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the cinematic roots of The Matrix


I was thinking about this as I went to see Matrix Reloaded and then again after I saw it, as I wrote my comments on it. My view of the special effects in Reloaded in particular changed since I wrote that review, when I remembered something that I had forgotten: that The Matrix is, at its core, Live Anime. I got carried away by the "hollywoodish action" feeling of The Matrix; when the first movie came out in 1999 not many expected it to be the massive hit it was. But it was a hit, and the rules changed: whatever the Wachowski brothers had planned for the series now also had to match the expectations of people regarding hit movies, something they probably didn't want to do (if you want to see how "mainstream" the brothers are, watch their previous movie, Bound). Unless you're James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, who seem to have the pulse on superhit audience expectations, it's probably better to stick to your guns, which seems to be what the brothers did in Reloaded. Things are perceived differently when you apply different expectations to them, that's not a surprise. My feelings towards the visual/cinematic style of Reloaded had been shifting since I saw the movie. In the end, I think most of the problems of the movie can be traced to apparent timing problems, some scenes that are too long, etc, which might have more to do with Reloaded and Revolutions being shot as one movie and then split in half, rather than as two. I've read that the Wachowski wanted to release Revolutions only a month after Reloaded but the studio would have none of it. That would probably have made a lot more sense, and maybe take the edge off all the unresolved threads in the second movie.

By the way, if I appear to be obsessive about this, it's because I am. :) Not about The Matrix in particular, but about storytelling in general, particularly for SF movies, which are the hardest to get right; the analysis I did of Minority Report in July last year comes to mind.

akira.gif
Tetsuo's powers start to
get out of control in Akira
Back to The Matrix and Anime. The by-now-overused effect of "bullet-time" was new in live action movies when the Matrix did it in 1999, but it was not a new idea. Anime had done it before. The Matrix is a homage to Anime in more than one way, many scenes and ideas are typical of good Anime. The philosophical discourse, sometimes overbearing. The ambiguous situations, even ambiguous endings. The two prime examples are Akira and Ghost In The Shell, both excellent movies that predate The Matrix by several years. In both, what we now call "bullet-time" is used extensively, sometimes subtly, and in fact Matrix Reloaded is much closer to them than the first movie was. Even the explosions look similar. The connections run deeper: for example, in Akira you have the government trying to control an experiment that (maybe) started a nuclear war: psychics so powerful they can't be contained. Through a freak accident involving one of these psychics, an innocent boy, Tetsuo, starts to develop powers of his own. The moment when Tetsuo fully manifests his powers for the first time he is escaping from a hospital. Standing in a corridor, he is surrounded: he concentrates, and the corridor expands around him. Then he blows his enemies to pieces. Any bells ringing? From the end of The Matrix maybe? :) And that's not all, as Tetsuo's powers develop he learns to fly among other things. His middle name might as well be Neo.

Ghost in the shell has so much imagery that echoes in The Matrix as well that it's difficult to know where to start comparing. From people with plugs all over their bodies back into a computer system (I know this is a common science fiction theme, but in the aesthetics are remarkably similar), to sentient software run amok in the real and virtual world, the connections are pervasive. There are other parallels, not just with Anime but with Manga (Japanese print comics) and comic books in general as well (Trinity's attire keeps reminding me of Catwoman, for example), which are much more complex in terms of story than people generally think (witness the richness of the story of the X-Men series of movies, which is basically watered-down content from the comic book stories).

Anyway, in the end what I mean is that put in the right context, The Matrix series is even better than in looks in close inspection. And, if Revolutions follows closely the tradition of Anime, we should prepare ourselves for an ending that might be ambiguous, even possibly unsatisfying by Hollywood's standards, as it would be if for example it was revealed that Neo was a piece of software, just like the Agents are (as I've mentioned before). Already Reloaded makes you feel a bit stupid because everything that you thought was true isn't, which I'm sure adds to the feeling of unease towards the movie. If the Wachowski brothers haven't bowed down to pressure (from the studio, the audiences, and so on) they will at least deliver a consistent vision of their own, and that's what art is about. They already have enough money to not have to care about box office receipts. Now they only have to show that they can break out of Hollywood's own crap-producing money-grabbing sequel cycle.

Categories: art.media
Posted by diego on May 25 2003 at 2:33 PM

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