If you weren't convinced that The Matrix and its sequels were the most important sci-fi films of the last twenty years, the weight of Judge Bill Gibron's voluminous review will certainly compel you to believe it.
Our reviews of The Animatrix (published June 17th, 2003), The Matrix (published October 18th, 1999), The Matrix: 10th Anniversary (Blu-Ray) (published April 17th, 2009), The Matrix Reloaded (published October 20th, 2003), The Matrix Reloaded (Blu-Ray) (published September 13th, 2010), The Matrix Revolutions (published March 23rd, 2004), The Ultimate Matrix Collection (Blu-Ray) (published October 23rd, 2008), and The Ultimate Matrix Collection (HD DVD) (published May 30th, 2007) are also available.
"Remember, all I'm offering is the Truth, nothing more."—Morpheus, The Matrix
What is the Matrix?
Who would have thought that question would lead to so much meaningful dialogue, so much intellectual discussion and critical analysis? Warner Brothers didn't think so. After seeing the film based on that simple query, most of the executives just shook their dazed and confused heads. Certainly not the popular culture. While the modern media and medium had long celebrated the computer age as the technological Renaissance of the upcoming millennium, most of the available audience for such scientific shuck and jive liked their angry AI movies on the decidedly Arnold/Terminator side.
So when it was known that a futuristic science fiction film starring Keanu Reeves, written and directed by the untried (at least in this genre) Wachowski Bros. (whose Bound did promise good things to come), was about to make its early spring debut in theaters around the country (not opening in for the summer? Bad sign…), expectations were low and success seen as an even smaller possibility. Then Laurence Fishburne's character, Morpheus, offered Reeves's Thomas Anderson a choice between a blue and red pill…
And the resulting decision literally changed cinema for the next six years. Not since the introduction of CGI more than a decade before, or the actual invention of the summer blockbuster in the early 1970s, had a single film changed the face of the motion picture industry. Shooting like a heretofore unknown comet out across a barren speculative fiction landscape, The Matrix reintroduced audiences to the wild, weird dimensions of a place called pure imagination. It was a true phenomenon, giving jaded, seen-it-all filmgoers amazing visual elements they had never known existed—Wire Fu…Bullet Time…
Still, the question can be asked, what is The Matrix? How does it figure into the world of film since its initial release? What did the dazzling, if derivative, sequels teach us about the inability to exceed expectations and the concept of resting on your quasi-legitimate laurels? Warner Brothers hopes to address all or most of these concerns with what they bill as The Ultimate Matrix Collection. Over the course of 10 DVDs (!), nearly 40 hours of content (!!), and hundreds of featurettes and additional documentaries (!!!), we get one of the most comprehensive—and confounding—box set experiences ever created for the still relatively new digital medium. Similar to the information overload Neo experiences near the middle of the first movie, the casual fan will be flummoxed by the sheer volume of data incorporated into these discs. But after an initial absorption, some clear conceits come forth, elements that finally give us a window into the world of the Wachowskis and the amazing movies they created.
Facts of the Case
The Ultimate Matrix Collection offers ten DVDs filled with movies and material revolving around the four features that actually make up The Matrix universe proper. Before highlighting what is contained on the six additional discs, let's look at the quartet of titles that began and expanded the unreal universe
• The Matrix
From this point on, all plot discussions will contain SPOILERS, so approach with caution if you want to retain the "magic" of experiencing these movies without previous plot knowledge:
• The Matrix Reloaded
• The Matrix Revolutions
• The Animatrix
"Final Flight of the Osiris"—A Zion battle cruiser uncovers
the truth about the upcoming Machine attack.
The rest of the discs in this collection contain the following features and information:
• Companion Disc to The Matrix—The Matrix
Revisited: A massive documentary and a series of several featurettes about
the making of the first Matrix movie
This rest of this review will be handled in three distinct parts. Individuals who are interested in reading about the themes and symbols inherent in the Wachowskis' epic trilogy will find this discussion in Part One: The Matrix Explained. Part Two will consist of a brief discussion on the impact the films have had since opening in 1999. It is entitled The Matrix Referenced. And anyone who's had enough of the theorizing and proselytizing, who could not care less what Neo stands for or how these films paved the way for such superior classics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Part Three is for you. Entitled The Matrix—The Ultimate Edition, you'll get a near-comprehensive breakdown of the differences between the original release of the films on DVDs, this new multi-disc revamp, and whether the added bells and whistles are worth your hard earned scratch.
Part One: The Matrix Explained
All of reality is perception. Humans are not directly connected to their existence, but instead experience everything in their life through a complex series of five highly specialized senses. With our fingers and flesh, we reach out around us and experience the tactile through touch. With our mouth and our nose, we gather in the rich bouquet and bounty that is nature, relishing and being repulsed by the smells and tastes enveloping us. And through our eyes and our ears, we drink in the data, drawing personality plying information and belief-inspiring ideas from our supposedly accurate retention of the world.
But what if all of this was a lie? What if the tree you see outside your bedroom window every morning is just a figment of your imagination—or worse, a purposeful construct created to feed your amiable aesthetic and keep you ignorantly blissful? We already manipulate the physical experiences around us—voices are digitally altered to be more musically pleasing and professional, foods are chemically processed to taste more like their organic equivalent and we deodorize, sanitize, and industrialize the resources we rely on to make them more gratifying to the feel, or friendly to the eyes. From the altering of genes to duplicate and derail our DNA to the ever more maddening merging of technology with theology, scientists play God on a daily basis, building robots that will perform unwanted personal tasks or computers that will think for themselves, anticipating problems and solving them before their human programmers know an issue even exists.
