Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Transcendence has us scanning our memory banks in search of the best technophobic thrillers.
The Animatrix (2003)
The mere fact that The Animatrix exists is almost reason enough to watch it. The film dates to a very particular moment in Hollywood history, an age when a direct-to-DVD blockbuster spinoff could be greenlit if the original movie was popular enough, simply because people were buying DVDs hand over fist, and that market would surely never run out of gas, right? Plus, The Animatrix points to a time when The Matrix franchise was still one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, not yet a cautionary tale. Released between Reloaded and Revolutions, the film was a way to keep hype alive for those losing faith that anyone involved knew what they were doing.
Yet even for fans of the two Matrix sequels, The Animatrix has standalone appeal. An anthology film made up of nine shorts set in the Matrix universe and presented (but for one segment created via CG animation) in the style of anime, The Animatrix is hit and miss, but that’s largely because it’s an anthology film, and every anthology film in the history of the format has been hit and miss. Even the misses are packed with enough ideas and science-fiction tropes to set the mind wandering. And the hits feature some terrific riffs on the concept of the techno dystopia, fleshing out the setting of The Matrix just in time for the sequels to blow it all to hell.
This is particularly important in the case of The Animatrix’s best segment, the two-part “The Second Renaissance,” directed by Mahiro Maeda. The short aims to tell the story of how the world from The Matrix came to be, and at all times, it’s basically just an infodump. But thanks to Maeda’s apocalyptic visuals and beautifully disturbing designs, it becomes a kind of meditation on how class war—in this case, between humans and their machines—is ultimately inevitable and how whoever wins will inevitably exploit those who are defeated. It’s grim and unrelenting, but it’s also filled with some of the best imagery of the whole franchise, including a robotic trumpeter who looks more than a little like one of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. What’s most impressive is how Maeda creates sympathy for the film’s villains, laying the groundwork for the franchise’s denouement almost better than the Wachowskis did with two whole films.
The Animatrix often feels like little more than a pile of intriguing parts, but why complain when those parts are as enthralling as Takeshi Koike’s “World Record” or Shinichiro Watanabe’s “A Detective Story”? The omnibus offers several windows into a fictional world that now feels more than a little distant from the collective film consciousness. And if nothing else, The Animatrix is a fascinating anomaly; it’s hard to imagine a major studio, even the franchise-minded Marvel, bankrolling such an unusual, adventurous spinoff today. The Matrix franchise may have ultimately “failed,” but here’s proof that a lack of ambition was never the reason why.
Availability: The Animatrix is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.