All posts by Alexander V Woods

Review: The Matrix Trilogy

The ones that started it all. My love and obsession for Cyberpunk began with the incredible Matrix Trilogy. But why was it so good? How did it have so much of an impact? I will be going in depth to explain my complete adoration for this trilogy, (specifically, the first two) but I am keeping all three together in this review, with an obvious 10/10. I will try to be objective, but here’s my completely biased review of The Matrix Trilogy.

The less you know about the Matrix, the better it is when you watch it, but for the sake of this review I’ll have to spoil a little. I definitely recommend watching them in order, however, as I watched Matrix Reloaded (the 2nd one) before the original Matrix and was very confused. Even watching it in order can get pretty confusing at times.

The Matrix is set in two different times: The first, which you are introduced to, is set in New York in the year 1999. The Second, which you are shown later, is set in the future in 2149. The story follows the journey of a Mr. Thomas Anderson, a software company employee by day and a black-market hacker by night. He wants to find out what The Matrix is, and soon enough he meets someone named Morpheus who is willing to give him the answer, even if it’s more than he ever expected.

Read on for spoilers of the next two movies. The next line you see will be a general review of the themes and elements of all 3 movies, without spoilers.

 

 


 

The reason why I am taking extra measures to provide a limit to the spoilers you read here is because of just how good it is for you to discover what the matrix is in the way that the movie delivers the answers. This is one of the reasons why I like this trilogy so much, especially the first and second one: they take their time in providing you the answers, and you can’t help getting pulled into the story and wanting to know what the matrix is as well, along with the main character. The story pulls you in for an incredible ride.

Mr. Anderson discovers that the Matrix is a virtual reality system that almost all humans are a part of, unwittingly, which was built by machines as a system of control so that the machines can grow and harvest humans like cattle in order to live off of their bioelectrical energy. The machines decided humans would be the best source of energy, but to keep them alive, they need to be complacent, and this is why they are all connected via wires into the Matrix, where they can live a dream world and dream life.

In this movie, Thomas Anderson, AKA Neo, must follow a preordained path of the One, which Morpheus has been told through the help of someone called the Oracle. If you’re getting lots of religious undertones here, that’s quite intentional. Most of the first movie involves Neo discovering what The Matrix is, and trying to come to terms with being The One who has to save all mankind from their slavery in the hands of the machines.

In the second movie, Neo has accepted his role as the one, and the majority of the film revolves around him getting to “the source” in order to save the last human city of Zion and complete the prophecy as foretold by the Oracle.

In the final movie, Zion is under attack by the machines, and Neo is caught in the Matrix. He must first leave the matrix, and then attempt one last effort to reach through to the machines to again save Zion from the machines. This also involves facing his arch-nemesis Smith.

 


 

 

Alright, spoilers are done! Now to talk about some of the elements that make these movies so great.

The Matrix movies are great because they appeal to a wide audience. They have a lot of action, including car chase scenes, shootouts, sword fighting, and Kung-Fu (legendary Martial Arts Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping was hired for the action scenes. If you watch Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or Kung-Fu Hustle, you’ll recognize his fun wire-action style). It involves a bit of romance, although the romance present in the movies are pretty limited. It involves mystery, suspense, and a lot of thriller elements regarding the almost all-powerful machines and their counterpart agents in The Matrix. But finally, there is a lot of mysticism and Philosophy interwoven in the Matrix. And this last point is ultimately why I think The Matrix stands above most other movies. If you don’t like movies that make you think and ask questions about your reality, then perhaps a brain-dead movie of gratuitous action like The Expendables might be better for you. But if you want a movie that will free and blow your mind at the same time, then the Matrix is perfect.

There are many different themes that the movies play with. Here are some of the major ones.

  1. The nature of reality.

“What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” –Morpheus

Due to what the Matrix is, a big part of the movie revolves around what counts as reality. Some consider the Matrix as one big lie, a dream that can’t be woken up from, infringing on our basic rights of choice and free will. Others think that the Matrix is better than actual reality, and therefore that ignorance is bliss, and the Matrix is a better reality than the alternative.

Whatever you decide, it’s a fun question to ask.

2.  Fate vs. Free will.

Morpheus: Do you believe in Fate, Neo?

Neo: No.

Morpheus: Why not?

Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

Are we in control of our lives, or have the decisions all been decided for us already? Because of the reliance on the Oracle to tell the humans what to do next, including the prophecy and fulfilling it, fate vs. free will has a big role in these movies. Morpheus, Neo, Agent Smith, The Oracle, The Architect, the Merovingian, these are all big characters in the movies that have their own thoughts on the subject, which they beautifully articulate in well-written dialogue pieces throughout the trilogy.

In addition to these two big themes is a lot of symbolism. You’ll notice already the heavy-laden meaning behind names such as Neo (new), the One (Anagram of Neo, relating to a messiah from multiple religious texts, in particular Christianity), and Morpheus (interpreter of dreams for the gods in Greek mythology). There’s also the crew’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, (the old biblical king), as well as Trinity, referring to the holy trinity and Neo’s love interest.

Another interesting thing to note is the preparation the actors had to do before even reading the script. Apparently, actors like Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne had to read three lofty texts: Evolutionary Psychology, Simulation and Simulacra (Modern French Philosophy on the nature of reality), and Out of Control, a predictive text on machines and control looking to the future as a cautionary tale.

Phew! So far we’ve covered the setting and basic premises of the movies, and the symbolism, philosophy, and genre-bending aspects of the movies. Now it’s time to talk about the special effects, the direction, and the soundtrack.

The special effects in 1999 were groundbreaking in and of itself. Something called “bullet time” became a household word, due to the scene where Neo is able to dodge bullets. In order to pull this off (again, this had never been done in this way before at the time), the special effects team set up a series of cameras surrounding the subject set up based on a simulation in order to take pictures in succession of something still or moving, in order to have a freeze-time or slow-motion effect while moving around the object around the same time.

Bullettime rig.jpg

This began a new method of film-making that affected TV commercials, movies, TV series, and video-games, all adopting the popular special effect. Adding onto the incredible scenes from the original Matrix movie, Matrix Reloaded added an element of fluid CGI movements in addition to the live-action actors and special effects, most notably in the scene called Burly Brawl that almost seems ripped out of an anime movie or a modern-day video game.

The incredible direction of the Wachowskis was crucial as well. Apparently they were very inspired by the bio-punk cyberpunk anime movie Akira (1988), and in fact used the anime as a way to explain their vision to Warner Brothers as a way to pitch their movie. They also hired people to draw storyboards of the scenes they had envisioned in their head, also very rich in special effects inspired from Akira or the Ghost in the Shell series. Usually a writer or director simply explains an idea with words, or maybe a few pictures. The Wachowskis had an entire comic made as a storyboard to show what they envisioned. That’s saying a lot.

Trinity Storyboard.jpg

The Warner Brothers took a gamble in funding this high-cost film, but it obviously paid off big time. The Wachowskis never thought they’d be able to make a sequel, but when they were told the producers wanted a trilogy, they decided to make Reloaded (#2) and Revolutions (#3) at the same time, both released the same year in 2003. With a budget of $63 million for the first Matrix, it raked in $463 million at the box office. The subsequent movies, Reloaded and Revolutions, cost $150 million and $110 million, and took in $742 million and $427 million, respectively.

Finally, we arrive at the soundtrack. I personally fell in love with most of the artists that collaborated on this phenomenal soundtrack, the main one being Don Davis. Davis focused on an orchestral score, classical in nature but grand as the movie deserved, for the first film. This was paired with music from other artists, such as The Prodigy, Rob Dougan, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and Rage Against the Machine.