The first film in the Matrix menagerie was such a sci-fi slice of sensory future shock, and remains such a salient bit of speculative fiction, because it seems the closest to the potential world in which we live. Throughout the course of their exploration of the Man vs. Machine Universe, the Wachowski Brothers (Andy and Larry, who were avid comic book geeks) understood how most people felt about an existence spinning out of control from the ability to accurately perceive. Though relatively young men (both were in their 30s at the time of The Matrix's making), they recalled a time when the biggest digital advance was the push button watch, when calculators were the only item that was programmable and when entertainment consisted of a single theater down the street, or three major broadcast channels and a smattering of UHF independents on a reliable, rabbit ear fed box. To see how far out into the technological stratosphere the world had walked from their teenage years (in the late '70s) to their entering into show business (in the mid '90s) was a mind blower. Like Thomas Anderson discovering that his entire life was a sham, the Wachowskis saw how people their age and older could look at the video capture cell phones, instant access to information internationally thanks to the Internet, and phantasmagoric surrealism of the visuals created by computer generated imagery and wonder where the real world went.
This tearing down of the walls of perception, this digging beneath the surface to discover that reality is a billion lines of coded information buried in a mainframe somewhere, is a continued source of astonishment in The Matrix, one of the reasons why it remains a classic of its genre and an amazing motion picture. Like a magician that slowly and subtlety starts to show you how all his fascinating tricks are accomplished, The Wachowskis set up a society like our own, and then deconstruct it from true acuity down. They take icons we are inherently wary of (agents in black suits, technology run amuck) and force us to face them, over and over. In the world of The Matrix, there is no man-made device that can destroy the enemy, no permanent way to keep the machines at bay. Instead, there is a sickening inevitability to the fate of all inside this false reality, an acknowledgment that at some point, in the future, the opponent will win.
You can argue about the success of the special effects, or clamor that the casting and acting made The Matrix so startling, but it's the ideas, not the eye candy, that keep this movie from careening over into the areas that the sequels decided to drown in. Indeed, the main flaw with Reloaded and Revolutions is that they detoured from the perception vs. reality debate and decided to dwell in big-time Hollywood blockbuster country for just a little too long. Indeed, it's almost as if Reloaded wanted to undo everything the original Matrix had managed to carefully carve out and create. Perhaps the biggest mistake in both of the sequels is the silly, stunted vision of Zion. All throughout the original film we wonder about this last outpost of the human race, feel the passion and prescience Morpheus, Trinity, Tank, and Dozer feel for their hallowed homeland. But when we finally get the chance to walk through the oversized iron doors and see this oasis for the first time, the effect is so underwhelming as to become the very definition of that questionable word.
Like that first, flummoxing moment when Steven Spielberg showed you his Earth-toned idea for Neverland in Hook, or when those luminescent loogies finally make a less than impressive showing in The Abyss, Zion is a massive letdown, an unreal world made even more mundane by its lack of logical or logistical sense. More or less a set of inverted industrial apartments built on top of a furnace, this clan of the cave dweller disappointment inspires little hope for humanity, and begins us on the one path that's most deadly to a Matrix movie: the avenue of nagging questions. Even as Reloaded tosses the mumble mouthed Merovingian at us and proffers a proper Architect to more or less baffle us with bullshit, it's the lingering issues with the underground grotto to grunge that keeps taking us out of the movie's many amazing moments. Anyone with a brain in their head would have to wonder, how des Zion maintain those impossibly complicated ships like the Nebuchadnezzar when they barely manage to provide comfortable living quarters? How does all their intricate technology stay free of machine influence when it was these very super-intelligent CPUs that signaled the end of the human race to begin with? If, as we learn toward the end of Reloaded, this is the sixth time Zion will be destroyed and rebuilt, why don't the plans get better, or the designs less dense? Streamlining on both sides (the machines have some incredibly busy mechanisms themselves) is the natural result of progress. And worse, why is Zion such a multi-cultural hellhole, a glorified ghetto surrounded on all sides by dirt and dank?
Had Revolutions decided to address these issues, and not simply go directly into war movie mode to try and tie all three films together, perhaps then all three Matrix films would be as highly regarded as the first. Indeed, both Reloaded and Revolutions seem to forget what Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are fighting for in the first place. All throughout the original movie, we get the idea that our resistance fighters want to defeat the machines and somehow repopulate the Earth, reclaiming it from their motorized enemies. By Reloaded, the new goal is to simply stop the machine invasion, something that can only be accomplished through a strange combination of diplomacy, double-crossing, and amazing action scenes. Revolutions, then, is hampered by the notion of merely surviving, something we have lost all emotional connection to. Since Zion is such an underdeveloped place, with a population more to be scorned than pitied (there are some mighty self-righteous and pissed off people in humanity's final sinkhole), that we really don't care if it's destroyed by the machines.
