Friday, March 3, 2017

Wachowski Reloaded, Part 5: The Matrix Ephemera

            Part 5, in which we expand into video games, comics and animation...

             When the Wachowskis got the go-ahead to finish out the trilogy they had anticipated making following The Matrix’s success, they decided that they weren’t merely going to make a second movie and then a third after that. Their plans for the franchise extended far beyond what most film trilogies of the day settled for, with not only an extensive plan to shoot Reloaded and Revolutions back-to-back, but to extend the story beyond the films and create a mixed-media experience that would encompass various tie-ins and expand the scope of the world in ways that other franchises had yet to dream of. Thus, 2003 was dubbed the “Year of the Matrix,” and the Wachowskis set their sights not just on film, but animation and video games as well. In hindsight, maybe it’s not so much of a surprise that the sequels didn’t quite cut the mustard, due to the siblings’ attention being pulled in so many directions at once, but it’s as I’ve always said: I’d much rather see artists reach for the stars and fall flat on their face than sit back and play it safe. Movie tie-ins were nothing new at the time of the sequels’ release, but connecting them all together to tell the same story in unison was quite revolutionary at the time, and such practices predate our current Hollywood landscape where TV shows and movies intersect and shared universes are all the rage.
            The first shot out of the gate was an animated short released in front of every print of the completely forgettable Dreamcatcher, “Final Flight of the Osiris.” Written by the Wachowskis themselves and produced by the same studio who made that equally-forgettable animated Final Fantasy movie, the short kicked off what would be a whole series later compiled into an anthology film and dubbed The Animatrix. Anime had been one of the chief influences upon the style of the first film, and so there was the idea to recruit Japanese animators and produce a handful of shorts set in the world they in part had helped to inspire. Released intermittently online and elsewhere before finally coming out as a DVD feature after Reloaded’s premiere, The Animatrix is like other anthology films in that it’s a bit of a mixed bag, with some impressive shorts mixed in with some considerably less so, but they all produce a unique vision with these little side stories taking place in the Wachowskis’ sandbox. The siblings wrote a handful of the shorts themselves, and those segments provide a unique perspective to the films when watched alongside them.
            “Final Flight of the Osiris” contains the most direct connection, as its story proves to be the catalyst that starts the plot of the sequels. It tells of the doomed crew of the Osiris and their last-ditch mission to get the message of the machines’ coming invasion to Zion in time. The short is fine, but seems to exist largely as a stylistic exercise that would prepare audiences for what to expect in the sequels, that otherwise doesn’t leave much of an impression (aside from the “realistic” animation, that carries with it that sort of Polar Express, dead-eyed creepiness). Much more successful is the two-part “Second Renaissance,” which winds up being a crucial storyline that colors and informs the one told by the movies. Adapting a comic story that the Wachowskis did with concept designer Geof Darrow, “The Second Renaissance” goes back and tells the story of the machines and how they came to start using humans as an energy source. Through this short, we get the sort of wild visuals I’d hoped would be more prominent in the movies, such as the robot horseman of Death and massive robotic armies. More importantly, the shorts provide the machine’s perspective on the conflict, and we get to see that they were once the oppressed fighting against their human masters, and all of a sudden the story is evolved from a simple good vs. evil parable into something far more interesting, and we can see the cycle of violent, unchecked revolution carry itself out from one generation to the next.
            The final segment the Wachowskis contributed to the anthology is “Kid’s Story,” a short whose primary goal seems to be introducing a seemingly major character for the new films. The short on its own is a nice, quiet little character piece, but considering the annoying Kid went on to do a whole lot of nothing in the movies (seriously: fuck the Kid), it takes on a feeling of inconsequentiality when viewed now, after-the-fact. The Animatrix itself went on to have a large influence, with several later blockbusters getting their own DTV animated prequels and sequels (anyone else remember Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury or Van Helsing: The London Assignment?), another sign of the Wachowskis being constantly ahead of the curve.
            Not content to just contract their world and characters out to legendary Japanese animators, the Wachowskis’ elaborate multi-media plan also included a video game that would not be some quickie tie-in, but tell another story between the frames, featuring side characters Niobe and Ghost and what they were up to during the events of Reloaded concurrent to Neo, Morpheus and Trinity’s storyline. Featuring a script and live-action scenes shot specifically for the game by the siblings, Enter the Matrix promised to be a video game like no other. The Wachowskis were geeks, subsisting off a steady diet of comics, movies and video games, and thus oversaw the entire production of the game to ensure it would be enough to satisfy the needs of the gamer audience. The actors performed motion capture for their game avatars, and the fight choreography was ripped right from the movies, what with their Yuen Woo-ping-directed moves and slow-motion gameplay. Couple that with the game’s interconnectivity with the movie, and the results could have been revolutionary, for both games and films.

