Tuesday, April 27, 2010


The DVD collector's edition of the Matrix trilogy includes a bonus DVD called the Animatrix. The Wachowski brothers wanted to explore aspects of the matrix concept that they did not have a chance to in the films, and what better way than to give the project to some of the animators that had influenced them. It's no coincidence that most of the animators and directors were Japanese. If anyone can be said to have pioneered the adaptation of comic serials to film, it is the anime masters of Japan. Names included (with Wikipedia links) Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Kazuto Nakazawa, Mahiro Maeda, Koji Morimoto, and Korean animator Peter Chung of the original Aeon Flux series.

The brothers picked eight concepts and gave them to different animators to adapt into animated shorts. They fully scripted only four of them and directed none. The result was a really diverse collection of storytelling styles with a thread of connectivity running through. The first short was the only one connected directly to the Matrix film narrative and depicted a critical aspect of the story that was not explicitly shown, but was referred to in one small line at the start of the Matrix Reloaded. For anyone who hasn't seen them, here's a pretty cool official site, and here's a list of titles with a teaser question related to each story:

Final Flight of the Osiris - How did Zion receive word that the machines were launching a subterranean attack?

The Second Renaissance - What is the history of how the Matrix came to be?

Beyond - If the Matrix program had some bugs that created some odd happenings, how long would it take the monitor programs to identify and fix the problem?

A Detective Story - If a P.I. was hired to find one of the liberated humans without knowing about the Matrix, would he be smart enough to figure out what was going on?

Kid's Story - If someone told you about the Matrix, could you free yourself simply by believing them completely enough?

Matriculated - Could the humans reprogram some of the machines to fight for their side? Or better, could they "reform" them to understand the goodness of humanity and have them choose to fight for them?

Program - The human rebels used simulation programs to test new recruits, but could they also use them to test their loyalty?

World Record - Could you wake up from the Matrix by sheer physical exertion in your mind?

Monday, April 19, 2010

What is the Matrix?

Such was the question posed by the early trailers for the imaginitive and sole creation of Larry and Andy Wachowski now known as The Matrix. You have to admire these guys. They wrote, directed, and produced the entire Trilogy, with top quality skills on all fronts, without having any prior experience in big time movie making. Actually, they were comic book story writers for many years when they brought the Matrix concept to the big studios and of course were turned down initially. So they decided to do a test project to prove they could make a movie. It was called Bound, an odd yet entertaining crime comedy-drama, which they also wrote, directed, and produced. I would recommend giving it a watch not just because it is funny and contains some original camera work and plot twists, but also to appreciate the talent of these guys given it was their first go at it, and it was so markedly different from their usual comic book subject matter, which is what they really wanted to put on screen. Needless to say, it worked, and Warner Brothers funded their project along with an Australian company.

The Wachowski brothers can also be credited with the creation of a new special effects technique called bullet time filming. Instead of moving the camera on a track, they could achieve much faster panning rates by setting up multiple cameras along the path of the shot and using the precision of computer control to fire single photos in sequence as the actors moved against a green screen background.
By slowing the film down later they could create the effect of extreme slow motion while simultaneously whizzing around the subject at high speed without so much as a blur. After all, every frame was snapped as a still photo. If the cameras went off simultaneously, you could freeze the frame and then pan around the frozen scene as was done for the famous cat like jump kick by Trinity in the first film. It was pure genius, but rendered obsolete several years later when human actors could be realistically modeled inside the computer and directors now had complete camera control in virtual space. The latter method was used on the sequels.

But enough on the originators, let's talk about the movie. It still amazes me when an original concept hits the sci-fi world this late in the game. Although wars between man and machine is a old theme (Terminator, I Robot, etc.), ending up using and harvesting man as a physical power source was a little more original. Of course, it's a dubious premise because you'd think the machines would get a better yield from hydro, geothermal, or even wind power (humans are rather inefficient energy conduits). But that was all just an excuse to create the real new concept after which the title was dubbed - the matrix. Perhaps the timing was right because, given the then current popularity of massive online virtual reality games like WOW, it was easy to envision a massive program into which thousands of people could plug in and interact inside at the same time. Then by making this virtual world a place where most people spent their entire lives thinking it to be reality, and a reality modeled after 20th century life and times, it teases you with the possibility that you might be living in the matrix right now. This is the kind of thing that makes science fiction so fun.

