Friday, June 06, 2003

COMPARE AND CONTRAST ANIMATRIX REVIEWS: I watched The Animatrix last night in a choppy, fast-forwarding way (I was taping the Bollywood marathon too) and--BOY!--I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach. There's this "Second Renaissance" featurette in there that is about as depressing a cartoon as I have ever watched. And since all it is is backstory, there's no nuances or anything so it ends up being nothing but depressing; it's the grim, grim tale of the horrors humans perpetrated on machines and then machines on humans, full of sadness at the fallen state of humanity within the Matrix's depiction of the future. And to some people this is really great:

The Second Renaissance, Parts I & II
The next two shorts, directed by Mahiro Maeda and written by the Wachowski brothers, are the shining gems of The Animatrix and should not be missed by anyone interested in science-fiction, anime, cyberpunk or merely decent storytelling. These two shorts tell the story about what happened to humanity before the events of the first Matrix film, detailing how we became a power source for our captors. The narrative is told by a soothing electronic female voice, and the visuals are lush and captivating. The writing is absolute genius, told with a chilling yet compassionate clarity, gifting the narrator with a kind of programmed sympathy. The images on screen are shocking at times, to say the least. These are, far and away, the most violent and disturbing of the shorts included on the disc. They will no doubt have an impact on the viewer. Here is where the Wachowski’s amazingly deep storyline is given a chance to truly shine. While the concept isn’t entirely original (nothing is; the Wachowskis themselves have admitted to The Matrix being mostly a love letter to their myriad influences, such as Phillip K. Dick, Willam Gibson, and anime itself), it’s presented in such a unique, beautiful, effective and captivating fashion that it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. If you purchase The Animatrix, do it for these two shorts. The images contained herein are pure storytelling magic.

And to others, it isn't:

Others, like "The Second Renaissance," though gorgeously rendered, do little more than fill in the backstory for the films. (Here, as writers, the Wachowskis stumble; their bleak vision of the future is predicated on a pretty absurd course of human action. Think of the ending of the original "Planet of the Apes," but with less logic.)

And--thinking about it--I have to side with the latter reviewer (in the Austin-American Statesman; the other one was in Anime News Network, which is one of the many alt news sources Google News searches for you.) You want to give the Wachowskis some leeway in their creation of an all-encompassing future but any future that results in a single human culture--something that has never ever happened--has a loooot of explaining to do, which isn't really done in "Second Renaissance." The central conceit of The Matrix--machines need humans as an energy source--isn't getting any more plausible, either. Hopefully things will be tied up in the third movie--the narration speaks of the machines being imbued with "the spirit of man" and the Reloaded programs seem like they have aesthetic sense and a kind of emotions, so maybe the human race isn't being imprisoned for the entirely material reasons Fishburne said they were.

Well, whatever. The Anime News guy was right, the "Second Renaissance" was shocking and full of impact, but upon further review it was a cartoon in a bad way: a simplification of reality, a caricature, where details are inevitably left out. But in this case emphasizing the uglier side of humanity--human history where the only important events were genocidal ones. Absurd, like the guy said.

And once again humanity's leadership and soldiers are overwhelmingly white people. Progress!

The most intriguing short is the Peter Chung entry "Matriculated." The Anime News guy hated on it:

Like him or hate him, enough production companies seem to love Aeon Flux auteur Peter Chung enough to give him work until the end of time. Thus, we are ‘treated’ to Matriculated, Chung’s hat in the Animatrix ring. Most people claim to absolutely despise Chung’s character designs; Reign: The Obsession of Alexander was not and will never be a fan favorite, so why did the Wachowskis elect him to direct his own sequence? Regardless, the result is a hideous, nonsensical mishmash that makes less sense at the end than it did at the beginning. A group of rogue humans seem to have devised a way to send a robot into its own Matrix, creating a virtual world for the robot to exist in. Why did they do this? What’s the purpose? It’s never explained. We simply watch Chung’s hideous new character designs writhe around and eventually get killed, their disgusting sinewy limbs ripped apart.

But he obviously has an axe to grind. "Matriculated" is about this reverse-Matrix in which captured Machines are not exactly reprogrammed--they are 1. removed from the control of whatever The Matrix is when it isn't a virtual world--they take a bug out of a Machine that's like the bug they took out of Keanu in the first movie, 2. shown the vibrancy of human experience in this really trippy sequence; one reviewer commented "containing the best filmed acid trip since 2001's, which, unlike that celebrated sequence, is dramatically integral to a narrative"--and I couldn't agree more, and--and this is important-- 3. given the choice to side with the humans, now that they've intimately experienced what it feels like to be one. Important because they're giving the machines a choice, treating them like fellow sentient life. That's my interpretation, anyway. And just like most humans will choose the empty, materially satisfied world of The Matrix but a few will not and rebel, a few machines are smart enough to live in a human world and point the way forward to a reconciliation between Man and Machine and some glorious new era. Or something like that. I mean, hopefully; the Wachowskis seem like they're too smart for any simple Man=Good, Machine=Evil Oppressor thing, which was the story of Matrix I but seems to be breaking down in Reloaded.

The only nerdy defect about "Matriculated" is that it doesn't seem to fit anywhere in The Matrix Earth we have grown to know and love, but that's all right. The Wachowkis' story is pretty oppressive sometimes; it's good that they let in a few things to let us know that while everybody is affected by the Man/Machine War, not everybody is fighting it in exactly the same way. Their burnt-sky Earth needed a few cracks of light.

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