The Matrix Collection
Warner Bros.
Until the heat-death of the universe.
New interactive "in-movie experience" on each film
Commentaries from philsophers, film critics, cast, and crew.
Written introductions to each film by the Wachowski bros.
"The Matrix Revisited" feature-length documentary
"The Music Revisited" guided tour of the score of The Matrix
"The Burly Man Chronicles" feature-length artisan documentary
"The Zion Chronicles" production asset archive
The Animatrix w/ commentaries
Featurettes on every topic known to man
• Music videos

The Pitch

This review: All right. Time to play in the future. The salad days of the DVD have passed; now the format is in its dessert days, while we move on to some analogy that’s not food-related and the era of High Definition. We’re kicking off our coverage of the medium with this collection, the films of which have already been reviewed damn near to oblivion. That’s not going to stop me adding another opinion on each of them; but I’m also going to spend a good balance of time talking about the technical qualities of the discs and the HD-bonuses, under the Package section. You can just skip on down there if you don’t feel like reading my psychobabble.

Also, be aware that the screen captures in this review are taken from public sources, since I don’t have an HD-DVD player connected to any sort of capture device, yet. Sorry ’bout that, but shrunk down to 450×253, a lot of the HD goes out of the caps, anyway. And if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, I give the set a 6.5, because it doesn’t offer much new except for the HD transfers of the films, and I still have my reservations about the quality of the writing in these beasts.

The flicks: "What if John Bunyan became somehow genetically fused with Philip K. Dick? In other words, what if the world possessed a Bunyan-Dick?"

Can you picture a less effective wraparound mirror? Good if you’re shaving, I guess.

The Humans

Forever shall we remember Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joey Pantoliano, Gloria Foster, Harold Perrineau, Monica Belucci, Lambert Wilson, Helmut Bakaitis, and, uh, Clayton Watson.

The Nutshell

Rational machines make war against impulsive humans on two separate battlegrounds: the virtual and the real. No, there is not a "Matrix-within-a-Matrix."

The Lowdown

The Matrix: Because I never scored more than a C in any basic composition class, I’m just going to lead off with my main problem with this trilogy, and hope to hell I come up with evidence to support my position. Here it is: allegory is boring. J.R.R. Tolkien had what he called a "cordial dislike" of allegory. If Tolkien thought it was too boring, well…

There’s good reason for that dislike. Allegory is fiction without characters, conflict without crisis. It’s storytelling with an agenda. I will happily argue that the Matrix trilogy is set up as a web of interconnected allegories. I want it to be clear that I admire the effort and skill it took to make anything resembling a coherent story out of all those allegorical levels; but I question the wisdom of couching them within the facade of the blockbuster movie.

I can barely do one thing properly, and he gets to be a prophet and a ninja? Fuck.

Where film is an immersive experience, allegory is a form that requires the audience remain an arm’s length away from the action. There has to be space in which the viewer filters everything to its analogue. The two formats are at odds, which I see as the fundamental flaw of the entire trilogy. This tension of form is interesting in itself, but does not contribute interest to the story. When the audience needs characters to care about, we are presented with cardboard cutouts meant to represent psychological qualities. Effort is made to reconcile the two demands, but the status of the trilogy’s three protagonists has them growing gradually flatter, not rounder. I harbor a faint suspicion that had the Wachowskis committed in one direction or the other — either to allegory or summer action — the films would be less memorable; but that doesn’t mitigate the failed marriage of forms.

The MatrixTo backtrack a little, The Matrix, as the first in the series, holds the best balance of action and allegory. Neo isn’t a bad hero for a story of either type. He’s a schmuck; sure, he may be a boring schmuck, but he’s got the sympathy vote — he’s the young peasant boy who you just know is going to turn out to be king, or at least court jester. He goes through a lot of situations that ought to be emotional, which the audience can identify with at the same time they’re being mindfucked. Keanu Reeves famously has minimal emotion for these periods, but they exist, at least.

As an adventure that makes you cheer for the underdog, The Matrix is a decent success. The philosophical brandings that decorate the rest of the trilogy begin to show a bit on the skin, but for the most part the only allegory that spits in your face is the "Neo = Jesus" one. Other than that, I still think it’s giddy fun, tapping into an untouched remnant of my childish brain, when Neo discovers that he is special among the special, that his powers are beyond what even his mentor could prepare him for. This Hero’s Quest cast in a monochrome Gibson-land still gets me grinning.

