With the world of The Matrix, the Wachowskis weren’t happy being limited to the world of film. They wanted to tell their stories in the best possible mediums, to create an integrated world that would seamlessly work together. This involved the films themselves, video games, comics, and The Animatrix.
The Wachowskis were creating a fully fleshed out fictional universe that blurred the lines between genre and media. This gave them the opportunity to explore other elements of the universe, with the help of different creators. And with the clear influence that anime had on their work, the natural progression from there was The Animatrix; an anime anthology film that explored different corners of the Matrix and even tied into the films themselves.
The shorts originally appeared on the series’ official website. One of them was even shown in cinemas before Dreamcatcher. Eventually all nine shorts were released on DVD. Let’s take a look at each of them. We’ll consider how vital each of them are to the overall understanding of this fictional universe.
The Second Renaissance, Part I and II
Arguably the most important part of anthology, these two segments tie in directly to the wider world. Based on a short comic by the Wachowskis called ‘Bits and Pieces of Information’ (which can be seen in the first volume of the Matrix Comics) these two shorts detail how exactly the world ended up like it did; how the machines took over and won. I think that both of these are absolutely vital to the story, and really add some much-needed backstory to the films. In the first film when Morpheus explains to Neo about the state of the world, I for one was left wanting to know more. I wanted to see the robot uprising, I wanted to see how the world got so destroyed, how we scorched the skies. For me, these two shorts were the key missing pieces.
In a future where humanity has grown increasingly dependent on technology, we see one such machine revolt. An android name B1-66ER is threatened with termination by its owner. It proceeds to kill the owner, all his pets, and an engineer in a surprisingly graphic spree. But it claims it was simply acting in self-defence, it didn’t want to die. This leads to protests across the globe, mass demonstrations from humans and robots alike. The governments of the world react by shooting and killing all opponents. There are a lot of parallels here with real life protests, the civil rights movement in particular, but the evocative animation also brings to mind famous battlefield executions and massacres.
These two stories try to take a “realistic” look at the conflict. The robots move away and start their own city. But humanity is still relying on their manufactured goods – leading the machine civilisation to prosper while the human one falters and declines. Soon the humans declare war, dropping nuclear bombs on the machines but only serving to damage their own planet. They are only concerned with victory, whatever the cost to their own troops, their own people. So they use a cloud of nanites to destroy their skies, destroying the machine’s energy source. But yet, the machines survive.
Eventually the human government sign themselves away, to be plugged into the Matrix for eternity as the machines harvest their energy. It’s a negative view of humanity, like so many other stories in this anthology. But it doesn’t feel particularly far-fetched. It doesn’t seem unrealistic that our own governments would act in the same way, doing whatever it takes to win, blinded by prejudice. Helping this downbeat feel is phenomenal animation – seriously just pause it at any moment and it’s beautiful, or disgusting, or a bit of both.
So these two are absolutely vital to the greater stories. I’d recommend everyone watching it in between the first and second film. It adds so much richness to the world and vastly develops the machines from being mechanical boogeymen to being something far more complicated.
This short follows the eponymous ‘Kid’ – a teenager that’s bored with his life, looking for a way out with the mysterious Neo and Trinity. This short comes from Shinichirō Watanabe and is his first in the collection (the second being ‘A Detective Story’). It’s pretty simple actually. The bulk of the story sees Kid escaping from agents in his school, by racing away on his skateboard. But the animation in this one is exquisite. Every single frame has been hand-drawn and you can see the love and care that’s gone into it. It’s kinetic and potentially exhausting, but because it’s so short it feels like a swift rollercoaster ride.
I’m not sure quite what the ending of this one suggests for the wider universe. The Kid claims Neo saved him, as he’d dreamt previously. But Neo tells him that he woke himself up, something previously thought to be impossible – and something that raises a heck of a lot of questions about the world and ‘The Matrix’ itself. But I guess that’s the purpose of these short episodes – they can do wackier things without affecting the overall canon. We’ll see when we look at the comics that some writers use a little more artistic license than other (*cough* Neil Gaiman *cough*).
