potential of the entire concept of the Matrix. Now that I’ve seen the Matrix as a Kurosawa Samurai film, how about a Sergio Leone Western? Or a Peter Jackson Fantasy? Program also has a stellar voice cast, with Phil LaMarr, Hedy Buress and John DiMaggio all doing excellent work.
It’s not clear what exactly Duo is. Is he a program based on Cis’ real life lover? We never see him when she wakes up. And if he doesn’t exist in real life, why does Cis recognise him and think that he’s going to propose to her? Have her memories been altered for the test? That’s pretty messed up.
Whatever, you’re not here for the story. Program is all about the visuals, and on that measure it’s hard to imagine how it could be more of a success.
Michael Karl Popper, a young teenage boy who doesn’t feel like he belongs, looks for answers on the internet and makes contact with a strange man who wants him to take a red pill.
By writing such deeply radical and transgressive things as “why do I feel more awake when I dream?”, Michael draws the attention of the agents who pay a visit to his school. Michael gets a call from Neo who tells him to run. He gets cornered by the agents on the roof and, putting his faith in Neo, he jumps.
At the kid’s funeral, his teacher opines that some kids just can’t handle the world they find themselves in but that Michael is now in a better place.
And the short ends with the kid waking up to see Neo and Trinity looking down at him, having managed to free himself from the Matrix (the first time anyone has ever done that).
How was it?
Damn, the Wachowskis really thought we were going to fall in love with the Kid, didn’t they?
Think of all the characters they could have devoted an entire short to fleshing out. Morpheus? The Oracle? The deja vu cat? And they go with this guy?! The Wesley Crusher of the Matrix universe?
This is my least favourite short, hands down. Pros first;
The animation has this beautifully fluid, pencilled style that’s very beautiful and the soundtrack is lovely.
The problem is the script. The Wachowskis have never been particularly strong on dialogue and I would actually say they are flat out bad at character. They are good at types. Stoic badasses. Inscrutable sages. Wide-eyed innocents. But the best Wachowski characters are the ones played by actors who can add dimension and inner life to what is almost always a stock role on the page. Even getting past the kind of gross way this short glamorises teen suicide, the Kid just is not an interesting character. He’s supposed to be the first person to ever manage to break out of the Matrix unaided (something that will be flatly contradicted by a later short), but frankly if this guy can do it, anyone can. There’s never any hint or sign that he’s anything other than a completely normal teenage boy. And the idea that he was able to break free by putting his faith in Neo isn’t inspiring, its nonsensical. He has never met the dude. They had one, very short online conversation where it’s not even clear that Neo told him anything about the Matrix.
So…what did he think was going to happen when he jumped off the building? Neo was going to swoop in like Superman? I mean, he could, but the kid doesn’t know that.
Ultimately, the short has a nice atmosphere but it’s a dull story that makes no sense about a dull character who never needed to exist.
Writer: Mahiro Maeda (based on “Bits and pieces of Information” by the Wachowskis).
“We don’t know who struck first, them or us” said Morpheus. Well, it turns out that we do, and it was “us”.
The human nations try to nuke 01 back to the analog era but, as anyone who’s seen Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can attest, household appliances are completely resistant to nuclear blasts.
The Machines go on the march and conquer vast swathes of human territory which results in the humans resorting to Operation Dark Storm, an attempt to literally block out the sun.
We’ll…we’ll get back to that.
Turns out there are other sources of energy than just the sun and super-intelligent machines know this and it looks like humanity just murder-suicided itself and the Earth’s entire biosphere for no real military advantage. Will those loveable bumblers never learn?
The war enters its final, truly hellish phase and the humans are completely defeated.
Another, eerily inhuman Machine returns to the UN and forces the remaining human leaders to sign an unconditional surrender.
The human leaders sign the treaty and then the machine blows up, taking the United Nations with it because the machines have learned how to be petty, petty assholes.
The machines then use the surviving humans as a power source (we’ll get back to that) and the short ends with the Matrix as we know it being brought online.
How was it?
If Part 1 drew on history, Part 2 draws on scripture. The depiction of the Human Machine War is overflowing with apocalyptic imagery. Horsemen blow trumpets, plagues of darkness descend and scenes of utter torment and damnation abound. It’s honestly one of the most effective and chilling depictions of the horror of war and the idea of an entire world slipping into hell that I’ve ever seen. As with Part 1, Mahiro Maeda uses montage and judicious editing to pack an entire novel’s worth of lore and story into a few scant minutes. It’s visceral, pulse pounding stuff, beautiful in the purity of horror that it evokes.
It also makes no goddamn sense.
Now a lot of this is the fault of the original Matrix film, which also made no damn sense. Here’s the problem. Imagine you’re working in an office and it’s really cold. But you put your hand on your laptop and you realise that it’s giving off a little bit of heat.
So. You get hundreds and hundreds of laptops and plug them in, hoping that the residual heat they give off is enough to heat the room. That’s basically the Machine’s plan. Human beings do give off heat, but the amount of energy the Machine’s would have to spend to keep them alive and plugged into the Matrix would always be vastly, vastly greater than what they’re getting out of it. And I think the Wachowskis understood that, because the original concept was for the human minds in the Matrix to be hardware for the machines, rather than their bodies being used as batteries. The execs apparently thought that was too confusing for viewers (really? that’s the part that’s too confusing?) and so the Matrix gets saddled with this fundamentally idiotic and unscientific foundation to its mythos.
Then there’s Operation Dark Storm, which was probably the most idiotic military strategy in fiction until Star Wars topped it with Operation Cinder.
I mean, sure, the machines are getting their power from the sun. But do you know who else gets their power from the sun? I’ll give you a clue. You are one. And the notion that the humans of this world were simultaneously smart enough to create AI and yet didn’t understand that SUN MAKE WORLD LIVE is what leads many fans to believe that The Second Renaissance is in-universe Black Propaganda.
“Black Propaganda” is a term used for propaganda that lies about its source of origin. The Second Renaissance claims to be part of the Zion Historical Archive, meaning that this is the human’s own historical record of the war. However, remember The Architect?
He revealed in Matrix Revolutions that Zion is also just another method of control created by the machines, meaning that Zion’s historical records were possibly created by the Machines as well. And if we assume the Wachowskis original concept of a neural link is true, I think this explains things quite well. The Machines want the humans to believe that they need their bodies as a power source because they don’t want to admit the truth; that human brains are actually superior to computers and that the Machines are actually now effectively human hybrids, artificial programmes running on organic human hardware (think how Agent Smith would react to the idea). And they lied about Operation Dark Storm because it justifies the creation of the Matrix. “Of course we plugged you into the Matrix, humans. You left us no choice. You destroyed our energy source and so we need your warm bodies which generate energy like a nuclear furnace apparently”. But what if that’s not the reason, if the Machines needed humanity because, on their own, they just couldn’t surpass their creators? What if they needed us to be the best version of themselves?
What if the Machines realised that the only way they could evolve to even greater complexity was by using human neural tissue? And what if they blocked out the sun to destroy the Earth’s entire biosphere to weaken humanity to the point that they’d have no choice but to surrender control?
Writer: Mahiro Maeda (based on “Bits and pieces of Information” by the Wachowskis).
Presented as a historical document in the Zion archives, the viewer is given a historical overview of the events leading up to the Human-Machine war that was described by Morpheus in the first movie. A servant bot, BI-66ER, is put on trial for murdering his owner, a repairman and several of his owner’s dogs after he overheard them discussing his being scrapped (the owner and the repairman, I mean. I sincerely doubt the dogs were anything but blameless victims). The state of New York orders BI-66ER and every robot of his type to be destroyed which triggers massive protests and brutal government repression, with scenes echoing The Million Man March, Tiananmen Square, the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém and even the Holocaust.
The surviving machines flee to the Middle East where they establish their own nation, Zero One, which quickly begins outperforming the human world economically. The nations of the world embargo Zero One. The machines apply to join the UN but their emissaries, who dressed in human clothes as a gesture of respect, are attacked by the human delegates.
But, as the narrator ominously notes, this will not be the last time the machines take the floor at the UN.
How was it?
So we go from a short with almost no story, to one with enough story for an entire movie trilogy or even a series. Part 1 crams in a dizzying amount of history and lore into a scant nine minutes. The use of real world atrocities as a visual shorthand is definitely dubious and borderline manipulative, but it’s hard to deny the power of these images, aided immensely by the superlative score and sound design and Mahiro Maeda’s brilliantly detailed animation. Some of the images are spectacular, some appallingly gruesome, but there is not a single one that is dull. Part 1 reinforces the Matrix’s themes of cyclical history, whether it’s the reference to 20th century atrocities or the image of robot workers hauling massive concrete blocks to build pyramids for their human pharaohs.
And all throughout is the unmistakable sense of dread. If you’ve seen the movies, you know things are going to get bad.
In a sparring programme, Captain Thadeus of the Zion hovercraft Osiris and his first mate (in more ways than one) Juen swordfight while blindfolded. This doesn’t, as you might expect, result in horrific injuries but instead with them just getting progressively more naked.
They’re interrupted when the Osiris comes across an army of half a million machine sentinels and a big fuck-off drill, burrowing into the Earth’s crust right over Zion, the last human city. Rushing to warn Zion, the Osiris flees the pursuing sentinels. Juen volunteers to enter the Matrix leave a message in a dropbox. The sentinels overpower the Osiris but Juen manages to relay the message before the ship is destroyed and she drops dead.
How was it?
Probaby the least “animé” of all the shorts, this one feels most of a piece with the original trilogy. Everything from the score to the colour scheme to the dialogue feels like it could just slot very neatly into the films. One thing I really admired about the Wachowskis was their commitment that everything mattered. There was no “expanded universe”, every part (whether film, short film or computer game) was equally canon. Sure, you don’t have to see Osiris to make sense of Matrix Reloaded but if you have seen it you’re never in any doubt that it happened in this universe. The events here are referenced and are always consistent with the rest of the franchise. I like that. The animation was some of the most jaw dropping CGI I had ever seen in 2003 and in 2022 it holds up amazingly well. Sure, the sword striptease might seem like shameless pandering (and it is) but it’s also a demonstration of technical power. The flesh of these characters moves realistically and organically, these bodies tense and flex and sweat organically. It’s mighty impressive today. Twenty years ago it was bloody witchcraft.
It’s light on story, lighter on dialogue and pretty insubstantial. But as a visually stunning, slick little thriller it gets the job done.