The Matrix Reloaded: Fuck, I hate the burly brawl. It looked damn ugly to me when it first hit the screen, and now it looks even worse. I’m going to pass by my anger, here, but I’ll tell you: the bits of bad CGI have leapt to prominence in HD. As a cutscene in a videogame, it would have been right on the mark; in a film where suspension of disbelief is already challenged by poorly-concealed literary tricks, it’s just a monstrosity. Moreso because it represents the Wachowskis trying to give themselves over to the action movie paradigm of one-upping the FX of the competition. Once again, the twin heads of their competing goals rear up.

The Matrix ReloadedStill, though I’ll keep on harping about how unsuccessful their exercise was, I’ve got to give credit to the parts that fire on all cylinders. The freeway chase sequence is exhilerating, for example. It creates a sense of insurmountable danger, and lets us focus on the characters who aren’t godlike. It’s the last chance to see what a badass Morpheus can be. For these brief minutes, all the veils of rhetoric are dropped, and we’re treated to a essentially kinetic piece of filmmaking, with characters who reignite our sympathies by sheer dint of returning to the forms in which we first met them.

It’s a valiant attempt to salvage the human drama of the story, but the Wachowskis sabotage that direction handily with the Architect scene, also known as the scene that made my kindly third-grade teacher yell "What is this shit?" in the middle of a crowded theater. I won’t criticize the writing of this sequence on any surface level — I don’t mind the elevated diction, and think it’s appropriate — but the intent of the dialogue is the most potent example of deliberate reduction of character importance. By taking the time to explain the determinism of the Matrix construct, the Architect all but states that each character we’ve been struggling to sympathize with is nothing more than a vector, a two-dimensional thing with direction and speed and nothing else.

Isolated, The Matrix Reloaded contains nothing more than a bit of spectacle and the beginning of the downward arc of the audience’s interest in the characters, and thus in the philosophical states they’re meant to represent.

"And now I see as though through a windshield shattered… ly."

The Matrix Revolutions: I can hardly remember feeling more detached from a main character as I do from Neo in Revolutions. He’s in full-on allegory mode, rising above (or sinking below, or something) his humanity in a fashion that serves the philosophical goal at the expense of the dramatic. Neo becomes a martyr figure, but unlike those that make direct appeals to emotion such as William Wallace in Braveheart or what’s-his-name from The Passion of the Christ, his sacrifice comes without emotional weight. There’s a disconnect between the portion of the brain that analyzes and the portion that intuits, and the Wachowskis work to locate everything about their denouement in the former, despite having tried to build up the latter as a medium of communication.

The Matrix RevolutionsAt least we have a little history with Neo, though; it gives the audience a slippery handhold. We don’t even get that much for the excruciating battle in Zion. I will argue that the film doesn’t provide enough for the audience to found even a shred of affection or sympathy for the Kid, Zee, General Pocketpants, or the mech-warriors. There’s no emotional anchor for the fight. The sentinels look kind of cool, swarming in patterns designed to make them easy pickin’s, but the sequence is an exercise in futility. As the machinations of the plot combine to render their fight pointless, the audience files the far-too-long encounter into the less stable regions of short-term memory.

I’ve harped on what I think is the intentional confusing of incompatible forms, and you may have gotten the the impression that I’m fairly down on allegory. To the contrary, I think it’s great, but only as a tool employed occasionally, and with full awareness of the distancing effect it has on the audience. The Wachowskis used it irresponsibly, but in the service of communicating their reasonably decent moral. That moral, to my mind, can be summarized like this: It is monstrous to deny someone the ability to make decisions for themselves; it is arguably more monstrous to present them with the illusion of choice.

A lot of the core of the trilogy’s philosophy comes down to the Oracle and the Architect; the Oracle can predict the future, because she’s working in a predictive environment. But she can’t see beyond some of Neo’s choices, because, unlike the other systems of the Matrix, she can’t understand it. The Architect likewise can’t accurately predict Neo’s choices, because his choices are made beyond the illusory structures of the Matrix and the Zion. (Zion is illusory in the sense that it was essentially created by the machines as a necessary part of their system.)

