Over the last couple of months I have not seen a lot of movies. I have been busy enough to actually miss, in the theater, several movies that I was actually interested in seeing. Perhaps the only movie I have managed to see in the theater in the last couple of months is the new Matrix: Reloaded sequel. However, one of my friends here has become a sort of movie dealer to me… he feeds me CD-ROMs with downloaded films on them, and I watch them. Among the many films he has thus made available to me was the Animatrix animation collection.
After having watched both the Animatrix and The Matrix: Reloaded, with some surprise I find myself forced to say that Animatrix is the superior film.
The Matrix: Reloaded raises some interesting questions, of course. There are puzzling developments, and of course the stakes get raised for Neo and his motley band of hyperluddite rebels. But The Matrix: Reloaded seems to me to lack the heart and passion that went into the original Matrix movie. When I watched The Matrix I sat stunned in my chair, shocked at how beautiful all of the violence was onscreen. There was room for comparison with video games, of course: the shootout during the storming of Agent Smith’s headquarters was definitely a tribute to shooter games as much as action movies. But it was also beautiful: the slow-motion shells from the chopper falling to the ground; the destruction of the marblesque pillars in the entry hall; the choreography of the rebels fighting the Agent Smiths.
The Matrix: Reloaded has no lack of fight scenes, and the video game parallel is even more pronounced. In the scene where Neo fights of dozens of transformed Agent Smiths, the tribute to kung fu games like Double Dragon is all too clear. But something is lacking. It’s not character development, for there is a fair amount of that… we learn so much about Morpheus, about Zion, about Trinity, the Oracle, and new, potentially compelling characters are introduced too. The history of the Matrix begins to open up before us, and it is far more complicated than anything that was let on in the first installment of the series.
Still, for me, in Reloaded, there was just something missing.
Maybe it was attention to detail. Maybe it was the desire to get this thing, this huge project that was unprecedented in film, right. I don’t know, but it seems to me there is an important thing in the original Matrix movie that is simply missing from Reloaded. It seemed to me more like an action movie with some character development, but not a lot of important development of the most important element in the film: the Matrix itself. Some famous science fiction writer (I can’t recall whom) claimed that the science and technology in a good sf story is actually one of the characters, the most important character, even. Nothing so very new solidifies out of Reloaded… a lot of possibilities are raised, but very little hard stuff to go on.
What I liked about Animatrix was the astonishing diversity involved. A great deal of the stories take place within virtual reality, involving characters who are inhabitants of the Matrix, or who venture into it. We see a lot of action inside the Matrix itself, or action that that straddles the border between the Matrix and the world in which the Zionites live. The characters are mostly not heroes, but rather simple individuals, mostly unexceptional. There are sections that are simply historical documentation, decanting of information. And yet these sections are among the most interesting. The philosophical references are present, including a very clear nod to Karl Popper, and a lot of the animation is extremely well-done. What I think is most important is that we explore the Matrix itself from a number of points of view: that of a machine sent into it; those of several unwitting residents of the Matrix who come close to, or achieve, freedom; people who are freed from it and venture back in, or refuse to venture back in; and of course, from the (supposedly) neutral vantage point of the historian. Instead of a few characters who are, after all, somewhat archetypal and incomplete (a Messiah and his band of followers, after all, are hard to develop into really full-fledged characters), we explore the Matrix itself, which is not only conceptually but also quite pragmatically the star of the show.
Remember in the original Matrix movie? Remember the shock of the white space where Morpheus and Neo talked for a while, early on? Remember the scene where Neo is training to unbelieve the Matrix and bend its rules to his will, so that he leaps from the top of a building and survives the impact against the rubbery virtual concrete? Remember all of those amazing moments where you reflected, “Oh, of course, this is a virtual reality…”? For me, those are lacking in Reloaded, and what I find all the more interesting are the stories in Animatrix that play around that moment of discovery and puzzlement. When Neo is handed a spoon just before departing Zion in Reloaded, it’s a reference back to the original movie and the Spoon Boy. But Reloaded makes very little effort, in my opinion, to give us the same kind of Wow! moment in terms of the most important thing in the film. Animatrix, by sometimes naively exploring the Matrix through the eyes of many people who are far (or at least a little) removed from Neo’s saga, takes us much farther along.
Not that there is nothing new or important said about the Matrix in Reloaded. In fact, enough has been introduced into the story for me to suggest the following: that the world in which Neo lives as a Zionite rebel is also a Matrix of sorts, a virtual reality illusion that the inhabitants all too happily accept as real reality. Thematically, this would make sense for, throughout all the Matrix films, characters continually question themselves and one another about how one can tell real reality from virtual. The “magical” powers Neo uses against sentinels near the end of Reloaded seem to my mind to confirm that the world where Zion exists cannot be the really real world.
Let me note that this would be a comfort to those of us who noticed so many inconsistencies in the Matrix universe. The supplementing of what is described in the first Matrix film as “fusion power” with human bioelectricity makes no sense. Nor does humanity’s insane decision to scorch the skies to cut off the machines from solar energy… after all, we are as dependent as anything on solar energy, for that light is the fuel source for all life on earth. The ability to rejuvenate an awakened man like Neo, after a lifetime of muscular atrophy; the hackneyed plot device where downloading oneself into the Matrix is such that it involves actually downloading one’s mind from the body into the net, and requires re-uploading; the idea that what happens to one in the Matrix can actually kill one in real life… all of these ideas, while they make sci-fi movies so much more atmospheric, driving, and tense, are disappointingly unbelievable. However, if all of the rules of the “real world” of Zion are also just devices in a fictional reality, a HyperMatrix of sorts, then I can much more easily accept them and enjoy the story.
My best guess is that, if the cyclical processing loop that Neo is told about at the end of the movie is actually true, what probably happens is that Neo discovers he is actually an AI in the process of being winnowed… his subroutines are being fine-tuned, developed, in a multilayered interactive evolution-inducing environment in order to develop his ability to think as an individual and become a full-fledged AI. I don’t know if he is the only AI being thus winnowed, or whether the other awakened people around him also are AIs in the process of being winnowed. I think probably in narrative terms the romance-plot between Neo and Trinity precludes that, but I think it might be the most sensible possibility. This would explain why The One experiences an interative loop which cumulatively develops him as an individual, although he cannot remember the full scope of the process (because, assumably, the software that is thus winnowed becomes part of the deeper architecture of his mind, rather than anything so unnecessary to the process as memories).
The philosophical underpinnings of the questions asked in the Matrix are important, too. Not the ones that the penny pundits ask, of course, but bigger questions about consciousness and reason. These are not the questions most people ask after seeing this movie, though. People over on the Zion Switchboard are more apt to ask questions like, “Which animation is best?” or “Is the Matrix REAL?” I can only spent so much time flipping through the dialogues there before I throw my hands up in the air. One person intelligently noted that the idea of the Matrix is far older than the Wackowski brothers. The individual credited Socrates, though I would say the credit should probably go even farther back. Hindu mystics long ago posited that the phenomenal/experiential world was an illusory one, one from which escape was necessary.
The Platonic idea of the cave is, of course, a bit of propaganda and a bit of overstatement as well as an important metaphor about perception. Plato is eager to tell us that philosophers should be running the show, and also tells us that it’s absurd to think that humans can actually learn something new, because of course we are all born knowing certain things. He’s right that humans are born with a certain amount of inborn knowledge, or comprehension of the world… that’s evolution for you, though of course it does not follow that humans cannot learn new knowledge and that all learning is actually a process of remembering. And Plato is right that those who are privileged do have an obligation to share the booty of their victory, (I would say, perhaps to his dismay, whether it is knowledge or wealth) with those who are less fortunate. But what’s truly important in the idea of the Cave is the notion that our very vivid perceptions are actually illusory, the idea that their very vividity is something that breeds psychological attachment to them (something Hindu and Buddhist thinks would heartily agree with), and the notion that all of this is actually tied directly not only to the way one lives one’s own life, but also to politics in the greater scheme of things.
There are a few interesting takes on the Matrix out there, ranging from the rather sensible and the compelling to the uncreditable through the hilarious and even to the unhinged and the absolutely bananas. And here’s a blog full of essays on the Matrix where someone else actually suggests some similar things to what I’ve suggested about the Matrix.