Therefore, Reloaded and Revolutions must be almost exclusively viewed and responded to on the strength of their visual appeal. Amazingly, the Wachowskis still find ways to flabbergast, never once putting their audience in the position of feeling like they've seen this shot and/or effect before. Reloaded contains the infamous CGI-tweaked Burly Brawl, a one hundred on one fight between Neo and a host of Agent Smiths. It also offers up a dynamite wire-fu with weapons workout in the Merovingian's manor and that show-stopping bit of auto anarchy that caps off the plot with the right amount of narrative momentum. Sadly, all Revolutions has to offer is the overlong battle sequence, featuring a few million sentinel squidees and a bunch of power loaders pilfered from Aliens. Unless you consider Neo's non-eventful visit to the Machine City a major bit of bravado, after Zion has piled on the firepower, Revolutions kinda stalls in the spectacle department.
Sure, the final confrontation between Smith and Neo does try to recall the best of their bouts, but everything, again, revolves around saving a place that never once really gets us to care about its continued existence. Like Hitchcock's McGuffin or the shadowy shape in the slasher film, Zion is the residual red herring, the unhappy hindrance the Wachowskis gave themselves. Perhaps the best way to determine how much you'll worship the Matrix movies is to ask yourself this final question: Would I give up my life, and all I know about it, to save Zion? If the answer is yes, then these movies will resonate with you for a long time. If it's no, then you'll harken back to the first film, wondering where all the wild invention and intriguing ideas went.
Still, for all their narrative faults and dumb design decision, the Matrix movies have an incredible staying power, a kind of retentive resonance that lingers long after the multitude of machines gives up the battle to obliterate the human race. The acting is indeed excellent, with several heretofore lackluster stars (Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss) creating iconic performances that clearly will be viewed as career benchmarks. Stealing the show is Australian Hugo Weaving, who does what many thought was near impossible in this age of Darth Vaders and Hannibal Lecters—he creates a truly timeless villain in the evil, enigmatic Agent Smith. Trapped somewhere in the middle is Laurence Fishburne, who like the films he is in, seems to get sidetracked from his stupendous turn as Morpheus in the original to become nothing more than action scene fodder in the remaining movies. All the while, the Wachowskis' direction mutates and meanders, moving from stellar to standard as the optical inserts slowly take over the production. Everyone behind the scenes is working at the peak of their creative capacities. Even in service of some rather insipid ideas, the production design is dense and uncompromising, constantly pushing the envelope of imagination.
In many significant ways, the Matrix is a movie trilogy that perfectly exemplifies the law of diminishing returns. Each movie requires the audience to work harder and have more faith in the filmmakers and their vision just to get to the kernel of entertainment. When the Wachowskis made the first Matrix film, there were no expectations and no clear indication of impending success. By the time The Matrix Revolutions arrived in theaters, the fan base was split, faith having faded that, somehow, the brothers could salvage the series after the less than stellar second installment. The initial Matrix is a milestone in science fiction filmmaking. It found a way to retrofit a bunch of overused speculative ideas (computer mind control, alternate reality, Machines vs. Man) by juicing them with the one-two cream and clear of technology and marital arts. Inspired by graphic novels, wire fighting, the Hong Kong actioner and the massive advances in CGI, the Wachowskis channeled a lifetime of creativity and a healthy helping of homage into their comic book come to life. That is why the results feel so full, so brimming with big ideas.
Indeed, the Matrix movies are all thematically about destiny and individual sacrifice. They focus on the power of one and expand said solitary ideal to offer significance on a cosmic level. The trilogy suggests that the inner strength and force of will in a single individual can challenge the Heavens, alter reality and settle long standing disputes. It places the catalyst for change directly in human hands, and never once apologizes for undermining the mob mentality. Looking at two overriding ideals, and three more minor motivating factors, we begin to get part of the mostly ambiguous goals the Wachowskis have always been reluctant to reveal.
Many people also point out that Thomas Anderson/Neo has a copy of Jean Baudrillard's Simulations and Simulacra in his bookcase. Part scholar, part sideshow barker, Baudrillard loves to discuss the perversion of reality to serve specific needs (he argues that America has been taken over by Disney and that the Gulf War never happened—it was all a grand manipulation by the media). Like Marshall McLuhan, who believed that what we see in the media becomes the foundation for what we perceive as truth and authenticity, Baudrillard argues that we are allowing the information and the sources from which we get same to augment and change the structure and form of society. Via images (simulation) and signs (simulacra), people are encouraged to shop, laugh, work, or cry. Eventually, the overemphasis on these false insights begins to shred at the culture, forcing it to lose all meaning. In many ways, The Matrix is the ultimate form of Baudrillard's theories. It represents only simulation and simulacra. So does Zion. It is not civilization, but a man-made attempt at recreating one. It is not a homeland, but someone's idea of one. Even The One seems to be something that the Oracle "manufactures" in order to get the principal players to do what she wants.
• The Power of One
Such singularity continues in Reloaded. There is one keymaker, a sole Architect of the Matrix, a lone bodyguard for the Oracle (Seraph), and a main mobster who holds all the cards (Merv—the Merovingian). The big fight scenes in the film are almost always one against many, be it Neo vs. the hundred Smiths or Neo's battle with the Merv's men. Trinity must go in alone to solve the problem caused by a single person infected by Smith's new form—the crazed crewman Bane. It is her "death," not the potential slaughter of many in Zion, that forces Neo's decision with the Architect. And Neo must now stand against the machines alone, since he sees it as the only way to win.