Two seconds before a recurring clip on "The Agony of Defeat."

As corny as it plays, Neo’s declaration of choice during the final fight with Agent Smith neatly ties up the threads of the philosophy. Neo is capable of choice, and he uses that choice to free as many of his people who want to be freed.

Okay, so it’s nothing original; the Wachowskis made their living on distilling successful tropes from their favorite inspirations and combining them into a coherent (?) new Frankenstein’s monster. With The Matrix trilogy, I’m in something of a strange mental state: the aesthetics of the science fiction worlds appeal to the adventurous and escapist part of me; the story’s philosophy, couched in its allegory, is one that I can get behind, and fits well in the tradition of values espoused by science fiction. But their combination? I think it’s going to be an enduring example of how some of the tricks of fiction are ill-fitted to translation onto the screen. Alternatively, it’s a solid case study of how not to do allegry, i.e. without subtlety.

No idea why the Wachowskis insisted on directing from atop a raised dais.

The Package

The Definition of High: Just as the original Matrix DVD helped expose where the format’s future would lead — with a cluster of bonuses and interactive features — so does this collection illuminate the HD format. That’s not hyperbole, since, if you’ll remember, the Matrix DVD wasn’t all that revolutionary; just evolutionary. For the most part, the bonuses that you’ll get on this set of discs are just the same as you will find in the Matrix Collection that was released a couple of years ago in standard definition. What this set brings the casual HD acolyte is the flagbearer audio and video quality, as well as an ever-present menu that allows you to adjust special features, specifications, audio tracks, and et cetera on the fly, all without interrupting the movie.

That last is a small feature, but one I’ll not gloss over, because it adds quite a bit to the intuitive interaction with the movie. While the discs include copious features to guide you through the film — the next generation of the "Follow the White Rabbit" from the original Matrix DVD — you can also pop up the main menu at will, leap to a bonus feature, and then return to the film. There’s no arbitrary menu screen, just an overlay that springs up from the bottom when you hit your remote’s menu button.

But that’s not too important in the grand scheme of things. The interactivity is a nice touch, but these are movies first and foremost, and their presentation is the key. The first thing I thought upon loading one of these discs was, "My, that’s a sharp-looking copyright warning." This was followed shortly thereafter with, "Holy crow! I can see every divet in Laurence Fishburne’s face!"

Just to clarify my setup, I’m projecting all this through a Viewsonic, 1080p from the player all the way to the screen via VGA. I kinda splurged on the setup, but haven’t had the chance to watch much on it except for King Kong and Children of Men, yet. So, forgive me, but I’m still a little giddy with that whole future intoxication thing. The difference between a good old 480i on the screen and the HD content is just as striking, qualitatively, as the shift up to DVD from VHS. The HD transfer process hasn’t had a whole lot of time to develop a scale of quality yet, but these discs look stunning.

Gran’pa Bunny-Bunny has taken a somber turn in his old age.

For sound output, I run optical out from my player to my surround system. I was actually a bit underwhelmed by the quality of the sound mix, which seemed to put an odd balance on dialogue, so that it was divided between forward and rear channels even when characters were directly on screen. As a result, the dialogue lost a lot of the necessary punch. The soundtrack still has aquality presence, though, in music and effects. I’d be lying if I said I could detect a noticeable generational leap between the track and those present on standard DVD, though. I may be misguided, but I don’t feel like lying.

The remainder here will be a discussion of the various bonus features, most of which have already been released on previous editions of the Matrix collection. The one addition is the touted "In-Movie Experience," which I mentioned earlier as a successor to the "Follow the White Rabbit" feature on the original Matrix DVD. This Experience is a much smoother set of branching behind-the-scenes information, one for each disc, that offers a sort of audio/visual commentary (with minor interactive elements) of the action, without having to transition out of the action.

The remainder of the content on the discs is pretty familiar, but nice to have archived all in one place.

The Matrix: This two-sided disc contains the film on one side, along with the In-Movie Experience. Other small-scale features include included are a written introduction by the Wachowski Brothers (those lexiphiles,) a Marilyn Manson music video, and trailers. The more robust features of Side A include all 4 full-length commentaries from the DVD release of this collection, including philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber; critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers, and David Thomson; cast and crewmembers Carrie-Anne Moss, Zach Staenberg, and John Gaeta; and composer Don Davis, who talks over a music-only track.

