Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Netflix Disk in Quarantine: The Animatrix, part one

Back in 2003, I was a film student at the University of Minnesota. During a May-term American Studies class I made friends with another younger student who noticed a Matrix book I was carrying with me; we had many conversations about the film trilogy and she told me about this animated series, The Animatrix. I had not seen any anime before, renting this disk (probably at Hollywood on Hennepin Ave) was my first experience with it. I definitely enjoyed some of the following shorts more than others at the time, but I have never forgotten two very specific scenes from the first and second parts of The Second Renaissance. My two older kids were watching with me this time around; they were both equally disturbed by the seriousness of what they saw in these episodes, too. I think the order of the sequences is a good one; I had forgotten about what goes down in Matriculated, but after seeing it again, agree with its placement as the last story. It's not outwardly hopeful, exactly, but the idea it explores plants a pretty important problem-solving seed in terms of humanity fixing its destructive choices. I wish this didn't seem as timely or as relevant as it currently does, but here we are. 

The Animatrix, 2003. 

"The Animatrix is a 2003 American–Japanese animated science fiction anthology film produced by the Wachowskis. It is a compilation of nine animated short films based on The Matrix trilogy, which was written and produced by the Wachowskis. Four of the shorts were also written by the Wachowskis. The film details the backstory of The Matrix series, including the original war between humankind and machines which led to the creation of the titular Matrix." (Wikipedia)

1. Final Flight of the Osirus, written by The Wachowskis, directed by Andy Jones.

Beginning with a sexually-tense spar on the Osirus hovercraft, Thaddeus and his first mate, Jue, (inside the contructs of The Matrix) must unplug quickly when sentinals show up. After a chase, the crew of the Osirus soon discover more sentinels directly above Zion with drilling equipment poised to dig straight down. While the Osirus and its crew is ultimately destroyed, a message sent by Jue to warn Zion is successful (and is referenced verbally by Niobe in The Matrix Reloaded). 

A sweet, short little tale about love among soldiers in battle. Good use of color in the opening spar scene; characters very attractive. If you've seen The Matrix trilogy, which chances are, you will have if you're watching these, or even if you're just paying close attention, it's clear pretty early on (and considering the title) this will not end well. Unfortunate, but it's to-the-point and full of action.

2. The Second Renaissance part 1, based on material written by The Wachowskis, directed by Mahiro Maeda.

How did The Matrix become? Better yet, what events led to its creation? This story and its follow-up (below) explain. To summarize, mankind's greed, vanity, and corruption led to the creation of a race of computers to serve as domestic slaves and general lower working class. Made in man's image, these machines saw themselves as equals to human beings, or "real." When a domestic machine, BI66-ER (in a reference to Native Son's Bigger Thomas) was threatened with destruction by its human master, BI66-ER commits murder. This act and the subsequent lawsuit and ruling inspires the mass destruction of the machines, who resist and beg for mercy. Human beings, unwilling to acknowledge the machines' "realness" or right to exist among them, banish the remaining machines to an area in the Middle East, where they create their own civilization named 0-1. In contrast to humankind, the machines prosper well together. 

There are some very disturbing scenes in this piece together with its second part (the photo I used below is actually from one of the end scenes of this story but I felt it set the stage well for what was to come in part two). The bottom line in both stories is an upsetting one, one that I see unfolding today in 2020 American culture: the greed, vanity, and corruption that everyone wrote off as "individualism" or "the free market at work" has created a culture of hateful people who have no capacity for empathy. Now, someone might rightly accuse me of taking a bleeding heart liberal approach in trying to tie this into a fictional story about ROBOTS of all things, but I'll stand firm. You have to be a certain kind of person to abuse an animal just like you have to be a certain kind of person to see another human (or in this case, humanoid-looking being) as a thing, a mean to your own selfish end. Dehumanization of the enemy was used as a tactic in more than one war, after all, but unfortunately for us, it didn't stop there. Groups of people dehumanize each other every day.

While the animation and storyboards used here are quite skillful (think Metropolis with more color and violence) I think this story overall is a very cerebral one. It showcases the dehumanization concept in multiple ways, but most clearly in the scene (pictured above) that shows the gleeful kicking, bludgeoning, and ripping of clothes from a humanoid (done by a group of men to a female-featured machine) as the victim pleads with her assailants to stop, crying out, "I'm real!" This is very upsetting, I know, but the point here is to show us behaviors and assumptions that hurt because these things matter and because we, as humans, sometimes need a mirror held up to our own shittiness. Empathy, whether it's toward human beings, animals, or any other sentient or non-sentient elements, matters. Clearly (looking around and gesturing vaguely at everything happening) it's an idea that needs more emphasis.

3. The Second Renaissance part 2, based on material written by The Wachowskis, directed by Mahiro Maeda. 

Human beings unfortunately do not learn anything from the aforementioned unwillingness to coexist peacefully with the machines, despite the machines' desire (pictured left) to join the United Nations and to teach humans better, stronger methods in technology and economic advances. A war between the two sides begins, and Operation Dark Sky explains in detail what Morpheus meant back when he told Neo in The Matrix that the humans had "scorched the sky." The machines outwit the humans by creating the matrix and by using fields of people, not the sun's energy, as their power sources.

Everything being explored in part one is just as present here, but with the added bonus of a resolution: These are the illustrated failures of diplomacy as spurred by human ignorance and lack of empathy. How relevant. The two Renaissance pieces are in my opinion, the very best in this collection.

4. Kid's Story, based on material written by The Wachowskis, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe.

Story of "Kid," the eager would-be soldier from The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, who despite crediting Neo with his salvation from the matrix, actually saved himself.

This story reads a lot differently now that it did, initially. Teenagers on computers, depressed and alone, are a lot more common now than twenty years ago. My heart aches for them, then and now. Skateboarding scenes a little overblown, but tension well done among Kid, the teacher bucky about the ringing cell phone, and eventually, the agents (who like in A Detective Story, which I'll write up in a second installment), seem way slower and much more dense than in the films). Leaving us with a positive message on the computer screen---"You are not alone,"---was a balm to my soul. I feel like even then, we (as in Americans) should have been taking better care of the kids . . . 

5. Program, written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

Cis, a highly skilled swordswoman battles her mentor (and lover?) Duo inside a construct program of the matrix but after learning Duo is no longer interested in "red pill honesty" must choose whether to join him in leaving the real world or fight to the death in the artificial one.

This story is pretty short and to the point, but the style and aesthetic is pretty breathtaking throughout. If you've seen The Twilight Zone you'll appreciate the ending, very "Where is Everybody?", but with a successful resolution and a badass female protagonist. Another short and effective little story that captivates with its images.

6. World Record, written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, directed by Takeshi Koike.

After having his Olympic gold medal revoked due to drug use, world record-holding track star Dan Davis attempts to return to competition. The intensity of the race causes Davis to rupture muscles in his legs, drawing the attention of three agents within the stadium, but Davis continues his frantic pace, coming in just under his previous world record. During the race, a sentinel in the real world senses irregularities in the pod where Davis is plugged into the matrix. When Davis returns to consciousness he is confined to a wheelchair but despite the machines' best efforts, still manages to surpass expectations.  

A very visceral story; the running, the exertion, the bursting muscles (colors, illustration, sound) . . . all were quite tense. The introductory narration spoke of truly exceptional people having the ability to become aware of the confines of the matrix; this is a great story that describes such exceptionalism in a sort of unexpected way. I don't typically flock to stories about sport or sports people, but I did enjoy this as it was a unique insight. 

This got very long-winded, sorry for that, so the final three stories I'll write up in a separate post. Stay tuned!