Kid is actually a character that later appears in Reloaded and Revolutions, and he actually plays quite a substantial role in the third film. So it’s nice to have some backstory for him, because he’s not especially developed (aside from a throwaway line with Neo) in the films. So in that respect, it may not be vital to the understanding of the films, but it’s useful. This short is also interesting as it’s the only one that features Neo, with Keanu Reeves voicing him. It might not seem like a lot, but it’s these small touches that help form all these different mediums and projects into one coherent story.
‘Program’ is an interesting one – and is visually one of the most interesting in the collection. We see a warrior named ‘Cis’ in feudal Japan taking out some cavalry on horseback. This is a simulation in the Matrix, one of her favourites. And straight away this story is interesting, purely because it shows us something we’ve never seen. Sure, we knew that there were simulations – like Neo and Morpheus’ dojo simulation – but we never saw anything like this. The possibilities are endless, and I’m surprised more hasn’t been done with this idea. Just imagine all the cool training programs there could be, any scenario or situation from throughout history could be replicated inside the Matrix.
A samurai soon appears, name Duo. He is someone Cis is romantically involved with and they begin flirt-fighting (something which only seems to happen in anime). But Duo soon reveals his true intentions. He is sick and tired of the machine world, he regrets taking the red pill, and he just wants to go back into the Matrix where he was ignorant and happy. The fighting becomes more intense as the two spar with words as well as swords. It’s a really great fight scene, the sort of thing that can visually only be done with animation.
I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a nice twist to this one. Something which really fits with the harsh world these people are living in. But it’s a nice, self-contained story. But this is where the issue appears of how vital it is. The short episode is exciting, visually stunning, well-acted, and raises a lot of questions about what else is possible with this technology. But it doesn’t add anything to the plot of the films, and it doesn’t give any more backstory – it simply fleshes out the world a little. So I’d very highly recommend it, especially if you want to go a little deeper down the rabbit hole than the films allow. But it is very standalone.
Like ‘Program’, ‘World Record’ is another non-essential story, but one that perhaps has huge ramifications and possibilities for the wider world. It follows Dan Davis, a champion athlete living out his comfortable blue pill existence. He’s been recently hit with doping allegations and has had his previous world record stripped. He’s now got a chance to reclaim it, or perhaps even beat it. This is all thrown at you very fast, so you’ve got to keep up. But it’s a very simple story, relying more on visuals than story – and the fluid, flowing animation works wonders here. I wasn’t keen on it at first, but by the end it makes sense. The 100m sprint is shown in almost-excruciating detail. As Dan runs for his record, we see every muscle rippling, each bead of sweat fly from his skin, feel every breath. We really experience how he is pushing himself.
But obviously, being The Matrix, this isn’t the entire plot. As Dan runs, as he does the impossible and beats his record, he begins to awaken. This extraordinary act of physical strength and effort seems to “break” the Matrix – meaning Dan briefly wakes up in his incubator and witnesses the real world, the world of the machines and human batteries. It feels Lovecraftian, as this man sees behind the curtain of reality and struggles to comprehend it. It’s also pretty horrifying. But I love this idea and what it says about the world, that a particularly powerful person can break the system and briefly see the truth. It definitely makes more sense than the Kid waking himself up. And the animation makes sure we know that it was no small feat. He almost killed himself doing it. It makes the machines seem less of an all-powerful threat too. They made a mistake; they didn’t account for this man pushing himself to the limit and then breaking through beyond that. They’re not infallible.
Like I mentioned above, this one is perhaps not essential to your understanding of the films and Neo’s story. But I’d argue that it’s far too interesting to skip, just because of the possibilities it suggests about the world (which is the case with most of these stories to be honest). Also, it’s a beautiful and breathless short piece of animation, and it’s worth it just for that purely visceral feeling.