I call this piece "The Only Recourse of the IT Staff."

There’s even more, with the "Behind the Matrix" documentary gallery, which features the 7 featurettes that I first experienced at the end of the VHS release, after fast-forwarding through the credits. For the music-lovers, there’s also a navigable selection of 41 tracks of music.

That’s just Side A. Side B includes the feature-length documentary The Matrix Revisited, as well as compilations of all the featurettes that cropped up during the "Follow the White Rabbit" and "Take the Red Pill" features on the original DVD.

The Matrix Reloaded: Side A has the movie and the "experience," along with another written introduction by the Wachowskis, a throwaway documentary about the throwaway Enter the Matrix videogame, a music video by P.O.D., trailers, and a selection of the live-action story scenes shot for Enter the Matrix. (You know, I have to hand it to the Wachowskis for organizing side stories like The Animatrix, the comic books, and Enter the Matrix without making it necessary to track those items down to enjoy the main trilogy.)

Side A also includes 2 commentaries, from our philosopher and critic friends, and 4 "Behind the Matrix" featurettes, including the appearance at the MTV Movie Awards.

Side B contains a collection of Reloaded-centric featurettes, all under the heading The Matrix Reloaded Revisited, most dealing with effects sequences.

The Matrix Revolutions: Movie and interactive experience on Side A. Written introduction, commentaries from philosophers and critics, trailers, and "Behind the Matrix" featurettes also included. Getting sleepy. Philosophers’ good-natured, but heavy-handed, analysis causing me to fear dreams.

Wake up, Ian.

Side B has even more "Behind the Matrix" featurettes, including a gallery of stills from creating 3D content. Also, The Matrix Revolutions Revisited Redundany, which includes a buttload of featurettes related to effects and story elements, and, for some reason, 6 whole featurettes about the shitty Hel club sequence, AKA the lobby shootout on the ceiling.

"I believe I can fly / I believe I can–"

The collection also includes a fourth disc and I haven’t blinked in twenty-seven hours. Actually, it’s more like four more discs, since there are two double-sided discs in the case. Disc 1, Side A is The Animatrix, all nine shorts, with selected director commentaries, a documentary about the history of anime and a making-of featurette for each of the nine ‘toons.

Disc 1, Side B is kind of redundant if you listened to the philosophy commentary on any (or all) of the trilogy. Two decent-sized documentaries are included; the first is "Return to Source: Philosophy & The Matrix." I’m a bit weary, at this point, of all the philosophical arguments; not because I don’t buy them, but because including these essays and expositions by learned people is kind of like observing a magician deconstruct his own tricks, with the philosophers acting as proxy Wachowskis. The only possible power these films have lies in the viewer’s discovery of the deeper content, not in that content itself.

Oh well. The second documentary on Disc 1, Side B is called "The Hard Problem: The Science Behind The Fiction," of which there is none. Okay, maybe a little; mostly, this feature is an excuse to speculate about what the future holds in the realm of science. I can get behind that.

Disc 2, Side A holds a feature-length documentary called "The Burly Man Chronicles," which follows the mini-society that built up around all the technical staff and craftsmen who worked on the trilogy. It’s a fun feature, with loads of camaraderie, which reminds me of the best moments on the documentaries attached to the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions. Unlike those movies, though, where love of the work united everyone, there is a different sort of bond formed here. It’s more of a love of achievement, and a drive to succeed, which unites everyone. It’s fun to observe, still.

Related to the documentary, Side A includes 21 focused featurettes.

Disc 2, Side B is where the rest of the cruft ends up. It’s called "The Zion Archive" and includes concept art, storyboards, drawings, music videos (encountered on previous discs,) music rave reel (which won’t make you like the rave scene any more,) trailers, and an entirely useless preview of the defunct Matrix Online MMO.

That’s it. If you already own the set on DVD, you already have access to most of these special features, so only buy it if you need the HD transfer. If you want a swanky collection to show off your HD setup, this one will work as well as any. Me, I’m pretty happy to finally own all this Matrix-related stuff, because I do like the films, in an abstract, intellectual sort of way (i.e., I have to reason with myself before I can admit I like them.)

6.5 out of 10