When a successful film decides to expand its universe into other media, the results are more often than not a crapshoot. For every “Blade Runner” videogame or Aliens vs. Predator graphic novel, there’s the potential for “Shadows of the Empire.” But when the film is The Matrix and the creators are directly involved, the odds get much better. With “The Animatrix,” the Wachowski Brothers (working with seven top-shelf anime directors) have cooked up a more-than-worthy addition to The Matrix mythos that not only directly connects to the films but also takes us further into the cyberworld that the films have only hinted at. And when you consider that the directors allowed four of the nine shorts to be available for free download (in high-quality versions no less), you have to figure the boys know they have a winner on their hands.
FINAL FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS ^ Written by the Wachowski Brothers/Directed by Andy Jones ^ The most well known short (due to its theatrical release) is referred to by Joel Silver as “Matrix 1.5”, a direct link between the original film and Reloaded. In truth, it’s more like “Matrix 1.05”; while it does convey information related to the plot of Reloaded, “Osiris” is really just a tour de force action piece showcasing the improvements Square USA have made to their production process since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (which are visually amazing).
THE SECOND RENAISSANCE ^ Written by the Wachowski Brothers/Directed by Mahiro Maeda ^ Matrix 101-a history lesson from the Zion archives, this short covers the rise of the machines from the very near future to the birth of the Matrix itself. This is the most plot intensive film of the series and presents an interesting wrinkle the Wachowskis have added to their mythos: the initial revolt of the machines is rather justified but their later actions make them as culpable as humanity for the ravaged state of Earth in the Matrix timeline. Visually, this film carries echoes of the anime classic Akira as well as a tip of the hat to the dense design style of Hard Boiled (the classic graphic novel that was obviously one the inspirations for the Matrix and drawn by the film’s conceptual designer Geoff Darrow). The score for this piece is also equally effective (by Don Davis, composer of the trilogy’s soundtrack).
KID’S STORY ^ Written by the Wachowski Brothers/Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe ^ The last of the Wachowski-written shorts is another direct tie-in to Reloaded, providing a bit of back-story to an easily identified character from the film. Watanabe, director of the amazing “Cowboy Bebop” series (and film) loosens up his animation technique to create a style similar to Ralph Bashki’s rotoscope work in “American Pop” and creates a lively visual world for this additional piece of the Matrix puzzle. As is typical with Watanabe’s work, music plays an important part in this piece and the first minute will no doubt resonate with alienated teenagers worldwide.
PROGRAM ^ Written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri ^ This short has it’s cake and eats it too: during a samurai training battle within the Matrix, a captain who plans to abandon the real world tries to coerce one of his crewmates to come with him or die. Filled with traditional anime action while touching upon the themes Cypher conveyed in the first Matrix film (that life in the Matrix is better than in the real world), this short provides excellent fight sequences while also providing some interesting intellectual dilemmas as well (just like the films).
WORLD RECORD ^ Written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri and directed by Takeshi Koike ^ An interesting concept that perhaps goes on for a little too long, this short covers how extraordinary humans (such as athletes) can penetrate the facade of the Matrix by pure will and ability. It’s worth it for the ending, which is both in a way awe-inspiring and unbelievably tragic at the same time.
BEYOND ^ Written and directed by Koji Morimoto ^ My personal favorite of the collection, this short aptly proves why the Wachowskis wanted to see other creative viewpoints of their creation. The plot is deceptively simple: some kids and a young woman stumble across a glitch in the Matrix, but this piece is so lyrical and plays so strongly to anime’s strengths that literally words can’t do it justice. A small intimate story that couldn’t possibly fit structurally in the films yet is such a magical glimpse into what lurks deeper within the Matrix itself, this short is a good example of the possibly infinite Matrix stories that could be told.
DETECTIVE STORY ^ Written and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe ^ Watanabe returns for his second short and to material right up his alley. “Detective Story” could with very minor changes easily fit into the “Cowboy Bebop” mythos and the director plays to his strengths: some truly amazing screen compositions, great music (which I swear is by Yoko Konno from Bebop, not Don Davis) and that air of quiet impending doom that suffuses his work. Trinity makes an appearance in this one and we learn that she was obviously considered quite a threat by the agents for a while before the first film.
MATRICULATED ^ Written and directed by Peter Chung ^ Unfortunately, the closing chapter is for me also the weakest. The plot is actually quite interesting: humans using the Matrix to convince machines to join their resistance, but it’s not quite as fully developed as one might like. Since his debut with “Aeon Flux,” Peter Chung’s stories have always taken a backseat to animation & design and that proves true here as well. There is some great and unique imagery in this piece, but ultimately the story doesn’t feel like it reaches its full potential.
So, the bottom line is this: if you love either The Matrix films OR anime, you should enjoy this DVD. If you love both, it’s a must have.
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