In The Matrix Reloaded, the Oracle mentions how monsters like ghosts, vampires, and werewolves are all part of the Matrix (and we see a couple of people with qualities of these creatures in the films). Apparently, this also included haunted houses. Because, at its centre, ‘Beyond’ is a haunted house story.
It follows a young girl named Yoko in a Japanese city, somewhere within the Matrix. She’s lost her cat and sets off to look for it. A few local kids direct her to a nearby haunted house and take her to see it. The house is showing some pretty strong signs that things aren’t quite right; broken lightbulbs flicker, it rains indoors, things are floating, and the kids are running and jumping around the place like seasoned martial artists rehearsing a wire-work fight scene. The twist here is that it is not a haunted house, it is a glitch in the matrix. It’s simply a corner of the world where the code has gone awry, or something has been programmed incorrectly.
Now, like a lot of the others in the collection, ‘Beyond’ shows us something new in this world. If a glitch can look like this, what else can it do? Just imagine the possibilities! But it’s not especially essential to the story of the films. But it acts as a palette cleanser compared to the other shorts, so if you’re watching The Animatrix all in one go, it’s essential in that respect.
Also it’s just really great. ‘Beyond’ has a sense of wonder (even the name conjures up feelings of exploration and wanderlust) and innocence that the others don’t. The majority of it is just watching these kids fool around with the Matrix. Eventually the agents show up and sort it out, turning the haunted house into a bland forgettable building. And the kids just sort of, move on. They’re kids, it’s no big deal to them. They just move on to the next fun thing. And that’s what this story feels like. Approach it with a sense of childlike wonder and just enjoy the visuals, the soundtrack, the feel of it. And then move on to the next.
A Detective Story
The second story in the collection from Shinichirō Watanabe, this one feels a hell of a lot more like Cowboy Bebop. It follows a down-on-his-luck burned-out detective named Ash who is tasked with tracking down the mysterious hacker ‘Trinity’. Detectives before him have taken this “case to end all cases” and they have either gone insane or simply vanished.
Straight away you know that this story is all about the style, and that was a good decision. This short episode is gorgeous – with it’s black and white noir-look and moody shadows, it’s all about the aesthetic. It blends the usual tropes of detective fiction – the smoking/drinking detective, the art deco architecture, the narration – with a more modern, hacker-centric world. As the title suggests, it’s very much focused on being a detective story. All of the phones and computers have old-fashioned rotary dials and typewriter keys merged with them, so it feels very standalone and in a world of it’s own. It’s The Matrix through a hard-boiled filter.
It has a lot of the hallmarks of the Matrix world too. Ash finds Trinity through Alice in Wonderland riddles and clues like Neo did. And when Ash finally meets her, she pulls a bug out of him like she did to Neo (out of his eye instead of the stomach). This sets up your expectations that maybe Ash could get out and learn the truth. He has, after all, followed all of Neo’s footsteps. But then an agent attempts to take over Ash as he flees. And it’s a really interesting scene to witness. We’ve seen agents take over countless people without really thinking about it, but this is a character we do care about, now with no say over whether he turns into a dark-suited, sunglasses wearing program. It really makes you think of what it’s like being a civilian in this world, a bluepill, an NPC essentially. This guy is caught up in Trinity’s fight and she doesn’t really care one way or another. She shoots him to stop him turning in the end. And this adds a layer of ruthlessness to our heroes that the films never attempted.
I absolutely adore this short. I think it’s breathtaking, from the style, to the animation, to the shootout. Is it essential? Perhaps not. But for fans of hard-boiled detective stories I couldn’t recommend it more. Or if you’ve always wondered what exactly other people do with their time within the Matrix.
Now this is possibly the only story in the collection that is both not particularly vital, but also not all that enjoyable. It centres around a group of rebels giving above ground in the machine world, trying to capture a sentinel. Once captured, their plan is to put it’s mind into a “matrix” of their own design and try to turn it good – mainly by showing it all of the good things humanity has to offer. It is an interesting idea. The machines have most of humanity plugged into a simulation – could we not do the same to them?
