More noise than signal

The Animatrix

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

The Matrix Reloaded disappointed us, and quite a few others but the marketing and branding behind it is a remarkable thing to witness. After the T-shirts, drinks, shades and games have gone; one item remains standing – The Animatrix. Given the Wachowskis comic background it’s no surprise to see a project like this, and they have pulled together some of the top anime directors in the world to give form to their vision. Let’s have a look and see what’s on the disk, in no particular order.

I covered Final Flight Of The Osiris in excruciating detail previously, so I’ll leave that alone apart from saying it’s very pretty tech-demo but a little soulless.

Program will look familiar to anyone having seen the violent classic Ninja Scroll, sharing a very similar look and indeed director. It takes place inside a training construct, between a two ship members, Cis and Duo. After a workout showing off their skills, the captain makes a shocking confession – he wants to be replugged into the Matrix a la Cypher. He wants to know if she will join him, or else she will have to die. The resultant rooftop battle shows few of the classic Matrix jumps and dodges that wouldn’t look out of place in any other anime, and it’s interesting to note how much of an influence this must have had on the original film. As a story it suffers from being a mortal battle between two characters we’ve only just been introduced to, so it’s a little difficult to have strong feelings one way or t’other, and lacklustre voice acting doesn’t help. Strong character design and slick animation can’t quite make up for this, but it’s a reasonable effort nonetheless.

The Second Renaissance come in two parts, cunningly titled Part One and Part Two, and it’s the tale you’ve been wanting to know since Morpheous mentioned it way back in the first film. How on Earth did humanity get into this machine-dominated mess? Well, now we know. Part One of this beautifully drawn tale shows how humanity grows more dependant on mindless human automatons to perform the menial tasks of the world, leaving humans free to essentially yuk it up in freedom while treating their subservient robots with no respect whatsoever, which is very Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040. Eventually, somehow, the robots start thinking for themselves, causing an outcry amongst the human population who promptly set about destroying them. The robots set up an independent country, sending Ambassadors to the U.N. to make the case for living in harmony with other cultures. Given humanities track record on that kind of thing they remained true to form, leading to…

Part Two, in which things go entirely to pot for humanity. The virtual genocide of the robots and the subsequent formation of the robot nation of Zero-One prove difficult for humans to accept, as the robot technology starts vastly outstripping their own. This is destroying the human nations economically, so they decide to destroy the robot nation militarily. This doesn’t quite do to plan despite a strong offence. The battle scenes are superb here, with a real sense of carnage. The failure of this leads to the blackening of the skies, a desperate last gamble which ultimately fails. The machines, having studied our apparently trivial form quickly start hooking us up like so many Duracell’s. While you may well have extrapolated most of this information from the brief mentions in the film seeing the origin of the current struggle in the Matrix add a whole new level of appreciation to it and the two parts are just absolutely first rate entertainment, and an object lesson in telling a lot of story in a short amount of time. Easily worth the price of the disc alone, stylistically similar to works like the superb Metropolis (indeed I was surprised to note no involvement from studio Madhouse, although they work on several of the other shorts). There as near flawless as you could expect in a short, lots of style but with substance to back it up.

By the same studio (Studio4°C) and with similar qualities is A Detective Story a purposefully Noir-ish tale of a private detective hired by a mysterious voice to track down a hacker named Trinity, who should be familiar to you. Her voice is indeed supplied by Carrie Anne Moss. The story itself is strong, with the P.I Ash tracking her down using a trail left on chat rooms and such to find her after solving a series of Alice in Wonderland clues so beloved of the films. The other trail he finds is that of other detectives assigned to the case that either end up dead or insane. The film is ‘shot’ on grainy black and white, with all the smooth camera action and use of shadow and silhouettes that was common on the genre. Stylistically it’s bang on. After tracking Trinity down it comes as no surprise to learn (though it’s never really a big secret) that it was a plan by the agents to trap Trinity, but manages to pull off an ending that retains some degree of surprise and originality. Another strong, exceptionally well drawn and realised ten minutes.