A lot of elements came together in this series. Let's face it, it's a good action film in its own right. And if you're going to have a lot of fight scenes, you may as well make them interesting. Coming off the graphic novel genre, the brothers certainly understood that idea. Most fight scenes were choreographed in detail by a then unknown (in America) martial arts film expert, and each one had some new element thrown into the mix. To be honest, I usually just sit through fight scenes waiting for the plot to continue, but these were fun to watch because they just looked so good. Speaking of looking good, even my wife, who is a fashion expert, commented on the cool wardrobes - something you don't often see in sci-fi but find a lot of in the comics world. And regarding the concept, they did a good job of exploring all the angles of the interaction between consciousness, avatars, and intelligent programs. However, I could never convince myself that those falling green symbols could even begin to represent a program as complex as reality - but it still looked cool.

Many critics seem to think the first movie of the trilogy was good, but the other two were horrible. I read some of the negative reviews and could see some patterns emerging. The Wachowski's always intended the trilogy to be a "serial" movie, that is, one story with three parts. Most of the reviewers find flaws that are based on judging each movie in isolation. This is as much of a mistake as watching, say, the last third of a movie and saying it lacked character development and had too much action. Well, the character stuff was done at the beginning and the big action comes at the end. Another recurring critique was about lame dialogue. Let's get one thing straight... this is not meant to be a great piece of drama. This was a serial comic book story set to film. The dialogue matched what you'd find in the pages of any "graphic novel". Good guys vs. bad guys, conflicted heroes, overdramatic visuals and dialogue, and lots of fighting. I've never been a comic book fan, but I do believe their draw is the same reason a lot of us go to the movies - to lose yourself in another world for a while. The fact that it was also good science fiction put it on the map in that genre.

Finally, if you get the collector's edition DVD set, you'll get a bonus DVD called the Animatrix, which is a project in its own right and deserves to be in its own entry next up.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dr. Who?

When I was a kid, Dr. Who ran on public television and I used to watch episodes from time to time with my father. The stories were quite engaging, although a little slow moving for my attention span at that time. These were serial type adventures where a single story line would last for 3-4 episodes. It was pretty much like a sci-fi comic book series on television. The time frame allowed for lots of complicated twists and turns and the subject matter provided lots of cool monsters and fairly regular time travel themes since Dr. Who was supposed to be an alien "time lord", taking human form, who could travel through time and space with a curious machine called a Tardis, which disguised itself as a British phone booth even when such a thing did not at all make sense in its environment. Of course, the whole thing was a magnificent creation of the Brits and I've heard one of the longest running series on the B.B.C. of all time. That's right, not just the longest sci-fi series, the longest series period. Wikipedia says it ran from 1963 to 1989 with a total of 151 story lines, each several episodes long.

For the short time it was syndicated in the states, the only person I saw acting as the good Doctor was John Pertwee. Many of the episodes were very well written and others were somewhat over the top, but Pertwee played the Doctor with such a fervent seriousness about him that he managed to maintain a certain dignity even in the midst of the most ridiculous backdrops. Dr. Who was an alien with extreme intelligence and Mr. Pertwee could not only spit out the heady sounding verbiage but do it in a manner that showed his constant frustration with the stupidity and bureaucracies of man, and do it with characteristic British wit. This was always a delight to watch. Of course, the Brits have a long tradition, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle, of portraying the genius detective trying to solve a puzzle, or an alien mastermind trying to save the planet in this case. Dr. Who could almost be described as the Sherlock Holmes of science fiction.

I should also mention that I always loved the theme song. The original recording was an early example of heavy synthesizer composing. There was something mesmerizing about it, especially when you add in the visual which would today be described as one of those weird media player mixer skins. Here is a sample of the starting theme from the Pertwee era - Dr. Who Title Sequence. There's also a nice major key interlude in the full recording if you can find it in the U.S.
A few decades later, my first venture into the newly popularized world wide web was via the old hosting platform called Compuserve. This was kind of like an AOL for computer people that focused on professional resources, but it also had chat rooms of every sort which I spent a good deal of time in until the novelty wore off. In one of these, I met a lady in the Midwest who happened to be an avid Dr. Who fan. When she found out I actually knew who that was we began talking about the subject and I made the shocking discovery that there had been 7 different people who had played Dr. Who over the entire initial run (and some others in attempts to resurrect the series much later). John Pertwee was Doctor #3. My friend said her favorite was Doctor #4, played by Tom Baker. She had a whole video tape library of past episodes and she was so happy to be able to chat about the topic that she sent me a whole set of video taped episodes featuring several of the different Doctor's. Included were two episodes that had all the doctors appear together in some type of time warp story (the 3 doctors and the 5 doctors). The idea was that the Doctor changed his appearance from time to time via "regeneration" if he was injured in order to maintain his long life span. This made it easy to allow him to go back in time and meet himself without having to do any special effects. Watching my friend's tapes allowed me to bring back the memories and also add to them the new knowledge of the series.

After seeing some of the earlier and later episodes, I still consider John Pertwee to be the best. I may be biased, but the whole series takes on a different personality for each Doctor, including the production, directing, and script writing. For example, only Pertwee's doctor is banished to earth and works closely with a military operation called U.N.I.T., so most of the stories take place on earth and take on sort of a government operative feel to them. None of the other Doctors were as serious in manner as Pertwee, and he has some great stylistic additions like his black cloaks and vintage jalopy that he liked to drive around. I can understand the appeal of Tom Baker, who was supposed to be one of the most popular and the longest running. He gets some pretty good scripts (I've just found out some were written by the Douglas Adams), but also adds a more light-hearted approach. He even owns a robotic dog named K-9 that follows him around. But for my taste, I'll take the serious scientist over the eccentric wanderer.

Friday, April 2, 2010


In the Pasadena, CA house in which I and my siblings grew up, my Father's book collection was on a shelf in the corner of the living room which made it easily accessible. Most of it consisted of old Caltech physics text books and other technical stuff, but there was also a smattering of science fiction novels. The only one that ever caught my eye was entitled, quite simply, "City", by Clifford Simak, and I was delighted to just now find the original paperback cover from the copy in my Dad's library on the left. The robot shown in the picture is named Jenkins, and he is the only character that remains throughout the entire 12000 year span over which the story takes place.

===============<<spoilers below>>=================

Even as a grade schooler I found that story completely fascinating. Each chapter describes huge sociological changes in mankind's history starting from some time in the near future where people begin abandoning the cities. The explanation, among other things, is that the population is being fed via hydroponics so farming the land was no longer necessary. Land becomes so cheap that people abandon their homes and move to the countryside (has some parallels to what's going on in housing today!). For continuity, the book follows several generations of the Webster family. Jenkins is their robot butler who is passed down through the ages. We see a group of smart "mutants" that take to the hills and start a society. They discover that the collective intelligence of ants has no limits save for their need to hibernate each year, and by removing that constraint for them, the ants eventually learn to build tiny robots that enter the brains of animals and turn them into slaves, building structures for them and rockets to travel into space. The mutants ultimately figure out how to create doorways to parallel universes into which they depart. That's just one of many side stories. Men learn to change their bodies so they can live on Jupiter, and when they discover that in the new body form, the planet is a paradise, they eventually abandon earth altogether for a life of bliss. I believe some stay behind in some sort of induced coma living a virtual reality life of their choice. Meanwhile, after having experimented with imparting vocalization skills to dogs, man's best friend soon learns to communicate with him, and then eventually takes over the planet after human kind has fled to Jupiter. Jenkins and the other robots stay behind to serve the dogs.

One other aspect of the book that I still find particularly amusing is that it pretends to be a series of legends, published by the dogs in the distant future, about their alleged mute past, and about this creature called "man" who they supposedly once served. Each chapter is preceded by a discussion of the prevailing views of contemporary scholars (dog scholars) about the authenticity of various parts of each tale. The satirical irony just oozes out of the pages.

Now I'm sure that all sounds quite ridiculous, but it was perfect for sparking a young boy's imagination. I even later used it for a book report in the 8th grade and the teacher was quite amused with the enthusiasm evident in my synopsis. Simak is an excellent storyteller and there are so many intriguing ideas and threads. It was this book that first introduced me to the concept of a parallel world existing, not along an extra spatial dimension, but a few seconds in time behind us - like the frames of a motion picture film, just slightly different, as it was well described. A consequence of that reality would be the impossibility of time travel as there would be no independently reachable past or future. Of course, that would probably conflict with relativity theory. Anyway, a more comprehensive synopsis is given here.

My admiration was tempered a bit when I found out that the story was not originally written as a novel in 1952 but as a series of articles in a sci-fi mag called "Astounding! Science Fiction" (first chapter appearing in the issue at right), which seemed to give it a less reputable origin in my mind. Later I learned that this periodical and others helped launch what is referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction, as well as the careers of many later to be famous authors, including Isaac Asimov. Those mags were where the action was back in the 30's and 40's. Click here for a more detailed treatment. But given the original City novel was penned that long ago, it is in fact astounding how well it still holds up today, and I would still heartily recommend it to anyone.