Well, for today, I thought that I’d take another look at a really interesting collection of short cyberpunk films from 2003 called “The Animatrix”.
Although I saw these short films when I was a teenager (including seeing the first short film at the cinema), I pretty much completely forgot about them until I happened to see a really cool “Blade Runner”-themed anime short by Shinichiro Watanabe last year. A while later, I read that he had also directed one of the shorts in “The Animatrix”. So, I thought that I’d revisit it.
Before I review this short film collection, I should probably point out that – to get the most out of it – you need to have watched all three “Matrix” films (yes, even the second two films!). Although the collection does include several stand-alone stories, quite a few of them rely on the viewer having some knowledge of the “Matrix” films. Likewise, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.
Plus, I should probably also warn you that “The Animatrix” contains some FLICKERING LIGHTS– although I don’t know if they’re fast or intense enough to cause issues.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Animatrix”:
“The Animatrix” consists of nine short animated cyberpunk films (revolving around the mythos of “The Matrix”) by a range of artists and directors. These films include everything from historical drama, classic science fiction, film noir, traditional cyberpunk, surrealism and dystopian sci-fi.
One of the first things that I will say about this collection is that almost every short film has a different art style. So, on a purely visual level, it’s a really interesting collection. These art styles include everything from various types of anime, to more European-style art, to early 2000s CGI, to vaguely Richard Linklater-style surreal realism, to trippy 1960s-style artwork. Seriously, there is a really interesting blend of art styles.
One awesome thing is almost every film in the collection takes an intelligent approach to lighting. Many of the films either contain beautiful high-contrast lighting or ominously dystopian gloom. Best of all, even the scenes set during bright summer days often have a very harsh and stark quality to them. Seriously, I cannot praise the lighting in this collection highly enough!
In keeping with the gothic atmosphere of the “Matrix” films, most of the stories have a slightly gloomy or dystopian tone, with few to no happy endings to be found. But, the collection contains a really good mixture of thrilling action, chilling horror and tragic science fiction.
However, although some of the stories work well within their 8-10 minute running time, a few feel like they’re trying to do too much or too little. A good example of this is probably “Program” – where the story ends with an unforeshadowed plot twist and the sense that it’s just a small segment of a much larger story.
This is contrasted with the two-part “The Second Renaissance” which, although it contains some cool “Blade Runner”-style location designs, “realistic” anime art, some vaguely Indian-style art, some Isaac Asimov-esque plot elements and some chilling scenes of horror, often feels a bit too expositional.
Then again, it’s designed to be a history lecture from the distant future, so this might explain the exposition-filled narrative style. Although it’s cool that the Wachowskis wanted to show the backstory to the “Matrix” films, I can’t help but think that this backstory would work better as a graphic novel or a prose piece than an animated film.
On the positive side, the stand-out films in this collection include films like “A Detective Story”. This is a film noir-style anime directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, which follows an old-fashioned gumshoe who has been hired to look for Trinity.
Although the plot of the film isn’t that complex (although there are a decent number of background details etc..), it is wonderfully atmospheric and stylish. Not only do a lot of the background details have an “old newspaper” kind of look to them, but there’s also stuff like steampunk technology, jazz music, and almost monochrome artwork too. Plus, it’s a cyberpunk film noir anime from the creator of “Cowboy Bebop” 🙂
Then there’s “Beyond” – which follows a teenage girl who is looking for her lost cat. Whilst searching, some local boys tell her about a “haunted” house where the laws of physics don’t apply. The house is, of course, a glitch in the Matrix.
This film has a vaguely “Studio Ghibli”-like quality to it and yet also somehow manages to contain a good mixture of slightly creepy “Silent Hill”-style horror and light-hearted whimsy. It’s awesome!
There’s also “World Record”. This is a film about an elite athlete who exerts himself so much during a race that he briefly disconnects from the Matrix.
Not only does this film tell a focused, self-contained, character-based story – but the art style is really interesting too. It has a hint of art nouveau, a hint of anime, a hint of old western comics and probably a load of other stuff too. Seriously, the visual style of this short film is really distinctive and unique.
There are also a few films that sit somewhere in the middle. “Final Flight Of The Osiris” is a good example of this.
Although it includes some beautifully sensual romantic moments, some dramatic robot-based scenes and some backstory to the events of one of the two “Matrix” sequels, it isn’t perfect. For starters, the dated CGI animation looks like something from a cutscene in a Playstation 2 game and, secondly, the story sometimes seems like it is more “style over substance”. Plus, it’s kind of depressing too.
Likewise, although “Kid’s Story” includes some cool “fluid realism”-style animation (that reminded me a little bit of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life”), the actual story of the film is somewhat generic. Yes, it provides some backstory for one of the characters in “The Matrix”, and Neo makes a brief appearance too. But, it’s neither bad nor good.
“Matriculated” probably fits somewhere in the middle too. Yes, the premise of the film is a really interesting one (eg: several human survivors try to convince a captured robot to join them via a VR simulation). However, the visual style of a lot of the film is too surreal for it’s own good. Plus, although the ending to this film is brilliantly chilling, it is also somewhat confusing too.
All in all, even though this collection is something of a mixed bag and is aimed firmly at fans of the “Matrix” trilogy, there’s some really cool stuff here. Yes, this collection is a bit on the gothic side of things (so, don’t expect it to be a “feel good” collection) – but this is handled fairly well. Plus, even though it isn’t perfect, it’s still worth watching just to check out some of the creative art and animation in many of the short films.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just get a four.