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Moriarty Overdoses On THE ANIMATRIX And RELOADED In One Brain-Bending Night!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

It’s one of those nights.

Woke up early. Brutal session at the gym, so I’m good and sore. Once I got home, I spent the first half of the day putting the final touches on a new draft of something, and it was the kind of detail-oriented work that always fries my brain a bit. Then I had a meeting with a company that owns some stuff I’d really, really, really like to get my grubby mitts on. Then I had to race back to the Labs, Harry Lime in tow, and get ready to leave to meet friends at the Egyptian for the 9:15 show of THE ANIMATRIX, after which we needed to bolt and pick up a few people so we could meet a different group of friends at the Vista Theater in Silverlake for the 12:30 show of RELOADED. Now it’s 4:37 in the morning, I’m just sitting down to write, I’m tired, I’m supposed to be at a screening on the Fox lot by noon, and then there’s more work to be done after that.

It doesn’t help that the experience of sitting through all nine ANIMATRIX shorts and RELOADED in one evening is enough to cause anyone to just sit and stare at the blinking cursor against the white Word backdrop, numb and dizzy and trying to organize all my thoughts so I make myself crystal clear when describing something that was absolutely, positively designed to confuse.

Here’s one thing I can promise you: I’m not going to waste your time by dredging up other franchises.

THE MATRIX is not LORD OF THE RINGS. THE MATRIX is not STAR WARS. It’s not X-MEN, or SPIDER-MAN, or THE TERMINATOR, or MAD MAX. It’s not any of those things. I am officially goddamn tired of The Franchise Wars of 2003. Everything has begun to polarize into predictable camps of people, ready to piss on anything except their own, their beloved, their precious. Everything is explained in terms of WRATH OF KHAN or EMPIRE or whatever. And for my part, I’m tired of it. I know I’ve been guilty in the past, but I’m quitting... right here, right now.

Instead, let’s look at RELOADED and THE ANIMATRIX as what they are... pieces of a larger picture that is being meticulously built by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Taken as a whole, it is a fanboy monument, a shrine to the influences that have obviously driven the Wachowskis to where they are now. In a lot of ways, it feels like they are purposely getting out every single notion they’ve been storing up about anime and comic books and SF and action films, like this is their final thesis before they graduate to something else. My sincerest hope is that once they’re finished with THE MATRIX, they create something that stands resolutely apart from these influences, something that pushes their obvious technical mastery into entirely new areas. They are nothing if not capable and inventive, and it seems a shame that so many of the conversations about these films with other rabid fanboys degenerate into laundry lists of what inspired what.

I’m actually glad tonight was a double-bill, and I’m doubly glad that it wasn’t the first MATRIX that we were watching ahead of the sequel. I’ve seen the first MATRIX many times. Hell, Henchman Mongo’s DVD player is just called “The MATRIX machine” because he plays it so often. And maybe I was well-trained from my lifelong love of Philip K. Dick and similar mind-fuck SF writers, but I didn’t have a problem with THE MATRIX the first time I saw it. I thought it was a clever, viscerally charged SF film with a great central conceit, and I thought that it was very well explained by the end of the movie.

But “well explained” and “fully explored” are different things, and all the first film did was set up one element of the larger world in which the franchise takes place. It just gave you the basics you would need as an audience to get it. I liked the fact that the official site began running comic-book style stories about THE MATRIX soon after the ’99 release, stories that allowed other artists and writers to fill in the corners of the world and examine other ideas, other possibilites, freed from the need to tell the “BIG” story. When you’re dealing with prophecies and The One and the end of humanity and the fate of Zion, it kind of locks you into a particular path of storytelling, and in a feature film, there’s not a lot of room for you to meander and explore. And that’s where THE ANIMATRIX comes in.

I’ve seen the episodes that have been posted online. I’ve seen “Beyond”, thanks to the MTV special that was playing all weekend long. I did not, however, end up seeing “The Final Flight Of The Osiris” in theaters because I never got around to seeing DREAMCATCHER. I think I walked into the theater tonight having already seen five of the nine shorts. Despite that, it was a very different experience than I was expecting to have, a testament to the impact that something has on the big screen versus the computer screen.

Remember when HEAVY METAL wasn’t available on video at all? When the only way to catch it was either one of its infrequent late-night cable showings or someone’s bootleg tape or a midnight show at the theater. As a result, HEAVY METAL built up quite the reputation as being smart and adult and loaded with action and beautifully animated. Then it finally came out on video and people were shocked when they realized that it was uneven, with some terrible segments, and that it wasn’t what they had built it up to be in their minds all those years.

