1. Déjà Vu
Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” While extreme, it conveys an essential creative truth: all artists are influenced in some fashion by other works of art. The artistry resides in whether the source material is simply repackaged and regurgitated, or instead used as a starting point for something new and different. In the cases of both the “Matrix” and SW series, the myriad of influences for each project were used as ingredients to create an entirely original dish. In Star Wars, Lucas took his love of film serials, aerial dogfights, Kurosawa, fairy tales, westerns and his abnormal obsession with dwarves and attached it to a Campbellian understructure to create a new fable-a modern myth. Fast forward 20 years into a much more jaded and techno-savvy world post “Star Wars.” The Wachowskis, as members of the SW generation, have a range of influences more focused on areas of genre fare and an attention to quality that typifies a unique type of filmgoer (the kind that could read Sci-FI Universe, Cinefantastique, Film Threat AND Vanity Fair & Newsweek– a small, but very dedicated group of the entertainment audience that expects high-quality media across the board and who will champion a project they like to the end). The Matrix contains obvious references to “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” cyberpunk, kung fu & John Woo movies, Phillip K. Dick, Star Trek’s Borg, “Akira” & other Japanese anime, Alice in Wonderland, a mixture of various philosophies, ideologies & prophecies and attached it to a Campbellian understructure to create a 21st century fable-a digital myth for the new millennium. The beauty of each film series is that, while the references are both noticeable and subtle, they are more often than not window dressing for the story-an enhancement to the meal, not the meal itself. By comparison, the two latest “Star Wars” films have worn their influences on their sleeves and are often quite derivative (the “Ben-Hur” chariot/pod race, the 40s noir detective/informant scene, the cross-pollination of Harryhausen-esque action & Gladiator and ironically, the Matrix-like fighting skills of Yoda).
2. We Are The Cure
In the realm of film production, both films share an unlikely spiritual godfather: “Citizen Kane.” With “Kane,” Orson Welles pushed the technology of the time to its limits and managed to include almost every cinematic trick and technique in one film (his innovative use of the optical printer in particular paved the way so that Lucas and John Dykstra could utilize it for SW). The production of the “Star Wars” trilogy optimized (and in many cases created) the technology of modern moviemaking. It’s blend of editing, music and sound effects is the template that is still used by most action and fantasy films today. Its visual effects were so revolutionary that virtually every space battle since has been compared to them. The same can be said of The Matrix, whose “bullet-time” effects have been ripped off so shamelessly that they’ve become a cliché and have forced the Wachowskis to up the ante in the sequels (for Reloaded, the FX crews led by John Gaeta have created high-resolution digital cinematography and performances, blurring the lines between when an effect begins and ends). In fact, the bullet-time FX and frame-rate changes were so show stopping and unique that they took attention away from the fact that the film utilizes several traditional effects techniques as well (with a digital twist). “Kane”, the “Star Wars” trilogy and the “Matrix” films are perfect distillations of filmmaking technology and represent the state of the art for their respective time periods.
This is really the only area where the new “Star Wars” films are excelling, with their digital environments/characters and Clones’ use of video instead of film. But because the new films’ effects and environments seem to be a means to an end unto themselves instead of supporting the narrative, they often feel hollow and less impressive despite their technical brilliance.
3. From a Certain Point of View
Fancy visuals and special FX can make a blockbuster despite a lack of story (“Jurassic Park,” “ID4” and Titanic come to mind), but to become a cultural event a film has to give the audience something more than eye candy to chew on. The “Star Wars” and “Matrix” films both exist in fully fleshed out universes that withstand intense examination and contain breadths of scope that are open to many interpretations. So many interoperations that both series have projects that exist beyond the films in what’s known as an “extended universe” beyond. Lucas pioneered this concept while teasing audiences for almost two decades without new “Star Wars” films by licensing novels, video games, cartoons, comics and merchandise that (in theory, at least) “expanded” upon the worlds and stories of the films. The results were a mixed bag that ultimately have little to do with the core cannon of the films (a similar problem the “Star Trek” universe suffers from-if it doesn’t happen in live-action, it really doesn’t count). It’s a sad situation since the “Star Wars” universe is so vast and ripe for supplemental interpretation, but with the exception of toys, collectibles and videogames, the “Star Wars” expanded universe feels like nothing more than continual marketing to keep the SW legacy alive. As if learning from Lucas’ missteps, the Wachowskis have been extremely hands-on with the handling of the “Matrix” projects beyond the films. For The Animatrix, their collection of nine animated tales from within the “Matrix” universe, they penned four of the stories themselves then sought out talent to create the rest from the animators’ perspectives. It acts as both an enhancement to the films (and in certain cases, directly connected to) as well as a tribute and acknowledgement to the anime that was part of the inspiration for the “Matrix” films themselves. “Enter The Matrix” (the first of two planned “Matrix” video games) was also written by the Wachowskis and contains over an hour of additional film footage that supplements the story of Reloaded and features the films’ actors. Where “Star Wars” is primarily plot and character driven, the “Matrix” universe is also a concept unto itself, which is so limitless by design that it’s open to an infinite number of interpretations. On The Matrix official website, online graphic stories written and drawn by some of the best talent in comics today are available for free reading and several books and essays on the philosophical aspects of the Matrix have been published as well. Most importantly, the Wachowskis have stated that ALL the peripheral incarnations are considered canon. Perhaps because The Matrix was designed as a film for adults, whereas the “Star Wars” films are for a general audience, explains the depth of storytelling in the “Matrix” expanded universe as opposed to SW.
The new “Star Wars” films (possibly due to their prequel nature) have less narrative depth to tread and since they’re not as deeply engrossing as their predecessors, any extended universe material seems superfluous and designed strictly for the hardcore fan (the people who kept Lucas Licensing in business during the 90s).
Coda: Balance to the Force
Ultimately, there is no changing of the guard taking place in the world of cinema-there’s room on the mantle for the “Matrix” and “Star Wars” to peacefully coexist and all the enhanced FX, dance numbers, whiny Jedi children and farting creatures Lucas insists on subjecting us to can’t undo the goodwill and wonder of the original trilogy (ROTJ almost manages that quite well by itself). Unfortunately for the new films, unless Lucas pulls off a miracle with the final episode, the prequel series will be known more for its technological advancements than for its dramatic qualities. As for the Wachowskis, unless they fill “Revolutions” with digital Ewoks and kill Agent Smith unceremoniously in the belly of a Sarlacc, they seem pretty assured of delivering a fitting conclusion to a rare film experience that (like “Star Wars” before it) reminds us how truly magical going to the movies can be.
And that it can happen more than once in a lifetime.