Kid’s Story is also by the same studio, and solves the mystery that no one was particularly bothered with of how Neo and the kid that keeps bothering him in Reloaded first met. Michael Popper has recurring dreams of falling and types out the usual existentialist moans on his keyboard one day about dreams feeling more real than waking life. To his surprise, there is an answer one day. This draws a squad of agents to him later in the day at school, and the tale spends much of it’s runtime on his attempted escape on skateboard. The action is very well animated, but the highly stylised way the colours and character boundaries are sketched didn’t appeal to me too much, reminding me vaguely of some eighties music video or something. Odd, as many of the scenes if paused look like works of art, yet disappointing in motion. Your mileage may vary, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. The story is one of the more though provoking ones though, which could have interesting ramifications in the third film (although I sincerely doubt it.)

The last of the Studio4°C produced stories on the disc is Beyond, a tale concerning a glitch in the Matrix, or a rendering error in computer speak. A girl loses her cat, and in the search for her stumbles over a ‘haunted’ house, where all kinds of whacky things can occur. Bottles can be smashed only for them to reform, stuff floats in mid air, ridiculous acrobatics can be performed, localised rainstorms occur in certain rooms and so on. The Agents can’t let this stand, and send a cleanup crew to level the place and put up a parking lot. It’s perhaps one of the more conventionally drawn animes on the disc, simple lines and bold colours. What makes it stand out it the fantastic use of light in the scenes occurring outdoors, it looking positively luminous in places which I’ve rarely seen in any anime. It makes up for the still-reasonable but compared to the other stories sub-par animation of certain motions, never looking too convincing. It’s a fairly simple and ultimately pointless story, except to show how ‘normal’ people may respond when touched by the Matrix.

It’s not the worst story on the disc, the dubious honours of which go to World Record. Not that it’s an awful story, but I found the character design pretty ugly and difficult to watch. From Madhouse studios and sharing a similar but more extremely caricatured look to Program, it’s essentially the story of Dan, a 100m athlete whose intense determination and drive to break the world record leads to him becoming aware of the unreality of The Matrix. The ever vigilant agents want to prevent this from happening, of course. Motions are exaggerated to ludicrous degrees (particularly with Dan’s hyperkinetic trainer). Dan occasionally looks more like a demon than a man, and the Agents lose their trademark suits and shade in favour of something that wouldn’t look out of place on a Napoleonic officer. His moment of realisation of the existence of the Matrix and the machines subsequent and non-standard way of dealing with this is unexpected enough to still make it worth watching.

The final story is Matriculated, and is probably the best idea on the disc. A group of humans have captured a few of the robots sent to kill them, and try to turn them to aid humanity. Realising that merely reprogramming them to be their slaves, which was what caused this mess in the first place, they have to make their artificial intelligences want to help them. To do this, they plug themselves into a specially designed construct to alter the A.I’s perception of things, making use of the fact that their ‘brains’ perceive all reality as virtual to show them a better world, which only ever exists inside the humans’ heads. It’s a fantastic idea, and the character design is conventional but arresting, but the execution isn’t quite right. Too much time is spent showing the ‘conversion’ of the A.I, which boils down to confusing it with a lot of psychedelic corridors for a few minutes. It looks quite pretty, in a messy sort of way, but it’s not adding anything to the story. It all ends in disaster once a force of Sentinels hunts them down. Matriculated has one of the more obvious uses of CG in the animation, giving lovely fluid motion to the characters but at times looking like someone going mental with the output filters in 3D Studio MAX. Even if I thought it a little disappointing, the ending is oddly touching so it can’t have been entirely lost on me.

A universal comment – the soundtrack is fantastic throughout, easily up there with the films in both orchestral works and cool tracks that added so much to the experience of the films. Care and attention has also been lavished on the voice acting, with only Program sounding slightly ropey. Overall, the package is certainly more than worth the money. After being more than a little disappointed by Reloaded, my faith in the Wachowski brother’s vision has been restored a little. Seeing the interplay between the films, the game and the anime (in Final Flight Of the Osiris, Kid’s Story and Second Renaissance) is one of the more ambitious media crossovers, and damned if it’s total domination hasn’t worked. Marketing may have artificially boosted sales of the sub par film and game, but the imagination and sheer quality that the best and brightest animation houses have imbued The Animatrix with ensure it’s well worth your cash.