Revolutions relies somewhat less on the "Power of One" principles, basically because it's trying to carve out a niche as a classic army opera. But even in the cast of thousands setting we have several singular accomplishments. Neo needs one ship to travel to the Machine City. Though Trinity goes with him, she does not survive to make it to see the Machine God. The Kid must come to the rescue of Captain Mifune toward the end of the battle, and when Mifune can no longer function, it is up to the youngster to save the day. From Councilman Hamann who makes the independent decision to allow Morpheus to wait for the Oracle's call, to Niobe, who takes control of the situation when all around her appear paralyzed, the Matrix movies are steeped in the idea that it's the efforts of an individual, not some mass of people or carefully choreographed group, that turns the tides of even the most catastrophic events.
On the other side, almost everyone involved in the resistance is a minority (Morpheus, Niobe, Lock, Mifune) or mixed race (Tank, Dozer, and all other people of Zion). The Matrix is a clean, modern world with a look of prosperity and progress. Zion is seen as a stinking pit bordering on poverty and inhuman conditions. Naturally, the goal of the films is to see the white man defeated or the minority curtailed. And who is called upon as a catalyst to this final face-off? The androgynous, asexual Neo and his similarly neutral lover Trinity. Though it may just be a reaction by the Wachowskis to the Star Treking of science fiction, where the future seemed devoid of anyone of color, there are a lot of interesting ideas that come crawling out of the woodwork of the weird if you view the Matrix movies as less of a battle between man vs. machines, and more like a metaphor for the majority vs. the minority.
Part Two: The Matrix Referenced
Looking back at the last 20 or so years of cinema, it is hard to pinpoint a movie that had an impact as immediate or a lasting stigma attached to it as quickly as The Matrix. From the mind-melting bullet time effect that soon found its way into mainstream movies and animated entertainment alike, to the solidifying of the Hong Kong style of fight choreography as the gold standard for all action scenes, dozens of films bought directly into the Matrix ideals and ripped-off/referenced them ad nauseum. Some made no bones about it. Equilibrium, a bland basic monolithic future world film offered up the incredibly odd Gun Katta style of weapon waving, which basically looked like the office building sequence from the first film micromanaged into a personal ballet. Swordfish also took the whole three dimensions 360° swing-around concept for its amazing opening explosion shot. From the obvious spoof (in films like Scary Movie 2 or Lilo and Stitch) to the carefully crafted cover-ups (there are certain moments in Spider-Man and Charlie's Angels that seem like direct lifts) everyone wanted a piece of the perplexing perspective pie. As more than one critic put it, The Matrix's magnificent set pieces were adopted so quickly and so often that they became routine and hackneyed before their creators, the Wachowskis themselves, could celebrate them in the sequels.
Oddly enough, The Matrix was also instrumental in the rise in popularity of a little something called DVD. When the first digital version of this title was released back in late 1999, it was hailed as a milestone in the burgeoning media, a must-own home theater extravaganza that proved why DVD was superior to VHS or laserdisc. It would be interesting to travel back in time and see what owners of the original would make of the new and improved transfer offered here (which puts the '99 version to shame—more on this later). Along with Austin Powers, a franchise that was more or less made on the power of DVD sales, and the dumb as a doorknob dimensions of Twister (which some sources claim was the first title ever released on the format), The Matrix made DVD cool, proving that there was a need for a technology that recreated the theatrical experience as closely as possible. For many, The Matrix was the first mind-blowing experience with the CD-like film format, and it probably did more than any other title to speed up the production of other similar spectacle films from the vast vaults of reluctant studios.
Finally, it is safe to say that The Matrix made science fiction, comics, geekdom, anime, and Hong Kong action films far more mainstream than ever before. Individuals in love with the oeuvre of John Woo, Jet Li, or Ching Siutung (A Chinese Ghost Story) suddenly saw their cinematic saviors being argued over by drunken frat boys and AV nerds. Fans who had followed anime from the days when it was referred to as Japanimation were flummoxed to see individuals embrace and disgrace the art form, without knowing their magna from their shounen, or the ability to tell seinen from slash. The Matrix movies made the computer dork a god, transformed comic collectors and lovers into sages of cinema's future, and gave the speculative fiction industry, which had seen interest drop off in the face of all the indie spirit sludge filling up the multiplexes, a substantial shot in the arm. Though it may not go down as the greatest trilogy ever in the history of the action adventure genre (Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings films has that one sewn up, sorry), it is safe to say that, aside from the epic scope created by the CGI battles and the brilliant use of digital sets, Neo will have more of a lasting influence than a bunch of hobbits on the future of the sci-fi genre, for better or worse.
