It will soon be time to follow the white rabbit once again, as Lana Wachowski invites us to plug back into The Matrix. December 22nd will see the hotly anticipated release of The Matrix Resurrections, which will be uploaded into movie theatres (and HBO Max), returning movie-goers to a world of simulations, robot ravaged dystopian landscapes, and high kicking bullet time for the first time since 2003.
While only one of the Wachowskis will be returning to the franchise they created together back in 1999, there is still plenty of reason to be excited about revisiting the universe of one of the most influential films of the last 30 years. The first trailer for Resurrections teased a version of the Matrix where Neo (Keanu Reeves) remains under the illusion that the world around him is reality, and not a simulation created by a race of machines who have enslaved the human race (whoa).
That trailer presented more questions than answers, as any good trailer should, offering glimpses at the return of Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity, and a new Morpheus in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. What exactly is going on in this new simulation is enough to get anyone excited to party like it’s 1999 again.
Even if the sequels that followed the groundbreaking original aren’t as universally lauded, the Wachowskis trilogy is one that is never lacking in ambition, often taking unexpected narrative swings in its deconstruction of ‘the chosen one’ story trope as Reeves’ Neo discovers more about the nature of The Matrix. Such swings in both its story and world building are why the trilogy will always have ardent supporters, whose love and appreciation has only deepened in the 18 years since the series seemingly came to an end.
It is also easy to take for granted just how significant and unique the multimedia world of The Matrix was, particularly across the release of the sequels (Reloaded was released May 2003, and Revolutions quickly followed in November). While it certainly wasn’t an alien concept to spin a franchise out through other forms of media, the spin-off materials of The Matrix became more entwined with the understanding of the universe than any other before it.
Yes, there are countless Star Wars comic-books, video games and novels to dive into, but they aren’t required reading to understand what is happening in the core film franchise. Back in the early 00’s, the spin-off materials for The Matrix was a different matter. So, come join us as we take a trip into the desert that is the transmedia world of The Matrix, and how this expanded universe comes to echo the reception of the trilogy as a whole: undeniably ambitious, yet ultimately flawed.
The first step beyond the cinema screens The Matrix took were to the pages of comic-books, perhaps unsurprising given the influence Manga (and Anime, but more on that in a bit) had on the visual make-up of the Wachowskis original hit. They have the least bearing on the core franchise out of everything here; one, because they tell stand alone stories, and two, they’re rather hard to come by.
The publication history of the comics series is a peculiar one. Initially made available for free online on the film’s website, the comics ran from 1999-2003 and featured contributions from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Ted McKeever and the Wachowskis themselves, but Warner Bros seemed quite reluctant to get behind this first foray into universe expansion.
A print copy of the first series of stories was given away at theatres during the initial release of the first movie as well as being made available online, However, due to the studio’s concen with their rather adult content, Warner soon recalled the physical copies and they soon dissappeared from the website entirely.
They continued to be published as webcomics, with a few more getting the print treatment courtesy of the Wachowskis own Burlyman Entertainment. It took until the film’s 20th anniversary in 2019 for every webcomic made between 99-03 to become available in one physical collection.
But alas, dear reader, as much as I tried to get a hold of one, I could not. Seemingly out of print, and being beaten in a bidding war on eBay (it got to £50, I had to draw the line somewhere), the comics may be the first point of expansion for the Matrix, but it remains one of the hardest to get your mitts on.
The Animatrix is a collection of nine animated short films directed by different Anime filmmakers, leading to a variety of different styles and approaches. Overseen by the Wachowskis (they wrote four of the nine), the series arguably remains the crowning jewel of the multimedia offerings from The Matrix.
While promoting the first movie in Japan, the Wachowskis were able to meet some anime artists who had inspired their cyberpunk creation, and it was in these meetings that the plan to collaborate was born. Allowing the directors and their animation houses to offer their own impression on the Matrix universe, the shorts offer some stunningly designed takes on the universe, filled with imagination, surrealism and breathless action.
Some of the shorts flesh out the history of the world – ‘The Second Renaissance’ from Mahiro Maeda depicts the origins of the machines – while others simply offer one off, highly-stylised adventures featuring all new characters and perspectives (‘Program’ from Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a personal highlight). In 2003, two of these shorts would prove to be important pieces for the introduction of characters and events that would go on to appear in the sequels themselves..
The most significant of these is ‘Final Flight of the Osiris’, which depicts a group of characters sacrificing their lives to send a warning to the characters of Reloaded, stating that the Sentinels have begun tunnelling their way to Zion. The CG-animated short was the only Animatrix segment to be shown in cinemas, as it was attached to the release of Dreamcatcher (another Warners title) in March ahead of Reloaded’s May release, as well as being broadcast on MTV. While it may have been an exciting experiment at the time, there is no getting away from the fact that more casual viewers going into Reloaded without seeing the short would have felt a little short changed, as the film itself takes the establishment of the stakes in Osiris for granted.
