Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

I think The Matrix is great. I have done ever since I first saw it at the cinema in 1999.

I was also fairly nonplussed by it, and all its sequels, retreading as they were such well-worn sci-fi ground, but that doesn't mean that I don't like it.

After all, they were retreading it very well.

Over the past decade I've found The Matrix movies to be thought-provoking, intelligent, mindless, visually impressive, exciting, and unashamedly science-fiction. Really – that entire first film, including all that mundane stuff in Neo's original life at the start, looks unequivocally like a science-fiction movie.

As if the title itself wasn't enough of a giveaway.

After all, virtual reality was the 1990s' equivalent of the old revelation that it had all been a dream. "The matrix" had even been the name of the virtual reality landscape that had been a mainstay of Doctor Who's homeworld for the decade following his 1976 story The Deadly Assassin.

So, as I first watched The Matrix in the cinema that 1999 evening, I felt it was somewhat going through the motions. In fact, for my money, they presented the reveal a little early on. How soon was it that Neo was freed – maybe half an hour into the film? Oh well, always leave 'em wanting more.

The rest of the movie unfolded a great tale wrapped up in a truly awesome backstory. This was our future, one in which mankind had ultimately become so dependent upon machines that we were now conceived and grown in ignorance of them. Men and women lived their entire lives in virtual reality, never aware that it was not real.

I only really had two problems with that first instalment –

1. It was broken up with so much mindless violence. Seriously, my mind wandered so much during all the shooting that I believe I actually nodded off. I've never understood the appeal of martial arts. Always leave 'em wanting more.

2. On the way back to my friends' flat afterwards, I had a very long disagreement about its premise, which for me didn't hold together.

The matrix simulated the world of 1999. And it was also old. So when it had first started, the simulated date must have been another year, for sake of argument maybe 1960.

With different people living in the world of 1960, (different to the actual people who'd lived in the actual 1960) it really wouldn't have been very long before matrix-history diverged from the real one. They'd have made different choices. They'd have married different people and had different children. Inventions such as Neo's mobile phone could not have been invented the same way by different people, and accordingly technology could not have developed along similar lines. The matrix's version of "1999" should have been quite a different place to the real one.

But hey, maybe it was, if Neo's ancient computer was anything to go on.

Or, maybe it was, as in maybe the point was that we live in the matrix's alternate version of history, yet what followed seemed to imply otherwise.

Four years later, in 2003, the real world (well all right our world) had duly moved on too.

I found myself over at Herschel's watching The Animatrix - a collection of nine cartoons that tied-into The Matrix and its upcoming cinema-sequels. The one that really impressed me was The Second Renaissance, (strangely in two parts) which fleshed-out the fictional world's backstory admirably.

To the cinema then, and the long-awaited live-action sequel, that had been years in the making, The Matrix Reloaded.

Oh. Dear.

Don't get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the middle of this one too. It's easy to criticise a story that you haven't really followed. I guess what threw me was that this no longer appeared to be set in any world that I recognised. Time had moved on in the story (a device I've always found distancing), and there was a long nightclubish sequence that fairly disinterested me, for similar reasons to why nightclubs do.

But terrific execution though.

Neo's fight in the park against all the Smiths. Dazzling, and captivating as the odds just keep on going up, until eventually he can only run away from them. That whole long chase sequence on the motorway was so intense that it was worth the cost of the ticket alone! Even the trailer for the next one – how on Earth can he beat all those Smiths?

Six months later when The Matrix Revolutions came out, sure enough I missed it. About three months after its release, on 15th January 2004, I hauled myself up to Leicester Square where one of the few cinemas in the country still screening it was.

This one was about all-out war between man and machines. It was… err… kind of slow. Half an hour before the end I was so tired and hungry that I began to laugh at it! When, at the end of the film, one of the characters declares with conviction “It… doesn’t make sense!” my chuckling turned to coughing in a vague attempt to prevent myself from spoiling it for the rest of the audience. The only thing longer than that movie was its own closing credits. Sigh… three out of ten that one, not in Bill and Ted’s league at all… :)

What a come down. Still, at least I would never have to sit through that again.

Leaving the cinema, I passed an advert for visiting New Zealand.

The following month, I got on my very first flight to Kiwiland. It appeared to me to be the longest flight in the world - 24 exciting hours seated in a metal tube, flying to the opposite side of the globe. Any further, and I could have saved time by going the other way. I'd had little sleep beforehand too.

Fortunately they had in-flight movies to make the time go by quicker.

Unfortunately some bonehead had booked The Matrix Revolutions, which had the opposite effect.

Well actually there were lots of other movies available, but 'inevitably' I dipped into the start of this one again. Because it was there. And so it began to wear me down into submission.

It still amazed me that there was no recap of the second film to kick off with. It also began to strike me just how laced with philosophy the script was.

Oracle: "... the real test for any choice is having to make the same choice again, knowing full well what it might cost..."

Prophetic words – the Oracle would have maybe known that just a few months later I would make the same flight again, for the second of five times. (to date)

Anyway after Hong Kong, I changed planes and was put in a seat with only a fuzzy, malfunctioning screen. This time during the film I actually managed to nod off for a little while... (hey – I'd had half a night's sleep and then been up for about 24 hours!)

When my eyes shortly heaved open again, (sleep on flights is never real sleep) something resembling Vision On appeared to be showing. Nope, that was Neo and Smith chasing each other around at high speed. All those glossy high-definition effects reduced to such a tiny, snowy image. Oh the irony.

It had been good to see Smith arguing with the Oracle about predetermination and choice, with as usual no resolution to the paradox. Talking to people in NZ, it began to strike me that there weren't many other films that I had seen that had got to grips with this sort of thing. In fact, I've never seen any film really wrestle with it. That we trust the evidence of our five senses unquestioningly, making every decision a faithful one, and none of them therefore logical, was something I'd long tried to discuss with people without coming across as weird. Were these sort of ideas what seemed to so excite others about these films?

I have a particular keenness to watch things in chronological order. (I once watched Memento like that) If I ever sat through the Matrix films again, I wanted them to be in the right order, with The Animatrix broken-up accordingly.

(Today I'd order them The Second Renaissance Part I, The Second Renaissance Part II, The Matrix, Program, World Record, Matriculated, Detective Story, Kid's Story, Final Flight Of The Osiris, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and Beyond)

Alas, about a month ago, ITV decided to screen the live-action movies over three Monday nights, but without The Animatrix anywhere on the their schedule. Oh well, always leave 'em wanting more. I rewatched them anyway.

A decade hasn't diminished how impressive the first one is. The only thing that seemed ever-so-slightly dated was the use of the phrase "A.I.", which I don't think I've really heard in a while.

What it did suffer from though was a slightly more objective attitude from myself. This time, I could not possibly countenance the notion that anyone, man or machine, would design computer programs that could only carry out their functions through the illusion of being a person or other physical thing. For example, to 'follow' Neo (a ridiculous notion to begin with) the illusion of a tiny insect has to be created and gruesomely inserted into him. Umm, why? Yet this central conceit is copied to enormous degrees throughout the entire series.

Worse, Neo then wakes up and thinks the whole insect-insertion was a dream. Doesn't he notice that the time has moved-on? That he's no longer at work? That he has no memory of having travelled home from work? Even if his clock has been adjusted, he'll pretty soon find it to be out-of-sync with everyone else's.

Maybe he assumes he overslept.

The following week, The Matrix Reloaded still suffered from the jump forward in narrative, but benefited from the last movie still being quite fresh in my mind. At the end, ITV hilariously cut-out the 'next time' trailer. These days, you'd have thought they'd have wanted that.

The week after that, The Matrix Revolutions also benefited from a mere week having passed, especially since, as mentioned earlier, it contains no recap. The whole story made some more sense to me, but still suffered from being built upon such a flawed concept. Outside of the matrix, there is even a simulation of a train station for programs to wait inside!

And yet, how much of this have I just got wrong or failed to understand? If I acknowledge that I don't fully understand it, then I can hardly level criticisms.

Is the matrix really a representation of the whole world, as I assumed, or just one big city? In the first movie, when Neo is taken to meet the Oracle, he is driven down a street that he is familiar with. Highly unlikely if the matrix contains an illusion of the entire planet. When Neo fights Smith at the end, while all the many other Smiths just stand around dumbly watching and not fighting him also, it seems as though everyone in the entire matrix has been turned into a Smith-zombie.

Speaking of Smith, top marks throughout all three films have to go to Hugo Weaving for his performance in the role. Putting so much thought under the surface of such a two-dimensional character makes all his scenes thoroughly watchable.

This morning I rounded-off my second viewing of the series by borrowing The Animatrix off of Herschel once again.

This certainly made more sense this time around.

The first half of Final Flight Of The Osiris still does little for me (fighting... urrr), but the second half is just the sort of stuff that I want to see more of. It's a canon Matrix story, that ties-in and everything. Great.

The same can be said of The Second Renaissance and Kid's Story, which this time I was able to connect to the kid character in Reloaded.

Program I can't even remember now. Umm... nope. Hang on, I'll put the DVD back in. AH! Right, got it. Program does little for me, but is okay, retreading as it does the choice that Cypher made in the original movie. World Record also did little for me, but then I didn't understand what was happening.

By default, Beyond must have been the one about the girl looking for her cat, which as a cat-lover I found fascinating, except that her cat seemed to get forgotten towards the end.

With reference to my earlier point about dates progressing in the Matrix, this also features a fairly clear reference to four years having passed since the first movie:

Unless that's the year 2203.

From here to the end of the disc, The Animatrix kicks butt.

A Detective Story, like Final Flight Of The Osiris, fits very comfortably into the world of the movies. It features Trinity fighting agents, and is told from the point of view of a new detective character who sadly never quite makes it out alive. This was good, exciting stuff.

Also, with reference to my earlier point about technology diverging from our own history within the Matrix, this also features different cars, computer-screens, and has a whole design all of its own.

Finally, the last short, which I have completely forgotten watching in 2003, is now my favourite. Matriculated had a story that lost me towards the end, though I figured out what I must have missed, but also had incredible visuals throughout.

I was similarly impressed by the dialogue. Here Raul is preparing a captured machine to be plugged into its own personal Matrix in order to manipulate it into choosing to help the humans instead of trying to enslave them.

Alexa: "Will it – Do you think it'll convert?"

Raul: "To convert is its choice to make."

Alexa: "Do you think maybe we ought to reprogramme it?"

Raul: "No. We can't make slaves of them."

Alexa: "Because that would be simpler."

Raul: "We won't beat the machines by making them our slaves. Better to let them join us by choice."

Alexa: "Make them believe that the right choice is the one we want them to make."

Raul: "Alright, yes, machines are tools, they're made to be used. It's their nature."

Alexa: "To be slaves."

Raul: "That's why we can show them a better world. Why they convert."

Alexa: "But that world we show them isn't real."

Raul: "It doesn't matter."

Alexa: "Well I'm afraid they'll figure out that we've made-up the thing in our heads."

Raul: "They can’t tell the difference. To an artificial mind, all reality is virtual. How do they know that the real world isn't just another simulation? How do you?"

Alexa: "Well I know I'm not dreaming now, because I know what it's like being in a dream."

Raul: "So dreaming lets you know reality exists."

Alexa: "No, just that my mind exists. I don't know about the rest.

With terrific orchestral music throughout, The Matrix trilogy – all four parts of it – is still great.

(available in digital form here)


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