The second movie, Reloaded, was able to fuse more electronic artists into the style, and less of the hard rock and punk rock artists. Don Davis also collaborated with Juno Reactor and Rob Dougan to create some great musical pieces. Another noteworthy mention is Fluke, whose song Zion (which is the last human city Neo is trying to protect) is played while the entire human collective rocks out in one last dance party the night before their battle with the machines.

There are just so many things that came together right in these movies, too many things to mention, but the incredible vision that the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) had is just mind-boggling, and I personally love the green-tinted virtual reality where anything can happen, as well as the nightmarish dystopian blue-tinted reality of Machines controlling the world and enslaving humanity. These films are simply very rich with all kinds of things.

So if you like Cyberpunk, Kung-Fu, Virtual Reality, Questioning Reality, Symbolism, Philosophy, Car chases and slow motion and Blade fights and fast-paced orchestral music with drums beating and electronic symphonies, then these films are for you. 🙂

Favorite trilogy ever. 10+/10.

Neuromancer (1984): A Review

If ever a book could be considered the father of Cyberpunk, Neuromancer would be it. Written in 1984 by William Gibson, Neuromancer tells the story of a punk hacker called Case who is down on his luck until a mysterious client gives him one last shot at redemption to complete a heist with a rag-tag team against an unknown wealthy entity.

This book has a couple different settings with a couple different main characters. The two main characters are Henry Dorsett Case and Molly Millions, an augmented mercenary. Case is a ‘console cowboy’ who used to be good at hacking the virtual reality dataspace called “the Matrix” until he was infected with a toxin that left him unable to access the Matrix ever again. That is, until a persuasive benefactor offers to cure him in return for one last job, which of course he is unable to turn down. The benefactor, someone name Armitage, hires him along with Molly and a couple others to complete a series of hacking and heist jobs.

Molly and Case

This story takes place in a couple of different settings. The first is in Chiba City, Japan, in the underbelly of this dystopian world. The second is in Istanbul, Turkey. The third is in a cylindrical wealthy space habitat called Freeside.

If this all sounds pretty confusing, that’s because it is. The plot and the settings are highly confusing, as are all the character’s backstory. And Gibson makes sure to throw the reader into all of this without explaining any of it.

One of the things I loved about this book was in Gibson’s ability to describe these fantastical places, as well as his penchant for incredible gritty punk dialogue. He shines most in the Chiba City settings, so much so that it actually added to my already dying wish to visit Japan by adding Chiba City to the list. His description of the luxurious city of Freeside was also incredible, especially considering when the book was written.

The problem with Gibson’s writing, though, is that he really needed to take some more time to explain what in the blazes is going on.

It was so bad at times that I had to consult Wikipedia and different sources online to figure out what was happening in the story, where they were, what they were doing, and why it was important. In order for a book to be truly great, it should be able to stand on its own, and not confuse its reader such that they need external sources to explain what is happening.

I think I may be in the minority here in being underwhelmed by the book, even though by the end I did thoroughly enjoy it. It simply wasn’t what I was expecting. I wish the plot were a little less complicated, or explained a bit more, and I would have also liked to see a more driving plotline. Although there is a sense of urgency as Case is on a pressing timeline for finishing the job in time, the sense of urgency is diminished a bit by the confusion of the whole story.

Nonetheless, it was a great read, and the contributions the book made to the cyberpunk community can’t be stressed enough. I think if you take the book Neuromancer and combine it with the 1982 movie blade runner, you would have the seeds of all the main cyberpunk genre. While Phillip K Dick did have a lot of ideas and contributed to the genre, it didn’t exist before these two, and then when Snowcrash came along it was considered post-cyberpunk I believe. Gibson created the idea of the Matrix 15 years before the seminal 1999 movie came out, and I suspect it had a big influence on that movie. I am grateful to all that came after Neuromancer, but upon taking the book by itself at face value, there is a lot that could be improved.

Overall, I would give the book 7.5 out of 10.