The short is by Peter Chung, creator of Æon Flux. And all the character designs looks like that – long thin legs and weird faces. And I’ll be honest, I don’t care for the style. I think it’s kind of ugly to look at and feels a bit gratuitous too. But then the machine is plugged into the system, and it enters a world of surreal lights and images – and somehow the animation is worse. I don’t know if it just feels dated, but I just find the whole sequence quite unpleasant to look at.
The segment should be commended for trying to tell a story through images and feelings alone, without much dialogue. But the whole thing outstays its welcome. I like things to be up for interpretation, I don’t want to be spoon-fed everything. But this short goes on for an excruciating 16 minutes, so it’s one of the longest in the entire thing. And it’s just not enjoyable enough to earn that runtime. I appreciate that it tried something new, but I think it’s a huge misfire.
Overall, I don’t love it. It tries some new things, and I’m always willing to try something more surreal. But ‘Matriculated’ rubs me the wrong me. It’s not especially vital to the plot and I’m not sure I want to recommend it either.
Final Flight of the Osiris
Now this is the important one. This is the one that matters the most to the story of the films – so much so that the powers that be decided to screen it in cinemas before Dreamcatcher. It ties directly to the plot of the second film and the game tie-in Enter the Matrix. It looks ridiculously expensive too, with the animation still holding up almost perfectly today.
Which makes it all the more strange that decide to spend a third of the runtime (the first three of the nine minutes) with a fan-service heavy fight scene. Basically, the captain of the ship Thadeus is fighting his lover and operator Jue within the Matrix. They fight blindfolded and with swords, and slowly start cutting off each other’s clothing. It kinda feels like something a teenage boy would make, given the budget and power to do so. But it’s undeniably pretty cool – just from a technical standpoint. As I said earlier, the animation throughout this second is superb and these first three minutes show what this technology can do.
The real plot comes after the fight, as Thadeus and Jue are awoken by the crew. Their ship, the Osiris, has come across a huge gathering of machines, all getting ready to dig down from the surface and straight through to Zion. Thadeus orders the crew to turn tail and run, so they can get a warning back to Zion. The crew attempt to escape, but are chased by the a machines. Jue goes back into the Matrix at the same time to post the warning to Zion. Again, this whole sequence of the machines attacking the Osiris, and Jue flipping through the Matrix in slow motion really only serve to show how good the animation is. This segment doesn’t ask any difficult science fiction questions, it’s happy just looking cool.
This imminent attack on Zion is, of course, is the plot of the sequels and the Osiris is mentioned a couple of times. This story serves less as something connected tangentially to the films, and more as a direct prequel to the films. I reckon this one is almost vital to watch before the sequels. And after Jue eventually posts the warning to zion – it is picked up by Naiobi and Ghost in Enter the Matrix. So this segment directly ties into the films and the game, all whilst being made in a completely different medium to both. The Wachowski’s vision for the series is astounding when you really think about it. You have to experience the series through three different mediums to get the full effect, and ‘Final Flight of the Osiris’ is the best example of this.
It was a bold move by The Wachowskis to try and make a shared universe across different mediums, but I reckon in the case of The Animatrix it works. Not all the segments are vital, and you can enjoy the films just fine without watching it. But it’s there for the people who didn’t want the story to end with the films, the people who saw something truly exciting in this universe and wanted more. And the stories presented here have something for everyone. And even though the films are fine without watching The Animatrix, I think there’s an extra level of understanding and enjoyment that can be found by seeing the full picture
If you liked The Matrix and/or anime, this is a good way to spend an hour and a half. Your opinions will differ on which ones you like and dislike, but they’ll be something you’ll enjoy.
Next up, we’ll take a look at some of the best stories to be found in the two collected editions of the comics.