The other short that offers more context for the trilogy, is ‘Kid’s Story’, directed by Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichiro Watanabe. It depicts the liberation for Clayton Weston’s The Kid, that annoying guy who is obsessed with Neo across Reloaded and Revolutions. The films make reference to a prior history with Neo but do not offer much in the way of explanation, particularly the crucial element that it was Neo who helped The Kid escape the Matrix. It once again demonstrates the Wachowskis relying a tad too much on their audience having taken in all the pre-release Matrix content ahead of buying a ticket.
It is all arguably to the detriment of Reloaded as a coherent and satisfying inclusion to the franchise, particularly in its opening act when it is setting the story in motion. It means that the story can feel somewhat incomplete without you doing some of the homework beforehand, which is ultimately asking a lot of your audience.
But as a means of exploring more corners of the world of the franchise, the shorts offer a highly imaginative and beautifully designed means of getting an extra Matrix kick without plugging into the central trilogy. They are pretty much a must watch for anybody who considers themselves a fan and are pretty easy to come by both online and on disc, so maybe factor them into your re-watch ahead of Resurrections (just make sure to watch them before Reoladed and learn from the mistakes of young Andy).
Back in the height of the PlayStation 2 era, it was rare for a major blockbuster to not have a tie-in video game released alongside it. Some of them were great (Spider-Man 2) while others were clearly rushed cash-ins that were never given enough time to be fully developed. But when it comes to video games set in the world of The Matrix, it was of course, a different endeavour entirely.
Arguably the most ambitious crossover of media in the whole expanded universe came with Enter the Matrix. Released in the same month as Reloaded, Enter the Matrix takes place at the same time as Reloaded, boasting over an hour of original footage, written and directed by the Wachowskis and shot specifically for cut scenes within the game.
You can play as either Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe or Anthony Wong’s Ghost, as you set out on a mission after discovering a package left behind from the crew of the Osiris (oh yes, even The Animatrix folds into this). Both characters have limited screen time in Reloaded, as they’re off screen having their adventure depicted in the game.
Enter the Matrix operates as a side-on quest to Reloaded, but even more than that it fills in what are seemingly bizarre gaps of story within the sequel. It even provides an in-universe explanation as for The Oracle’s change of appearance following the passing of original actress Gloria Foster during production of the sequels.
Once again, the Wachowskis are asking a lot of their audience to get the full picture of everything that is happening in their cinematic trilogy. Some fans undoubtedly would have jumped at the chance to dive into the video game and consume any and all Matrix-content they could. But not every cinema-goer who enjoyed the original and was curious about the sequel would be willing to complete a whole video game in order to fill in some gaps in the story, particularly when that game often proved to be quite a slog to play.
Less intrinsically tied into the narrative of the movies was the Path of Neo. Released two years after the trilogy concluded, it gave players the chance to play as Neo across moments in the trilogy. It was also plagued by annoying camera control and often clunky game mechanics, and is only remembered fondly by those that grew up with it.
More interesting to this whole transmedia narrative is The Matrix Online. The massive online multiplayer game allowed you to assume the role of a ‘redpill’, a human who had been trapped inside the Matrix but has since been freed and shown the truth of reality.
It was also a continuation of the franchise’s narrative, providing details of the world post-Revolutions, before Resurrections was even a glint in Lana Wachowskis eye. While it was taken offline in 2009 due to lack of interest, one event in the game may prove key to one question many have surrounding Resurrections; what has happened to Morpheus?
In the story of The Matrix Online, Morpheus was killed by an assassin sent after him by the machines who weren’t so keen on Morpheus’ endeavours to reveal the truth behind the Matrix. The real question that remains then is whether or not The Matrix Online is officially canon, and Morpehus’ fate still stands. The answer: we simply don’t know.
The Wachowskis were initially involved in the development of the game, so it could well mean that the death of Morpheus was their idea, and one that Lana has kept in mind going into the fourth movie. It may seem odd to call upon events that happened in an online game that has been defunct for over 10 years, but if history is anything to go by, that isn’t something the Wachowskis would be too bothered by. Will this new Morpheus be a resurrected version created by the machines following his fate in the game? December will soon tell.
No one has attempted the level of transmedia storytelling that the Wachowskis attempted with The Animatrix, Enter the Matrix and Reloaded. The reason is quite plain to see; it proved detrimental to the story and narrative flow of the film itself, a problem which has continued to plague the middle installment to this day.
But there is undoubtedly something to be appreciated in what was an unprecedented approach to storytelling, one where multiple pieces of the story were scattered across different platforms and mediums to create a web of experience worthy of the ambitions of the trilogy itself. Will the resurgence of the franchise see such an attempt made again? Time will tell, but there are certainly lessons to be gained from the first attempt to open the world beyond the realms of the cinema screen.