P.S. The first line of the book is considered by some to be a work of art, so I figured I’d include it below so you get a small taste of Gibson’s incredible writing style.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Snowcrash (1992): A review

Well, it only took me about three months, but I finally finished Snowcrash (to be fair it’s long and I read slowly). Here’s my review of the novel.

Published in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash is considered by many to be among the perennial novels in the cyberpunk genre. It is a relatively modern favorite, written in the 90’s instead of many of its older predecessors written in the 60s and 80s, and thus has a more modern flair. The story revolves around two main characters. The first is called Hiro Protagonist (no, I’m not kidding), a hacker extraordinaire that is also a skilled katana sword-wielder. He was also one of the original coders of big parts of the online virtual world called the Metaverse. The second main character is called Y.T., and is a courier in the real world, a line of work that involves Y.T. delivering packages using an advanced form of skateboard that she “poons’ cars with (attaches a suction cup connected to a strong retractable cable) in order to weave around the traffic on the highways. The story takes place in the future, where all governments have collapsed and corporations have become the de facto countries of the world, leading their own organizations with their own areas, security, and borders with passport control.

The title “Snowcrash” refers to a new type of drug that can be transmitted via the blood, but also virtually, by looking at a specific screen online. This new scary drug is the main plot driver in the book, and the story revolves around learning more about Snowcrash, who is using it and why, how it came to be, and what it is meant to do in the future as a dangerous weapon.

In terms of Cyberpunk stories, I liked this one a little more than Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which were the first two cyberpunk novels I read before this one. The dialogue shines through in the story, with casual witty banter among the characters. The novel feels like a 20-something wrote it, or perhaps it was written for that age group, and with the deferential main character’s name the novel definitely feels a bit like a parody of other cyberpunk novels.

Still, though, the fact that a dangerous drug is on the streets was not compelling enough of a plot point for the story to keep me reading. In addition to the fact that the novel is quite long, I found myself putting down the book many times and picking it back up. AS you read you see that things happen, but the pace feels somewhat slow, especially with nothing really to build up to until the very end. Even then, I felt that things were just happening in the story, and I was following along.

Nonetheless, there were a lot of cool ideas that I picked up in this novel. The first is the idea of corporations ruling the world, instead of governments, as I feel the current reality is a mix of corporations and governments truly ruling. I also quite like the concept of loglo which was introduced in the book. Loglo is the lighting of logos on highways and the world in general.

Another favorite was perhaps one of the most overpowered pseudo-villain of all time, Raven. In addition to being highly skilled with spears and knives, his enemies are afraid of killing him for reasons that I can’t explain without spoiling the book.

One thing I didn’t like, however, is how much Stephenson likes to explain things to the reader. Early on Hiro explains aspects of his reality to the reader, as if he knows that you are reading. This was a stark contrast from reading Neuromancer, which read as if all the lingo was already common knowledge for the reader, which can be quite confusing. This wasn’t too bad, until I got to the artificial virtual character called the Librarian. This read like a teacher’s dream student scenario, with Hiro asking all the right questions and the Librarian happily supplying them, with me drearily reading the back and forth while never having wanted to know the questions or  answers. A good chapter and a half is dedicated to the Librarian explaining archaic mythology and ideas from old civilizations, something that I suspect Stephenson loves knowing about but that didn’t quite fit with a cyberpunk novel.

Despite its drawbacks, it’s a good read, just be prepared for a long novel and if you’re a fast reader it’ll be a quick read. I’d give it 8/10.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Review)

So this past weekend I finally finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DE:HR). I say finally because, although I really wanted to like it, I ended up struggling to finish it in its entirety. Here’s my complete review of Deus Ex.