Part Three: The Matrix—The Ultimate Collection
So, you've either read through all the theoretical gobbledygook, plot descriptions, and thematic nonsense and are curious if this ten-disc set is for you, or you've taken the advice in the opening paragraph of the evidence and automatically skipped down to this portion of the review. Either way, like Thomas Anderson, you are looking for an answer to a very basic question: What they heck is on this behemoth anyway? Well, this critic will try his best to decipher the differences between the original stand-alone releases, any reissues that have arrived since, and the new material included especially for this DVD. Mind you, some material from the previous incarnations has been jettisoned, while several of the discs play like mere routine retreads of past product. So sit back, relax, and perhaps put on a hot pot of Joe—this is gonna take a while:
Technical Analysis Part (A)—The Video
It is safe to say that the Matrix movies are some of the best examples of DVD imagery presented on the still-growing technology. They are also the most aggravating. Because the Wachowski Brothers favor a cinematic palette rich in greens, grays, metallic blues, and dull blacks, it is hard to judge whether you are getting a great image or some bit of artistic bunkum. The original Matrix release has often been sited as one of the best film-to-digital transfers to come out on the medium, though some have referenced its lack of clarity and depth as reason to hope for a re-release. Well, those critics have had their prayers answered. The Ultimate Matrix Collection contains a new version of the film and the difference between the two is stunning. Let's look at the following screen captures to decipher the differences:
Clearly, the new image is far more detailed, less flat, and filled with hundreds of examples of color correction, retiming, and additional digital tweaks. It is especially noticeable in the night scenes, when the previous edition seemed to lose all sense of clarity. Some may question the re-tinting of certain sequences (in the above caps, for example, the familiar Matrix green has been tinted into the exploding windows to perpetuate the alternate reality feel of the Matrix world). Still, this sensational, reference quality 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image provides an amazing home theater experience for anyone interested in an astoundingly atmospheric bit of electric eye candy. Just as the original movie did, this new DVD transfer has the power to inspire awe.
The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Animatrix all maintain their previous DVD release qualities when it comes to visual style and clarity. Their 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers are also reference quality, packing the same amazing punch as their initial digital releases. Interestingly, The Animatrix looks cleaned up a bit, missing some of the noticeable defects (occasional pixelating, lack of detail in some of the animation) that plagued the first DVD version. Still, it will be interesting to see if, somewhere down the line, all the movies don't get a complete and utter overhaul, and another oversized package of Matrix product gets pushed onto the consumer to dent their disposable income. If the resulting image is half as good as the original Matrix redux, the layout of cash will be worth it.
Technical Analysis Part (B)—The Sound
The Matrix films are nothing if not LOUD! These are movies based in the belief that overkill in the sonic arena suggests epic scope and all-encompassing vastness (especially during the final Machine vs. Zion battle in Revolutions). What this means is that the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtracks provided for each film suffer from a desire to keep the aural attributes overpowering, when a more subtle approach would have proved invaluable. As with the arguments made about the second and third film relying on spectacle to sell the narrative and inspirational shortcomings, the same sentiment could be expressed in the aural arena. It is not that the Matrix movies sound bad—far from it—but they overstay their welcome with bits so bombastic that you wonder if you're neighbors will ever speak to you again once you've completed watching the trilogy.
Specifically, each film is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is heavy on atmosphere, immersive elements, and a great use of spatial relationships and sonic depth. There is a real enveloping quality to the film, a feeling that something unexpected is always about to leap out from the rumbling rear channels. Reloaded probably has the best overall sound design, since it moves from the quieter moments between Neo and Trinity to the amazing anarchy of the car chase scene flawlessly. Both The Matrix and Revolutions get a little insane during their action scenes, as if the sonic elements were supposed to bombard you and have the same impact as the visuals. Make no mistake, your subwoofer will surely spasm during these DVDs. It's a safe bet that in combination with the amazing video, these DVDs are the high end of the format's technical achievements and are about as reference quality as you can get short of some "true" Superbit technology.
Technical Analysis Part (C)—The Extras
This will be the most complex and comprehensive part of the review. It will be the section socked with the most criticism and fretted overly frequently. Trying to encapsulate the sheer amount of material Warner Brothers places on these discs is just that daunting a task. Understand that most of the material here is repetitive, either from previous DVD releases or how it is shared from release to release. You will witness featurettes that make it into the long form documentary intact, snippets of larger films sliced up into digestible "pods," a great deal of gallery and text based content, and a wealth of talking head and semi-interview footage. There are a few general things one can gauge about the extras, so let's deal with the universals first.
For most who worked on The Matrix, there is an intense disbelief that the first film was such a phenomenon. More than once throughout the course of this mammoth DVD experience, you will hear some member of the cast or crew marvel at how and why the first film became so instantly beloved. They also have nothing but praise for Reloaded and Revolutions, calling them better and more amazing than the first film. They all appear to have bought into the brainwashing that bigger is better and that more CGI, more stunts, and more effects mean the sequels are vastly superior to the original.
Perhaps the individual who comes across the best—most professional, most passionate—is kung fu master Yuen Wo Ping. The man is possessed, dealing in very specific, exacting terms about what was required of him and his incredibly well-trained team to realize the Wachowski and the production crew's dreams. Throughout almost all the bonus footage, you can see him and his men working out the wonders that would sell the sensational fight scenes in the films.
There is also a sense of reaching the end of the line regarding insider information here. While there are some missing elements from the DVD package that make it more irritating than overly impressive, it's hard to say you've barely scratched the surface on a subject like The Matrix when you've got untold hours of incredibly detailed featurettes and documentaries to deal with. The commentaries may seem like a place where further investigation and expansion are warranted, but let's hope we've seen the last of the bullet time run-throughs or the burly man mannerisms with this set.
