The Ultimate Matrix Collection
by Doug Pratt
In a bold attempt to certify the greatness of all three films as a single entity, Warner Home Video is releasing a compelling 10-platter set entitled "The Ultimate Matrix Collection" ($80). Written and directed by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, the three films, "The Matrix" (1999), "The Matrix Reloaded" (2003) and "The Matrix Revolutions" (2003) were conceived as a single mythological story. Despite the gap in production between the first movie, which had to prove itself, and the second two, which were able to cash in on its success, the three films have very consistent lines and one epic narrative. Each of the movies appears on a separate platter.
"The Matrix" is accompanied by a 123-minute retrospective production documentary, "The Matrix Revisited," which was already released individually by Warner in advance promotion of the second two films. The second two movies are each accompanied by a platter of special features as well. Rounding out the collection is a platter devoted to the made-for-video animated short film anthology, "The Animatrix," also released in 2003 to promote the sequels. There are also three more platters of supplementary materials.
Each of the three films is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The transfers on "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" are identical to the previous releases. There are sequences that are deliberately grainy in both films, and contrasts seem a touch weak in places. But for the most part, the color transfer is sharp and finely detailed. The picture transfer on the original film is substantially improved. The older version looks brownish, while the new presentation has the properly thematic green tones and crisper shadings.
The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on all three movies appears unaltered from the previous releases. It could stand to have a little more power in some of the separations, but is essentially boisterous and satisfying. The films have an alternate French audio track in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The supplementary platters also have English captioning. "The Matrix" runs 136 minutes; "Reloaded" runs 138 minutes; and "Revolutions" runs 129 minutes.
Keanu Reeves stars as an individual, "Neo," chosen, and perhaps destined, to break free from a massive virtual world that is powered by humans who are kept in stasis by machines. He then helps lead other freed humans in a battle against the machines in the apparent "real" world, while at the same time he reenters the virtual world to search for the source and arbitrator of its design. There he battles against rogue programs that have begun to function independently.
With its computer-aided effects and culturally acute action scenes, the first film was a brilliant leap into 21st Century moviemaking.
It remains exhilaratingly entertaining despite its successors because its dramatic stakes, although deeply metaphorical, remain upon a graspable level of conflict.
The second film was a worthy follow up to the first movie. It has more fabulous, innovative action sequences, and, more importantly, it took the already rich intellectual content of the first film and exploded its precepts, widening and deepening not only its meanings, but its ability to engage and stimulate the most deeply held understandings in a viewer's cognitive system.
The third film, sadly, could not sustain the excellence of the first two. There are wonderful sequences in it -- spectacular action scenes and rich metaphorical constructions -- but the Wachowskis lose their storytelling sensibilities in the final hour. From the Big Bang to an acknowledgement of the roots of Reeves' character, there were many choices they could have gone with that would have created a satisfying but still ambiguous wrap up. The one they did choose, however, commits a graver sin than just being deliberately opaque. It is also boring.
The films always walk a fine line because most of the action is figurative, and different viewers lose their emotional bond with the films at different points in the story because of that. It is even easy to feel blase about the monumental freeway chase in the second film. When the choice is made at the end of the series to turn Reeves' character into one of those glowing light things that are popular at the end of ambiguous Japanese cartoons, what is left of a bond between the viewer and the emotional core of the film is severed. The images and symbols grind on, but they're no longer compelling. The irony is that throughout the three-film story, the hero continually questions the dogma surrounding him. But at the end, the filmmakers suddenly accept and embrace that dogma with the enthusiasm and sloppiness of an eager puppy, and you just want to get away.
Ah, but then there is the DVD. The failure of "The Matrix Revolutions" -- and it isn't a complete failure, just an annoying letdown that is magnified by the success that preceded it -- does not negate the many pleasures all three films have to offer. These pleasures are compounded by the DVD's supplements, which consciously take the movies to an even higher plane of wisdom and intellectual engagement.
Each film comes with two commentary tracks, one by three movie critics that didn't particularly care for the films all that much, and one by two professional philosophers who like the films a lot. As the Wachowskis explain in a text introduction to the commentaries, "The point was the juxtaposition of perspective so that in the implied dialogue that takes place between the two tracks, [viewers] would be offered reference points with which they might triangulate their own position."
The "philosophers," Cornel West (who has a bit part in "Revolutions") and Ken Wilber, take their time getting under way and speak less and less during the second two films, especially during the action sequences. But there are other instances where a listener's impulse is to stop and replay a segment a half dozen times to get a complete handle on what they are saying. Settling back, activating the English subtitles, and then watching the films and listening to their talk on all three movies is a great way to spend a day. It helps if you've had some basic exposure to Philosophy 101 (those numbers, incidentally, turn up several times in all three movies), but it isn't a total requirement, as they are almost as likely to say something as homey as, "The best way to know someone is to share a pizza with them," as they are to reference Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant or David Hume. They delve extensively into the concepts of free will and determinism, epistemology, and the links the films have to Eastern as well as Western religions.
West: "The dark subterranean dimension to this is, once one acknowledges one's limitations, how is one ever sure that the answers to one's fundamental questions, the answers to the 'Big Question' -- 'the meaning of life'; 'what is the nature of freedom?' If you're never going to be sure that there's an answer to those big questions -- 'why am I here?' -- then is it that the acknowledgement of one's limitations slides down a nihilistic slope, or is there still a way of coping, of wrestling, of grappling in a finite manner, and still preserving one's sense of meaning, always relative, and freedom, always contextual. That to me is part of the wrestling that's going on, not just in this film, but I think in some ways it's going on within the very souls of the Wachowskis themselves."
Wilber: "The other thing I'd point out in that regard, very similar, is we're following another train of themes, which is 'choice and choicelessness,' and choicelessness not in the neolistic sense, but in the sense of theologically what might be called, '100% acceptance,' a perfect acceptance of the divinity of everything. That's the choicelessness, in a sense, that we're talking about, versus the world of choice, and the Architect [a god-like character in the films] is going to say, 'Your problem has to do with choice,' and we find that coming up again and again and again, so that's another key ingredient of what we're hearing here."
West: "I think what we're actually seeing here is a particular philosophical anthropology, a conception of what it is to be human, and we've talked about limitation, but here, quite explicitly, we see the articulation of imperfection being integral to what it means to be human, that the very creator of the Matrix had to deal with the imperfections that were inescapable and therefore had to adjust the Matrix to those imperfections and limitations. So we're really, in a fascinating way here, getting an articulation of a vision of how we can define 'The Human,' how we can confine those acculturated organisms who are both prone to imperfection and yet at the same time exercises the very distinct gift of choosing. The political dimension of this is worth mentioning, too, because if we live in a civilization and empire that has thoroughly co-opted certain Messianic narratives, so that in the name of The One or in the name of Universal Humanity, you still reproduce the same structures of domination, forms of blindness, inability to cultivate a 'self' and a soul. Then in fact what the Wachowskis are saying, in part, is the choice that Neo is making is a choice that ought to be made by those who recognize the way in which salvation narratives have been co-opted by a corporate-capitalist world. Now that is very explicit, and that is serious. The Wachowskis come out of an American civilization which is a profoundly anti-intellectual civilization. It's a market-driven civilization, it's a business-oriented civilization, and to try and unleash Socratic energies in such a civilization is a fascinating project."
Wilber: "You know intellect has gotten a very bad rep. Intellect is sort of somehow meaning 'abstract' or 'dry, removed from life,' and it really just means, 'vitality.' It means a source of rich insight into what is happening. And so 'intellectual,' in the best sense, means you have to grapple with these issues, you have to use discriminating wisdom in the positive sense. You have to reach out and wrestle with these meanings as they apply in your everyday life. And certainly, all of the issues that we've looked at actually do. 'Do I have choice, do I not have choice?' 'Is there Fate or Free Will?' 'Am I suppose to love humanity abstractly, or in the flesh, and speaking of love in the flesh, just what does that mean? How high can love go? From body to mind to spirit, what happens if I don't integrate body and mind and spirit in my own self? Could it be that spirit appears as alienated machines trying to attack me? What happens if I don't integrate my own mind? Could it be that it, itself, is fragmented, nothing but programs, recycling the same old garbage over and over and over again? And what happens if I don't integrate body? It appears cut off from mind and spirit and self."
And yet, when they get to the end of "Revolutions," which they claim is an exposition of the spirit/machine metaphor, in a manner that doesn't just seem to be linguistically impossible but conceptually misconstrued as well -- that the machines are 'light,' i.e., 'spirit' -- the weakness of their arguments and analogies parallel the collapse of the film's visceral engagement. They speak elaborately and thoroughly about what the ending means, and point out plenty of evidence to back them up. But, to use a market-driven metaphor, you just can't buy it.
But again, no matter, sharing their time with the films on the whole is still a vastly rewarding experience. The pizza is great.
The critic talk is somewhat less satisfying, not because they're trashing the movies, but because they leave even longer gaps between comments as the films advance, and what they do have to say is less likely to energize your own thought process. Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson are pretty much of a like mind, too, about all three movies. They have a grudging respect for the first film, which they believe sets a standard that the second two fail to meet and that, furthermore, the choices made in the later films have soured aspects of the first movie, lessening its artistic value.
It is difficult not to laugh with them as they point out cliches and misfires, and they are aware, even with the third movie, of ideas and sequences that are successful, but disdain is a bowl of popcorn that is never far from their reach. While they're OK with the names of performers, they sometimes forget the names of fairly basic films ("The Night of the Lepus," "Outbreak") and make statements that seem completely off base (using "Metropolis" as an example, they claim that Fritz Lang was never interested in sequels, and even though one later corrects himself by citing the "Mabuse" films, the length and industry to which Lang did tackle long form, multiple-part features is never acknowledged).
The best critic tracks use the movie at hand as a text to teach viewers not only about the film but about filmmaking or, as is the case with West and Wilber, a great many other things. Here, that doesn't seem to be part of the assignment, and it can be draining to sit through the films being reminded of every shortcoming. You might as well wrap yourself in wet blanket before you start.
"The Matrix Revisited" documentary contains a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage along with comments from the members of the cast and the crew about their jobs and the project at hand. It shows how most of the big special effect sequences were accomplished and makes note of the filmmaking innovations that were involved. The special features on the "Revisited" platter in the ultimate collection differ from the supplement on the original DVD release of the documentary.
The most significant new extra is a collection of about three hours of music excerpted in the film, presented in audio-only format. There is also a 23-minute collection of raw behind-the-scenes footage from various action scenes, an 18-minute piece on the "bullet time" computer effects, and a 17-minute plug for the video game. The original DVD release came with a few brief featurettes, some of them offered as "hidden" menu selections, and brief promotions for other "Matrix"-related products. The best segment is a five-minute piece on the most enthusiastic fans.
Jada Pinkett Smith has a supporting role in the second two films, but she also shot a lot of live action footage for the video game, "Enter the Matrix," and 42 minutes of that footage has been compiled on the "Reloaded" special features platter. Most of the scenes involve setups for the characters to enter some passageway or online adventure, but there are a few special effects and a couple good one-liners. She also kisses Monica Bellucci in one segment. It can serve as a nice entr'acte between the second and third films if you're really making a day of it.
Also included on the platter are 138 minutes of production featurettes, most of which are fully involving. The major action sequences are thoroughly deconstructed, with extensive interviews and clips. A couple are shown in their entirety in a split screen, with the second screen shifting through various behind-the-scenes shots, storyboards and preliminary animation for every shot.
In another segment, all of the elements contributing to a single shot are deconstructed. Additionally, there is a substantial interview with martial arts director Yuen Wo Ping, and a look at the construction of the elaborate freeway set in Alameda. (When they were done, the filmmakers contributed the used lumber to a housing project in Mexico.) A couple of the pieces also appeared on the previous DVD release, but most are fresh. And one insight on our part -- there has been a lot of talk about making movies someday with avatars of Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe or that sort of thing, but perhaps more realistically, there are now, presumably in data storage somewhere, fully loaded image profiles of Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and who knows how many other of today's performers. If, for example, someone decides to make a film with Reeves a couple decades from now, and wants to include a flashback to his younger days, the data is waiting.
A few of the documentaries that appeared on the first "Revolutions" release are duplicated on that special features platter too. But again, most of the 165 minutes of material is new, including detailed examinations of all the big special effect sequences, segments on the recording of the musical score, the editing and other post-production applications, and the most enjoyable segment, a portrait of the extras who had to dress up in fetish costumes for the disco scene. (And can someone please tell us what the people of Zion eat?)
"Animatrix" is an unchanged duplication of the individual release. Several of the other cartoons are also very appealing, and the programs are supported by commentaries and other supplements.
The eighth platter has two highly stimulating documentaries. One, running 61 minutes, is a compendium of the allusions within the film to Western and Eastern philosophical thought, identifying the different concepts, such as Free Will, that the movies are specifically exploring, as well as the general philosophical principles that led to these concepts.
The second documentary, which also runs 61 minutes, is a dazzling look at the scientific foundations for the film, covering everything from virtual reality to the capabilities of robots. Author Steven Johnson points out the future is essentially here already; we just don't recognize it. "Video games are absolutely the quickest way to glimpse the future, and glimpse the future in a very serious way. We're actually exploring what it's like to interact with intelligent software that is posing as some kind of lifeform and interacting with us. Millions of kids, millions of people are interacting with these artificial, intelligent, kind of creatures every single day. It's become a part of life, but we don't think of it as being that significant because it's all off in this world of games, but in fact it's maybe the most interesting thing happening technologically right now."
Also included on the platter, in "hidden" menu options, are briefer pieces, apparently outtakes from the two documentaries, running a total of 20 minutes and looking at the meanings of the character names and other insights or trivia about the narratives (most of the car license plates in the trilogy, it turns out, refer to passages in the Bible).
A 94-minute production documentary looking at the combined shoot of the two sequels (and the videogame) is presented on the ninth platter. It contains prompts to shorter digressive profiles of various secondary cast and crewmembers and the work they perform, but those 82 minutes of profiles can also be accessed separately. The primary documentary skims over coverage of the shooting of the dramatic sequences but it gives you a thorough sense of how the major action scenes were staged. Better yet, it gives you a real sense of what the crew had to endure over the course of the two years it took to make the films. They shot the freeway chase first, knowing that they would need a long lead-time on the special effects (you kind of feel sorry for them, because they went through a monumental effort, building their own freeway and all, only to be trumped by "Bad Boys II" when the sequence finally made it to the screen).
Among other things, there is a look at some stuntmen doing test work in zero gravity, a demonstration of how dangerous blanks are and what they can do to an aluminum can (pretty much waste it), and a reminder, with the unrelated deaths of two cast members and September 11th, that there is no escaping reality on a movie set.
The 10th platter holds a wealth of still frame materials, most of it developmental artwork related to the two sequels. The storyboards, which have a variety of different styles, are presented in montage format, in 30 segments each running from a half-minute to several minutes. It is that variety of style that makes the section a page-turner. Arranged in alphabetical order, you begin to look forward to how each sequence will be presented. The remaining four sections, presenting characters/costumes (13 selections), vehicles (13 selections), big machines (11 selections), and sets/environments (51 selections), are in still frame format, with several stills and sometimes preliminary animation included for each selection.
While the characters and the locations are fairly understandable through the pictorial presentations alone, some of the vehicles and machines selections would have benefited from text introductions explaining each one's purpose or function within the films.
Also included on the platter are five trailers, 22 TV commercials, a Marilyn Manson music video for "The Matrix," a P.O.D. music video for "The Matrix Reloaded" and a nine-minute plug for a "Matrix" on-line game.
Finally, as a suitable conclusion to the marathon set, there is an excellent nine-minute music video combining the choral theme music from the films with a montage of preliminary special effects animation and footage from the two sequels. Crisply and smartly edited, it makes for an invigorating final splash of sensory input and leaves you feeling that perhaps it all was worthwhile after all.