The Matrix is still a powerful movie with a strong legacy, playing around with CGI effects and stunts that are commonplace nowadays. And much like The Terminator before it, the film knew how to use the idea of machines taking over the world to both terrify and inspire us.
It’s a testament to the film franchise that it can allow for multiple stories to be told in its framework, which is why the animated anthology film The Animatrix is such a treat.
Final Flight of the Osiris (Square Pictures)
A training simulation on board the human ship Osiris is interrupted when the crew spots an incoming patrol of Sentinels. As they try to evade the drones on the surface, the crew discovers a massive drill that the machines are using to invade Zion. A decision is made, with Captain Thadeus trying to keep his ship intact long enough for his love interest Jue to enter the Matrix and get a warning out to the hidden leaders of Zion in time.
Unlike the other short films in this anthology, Final Flight isn’t hand-drawn, but rendered in CG animation. When you think about it, it’s a nice bridge from the live-action film series to the animated anthology. But beyond the visuals, the plot is pretty straightforward: Ship in Danger, Get the Message Out Before Our Inevitable Death. While I did enjoy the virtual reality duel between Thadeus and Jue at the beginning, it was more fanservice than anything else. I mean, a fight that devolves into mostly naked katana sparring? It just doesn’t jive the with the rest of the film’s tension.
The Second Renaissance, Part I and II (Mahiro Maeda)
When I first heard about The Animatrix, this was the short film I was the most interested in: the long-awaited look at how the war between Man and the Machines began.
Part I shows a future human society where androids have become the dominant workforce, leaving human beings to lead prosperous and happier lives. However, the trial of a robot accused of murdering its owners in self-defense results in a harsh sentence and the birth of a cybernetic revolt. After thousands of robots are brutally attacked and destroyed, the majority retreat to an isolated region of Saudi Arabia and establish their own city, Zero-One. However, attempts at peace with the UN break down. Part II shows the devastating war that follows, as nuclear fallout blankets the planet and the Machines slowly conquer humanity with terrifying efficiency. The result is the birth of the Matrix.
In a strange way, I feel like some of the visuals in this film were a kind of cheating. There are visuals that—if applied to a human being—would be incredibly graphic (like heads being ripped open and smashed apart), but because they happen to androids, it’s permissible to show on film. Still, there’s no denying it’s an effective emotional punch and both parts do their job to show the transition from humanoid robot workers to inhuman robot overlords. The final moments show us visuals of the machines that we’re familiar with from the movies, but the true context is all the more horrifying.
Kid’s Story (Studio 40C)
Kid is a high school student who finds his dreams seem more authentic than his reality. He believes in online legends like Neo and Trinity, praying for the day he can escape his sad world. And then, on a fateful day in class, he gets his wish. One chase by Agents later, Kid takes a leap (or rather, a fall) of faith, becoming the first “self-substantiation” from out of the Matrix.
Besides expanding on the origins of a minor character from The Matrix Reloaded, this film gets into a more grotesque style of animation. The world that Kid experiences breaks down in detail, producing shifting colors and warped angles as paranoia overtakes him and the Agents attempt to corral him. It’s a little disorienting after all the sharp lines and detail from the previous episodes, but it captures the nausea of Kid’s world and the desperation to break loose.
Program (Yoshiaki Kawajiri)
A young woman named Cis is immersed inside a training simulation, where she’s a warrior in Edo Period Japan. Her intense fight with simulated samurai leads to a discussion with her partner Duo, who talks about the peace to be found in a virtual world. When he reveals that he’s made a deal to go back into the Matrix, words turn to actions as Cis fights for her life across the simulation. But the only thing being tested, she learns, is her loyalty to Zion.
With animation by Yutaka Minowa, the feudal Japanese characters and architecture are lovingly detailed. Both the philosophical discussion and the ensuing fight are rendered in fluid, mind-bending transitions. The only thing that doesn’t quite work is the abrupt twist at the end. I could see the loyalty test, but I felt the reveal only cheapened the emotional impact at the climax. But it doesn’t take away from the rest of the great Edo designs.
World Record (Madhouse)
Dan Davis is an all-star track runner in the Summer Olympics. After losing a gold medal to a drug use scandal, he’s determined to compete again and prove his critics wrong by breaking his own record of 8.99 seconds. His efforts in the race overtax his body, causing hideous contortions and ruptures that terrify the audience. But in fact, it’s his signal in the Matrix that he’s breaking, which draws the attention of four Agents. For a moment, Dan wakes up in the real world, confronted by a Sentinel inside his pod. But the Agents recapture him and erase his memory of the race, leaving him a broken shell who’ll never walk again.
Although some of the detail on Dan’s musculature during the races was interesting, this wasn’t my favorite film. The animation is different from the rest, but its warped style doesn’t appeal to me in the same way that Kid’s Story did. The voice acting works, but none of the characters’ faces seem to match with the dialogue, offering only placid expressions at dramatic moments. But I suppose that the twisted animation is deliberate since we’re dealing with the false reality of the Matrix. It just seemed a little… too unreal.
Beyond (Koji Morimoto)
In Japan, a young woman named Yoko goes in search of her lost cat. She encounters a mysterious house where physics seems to operate differently. She and a bunch of kids explore the “haunted house,” unaware that it’s simply full of glitches in the Matrix. But their fun end with an intervention by the Agents and a containment team. Yoko can only wonder afterward if some of that mysterious power still exists.
Beyond is short but sweet. There’s no real conflict apart from the brief cameo by the Agents near the end. The film is just Yoko exploring the haunted house. Watching her and the kids do slow-motion free falls is quite a visual treat. And of course I liked the cat Yuki every time it was onscreen, but that’s just personal taste.
A Detective Story (Shinichiro Watanabe)
Ash is a private detective who’s just gotten the biggest case yet: an assignment to track the elusive hacker known as Trinity. After following clues and a few allusions to Alice in Wonderland, Ash finally meets the real Trinity, only to learn that there’s more to his case—and the world—than he could ever realize.
When I knew that Shinichiro Watanabe was directing this film (the same director who gave us Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo), I had a feeling I was going to love this film. I was right. The animation is deliberately monochrome, evoking a film noir atmosphere with diesel punk technology (e.g., computers with typewriter keys and old-fashioned telephones and trains). It’s also nice to hear Carrie-Anne Moss voicing Trinity again; she really fits the femme fatale archetype in this story. All in all, the story is simple but powerful, and a testament to Watanabe’s style.
Matriculated (Peter Chung)
A Zion operative named Alexa sets up an ambush for a pair of hunter robots. With one destroyed, Alexa’s team captures the other machine and hopes to “enlighten” it and convert it to their side. They achieve this process by putting the machine in a group simulation, designed to highlight their positive attributes. While the reprogramming is successful, the Sentinels still locate and wipe out the human outpost, leaving their would-be ally alone and its fate uncertain.
While the concept of a hostile robot being reprogrammed is a little extreme, I could appreciate the humans’ method of “enlightenment” by way of a simulation. But it almost feels pointless given the bleak ending. Not to mention the abstract simulation of heightened colors and no dialogue provides for a visual delight, but no real sense of development. I get that the machine is being taught about positive human traits, but I have trouble grasping just what those traits are by what’s shown onscreen. Alexa herself isn’t much of a protagonist, just someone to move the plot along. But in a way, this film does capture the two extremes of the Matrix franchise: brilliantly designed simulations versus a stark and unforgiving reality.
On the whole, while I didn’t enjoy every single film in this anthology, I liked The Animatrix and thought it was nice to see new stories being told in the vast expanse of the Matrix universe.
The Animatrix is available through The WB.
Bibliography: The Animatrix. Directed by