Dealing with each film and how it was presented originally, let's look deeper into The Ultimate Matrix Collection, starting off with the film that launched a thousand websites:
Disc One: The Matrix: Bonus Features on this DVD include:
The only bonuses offered up on the new remastered disc of the first film are two commentary tracks, and since the same participants speak over the sequels as well, it is best to deal with the value of each narrative now. First up is the Philosopher's Track and it is truly amazing, for both good and bad reasons. Culled from over 15 hours of recorded conversations about the Matrix movies (meaning a little over a 1/3 of this material was ultimately used), this will be tough going for even the most enlightened member of the Matrix audience. Wilber and West are into the deeper aspects of the Wachowskis' philosophical underpinnings, spinning out strings of salient deconstructions as they reference both modern and postmodern mythology, the braggadocio of hero worship, and the overall religious iconography buried within the film. Sometimes sounding like a couple of college professors sapping all of the fun out of your favorite special effect action flick, this is still a very dense, very replay worthy track. It does do what the Wachowskis set out for this package—it places the Matrix films directly into the realm of recent pop culture philosophy, acting as lamplights toward further intellectual dissertation.
The second track, featuring the critics, is far more fun. Hellbent on defending the first film (which they argue has been soiled and soured by overexposure, endless copying, and the less-than-successful sequels), McCarthy, Powers, and Thomson are cool, callous, and catty about the Matrix movies. They tend to dismiss Carrie-Anne Moss outright (calling her everything from uninteresting to ugly); marvel at the asexual, androgynous quality of Keanu Reeves; make obvious factual and logical errors (like wondering why The Kid plays such an important part during the battle, since in their opinion, he has never been introduced before); and offer up interesting theories about why each film works/fails. Toward the middle of Reloaded, they start to taper off, and by the time the squidees are putting the smackdown on Zion, they have lost all interest. But when they do speak up, they usually have something incredibly delightful or dishy to say (is Laurence Fishburne's heft really an important factor in the Morpheus performance?). Though it might have been nice to round up a few critics who actually cared about criticism, not more or less analytical gossiping, as it stands, it is a brave move on the part of the Brothers, especially with how rotten they are treated in the natty narrative.
What's missing here that was included on the 1999 DVD release of The
Anyone who's heard the official first commentary by Moss and the crew can tell you, you aren't missing much. It is more like a love letter to how totally amazing the movie is than a breakdown of the cinematic science involved. While it would have been nice to include it—or better yet, get the cast together for a new narrative track—the lack of this feature is far from fatal. And only music buffs will miss Don Davis's tired talk.
Disc Two: The Matrix Revisited: Bonus Features on this DVD
If you were one of the many who went out and bought this companion piece to the initial Matrix DVD release, you will instantly recognize the amazingly dense documentary featured here. This is, perhaps, the best fact film on the entire set (The Burly Man Chronicles and the pair of features on the Roots of the Matrix DVD coming in a close second) because it walks us through the process, from initial idea through mid-production on the sequels, to show us what a huge undertaking these films actually were. Emphasizing hard work and collaboration, and giving everyone involved (even the Wachowskis—shock! horror!) a chance to speak for themselves and include their thoughts, this is a great introduction into the world of how the Matrix movies were made. Warner Brothers then wisely fleshes out the disc with all the bonus material missing from the first Matrix release, as well as everything that was on the Revisited disc. Of special note are the "Take the Red Pill" features (which walk us through bullet time and the concept behind the Matrix) as well as the "Follow the White Rabbit" material (which, sadly, is no longer interactive with the first film), which gives us a nice overview of the most important effects and action scenes.
What's missing here that was included on the 2001 DVD release of The Matrix Revisited? Nothing, apparently. Cool. Next!
Disc Three: The Matrix Reloaded: Bonus Features on this DVD
See above for Disc One: The Matrix
Disc Four: The Matrix Reloaded Revisited: Bonus Features on this DVD
Time for another set of standard generalizations. What you will learn about the reissue of the two Matrix sequels in this set is that most of the featurette material that was shrunk down and heavily edited into the extras on the first DVD releases is now offered up, warts and all, unexpurgated and rambling, in the Ultimate Collection configuration. Instead of giving us the gimmicky, if more or less controlled presentation of "Preload" or "Unfolds" (see below), we have extended sequences of material that tend to talk over and repeat things we've heard and seen before. This will be the case for the content on the Revolutions Revisited as well.
That being said, the amazing amount of information we get here in the 21 featurettes is mind blowing. Especially instructive is "The Car Chase" footage (showing the months of pre-planning, pre-visualization, and the careful choreography it took to pull that sensational stunt sequence off) and the Merovingian focus of "I'll Handle Them" (bet you didn't know that all the statuary in Merv's manor features an exact replica of his face). Also, for anyone not into videogames, being able to see the footage created for Enter the Matrix is very interesting. A lot of it feels like deleted scenes from Reloaded (since it plays off moments in the movie), but we do learn some interesting subplot situations, like the torch Ghost carries for Trinity, or Niobe's visits with the Oracle.
What's missing here that was included on the 2003 two-disc DVD release of
The Matrix Reloaded?
While it's probably not a 100% given, there appears to be some interview material included as part of the original release that's missing from the Ultimate Collection reconfiguration. Though it's not much more than puff piecing, it indicates that there could be even more Matrix-related material out in the ephemera somewhere. As for the Samsung product placement infomercial, it's no great loss that it's absent.