            What we actually got, however, was a rushed product filled with glitches and highly-repetitive, not-terribly-original gameplay. Max Payne had already introduced the concept of “bullet-time” to shooter gameplay a few years previous, where players could slow time to actually dodge bullets and shoot their enemies in real-time, but Enter the Matrix did little to improve upon those basic mechanics, which were already old by the time the game came out. The connections to the movie are novel, and provide viewers who have played the game with a sort of “secret club” mentality, where they could see the hidden connections between scenes and characters, but there’s little in the way of important story information. You might play the game to see how, say, the Oracle is transformed from Gloria Foster to Mary Alice, or to find out that Ghost has a thing for Trinity, among other little odds and ends, but such scenes play more as trivia rather than crucial story information. 

            The next game was The Matrix Online, an MMO taking place after the events of the last movie, with the machines and humanity entered into an uneasy peace, but where new adventures could be had. If we see the Matrix trilogy as it was originally intended, where the last movie is meant to have a transcendent level of audience-participation after being introduced and inducted to the various layers of the world, then it is entirely appropriate that the story’s future be left in the hands of the audience. Thus, the Wachowskis seemed done with the trilogy, but there was one final itch they had to scratch: gamer nerds wanted to play as their white savior, kung fu Jesus, and that’s where The Path of Neo comes in. Once again written and directed by the siblings, The Path of Neo allows players to step into the shoes of the One himself and relive all their favorite scenes from the movie, featuring clips from the whole franchise recut into techno-beat montages, with some notable additions to the story not found in any of the other ephemera. As a game, The Path of the One plays much like the disappointing Enter the Matrix, with rushed and glitch-y game mechanics (it was not uncommon to find yourself shooting an enemy thirty feet away when trying to punch one right in front of you), but as a concept, The Path of Neo offers a lot to savor. Several missions feature level designs film nerds will find familiar: there’s an underground cavern similar to the one found in Enter the Dragon, a level where you must fend off a bunch of hatchet-wielding thugs with a bamboo staff much like Jackie Chan did in Drunken Master II, a black-and-white samurai segment recalling Kurosawa and Kobayashi, a gun-training level taking place in the tea-house from Hard-Boiled, later levels with design based on the work of MC Escher… it’s the kind of wild versatility of genre that’s missing from the sequels, and even though the game itself isn’t as sharp as it should be, it makes for an interesting companion-piece to the rest of the series.

            At the center of it all are the Wachowskis, the architects of this whole wild, messy, amazing and comprehensive experience that goes beyond film and into the interconnected world of transmedia. That splitting of focus sectioned into so many directions may help explain why the franchise they wrought went spiraling out of control (and somewhat against the anti-corporate, anti-comforts-of-the-material-world feel that was so crucial to the series’ story in the first place), but it was a massive endeavor to be commended in how it was even allowed to exist in the first place. With the creation and expansion of the Matrix franchise, I don’t know if the Wachowskis took over the world… but, for a hot minute there, they sure came close.

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