September 29, 2005

The Animatrix

The Matrix deserves some kind of award for the best movie based on the Worst Science Fiction Premise Ever. No, not the stuff about how reality is the dream of a collectively wired unconscious. That’s not a new idea, and in this case it is done well enough. I mean that awful, brain cell-killing bit about batteries that set poor James Prescott Joule to spinning like a dynamo in his grave.

The first Matrix movie worked by ignoring both the cause and implications of this egregious violation of the law of entropy. Unfortunately, when digging resumed, the holes only got deeper. The Animatrix was created as a bridge between the second and third Matrix movies (while the machines were swapping out drill bits, I suppose). It is a good example of how a bad premise can suck the life out of all that springs forth from it.

But it also proves what creative people can do when they are allowed to forget about said dumb premise and get on with telling good stories with interesting characters, not waxing on and off philosophical.

In actuality, the "bridging" material is found only in the first of the eight mostly self-contained vignettes. Rendered digitally by the Final Fantasy team, it is often indistinguishable from live action, and consists solely of telling us that the bad guys are on the way. Though tasked with that simple job, it manages to be more clever and cohesive that the sequels it segues to.

It takes real fortitude to wade through the second and longest of the vignettes (told in two parts, no less), in which the Matrix backstory is painstakingly explicated. A bad premise is bad enough. A bad premise painstakingly explicated is God awful, so intellectually empty it must be propped up by a top-ten list of hackneyed SF tropes that went stale back in the 1960s.

Made worse by attempts to weigh down the material with excessively literal cinematic references to every Important Historical Human Event in the past century. The result is a primer on "Why We All Suck" (in the future, everyone will apparently be channeling the ghosts of Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark, reason enough to pray for an apocalypse). It looks "profound," but it is a patina of profundity papering over miles of pretentious, self-loathing cliche.

It's sad to see such good animation sacrificed to such superficial material. Though if you forget about The Matrix, what we are actually left with is the backstory to The Terminator. It's The Terminatrix, really. It's less depressing if you think of it that way.

Thankfully, once we are whisked back into the world of The Matrix, not asked how it got that way or how it will end (eschatology should not be left to amateurs), things improve remarkably. An ad hoc group of Japanese animators were each given a theme and a boatload of Hollywood money to work with. The final product is as animated Twilight Zone, an ecclectic and often brilliant potpourri of stories and styles.

True talent will out, and here it does. But a potpourri it is, a succession of nibbles that whet the appetite but never truly satisfy. You wish The Brothers had spared us the Matrix sequels and instead done full justice to just one of these ideas by one of these directors.

In the end, though, what really recommends The Animatrix is the bonus material. You have to endure the requisite kissing-up, but the commentary is worth it. The mini-documentary about manga and anime is the most concise examination I've seen of the subject. Next time some non-otaku wants to know what the big deal is, pop in The Animatrix and watch this part first.

And then, instead of another one of those other Matrix movies, watch an anime series by one of the featured directors (Cowboy Bebop, to provide one example). It'll be time much better spent.

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