Well, THE ANIMATRIX, taken as a whole, is what we all remembered HEAVY METAL as being. It’s sophisticated, heady stuff. Starting the evening off with Mahiro Maeda’s “The Second Rennaisance,” Parts I and II, back to back, really set the tone for what it is that we’re watching here. Yes, THE MATRIX is entertainment, but like the best pop art, it’s about something. It’s packed with meaning, actually. First and foremost, it is a meditation about our uneasy relationship with technology, and the way we must continue to redefine that relationship as we create more and more advanced forms of machinery. What’s really great about the shorts is the way the Wachowskis refuse to make easy villains of the machines. If anything, the way they mix such diverse sources as Asimov, Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON, and real-life war atrocities manages to create a situation where we are responsible for our fate. It’s powerful material, and seeing it projected on the bigscreen, it was overwhelming. The footage of the actual ground war between man and machine is reminiscent of the apocalyptic close of Miyazaki’s NAUSICAA, and there are images that are jet-black. “Surrender your flesh,” indeed. In the grand picture once all the MATRIX-related projects are finished, there’s a good chance that “Second Rennaisance” may well stand out as a high watermark.

Yoskiaki Kawajiri’s ”Program” is one of the weakest of the efforts, and aside from some striking visual design, there’s not much to recommend it. Koji Morimoto’s “Beyond,” though, is my other favorite entry in the series, and it’s because the story allows for one of the quietest moments in the entire franchise. The story of a haunted house that turns out to be a glitch in the programming of The Matrix, there is some lyrical material here, lovely and strange and about as far from the heavy metal bombast of the films as can be. If you want proof of the expansive nature of the Wachowskis’ invention, look no further than this short. Also, the animation in this episode is stunning, managing to look like it was shot handheld on video. It’s very naturalistic, and the result feels like something real and spontaneous and off-the-cuff.

Takeshi Koike’s “World Record” is bold and highly stylized, and doesn’t completely connect for me on a narrative level. Still, there are moments here that manage to convey the visceral impact of exposure to the truth lying just under the surface of the Matrix, the sheer horror that would set in for most people if they glimpsed the real world that they’ve been blind to their whole lives. Peter Chung’s “Matriculated” might be the most visually challenging piece of the whole bunch, and it comes as no surprise to anyone who is a fan of his AEON FLUX work. There’s something mournful and strange and decidedly BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN about this story of a robot who is reconditioned to feel for humans through the use of a sort of “Robot Matrix,” and Chung’s mix of CG and cel animation manages to create an otherworldly feeling that’s hard to shake. "Final Flight Of The Osiris" is a nice showcase for the work of Square Studios, and certainly represents a leap forward from their work on FINAL FANTASY, but it feels a little too much like a gimmick, a forced connection to RELOADED, for me to really connect with it.

The real winner of the evening, though, had to be Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the enormously enjoyable COWBOY BEBOP. I liked “A Detective Story” when it played online, but I think “Kid’s Story” is the better of his two entries. In a way, it plays like WAKING LIFE, a stylistic slice of life piece about a high school kid who is slowly becoming aware of what may be going on in the world around him. This is the same character who later shows up in RELOADED, and you don’t need to see this piece in order to understand who he is in the movie. It does flesh him out, though, and give you some sense of how he handled his transition from dream to reality. Unlike the horror of “World Record,” this is a story more about finally putting a name to something you’ve always suspected.

We had to run from the Egyptian in order to make it over to Silverlake, where there was a pretty massive line already assembled for the 12:30 show at the Vista. This is a cool old stand-alone theater with the best legroom I’ve ever seen in a theater and a kick-ass sound system. Mr. Beaks was already in line, and we didn’t have to wait long before they let us all in. It took a while to get the audience settled, so by the time RELOADED finally began, it was getting close to 1:00 in the morning. Didn’t matter, though. The audience was primed and ready for whatever the Wachowskis had in store.

I’ll admit... I was nervous as the film began. I’d been pumped up by the early word on the film, and then I felt totally deflated when Harry and Quint and some of the chat regulars began to tear the film apart in the days before release.

I’m glad, too, because walking into the film with all those contradictory reports bouncing around in my head, my expectations were completely impossible to pin down. All of that went away as that familiar green version of the Warner Bros. logo appeared and Don Davis’s score kicked in. The film kicks off with a bang (literally), and I found myself drawn into it almost completely. I liked the way we were reintroduced to the crew of the Neb, and I’m glad to see some differences in the dynamics between them. Some people really like the sense of isolation in the first film, like this one ship is pretty much all there is left of humanity, puttering around this ruined world with a tiny crew, trying to fulfill some prophecy. This time, we get a look at the larger world in which Morpheus is not some all-knowing sage, but is just one ship’s captain with a particular religious hang-up. Harold Perrineau, Jr. is a nice addition to the cast as Link, even if his domestic scenes could have been trimmed without hurting the film at all. His “Where’s my pus..?” entrance made me laugh out loud, and he anchors the ship’s crew with the same mix of gravity and glee that he brings to most of his roles. Harry Lennix, so brilliant a few years back in TITUS, doesn’t have a lot to do as Lock, head of security for Zion, but I’m willing to bet he plays a major war in the conflict that’s brewing throughout this film when we see it finally play out in REVOLUTIONS later this year. He does a nice job with what he’s got to do here.

And what do we make of the already infamous “rave” scene? Well, for one thing, I think it’s asinine to call it a rave. Suggests to me that many critics have never been to a rave. Every single one I’ve ever been to has been empty bacchanal, desperate partying with little or no real joy. The celebration at Zion is something entirely different, and I’d even argue that it’s crucial, just like the love scene that unfolds at the same time. There is a war going on... man versus machine... and these people in Zion have things that they can share that the machines will never understand, no matter how long they study us. Things like simple physical pleasure, emotional release, and sexual chemistry. Neo and Trinity don’t just bond over shared danger or a common purpose. There’s genuine heat between them, and in the face of possible death, it makes sense to reaffirm the charge of life that comes from intimacy with someone else. That’s what those people are celebrating. That’s what makes them dance. No machine would ever think to dance as a way of expression. It’s not logical. It’s not reasonable. It’s pure visceral emotion, and even if the scene goes on too long for its own good, it manages to establish that there is joy in this world, something good worth fighting for. The rest of the quiet moments in Zion before things really get going are spent establishing some of the crucial questions of the world, in particular about that strange symbiosis that humans have with their machines. Anthony Zerbe is one of those guys who showed up all over the ‘70s in SF films, and it feels like a sly nod by the Wachowskis to include him here as Councillor Hamann. I thought this whole section of the film flew by, to be honest, and there was plenty going on to keep me interested. In particular, I’m curious to see where the Wachowskis are going with the idea of Agent Smith in the real world. This moment, early on in the film, was the first thing to suggest that maybe the rules we learned in the first MATRIX aren’t the real rules. A lot of this film seems to be devoted to pulling the rug out from under us. We may think we know what’s going on, but it seems like the Wachowskis have more surprises up their sleeves, and that what they’re really doing is more ambitious and multi-layered than we originally imagined. Before I knew it, Neo and Morpheus and Trinity were off to see the Oracle, and that’s where the film kicked into high gear for me. If it’s really 45 minutes or so before they head into the Matrix, I didn’t notice, and I don’t think there’s much you could cut without screwing up the structure of what’s still to come.

I don’t want to spend my whole review rebutting someone else’s opinion of the movie, because in the end, it doesn’t matter to me if someone else enjoys the movie. It’s not like I have to have someone else’s approval before I can enjoy a film for myself. In this case, though, one of the sections from Harry’s review really stuck out for me as I watched the film. He got hung up on the mention the Oracle makes of anomalies in the programming of the Matrix and how those glitches are what we see as vampires or ghosts or werewolves or aliens. He went on to complain about not seeing werewolves in the film. Personally, I can’t think of an idea I would have liked less. I took the Oracle’s meaning as a metaphorical one, a few examples of the many ways in which the fabric of this world can come undone. All of the material that is laid out by the Oracle is rich and dense and fascinating, and it’s precisely this kind of moment that makes me a fan of these films. The Wachowskis have disguised these films of ideas as action movies, and the big joke in the early reactions has been that people seem disappointed by the kung-fu or let down by the fact that they can see some seams in the CG work, and very little seems to have been written about the new narrative knots that the Wachowskis seem determined to tie in what has come before. When the fight between Neo and the hundred Agent Smiths begins, there’s an arrogance to Neo. He’s sure he’ll be able to defeat this foe. I enjoyed watching his gradual realization that he’s facing something he doesn’t recognize, something that stands outside of the code he has encountered before. It’s only once he has come to the conclusion that he can’t win that he takes flight and leaves the Smiths alone. It’s a bravura sequence that takes the ideas of CGI stuntwork that we saw used in BLADE II and expands upon them brilliantly. Is it 100% perfect? Nope. But if we didn’t have filmmakers who were willing to push the envelope and risk failure, we’d never see any progression in the art form. I’m willing to cut the Wachowskis the same slack that I’ll cut Ang Lee when I see HULK. To me, it’s all about storytelling. If you’re using these cutting edge effects to show me a world I’ve never seen before, I’ll meet you halfway. There are risks here, and the rewards belong to us, the viewers, as we’re treated to these remarkable visions. When I was working with the motion capture guys on the AICN pilot for Comedy Central, they’d just finished a stint recording mocap stuff for this fight, and their description of what to expect just barely scratched the surface of what they actually attempted.

The scenes with The Merovingian and Persephone are probably my favorites in the film. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus visit a French restaurant to meet these two and to request the release of The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), a mysterious figure who may hold the answers to some of the big questions that the Oracle posed for Neo. Lambert Wilson is superlative as an old program, powerful and arrogant and dangerous, and he’s given the most enjoyably juicy material in the film to play with. His special dessert is hilarious, and the exchange between he and Persephone about the lipstick made me laugh so loud I honked. There’s real menace to him, though, the sense of power just barely kept in check. He may have once even been able to bring down the Matrix himself, but he’s long since abandoned such ideas, and he’s embraced the worst sort of decadent impulses of a reality that you shape with your will. Persephone’s request in exchange for helping Neo is a classic moment, and Monica Bellucci more than delivers in the scene. She’s perfect for the role, and may well be my favorite new addition to the cast. If there’s any fight scene in the movie that I felt was redundant or slow, it’s the one that takes place in the Chateau when Morpheus and Trinity have already left in pursuit of the Keymaker. There’s some nice choreography in the fight that bounces up and down the stairs in the large foyer of the place, but the scene feels like it goes on too long and doesn’t really expand on what’s come before. Up until this point, each action scene felt to me like something new, something that stretched the potential of the Matrix.

And that’s what the freeway film manages to deliver, as well. I honestly don’t know how any self-respecting fan of SF/action on film can look at this sequence and not acknowledge it as an invaluable addition to the pantheon. Again... I could run down a laundry list of other chase scenes and explain to you why I think each of those scenes works, but that doesn’t address this one. I am a big fan of seeing things onscreen that I simply can’t see in the real world, no matter what, and there are images and ideas in this sequence that are just preposterous. Morpheus and Trinity both use their knowledge of the unreality of things to challenge agents, the albino Twins, and the laws of physics to spectacular effect. And when the money shot comes... and you know which shot I’m talking about if you’ve seen it... it’s one of those classic images that is worth the price of admission all by itself.

The stretch of film that takes place from the end of the freeway chase to the closing credits is actually my favorite stuff in the movie, but it’s also the material that I feel least qualified to write about. I’ve only seen the movie once, and there is so much going on here, both verbally and visually, that I feel like I need to see it again before I can even begin to explain what I believe happens. More than anything, RELOADED feels like a film about questions, and I pray that REVOLUTIONS is a film about answers. There is so much that happens in this 30 minutes of film that changes everything that’s come before that it feels like we’ve wandered into another film altogether. The Architect, as played by Helmut Bakaitus, is infuriating, smug, annoying, and fascinating. He doesn’t remotely sound like a human being as he lays things out for Neo. He speaks with the precise language and the labrynthine syntax of a machine, and the things he lays out seem to indicate that we haven’t been told the truth about anything up until this point. His scene with Neo changes the entire direction of the movies up until this point, and I think it’s exciting to speculate about just where we might be headed as everything comes together in the last film. The last five minutes of the film in particular set up some incredible things, and I’m dying to see how they’ll be resolved.

Technical credits are exemplary in the film. Bill Pope’s cinematography is hyperclear, exaggerated reality wrapped in green filters, and it’s impressive how specific his vision of The Matrix is. Owen Patterson’s production design allows us to believe that this is indeed the same world we saw in the first movie, but that we’re finally seeing different corners of it. I love the Don Davis score, which seems to embrace melodramatic orchestration in concert with techno production, a strange mix that pays off beautifully. John Gaeta spearheads an effects department that seems determined to produce genuine art, wringing it out of their computers by brute force if necessary, and they deserve as much praise this time as they did in ’99. David Ellis, director of FINAL DESTINATION 2, was the second unit director responsible for the live-action work on the freeway scene, and if this doesn’t prove him as some sort of master choreographer of mayhem, nothing will. Everyone seems to have risen to the challenge laid down by the Wachowskis with admirable skill and passion.

Is this a perfect film? No. It’s not. But it’s the kind of film that I want to embrace for sheer ambition. It’s easy to pump out hollow crap and empty thrills for summer audiences, and if there’s any film that could have taken the easy road, it’s MATRIX RELOADED. Fans would have been happy with more bullets, more kung-fu, and big crazy explosions, but the Wachowskis are determined to do something else with these films. Until I see REVOLUTIONS in November, I’m not sure what I think of this series overall, but I know that not since BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 in 1989 have I been this hooked by the ending of a film, this ready and eager to see what’s next.

So where does this leave us as viewers? Where does it leave me as a reviewer? I’ve written straight through, missed the screening at Fox, stolen a few hours sleep to help me clear my head, come back to another 2000 words, and I don’t feel like I’ve even started to scratch the surface of THE MATRIX RELOADED. In the end, that’s probably the highest praise I can offer the Wachowskis, and I’ve got a feeling it’s exactly what they intended.

"Moriarty" out.

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