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Why The Matrix Matters

The third and final film in The Matrix franchise, The Matrix:Revolutions, opened this week. I haven’t seen it yet because I have been hiding out in the North Georgia mountains but I have been doing a lot of research and…
November 6, 2003

The third and final film in The Matrix franchise, The Matrix:Revolutions, opened this week. I haven’t seen it yet because I have been hiding out in the North Georgia mountains but I have been doing a lot of research and thinking about the Matrix phenomenon this year for my new book project.

To understand why The Matrix is important, you have to go back to the concept of Transmedia Storytelling, which I spelled out in a column earlier this year: “In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best–so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics, and its world might be explored and experienced through game play…. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption…. Offering new levels of insight and experience refreshes the franchise and sustains consumer loyalty.”

The Matrix pushes this idea of transmedia storytelling as far or further than anyone has gone before, building out the world of The Matrix across not only three feature films, but also a series of comics (first released on the web and now in print), a series of anime movies (The Animatrix), and an ambitious video game (Enter The Matrix) which contains more than an hour of original footage featuring the cast of the movie. Each of these works adds something important to our appreciation of the whole–none of redundant, each has its clear aesthetic contributions.

Game designer Neil Young uses the term “additive comprehension” to describe the ways that we accrue information in transmedia storytelling, so that The Second Renaissance (one of the anime) fills it the events between our present society and the world depicted in the films, The Kid’s Story (also anime) introduces a minor character who appears without explanation in Reloaded, and Enter The Matrix (the game) provides backstory on Ghost and Niobe (two marginal characters in Reloaded who get more screen time in Revolution). In one of the flashier examples of transmedia storytelling, an urgent message gets introduced in The Flight of the Osiris (anime) and left at a post office, where the player retrieves it in Enter the Matrix (game), and the impact of its contents are made clear in the opening scenes of Reloaded (feature film).

The Wachowski Brothers sketched out the game levels with Shiny Entertainment’s David Perry, developed scenarios for many of the anime, and writed scripts for some of the comics. Fans argue that this gives these other works creative integrity.

Yet, at the same time, they work with distinctive and recognized artists in these other fields, artists like Paul Chadwick (Concrete), Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), and Peter Bagge (Hate) in the comics or Mahiro Maeda (Neon Genesis Evangelion), Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), and Andy Jones (Final Fantasy) in the anime, who bring their own thematic preoccupations, visual style and fan followings to the project. Each of these, and many The resulting works cohere, more or less, together, but also are distinctly different and accomplished on their own terms.

Even within the feature film, the Wachowskis have consistently showcased the contributions of other creative artists, including conceptual artist Geoff Darrow (who brings a Euro-comics influence to the project), martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (who links it to the Hong Kong tradition), and costume designer Kym Barrett (who brings to it the high style we associate with her work on the films of Boz Luhrman).

Most film critics frankly haven’t been willing to make the effort to “get” this franchise because they are stuck within a mono-media rather than a trans-media paradigm–and thus, the second two films walk away with a row of Gentleman’s Bs. They can see something new is going on here but they really don’t know what to make of it.

Traditional film aesthetics assumes not only that everything you need to know will be in the movie but that it will be repeated at least three times in case you blinked. The Matrix isn’t playing by those rules: it is experimenting with a new kind of popular culture, one which is by design more open-ended, more multilayered, more provocative and evocative, more exploratory than any one spectator is going to be able to process.

You are always going to feel inadequate before The Matrix because it expects more than any individual spectator can provide. That is its strength and its limitations. The film depends on the power of internet communities to look at the work from many different perspectives, pool their knowledge, and compile the information for us. The Matrix isn’t designed to be the end of the communicative and creative process but rather the beginning.

In the end, there is not one Matrix experience, but many. We hear this from no less an authority than Keanu Reaves: “What audiences make of Revolutions will depend on the amount of energy they put into it. The script is full of cul-de-sacs and secret passageways.”

So far, the audience has been prepared to give them more leeway than the critics have. The dramatic sales figures for Enter the Matrix and the Animatrix suggest audiences were ready to buy into the concept of transmedia storytelling.

Some critics are arguing that the third film suffers because it is trying to do too much, close off too many openings, and has this feel of ticking off plot elements. This is not surprising given the fact that the aesthetics of transmedia storytelling are still relatively undefined.

Transmedia storytelling is trying to take an economic imperative (the need to build up franchises in an era of media conglomeration) and trying to turn it into a creative opportunity. There remains an uneasiness about what is ruling this process–art or commerce.

The Wachowskis are violating a core principle which I described in my column: “Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained enough to enable autonomous consumption. That is, you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game and vice-versa.”

Whether The Matrix experiment fails or not, it marks an important chapter in the emergence of this new transmedia aesthetic.

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