Disc Five: The Matrix Revolutions: Bonus Features on this DVD
See above for Disc One: The Matrix
Disc Six: The Matrix Revolutions Revisited: Bonus Features on this
Again, here is the raw footage used to make "Recalibrated" and some of "Operator" (see below), presented in all its unedited, sometimes overlong glory. Perhaps the best bit of "how'd they do that" comes in the HEL featurettes. If you've seen the movie, you'll remember that the bodyguards outside of the Merv's nightclub (called HEL, naturally) respond to the arrival of Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph by climbing the ceiling and battling upside down. Well, instead of CGI or some manner of camera trickery, the topsy-turvy scene was created using some amazingly unique physical effects. Watching how the elements came together in this carefully crafted sequence gives you a greater appreciation for its effectiveness as an action scene. A lot of the material in the "Siege" and "Aftermath" featurettes is also interesting, from how the APUs were designed and built to the creation of the Machine God. Even the Burly Brawl homage to Fight Club is hilariously insightful.
What's missing here that was included on the 2004 two-disc DVD release of
The Matrix Revolutions?
Two items found here would seem to be given additions to any massive overview of the Matrix movies. First is the text-based 3-D menu of "Before the Revolution." While it is far from comprehensive or detailed, it does do a very good job of tying the Matrix, Reloaded, Enter, and The Animatrix together to form a kind of coherent timeline and sequence of events. Secondly, the Operator menu has several effects featurettes that, in some ways, do a better job of explaining their subject matter (the multiple Agent Smiths, the model work) than the Ultimate Collection does. While most of the material here is retreads retrofitted for a new environment, it make you wonder why it was not included on this behemoth of a box set.
Disc Seven: The Animatrix: Bonus Features on this DVD include:
The added content on The Animatrix is the first to feel like a cohesive part of the DVD experience and not just a load of supplements slapped onto a second disc. And the rationale for such a sentiment is obvious—this is the 2003 DVD release, retrofitted with a new Architect TV screen menu so that it matches the rest of the discs in the collection. Otherwise, you get nothing new or novel in this presentation. Appellate Judge Stailey's review does a nice job of highlighting the exceptional quality of the extras, but to add a couple of additional insights, it is nice to see the anime breakdown as well as the making-of on each animated film. Sometimes, The Animatrix feels like an afterthought in the Matrix universe (like the videogame, comic, online content, et cetera). While Warner Brothers and the Wachowskis could have really fleshed out this DVD, at least they offer up all the essential material from the first go-round.
What's missing here that was included on the 2003 DVD release of The Animatrix? Nada! Sweet…moving on…
Disc Eight: Roots of the Matrix: Bonus Features on this DVD
While it may be hard to imagine enjoying a DVD documentary about philosophy, especially one dropping names (Kant, Hume, Nozik, Nietzsche) like Paris Hilton at a club opening, "Return to Source: Philosophy and the Matrix" is an amazing, inconceivable hour of in-depth intellectual and ideological discussion that is fascinating to observe. Blowing through the typical material we hear throughout the entire Ultimate Collection, we dig even deeper into the structural foundations of the films, where Hinduism and the Old Testament merge and meld into Neo's quest for ultimate enlightenment. Highlighting the "where" and "who" that the Wachowskis borrowed from and overloading one's cognizant skills with minutia and meaning, this is a great documentary. And since it constantly returns to elements both in the movie and in the Matrix universe, it is a true companion piece. Consider it a "viewer's guide" to the film, or an appendix to the entire series. It will definitely draw you in and work your worn brain.
"The Hard Problem: The Science Behind the Fiction" starts off like one of those pro-Luddite "technology is bad" rants, but slowly evolves into something more insightful, and as a result, more frightening. Dealing almost exclusively with the rocky, near umbilical relationship between man and his machines, this fascinating dissertation argues that we now live in a sort of semi-reality, with the world outside being balanced out and, occasionally, obliterated by, the virtual world of the TV, the computer, and the Internet. While it could have used a little more linkage to the Matrix movies (this occasionally feels like a thesis thrust upon the films, not the other way around), one will still be in awe at the melding of existence with the silicon chip. Even if we are eons away from an AI engine capable of destroying its maker, "The Hard Problem" presents an argument that makes such a reality seem plausible, if not necessarily probable.
Disc Nine: The Burly Man Chronicles: Bonus Features on this DVD
What do The Matrix movies and Barton Fink have in common? Well, that's just one of the myriad of facts, both trivial and tremendous, that you will learn while watching The Burly Man Chronicles documentary, 90+ minutes of backstage drama and step-by-step instruction on how most of the remarkable effects were created. Starting with the basics of how the ideas for the movies came about, to how they were realized, and what it took to keep the overall vision fresh and viable, this is a dense, detailed explanation of The Matrix from a pure production standpoint. Since we move through the material chronologically, we see how initial inspirations lead to ideas almost "too big" for Revolutions, and how the reliance on intricacy and specialization in the design and execution resulted in compromise and collaboration. Burly Man makes you feel like you're part of the crew, sharing the day in and day out trials and tribulations of trying to realize this gargantuan hallucinogenic dream over the course of a few short years. As an added bonus, there are a few moments of Aaliyah's portrayal of Zee here, for fans of the late singer.
You can add almost another two hours of information to this inspired documentary if you use the good old "Follow the White Rabbit" feature. Allowing you to access the 21 featurettes offered separately on the disc, the entire production becomes a comprehensive encyclopedia of exacting facets of what has to be one of the most massive motion picture undertaking in the history of the sci-fi genre.