DE:HR features the story of Adam Jensen, a newly hired security guard for Sarif Industries, a new booming biomedical augmentation company. On one of the first days on the job, however, the headquarters is attacked and Adam’s girlfriend and top scientist is murdered, while several other scientists are kidnapped from the facility. The attack leaves Adam critically injured, which he only survives by serious augmentations that Sarif industries decides to invest in him. The rest of the story involves Adam doing some detective work to find out why the attack happened, where the other scientists are, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

There are a lot of things that DE:HR did well, and considering that it was released in 2011, I’m sure it was probably pretty groundbreaking for what it did. However, not only is the game a product of its time and sadly now a bit dated compared to current games, but I just couldn’t get behind the game mechanics. This may be in large part due to how I play as a gamer,  which would be straightforward first person shooters like Halo. The 3rd person setting when you take up cover makes it easier to stealth than to shoot, and I struggled a lot in smoothly lining up shots of my enemies. Although DE:HR does give you the option to do stealth only, guns blazing, or a mix of the two, the game consistently rewards you for taking the stealth route, and penalizes you for going guns blazing. How? Simply because ammunition is scarce compared to how many enemies you meet and their strength, and even with multiple upgrades (which I used as much as possible) you still have very little health, meaning that you really can’t afford to take more than a couple hits. As a result, near the last few levels, I found myself switching the difficulty to easy because I had lost my patience with creeping around and simply wanted to finish the game already. This resulted in an unfortunate ending where enemies did not hurt me when I thought they should have, and a ridiculously easy ‘boss battle’ at the end. So be warned! If you set the settings to easy, you might actually be cheating yourself out of the game. This is different from other games where easy mode is not god mode and it is still a little challenging.

The other qualm I had with this game is that EVERYTHING IS IN ORANGE. Seriously, if any object has the ability to be interacted with, it will have an orange border around it. All the lights are orange, windows are orange, and the vast majority of everything you see in the game is orange. So if you care about great visuals, and don’t like the color orange, this game might not be for you.

With all that being said, there are actually a lot of great things about this game that I would now like to address.

The first is that the plot is interesting and complex, and if you can get through the story fast enough so you don’t lose sight of your goals, can be quite fun. There are also a lot of side quests, some more interesting than others, such as saving a woman in a brothel. There are a lot of surprises and honestly it keeps you guessing most of the way.

The other thing I liked about the game is how much choice you get to have. Not only can you end the game in 4 different possible endings, you can also have different conversations with people that will lead to different outcomes. You can also get an upgrade that lets you analyze the personality of the person you’re speaking with (alpha, betta, or gamma person) and then use the right words to appeal to the right senses in this person (such as being logical to an alpha, flattering to a beta, and threatening a weak gamma person). This use of psychology so clearly in a game was quite refreshing.

Finally, once you get past the orange, a lot of the locations are pretty cool. My favorite was Hengsha, a city in China that ‘became so crowded they built another city on top of it’.

Heng_sha_skyline

Checking out the nightclub there and walking the streets and looking at the futuristic light fixtures and architecture was really cool. I just wish it was bathed in neon blue and purple instead of, again, everything orange.

All things considered, I would give this game a 7.5/10. The gameplay mechanics were hard to get around for me, but the music, storyline, setting, dialogue, and variety of gameplay made it worth the time I put into it.

I recommend playing this game but taking your time with it. Although if you like stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, I think this’ll be right up your alley.

 

 

Upgrade (2018): Movie Review

Upgrade was a movie that immediately piqued my interest when it first came out, but that I figured would be a typical action revenge slug-fest where the main character, through the help of an AI enhancement chip, would give him something akin to Kung Fu moves as it took over and helped him unleash all kind of badassery.

Thus I was very pleasantly surprised by the range and scope of this movie. Although still a self-contained revenge story, there were a lot of surprises that I didn’t expect, and a lot of artistic choices that I found made this movie rise up as much more than a simple revenge action flick.

Grey Trace is a mechanic whose wife is suddenly and tragically murdered, and he is left quadriplegic for reasons unknown.

MOVIE REVIEW UPGRADE

After attempting to recreate the semblance of a life after his injury, he is offered an AI chip called STEM that promises to give him full mobility of his body back, billed as a ‘second brain’ of sorts. Once implanted, Grey goes on a quest to find out why he and his wife were attacked, through the help of STEM.

