Surely one of the most audacious visions in movie history, and one of the most enjoyable of the past decade, the cyberpunk/manga/anime-influenced Matrix took us places no other live-action film had before. Gun-toting kung fu-fighting computer rebels provided thrilling eye candy, with underpinnings of broad philosophical themes of truth, faith and independence. Nominated for Best Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Best Editing and Visual Effects Academy Awards, it won them all, marking the first time a Star Wars film (Episode I was released the same year) had lost the statue for special effects.
We're not sure what year it is, maybe two centuries from now, but the world looks just as it does today because it is all just an elaborate simulation run by sentient machines, with unwitting humans literally plugged into an enormous, diabolical apparatus. Following an Earth-devastating war, the machines require people to think that they are living full lives in the real world in order for their flesh-and-blood brains to generate sufficient electricity to power the mechanized civilization. It sounds pretty creepy, and it is, but it is also more than sufficient motivation for young Neo (Keanu Reeves), wise Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and lovely, tough-as-nails Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to fight back in every way they can.
The memorable moments are many, but the iconic lobby shootout is just one of those scenes that I--and lots of fans--can watch over and over on an endless loop. Almost the last half-hour of the movie in fact is non-stop action, bigger and wilder than audiences had any reason to expect in 1999.
Four years later, both of the sequels arrived, filmed back-to-back to help rein in the exorbitant budgets. If the first asked and answered "What is The Matrix?" then I suppose the next two central questions were "Who runs it?" and "How will it all end?" Sadly, neither of these topics was particularly compelling, at least not in the way that writer/director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski chose to explore them.
As with Back to the Future, the first movie ended on a high-note that sparked our collective imagination, but the sequels suggested a lack of a well-thought-out master plan for the rest of the series. Too much of the plot of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions involves a "dead" character returning and then wreaking havoc in both the virtual and real worlds, in ways that make little sense. There's a lot of fanciful talk that rings hollow, and too many scenes that simply do not advance the plot. The 15-minute car chase in Reloaded is pretty boss though, and the 20 solid minutes of man versus machine in Revolutions is mostly exciting. Mostly.
Bridging the gap between the first and second movies was a series of nine brilliant Japanese-style animated shorts, The Animatrix. The cleverly scripted, fast-paced stories expanded upon the mythologies of this future world and its known characters, in addition to introducing new faces who would appear in the sequels We also learned more about the mechanics of The Matrix itself as a technology. Best is the two-part "The Second Renaissance," written by The Wachowskis, which serves explain how we humans ran (or will run…?) afoul of those ruthless machines.
Anyone who has a clear memory of the original theatrical presentation of The Matrix, or the first DVD release, will no doubt notice the drastic boost in greens to better unify its look with the more extreme sequels. Detail remains outstanding, particularly in actors' pores during their frequent close-ups, right down to the assorted textures of leather and beyond. There is minimal organic film grain, but many scenes are smoky and so there is at times a bit of unwelcome digital haze, with some artifacting across soft textures and ringing in the Village Roadshow Pictures logo at the beginning.
Blacks are deep and colors are preserved amazingly. The skintones inside The Matrix are, by design, not quite right, while the real world offers its own less fantastic yet no less stylized look, full of pasty faces and a lot of blues and grays. Occasionally a scene like The Oracle's kitchen commands our attention with its bold colors.
The many specifics and distant bits of activity throughout Zion's cavernous landing bay, and most everywhere else this last human city as revealed in Reloaded, make full use of a well-calibrated big-screen, especially since all of these titles are a wide 2.4:1. Zion takes on much warmer hues during the extended firefight of Revolutions, and all three offer outstanding picture quality overall.
Unlike the previously released HD DVD of The Ultimate Matrix Collection, this Blu-ray box includes The Animatrix in full high-definition, and it is a wonder to behold. I feel like I'm seeing for the first time the true beauty of "Final Flight of the Osiris", state-of-the computer animation in its day. Each tale has its own distinct color scheme and visual style, some with crisp lines that reproduce magnificently.
In response to some recent buzz about a flaw with the Matrix Revolutions Blu-ray, I went back and re-watched it, both on my go-to PlayStation 3 and also on a newly-arrived Sony BDP-S350 deck. Indeed, as we were informed, at the 1:45:46 mark, during a slow-motion fight scene in silhouette, there is a brief, subtle glitch: Neo is taking a kick at Smith, his leg goes up very gradually and then, right as lightning flashes outside the window, it jumps up sharply, as if one or more frames might be missing (The straight lines of the window frame in the background make it easier to detect.) I stepped through the individual frames to confirm the problem.
The glitch was there on the BDP-S350 as well, only more pronounced. (Gotta love the PS3!) At that same point, the image freezes and Neo degrades into horrible blockiness for a fraction of a second before the shot skips ahead a bit to continue. There's no frame advance control that I could find on the BDP-S350 remote so I could not study specific frame data as on the PS3, but I did watch the scene several times and error repeated on every pass. At this time we are not aware of any formal replacement plans by Warner.
Perhaps because The Wachowskis were creating their own fully realized world, these movies were designed and mixed with an incredibly immersive 360-degree soundfield that embraces us and does not release us until the very end of the closing credits. The Matrix in particular displays outstanding directionality with aggressive multichannel fades, as well as discrete placement of voices and approaching police sirens, all to help achieved the desired mind-boff. Perhaps the most famous scene, "bullet time" up on the roof of the government building, is a trippy, swirling exploitation of the five loudspeakers and subwoofer, never more so than in this Dolby TrueHD master. The pinging of brass bullet casings landing all around gives our tweeters a workout, while bass is smartly deployed to underscore the scariness of the real world. Even the absence of sound inside loading program is a bracing dose of otherworldliness.
The size and scope of the sprawling Zion rave party (remember when I mentioned scenes that don't advance the plot?) in Reloaded are impressively conveyed, and the attack of dozens of identical bad guys is a surround tour de force. Oh, and a lot of stuff goes "Boom!" in Revolutions.
The Animatrix is in its own way as big and impressive as its live-action counterparts, with both power and precision in every story. And as a comforting bonus, much of the buzzing or popping we hear across eight hours of movie watching can be attributed to the high-tech nature of the sci-fi environment, with electricity everywhere. The rest of that noise is just a cue to buy new gear.
Not much of the more than 35 hours of bonus content here is new, but it's all pretty good. Warner's "In-Movie Experience" takes advantage of Blu-ray's Bonus View technology to post pop-up windows of relevant inter-related interviews and behind-the-scenes footage as the movie plays. Excellent attention was paid in matching hours of interviews and clips with the final film, sometimes just a few choice words of wisdom as long as they expand our understanding of the film. Captions are provided to explain who is speaking, plus multilingual subtitles are available.
The Matrix Revisited, originally released by itself to assuage the ravenous fan base, delves into the making of the first movie, plus early work on the sequels, for over two hours. "Behind The Matrix" is the umbrella for a large group featurettes. To be honest, some of them do nothing more than recount a single, dubious anecdote, and so I will not go into detail about every one. "Follow the White Rabbit" collects the branching video segments included on the first-ever Matrix DVD. "The Music Revisited" is a playable index of club music against the trademark image of "digital rain."
All three movies carry at least a pair of commentaries. Philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber recorded extremely enthusiastic tracks, but while this is a case where we quickly realize that not all people, no matter how smart, are destined to create enagaging narration, it's even sadder when they try to find deeper meaning in the disappointing sequels. Fun fact: West appears on screen as a member of the Zion council in Reloaded and Revolutions. The tracks from film critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson were very unusual in that they all panned The Matrices, and here sometimes they savage the films anew, sometimes they just kind of sit there but surprisingly, sometimes they find a lot to like despite themselves. Exclusive to The Matrix is a cast and crew commentary by Carrie-Anne Moss, film editor Zach Staenberg and visual effects supervisor John Gaeta. This is by far the most interesting overall, as each comes out of his or her own area of expertise to really evaluate the movie from a variety of angles. Also for Matrix only is a track of composer Don Davis' musings interspersed between his isolated score plus orchestral and pop songs, in stereo.
Reloaded packs dozens of its own specific featurettes, including nine just about the car chase. One nice surprise is "The MTV Movie Awards Reloaded," an elaborate comedy sketch with Will Ferrell and others. This disc is also where we will find the collected footage shot for the painstakingly planned tie-in videogame, Enter the Matrix, for which several key actors filmed special new scenes, the best of course being Jada Pinkett Smith kissing Monica Bellucci. And non-fans wonder why guys like me enjoy science fiction….
Revolutions goes heavy on the special effects analysis, and also the stunts, props, sound, editing and so on. At some point these vignettes run out of steam, somewhere between meeting the extras and the guys who light the sets. The Animatrix includes commentaries (in Japanese) for four of its chapters and a little "making of" for seven, plus a fantastic 22-minute anime documentary and written background information about the various creators.
All of the special features are presented in standard definition. To remove all doubt, Discs 6 and 7, "The Matrix Experience," are DVDs, not Blu-rays. These final two platters carry "The Roots of The Matrix," scholarly discussions of the underlying beliefs within this universe (Return to Source: Philosophy & The Matrix, a.k.a. Brainiac's Revenge) and the technology's plausibility in actual fact (The Hard Problem: The Science Behind the Fiction). The Burly Man Chronicles focuses on key filmmakers of all disciplines, both preproduction and on location around the world. The Zion Archive is a vast still gallery of concept sketches, storyboards and other artwork, while "The Media of The Matrix" brings together trailers, TV commercials and Marilyn Manson and P.O.D. music videos.
A digital copy The Matrix only is included in the set, for use with Windows Media and iTunes/iPods.
Even Matrix haters would be hard pressed to deny that these films are a visual and aural extravaganza, and each new video format is an excuse to rediscover them. Blu-ready fans should consider the upgrade to this best-yet high-def edition.
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