Disc Ten: The Zion Archive: Bonus Features on this DVD include:
For many, this will be the most deadly dull, won't be playing again anytime soon DVD in the entire set. Unless you are longing to see several dozen trailers and teaser spots, or can't get enough of endless galleries filled with design sketches, costume fittings, and discarded concepts, there is just way too much filler here. Certainly, individuals with a need for every last facet of these films will love the continued focus on even the most minor detail. But some of the galleries—especially ones for the Kid and Zee—have a lack of detail (just a couple of pictures each) that seems rather pointless. The psychedelic CGI of the Rave Reel is also without much purpose, and only the most fervent online gamer will be intrigued by the Matrix Online material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Look, with all due respect to Joel Silver, the Wachowskis, and Warner Brothers, this is not really an "Ultimate Collection" when it comes down to content. Sure, you can heap on all the extra helpings of featurette and documentary you want, but until a few basic elements are addressed, this package is always going to feel like Star Wars without the ability to see the original, non-special edition prints. In order, we need the following items addressed before we even begin to believe we've reached Matrix maximum density:
(1) Get the Wachowskis to talk! Hey, the written intro is nice and all, and everyone respects Larry and Andy's right to keep from having to "explain" their films to us nimrods, but it's not like we're talking about a Paulie Shore comedy here, or a large budget, high profile drama. This is the friggin' Matrix, for Christ's sake, one of the biggest event films in the last decade. And yet you somehow can't convince the creators to sit down and gab about it for a while. They don't need to give us the keys to the machine kingdom. They can keep all their private jokes and still help us make sense of their storylines.
(2) Why is The Animatrix treated like a retarded redheaded stepchild when it comes to an alternative narrative track as well? Pray tell, what did anime ever do to you, o' powers that be? Why do you insist upon serving up this substantial bit of amazing artistry like a digital afterthought? Was it so hard to get the Philosophers and the Critics to sit down and say something salient about these clever cartoons? With the gap in analysis caused by the lack of expert input on these incredible animated tales (and since Al and Larry are a given no-show), The Ultimate Matrix Collection feels like it has a fairly decent chunk of its digital discussion missing.
(3) There's no retrospective material. Okay, we've all read the stories about Arnold wanting $10K to do a commentary, or other actors looking for remuneration for merely appearing in a featurette, but couldn't you pool some of the box office green this trilogy took in and give us a current Q&A with the actors about what they think of the entire Matrix phenomenon—especially since the most recent interviews we see come simultaneously with the making of the sequels. We are not privy to their thoughts post-production or release. Indeed, everything here is a caught-on-the-set sort of publicity production, without a lick of real reflection or helpful hindsight. While backseat driving is never that nice, it would be tantalizing to hear the cast discuss their reaction to the sequels and if they think the series went in the direction that was best for cinema, or the bottom line.
(4) Piss Poor Packaging: DVDs on top of other DVDs? Cardboard cases that cram crookedly into another bit of paper box? Or how about a bunch of clear plastic thin CD cases tossed into another flimsy fictile housing, festooned with a oversized bust of Neo as your overpriced present? Leave it to Warner Brothers, a company still in love with that DVD atrocity known as the Snapper Case (get thee behind me, Satan!) to find a way to place a Decalogue of discs on the precipice of almost instantaneous replacement. Talk about your cases of premeditated obsolescence.
So, after slogging through all ten discs, all 40+ hours of content, and more keyboard clicks than a human has a right to put themselves through, it is perhaps time to answer the question posed at the very beginning of this big fat bad ass…What is The Matrix? The answer, unfortunately, is rather mixed. It is a stellar set of movies that failed to live up to the potential and the power of the first film in the series. It is a mess, a hot-wired combination of comic book imagery, kitchen sink philosophizing, state of the art special effects, and older than dirt Messianic melodrama, all couched in a kung fu frame of mind. It is science fiction at its most masterful and masturbatory, a freak show of fresh ideas overbaked and hyperstylized until it almost all tastes the same. The Matrix is fleeting genius. It is fundamentally flawed. It celebrates the worst of Hollywood moviemaking while it strives to circumvent such pabulum style pandering. And it is also destined to be discussed, debated, and dissected to death for the next couple of decades, as we come closer to a meshing of technology with theology, man with machine. As represented in this overstuffed burrito of a digital presentation, The Ultimate Matrix Collection is a satisfying, gluttonous treat. But you will be more than just a little full afterwards. Indeed, The Matrix may be the first film series ever crushed by the sheer magnitude of its own DVD desire for added content. The original release helped spark the digital revolution. This burly box set represents, perhaps, the format's ultimate ends.
The Ultimate Matrix Collection is found not guilty and is free to go. The court would like to add…oh, enough already.
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Scales of Justice, The Matrix
Perp Profile, The Matrix
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Matrix
• Written Introduction by the Wachowski Brothers
Scales of Justice, The Animatrix
Perp Profile, The Animatrix
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Animatrix
• Voices: Commentary on "The Second Renaissance Pt1/2" by Mahiro Maeda, on "Program" by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and on "World Record" by Takeshi Koike
Scales of Justice, The Matrix Reloaded
Perp Profile, The Matrix Reloaded
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Matrix Reloaded
• Written Introduction by the Wachowski Brothers
Scales of Justice, The Matrix Revolutions
Perp Profile, The Matrix Revolutions
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Matrix Revolutions
• Written Introduction by the Wachowski Brothers
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.