One of the things that really makes this film work is the chemistry between the AI, called STEM, and the main character, Grey Trace. STEM is voiced by Simon Maiden, whom I hadn’t heard of before, but his voicing is excellent. Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) also gives an excellent performance, with both a wide range of emotion, action, and his ability to move his body in a highly wooden fashion as if STEM were controlling it. The way he moves his head, arms, and complete body as if it were a robot controlling parts of a whole, helped reinforce the illusion that STEM truly was in control. Another cool effect was how I experienced hearing STEM for the first time. Not only does it take you by surprise when he does speak, but only the speakers in the back of the theater projected his voice, whereas all speakers projected Grey’s voice, further creating the illusion that STEM was inside all of our heads.

The second thing that I loved about this movie was the pacing. Too many action films, in my view, rush all of their action sequences and don’t take their time, either via multiple scenes or too many shots. Not so with this movie. They take ample time to introduce characters and build up the relationship between Grey and his wife Asha.

Upgrade romance2

I noticed that after about 30 minutes, the catalyst of his wife being murdered still hadn’t happened yet. Considering the movie’s run time of 95 minutes, this was clearly a choice the director made and couldn’t have decided lightly.

Finally, the third surprising element of the film is how it delivers the right dose of humor between all the action. Many movies have been able to be successful in this endeavor, injecting the right dose of humor to lighten up the gravity of the action, usually through quirky and witty banter from the main characters (ahem Marvel), but this movie doesn’t do that. Rather, the humor is shown through Grey’s reactions to everything that is happening to him. He reacts to the AI sentience of the chip much like any one of us might react: with surprise, alarm, incredulity, and then a slow begrudging level of trust due to the abilities and polite nature of the AI. As a result, when the AI does things that are perhaps logical but also inhuman and unpredictable to the rest of us, Grey serves as a vessel of the audience in sharing that mutual reaction of “WTF is happening right now???” In this way the movie’s humor works really well.

Adding to these three elements are simply a lot of little things that work well. Technology is advanced, but not ubiquitous, as is well represented in the dichotomy of Grey’s love for mechanical diesel engines and the simplicity of a tech-free life, in juxtaposition with his wife’s big embrace of everything advanced, electronic, and technological. So when he chooses (without much of a choice) to be implanted with STEM, it makes his situation that much more ironic, but not unfamiliar for cyberpunk fans who might have seen similar situations play out in movies such as RoboCop.

As I left the theater, I found that I was struck by the question does this count as cyberpunk? There are low life elements, and high tech elements, although it’s not chock-full as Blade Runner or The Matrix is. However, the technology that is ever present is a lot more biopunk than cyberpunk.

Like, for instance, what I like to call “Hand-Guns”.

Upgrade hand-gun

 

Although there was a bit of cyberpunk, such as incidental shots of people in VR and a few VR scenes, these didn’t contribute that much to the story and therefore I’d call it Biopunk with some Cyberpunk elements.

Upgrade VR

This scene, with people randomly ambling about in the back using VR but not relevant to the story, is as close to VR as the movie gets. Although there are some drones, the most advanced tech again is implanted in bodies, thus I stand by my statement that it’s Biopunk with some cyberpunk elements. Although we do get some fun bits of dialogue such as when Grey asks “why would people want to be in VR for so long?” to which a hacker replies “maybe because for some people reality is more painful”.

Overall, I would give this movie a 9 or 9.5 out of 10. Although it’s not deep or profound like my favorite movie of all time, The Matrix, it does so much more than your average Revenge Action flick set in a quasi-cyberpunk setting. The score is good, and there are some truly beautiful scenes as well. Also, their use of camera angles to accentuate their action scenes was so much fun.

I’d highly recommend seeing it in theaters if you still can!

Check out the trailer that made me think it was nothing more than an action-revenge flick here: