To most, The Matrix is thought of as a trilogy of films -- with a fourth, Resurrections, arriving this week -- and not much else. It's easy to forget that in the early 2000s, the Wachowskis actually envisioned the series as a multimedia project, with a grand story spanning a variety of mediums.
Key details about the world and backstory of The Matrix were spread across ancillary material, such as The Matrix Comics, a series of webcomics released between the first film and Reloaded. There were also video games -- 2003's Enter the Matrix featured live-action cutscenes directed by the Wachowskis starring Jada Pinkett-Smith as Niobe, which essentially acted as Reloaded's C-plot. The Matrix Online depicted what happened after the events of Revolutions, and the recent free-to-play The Matrix Awakens ties into Resurrections.
The most acclaimed of these tie-in materials, though, is The Animatrix -- an anthology film comprised of nine animated shorts set in The Matrix universe. The project was a collaboration between the Wachowskis and various legends of the anime industry, such as Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop fame, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust's Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Takeshi Koike, director of Redline.
Story-wise, The Animatrix was essential viewing in the chronology of the series, with two shorts that led directly into Reloaded. Final Flight of the Osiris chronicled the last mission of the crew of the titular Resistance ship, as they struggled to relay the message to Zion that the Machine army was on its way. The events of the short are briefly mentioned by Niobe at the beginning of Reloaded, but watching the events unfold made for far more compelling drama than basic exposition does, and effectively relayed the stakes of Reloaded better than the film itself.
Kid's Story, meanwhile, served as the introduction to one of Reloaded's new side characters, the titular Kid. One of Reloaded's biggest issues was how it threw the audience into the deep end with the number of new characters it introduces. In the case of Kid, at least, Kid's Story mitigated this, as well as provided a look into how the Resistance recruits ordinary people to the cause. Directed with flair by Shinichiro Watanabe, Kid's Story is one of the anthology's highlights.
What makes The Animatrix worth watching though goes far beyond filling in the gaps of the sequels. At its best, The Animatrix expanded the thematic scope of the series as a whole. The two-part short, The Second Renaissance depicted in harrowing detail the conflict between man and machine that would eventually lead to the construction of the Matrix. It was framed as a propaganda piece made by the Machines which led to an unreliable narrator.
It's a fascinating tale that implied that humanity might be less benevolent than the first film suggested, with Machines initially being brutally subjugated by humans. While the events of The Second Renaissance were ambiguous due to its unreliable narrator, at least elements of it are true as the short backed up Morpheus's statement in the first film that ''it was us who scorched the sky''. It's a tale designed to encourage debate, with fans read of it likely informing their read of The Matrix series as a whole, and the added moral ambiguity feeds into Reloaded and Revolutions similarly muddying the series' ethical waters with the Architect's reveal of the true nature of The One.
Two of the best shorts, World Record and Beyond, told more lowkey stories. World Record saw Olympic athlete Dan accidentally wake from the Matrix after an especially intense 100-meter sprint. Beyond, meanwhile, saw teenage girl Yoko stumble upon a glitch in the Matrix while looking for her lost cat. They're fascinating looks into the everyday horrors of the Matrix outside of the perspective of the Resistance, helping contextualize precisely what the forces of Zion are fighting for.
Part of what makes The Matrix great is its willingness to play with and remix various genres, which the other shorts did in spades. Program depicted two lovers, torn over their differing allegiances, fighting to the death in a combat training program styled after samurai movies. A Detective's Story, meanwhile, saw hardboiled P.I. Ash on an assignment to track down Trinity in a homage to film noir. Æon Flux creator Peter Chung's experimental Matriculated depicted a Resistance group who attempted to reform a Sentinel, the process of which is depicted in a long and cerebral visual sequence devoid of dialogue.
The Matrix Resurrections promises to grapple with the entire legacy of the Matrix series, and The Animatrix is very much included in that legacy. For any fans planning a rewatch of the series in the runup to Resurrections, then The Animatrix works perfectly slotted between The Matrix and Reloaded.
Even if you're not a Matrix fan, though, The Animatrix is still essential viewing. Seeing some of the anime industry's greatest directors given creative free reign to tell gorgeously animated and ambitious science-fiction stories is a treat that no anime fan should pass up.