Return to Matriculated (review)

Written and Directed by Peter Chung
Animation and Production Design by DNA, Seoul

Matriculated is the ninth (and final) episode of the Animatrix DVD. Whilst episodes such as The Final Flight of the Osiris and Kid's Story act as Matrix 1.5, bridging the gap between the original film and Reloaded/Revolutions; and others such as The Second Renaissance provide backstory; Matriculated is more of a standalone, concept piece set in the Matrix universe without tying into other segments. This may be in part due to Chung's latecoming to the project after a previously chosen director fell foul of other scheduling commitments: with the primary aims of the Animatrix having been achieved, he was able to experiment more than the others, in terms of both story and, given its rather different style, implementation. Although some episodes were released online, this one is just available on the DVD.

Spoiler Warning- for those who haven't seen the animatrix OR the second film yet!

Plot Overview

The scene opens on Alexa1 and "Baby" watching the shore in the real world (that is, the post-apocalyptic realm of hovercraft, sentinels and Zion from which the matrix is accessed- this may be a meta-matrix, see below for discussion). Two Runners- robots akin to the Sentinels but without hover capability- are spotted, but rather than simply fleeing, Alexa is deliberately luring them into a building. Inside one of the runners is destroyed by a larger machine of the same construction but apparently fighting for the humans (any lights on it are green as opposed to the red of the runners and sentinels), yet the second runner defeats it, and has to be taken out by Alexa, using an energy weapon of some sort.

She is congratulated by the others, and it is observed that this a smarter model than they're used to, which hopefully will convert- the emphasis being that there is a choice involved, rather than simple reprogramming:

"It's why we can show them a better world, why they convert."
"But the world we show them isn't real."
"It doesn't matter....to an artificial mind, all reality is virtual."
This conversion process consists of the whole group jacking in to a simulation, including the robot. What follows could accurately be described as a trip, as the robot pursues the humans through an increasingly psychedelic dreamscape- Chung is turning the matrix idea on its head, and asking what would happen "if a machine could be put inside a human dream", humans simulating a reality for a machine rather than the other way around. The robot responds as programmed at first- that is, it attacks. Yet this is unsuccessful, and as he chases through halls of crystal and light he becomes increasingly humanoid in form. As plane geometries give way to writhing organic landscapes he is confronted by Alexa, bathed in light, and reaches out to her- is the aim of the simulation to inspire love in place of logic?

Yet the simulation is cut short by a red alert- alarms heralding a sentinel pack on the approach. Despite their already converted robots, the humans are overrun whilst the runner sits inactive (but in green rather than red), retaliating only when Alexa is grabbed by an attacking machine. Plugging her back into the simulation, she at first bounds towards him lovingly, but then recoils in horror, screaming and fading away.

The devastation is surveyed: original and attacking machines, humans and "baby" (whatever it is!) all lie broken or maimed. The final shot is of the runner, sitting immobile at the same shoreline, apparently mourning his loss or perhaps just devoid of purpose.

Style

The Animatrix set deliberately avoids having a fixed style- nonetheless, Matriculated offers somewhat of a departure. Whilst Kid's Story and World Record offer more unconvential animation approaches, Matriculated feels like The Second Renaissance in its fusion of 2 and 3-D elements, but the dreamworld is set at odds with the standard cyberpunk darkness of the Matrix and certain rules are also bent: whereas with the films action in the Matrix gets a green tint (and the real world a blue one), here it's the real world that gets the green.

Chung observes in the director's commentary that this piece is not so much about a robot as a robotic mind, specifically a mind bound to a limited, linear mode of thought. Its transfer from the machine to the human side is symbolised not just by his physical (within the simulation) change to a bipedal form with what could be considered a face, but also by the transition of the environment- lines giving way to curves, planes to plants. The episode has very little in the way of dialogue and explanation, and instead relies on visual imagery: which makes it the most demanding of the series but also the most interesting- you don't get all the philosophy handed to you on a plate. This is probably only possible due to the lack of a movie tie-in ; it's a short story, not a prelude, and your mind is set free to wander.

The score is also used to distinguish between the real and simulated worlds- reality gets recognisable instruments in Don Davis' usual style, whereas the simulation is accompanied by a range of synthesised sounds. The overall effect made me wonder whether the simulation was in fact designed by the humans, or just draws upon whatever the robot's equivalent of a mind is for sensory input such as the colours and sounds.

Interpretation

Matriculated is probably the most philosophical of the Animatrix pieces, despite the fact that rather than introducing new concepts (error-handling as seen in Beyond or self-substantiation as contemplated in World Record or Kid's Story) it just stands the existing one on its head: what if the machines were immersed in a world created by the humans? However, we are immediately presented with a complication: the precise nature of the matrix "real world" has been muddied by the events of Reloaded. Whilst the Second Renaissance implies that all we know of the war is true, Neo's ability to stop Sentinels and the cyclical nature of creation and destruction of Zion as described by the Architect (plus, to a lesser extend, Smith's transfer to a "real world" host) suggests that being freed from the standard matrix places you not in the real world but instead in a meta-matrix. It's only once that reality is questioned that the matrix has a problem and needs to start over; and this also explains why escapees aren't simply executed in their pods when they awake.

But the question then is whether Chung was working to this model (which may need revision in light of Revolutions anyway!) or rather to the apparent situation as presented in the original film- that once you're out of the 1999 simulation, you've attained the real world. The former would help explain Alexa's ability to out-run a machine known as a runner (with some impressive gymnastic feats in the process) which surely is akin to dodging an agent; whereas sticking to the original movie makes the case of robots converting more compelling- for if they are merely parts of a simulation in the meta-matrix, why would they have a genuinely individual personality capable of being converted in the first place?

Regardless, the idea that the Matrix is not simply a hive-mind is reinforced here. Programs can and do go rogue- even before Neo set him free, Smith was hating his job, implying that agents (and by extension any fairly complex AI) exist with a considerable degree of autonomy. Similarly, when errors occur, a section can't simply be deleted, rather the system has to play by its own rules (such as the cleanup team deployed in Beyond, or having to implant tracking bugs within the matrix). We are left to ponder just what would happen if a machine created solely for the real world and subsequently converted to the human side was then plugged into the matrix proper. By extension, do agents have a mechanical body they consider their own in the real world- or are they purely software? If reality is just a meta-matrix, would that make them simulations of simulations? I leave you with Alexa's thoughts:

"Well I know that I'm not dreaming now because I know what it's like being in a dream."
"So dreaming lets you know reality exists?"
"No, just that my mind exists. I don't know about the rest."


1- I'm assuming this is her name as it's the first that appears in the credits. As no-one is ever refered to by name, it's rather hard to tell, so if anyone can confirm or deny this I'd be grateful!

Existing:


Non-Existing: