ULTIMATE MATRIX COLLECTION, THE - Blu-ray review

...the complete, seven-disc Blu-ray box contains probably everything the Matrix fan could ever want.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The first "Matrix" movie was one of the biggest-selling DVDs of all time and helped push the fledgling DVD industry into the big time. Because the complete, seven-disc Blu-ray box, "The Ultimate Matrix Collection," contains probably everything the "Matrix" fan could ever want, I'm sure the folks at Warner Bros. hope it will be to high-definition Blu-ray what that early DVD was to standard-def. The collection surely wants for nothing.

The Matrix:
Ever since "Jaws" set the trend, summer movies have been about action and adventure. When you can throw in fantasy and special effects, all the better. "The Matrix" comes in with all speakers firing, a sci-fi thriller that's short on logic but long on visual and visceral excitement. It's a futuristic film noir with big names like Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, big sets, big budget, and enough weirdness to ensure Blu-ray sales for years to come.

The premise is promising: We all live in a dream. Literally. Nothing around us is real. In the movie's future world, most of Earth's population are unknowingly curled up in little pods, millions upon millions of tiny pods all over the world, with each pod's inhabitant fed and nurtured by giant, insect-like machines. Our lives are merely sensory implants, cyber visions to keep us pacified, while the machines feed on our energy. It's a tempting idea, one that will have you looking at your own world in a slightly different way, but it's undermined by too much mundane explanation. According to the story line, we got ourselves into this situation when we built computers that became smarter than we were. They took over and enslaved us. Yes, it's yet another "smart-ass machines taking over the planet" plot. How about, millions of years ago higher intelligences colonized us, and this is how they left us? How about, this is the way it's always been since time immemorial, sans God, gods, or any higher intelligences? How about the whole world is in the mind of the main character, and nothing else exists? Oh, where is John Conner when you need him? Where is Big Arnold?

Anyway, a few humans have escaped this illusory world, this "Matrix," and are working in a resistance movement headed by a character played by Fishburne. He has the unlikely but mysterious-sounding name of Morpheus (in mythology Morpheus was the god of dreams, and so the symbolism begins). Their latest recruit is a young computer geek named Thomas Anderson, played by Reeves. Supposedly, his destiny is to be the world's savior, "the One." But first the resistance has to convince him that the Matrix business is all true, then they have to spring him from his pod and bring him into reality, and finally they have to train him to use his new super powers. Oh, I didn't mention the super powers this savior possesses? It's not an easy job for Anderson, or his alter-ego Neo, or the viewer to keep up with all this.

The movie's most obvious similarities are to "Blade Runner" for its dim, shadowy look; to "The Terminator" for its intellectual nucleus; and to "Dark City" for its overall feel. Unfortunately, it lacks the internal consistency of any of those films. Once "The Matrix" establishes its broad outlines, it turns almost exclusively to computer graphics, special effects, chases, and fights for its plot turns. The cold, dark, metallic look of the sets and costumes, so reminiscent of every other postapocalyptic movie ever made (at least since "Mad Max"), becomes tiresome; as does the routine, often wooden acting of its stars, especially the cornball posturing from Fishburne and Reeves. It's also hard to take the villains seriously when they speak in such deliberate, melodramatic voices and wear getups straight out of "Men in Black"; or to take Anderson seriously when the villains "bug" him with an insect-looking implant. These are times when it strikes the viewer that the filmmakers may have intended the story as a parody of futuristic thrillers, but then the plot reverts to its more serious tone and rebuts the notion.

Of course, the film does succeed in presenting a bleak, gloomy future devoid of human emotion, and, undeniably, parts of it are visually exciting, especially its several climactic showdowns. The special effects can at times be breathtaking, like the look of the giant squid-like mechanisms that constantly patrol the world. But a little of this goes a long way, and the plot too often bogs down in obscure complications that are hard to follow. The Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, wrote and directed the film, which costars Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano, among others.

So, back to the question: Is life an illusion? "The Matrix" answers this age-old philosophical query in straightforward Hollywood fashion: Yes, it says, and machines are responsible! Well, at least the movie offers greater novelty than that provided by most other Tinseltown flicks. But there's still more surface here than substance, intriguing though that substance may be. OK, enough of this nit-picking. The film is fun to watch, which is all we really expect from action flicks. In that regard, count "The Matrix" a success. 7/10

Video:
For those viewers who believe the movie is the thing, the video quality couldn't be better. The VC-1, BD50 Blu-ray transfer appears to be the same as the HD DVD encode and is everything one could ask for. The widescreen picture size measures as before, a generous 2.40:1 ratio, the image beautifully detailed, well defined, and almost totally free of grain, except that which was inherent to the original print, sometimes noticeable in wide expanses of white and helping the film to look more realistic than some of its all-digital cousins.

The Wachowskis chose an oddball color palette that runs high to shades of green and yellow, so it's a little hard to tell just how "natural" the colors are. I'd say, though, that everything is in order and in sharp relief. And even though the black levels are intensely strong, darker areas of the screen allow one to see deeply and clearly into them.

Audio:
To complement the picture quality, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound are outstanding in every way, coming into their own in the last third of the movie during the rescue and fight scenes. The sonic range is wide, especially in terms of bass and dynamic contrasts, and the channel separation is clearly distinct from all six speakers. If you can, choose the TrueHD track. It is the wider, more cleanly focused of the two English tracks. Switching back and forth between TrueHD and regular DD reveals a more open sound stage in TrueHD, with a slightly tauter bass. Trust me, you'll like it. The DD track, while still very good, is a bit brighter and lighter by comparison.

Note: Turn on the TrueHD at start-up. Don't be like me and remember to make the switch about fifteen or twenty minutes into the movie. I can't understand why studios don't just make the higher audio codec the default, since if a system can't play it, the system will simply switch to the lossy track, anyway.

Extras:
The dual-layered BD50 contains "The Matrix" film; thirty-eight scene selections, with bookmarks; a guide to elapsed time; English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. All three films come in their own slim-line cases, the cases further enclosed in a handsome cardboard slipcover, with a handy, informational insert guide inside.

In terms of extras, these discs have a slew of standard-def bonus items. First up, "The Matrix" contains an "In-Movie Experience," providing coverage from the cast and filmmakers, most often accompanied by picture-in-picture inserts to illustrate its points. Next, we get a theatrical trailer, a teaser trailer, and several TV spots. After those, there are four separate audio commentaries. Who could listen to all of them? The first commentary is with philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber, a track my colleague Eddie Feng thought was overkill, trying to make more of the film's philosophy than what was there. The second commentary is with film critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers, and David Thomson, who do their best to analyze the film's content and delivery. The third commentary features costar Carrie-Anne Moss, visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta, and film editor Zach Staenberg. And the fourth commentary track is with composer Dan Davis, who speaks over an isolated music-only track that allows him to comment on the music without dialogue or sound effects getting in the way. Not enough? There is also a written introduction by the Wachowskis. In addition, the disc contains a sequence of seven featurettes, forty-three minutes in all, called "Behind the Matrix"; a music video, "Rock Is Dead," by Marilyn Manson; and a series of music tracks.

Still not enough? Things continue on "The Matrix" disc with a feature-length documentary, "The Matrix Revisited," about two hours long; plus two more galleries of featurettes, "Follow the White Rabbit," twenty-three minutes, and "Take the Red Pill," seventeen minutes. Frankly, after watching a few minutes of each of these segments, I felt as though I had had about enough of "The Matrix" and all it had to offer. But I suppose the true believer cannot get enough of this stuff.

Finally, the first case also contains a standard-definition, DVD digital copy of "The Matrix" for use with Windows media, iTunes, and iPod devices.

The Matrix Reloaded:
"The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead." --Albert Einstein

If you liked "The Matrix," you'll probably like the second movie in the series, 2003's "The Matrix Reloaded" as well. It's more of the same, plus even more nonsense.

Indeed, you might even like "Reloaded" better since it contains a few new explanatory riffs on a story that left more than a few people a bit confused the first time around. If, on the other hand, you didn't care for the original film and found it merely a load of sci-fi foolishness, special effects, and fight scenes, I doubt you're going to think very highly of "Reloaded," which has an even higher quotient of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, elaborate special effects, mystifying cast members, and endless fight sequences.

In the first installment we learned that most life on Earth as we know it is an illusion, a gigantic computer matrix of phony realities that we think we're experiencing, while in reality future machines have us all plugged into tiny cell pods. "Reloaded" starts out several months after the first movie left off, the machines are marching against the last remaining human city, Zion, and our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) is the one great hope of Mankind. Fortunately, Neo is beginning to understand his powers and vision a little better now than in the first film, and he is more capable than ever of taking care of himself and his new world.

While I've never fully appreciated Reeves as an actor (except in "The Devil's Advocate" where he played the perfect innocent foil to Al Pacino's devil), Reeves does fine here as the ex-computer nerd turned mystic hero. Also back are Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, not so mysterious this time around but just as strong a presence; Carrie-Ann Moss as Trinity, whose role and involvement with Neo the filmmakers have expanded thanks to the popularity of the pair in the previous episode; Hugo Weaving as the evil Agent Smith, this time there being more of him (literally) than ever; and Gloria Foster as the Oracle.

New to "Reloaded" are Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe, a Captain of the resistance fighters; Harold Perrineau as Link, an operator on Morpheus's ship; Harry J. Lennix as Commander Lock, a military leader of the resistance; Anthony Zerbe as Councillor Hamann, a political leader of the resistance; and Helmut Bakaitis as the Architect, the creator, the godlike father of the Matrix. Even world-champion boxer Roy Jones, Jr., shows up as a grim-faced good guy, Ballard, who, ironically, does no actual fighting.

New as well is the script's exploration of free will, choice versus fate, and destiny, all of them pursued to some small extent in the story. Unfortunately, most it only leaves things muddled. New, too, is the notion that in order to defeat the machines, Neo must reach "the Source," and to do so he must go through the "Keymaker." Shades of "Ghostbusters." And probably the silliest scene in the film is one where the fate of the world hangs on a single kiss! Where was the editor when we needed him?

But it's the visual appearance and action in "The Matrix" films that audiences find most compelling, and it is here that the Wachowskis top themselves. Yes, there are more turns and twists to the plot to follow and fascinate and perplex, but there are more visually stunning sets, too, more impressive CGI, and more spectacularly impressive fight sequences than before. Of course, none of it seems as fresh or imaginative as it did in "The Matrix" then it was all so new and inventive. Our having seen such things done again and again in other movies since has taken some of the edge off the flying stunts and the slow-motion special effects, too.

But you will still find some things of interest. Probably of most regard will be the infamous freeway scene, one of those ultimate car chases that go on forever and destroy about 800 vehicles in the process. It's pretty exciting no matter how familiar it may seem (and it seemed particularly familiar to me since the filmmakers shot it close by where I live). Indeed, even though the whole of "Reloaded" seems more like a fantasy video game than a sci-fi flick, it's so remarkably well done, most people probably won't notice.

I can't say I found Keanu Reeves too persuasive as a lead character in "Reloaded," nor did I find much in the way of high spirits or good-natured humor in the movie. What's more, there's the overlong duration (138 minutes) of "Reloaded" to consider, the relentless pacing of its fight scenes, and the constantly grim tone. It's a pall that hangs over the whole picture.

Yet there is still much to enjoy about "Reloaded" in its daring appearance, its goofy premise, its nonstop action, and its general feeling of wonder. "Reloaded" is fun stuff for sci-fi/fantasy buffs, well made and entertaining even if it tends to become more than a little static along the way with all its similarly constructed battle scenes. My recommendation: Don't even try to figure any of it out. Just look, listen, and do your best to appreciate it. 6/10

Video:
For a film so dark as this one is, the Blu-ray colors and definition stand out, and again the VC-1 encode appears to be the same as the HD DVD. The screen dimensions in "Reloaded" are again 2.40:1, and using a dual-layer BD50 disc the transfer looks practically flawless. The colors run stronger to purples and blues than to the earlier film's greens and yellows, and the detailing and object definition seem even crisper. Imagination? Maybe, but it's excellent in any case.

Audio:
Again I chose the Dolby TrueHD option--this time remembering to choose it at start-up--and again it did not disappoint me. Everything about it is exemplary: the frequency range, the bass, the dynamic response. And the 5.1 multichannel spread makes this special-effects-laden, sci-fi extravaganza a sonic joy, the discrete signals sounding pinpoint accurate. The surround channels place ambient and background noises all around us, sometimes hardly noticeable except subliminally or subconsciously, to make the overall environment vivid and lifelike. Moreover, the TrueHD appears a touch more robust than the regular Dolby Digital, which again seemed slightly brighter and more constricted.

Extras:
The Blu-ray disc for "The Matrix Reloaded" contains all of the extras we might expect, including a picture-in-picture "In-Movie Experience" and several audio commentaries. The commentaries include the ones by the philosophers and critics named above, and they pretty much continue along the same lines. There are also the same language choices and BD options as on "The Matrix," a written introduction by the Wachowskis, thirty-six scene selections, bookmarks, and a guide to elapsed time.

Among the further extras are "Behind the Matrix," which includes four segments: "Preload," a twenty-two minute, behind-the-scenes production overview with the cast and crew explaining their part in the filmmaking; "The Matrix Unfolds," a five-minute look at the influence of "The Matrix" across movies, games, anime, and the Internet; "Get Me an Exit," nine minutes on the commercial advertising inspired by "The Matrix," like the Samsung phone used in the movie; and the cutest bit in the extras department, "The MTV Movie Awards Reloaded," nine minutes of fun and parody. After that is "Enter the Matrix: The Game," on the making of the video game, with a series of scenes from the game; a music video, "Sleeping Awake," by P.O.D.; and a theatrical trailer, a teaser trailer, and eight TV spots.

Additionally, there are segments called "I'll Handle Them," seventeen minutes on weapons and fighting; the "Teahouse Fight," seven minutes on the famous fight scene; "Car Chase," close to an hour-and-and-half of featurettes, nine in all, on "The Freeway Chase" from storyboards to models to actual shooting, probably more than you ever wanted to know about the intimate details of filmmaking; "The Exiles," seventeen minutes on "The Exiles" and "The Architect's Office"; and "Unplugged," a forty-minute section on "Creating the Burly Brawl," with Master Wo Ping and others.

The Matrix Revolutions:
The Wachowskis did a good job naming "The Matrix Revolutions." It continues to go around and around and around. Sometimes, it's better to quit when you're ahead.

"The Matrix" (1999) was an enjoyable sci-fi experience as it introduced us to some mind-boggling special effects, and it had at its core an interesting, although not entirely original, premise. The film's makers, Andy and Larry Wachowski, informed us in the first movie that we were all living in a dream. Machines had taken over the world, and each of us "humans" was really a prisoner curled up in a little pod, a prisoner that machines were feeding a program simulating our existence. These ideas were not unprecedented. The view of life as a dream has been around since the ancient Greeks, and the idea of machines taking over the world has intrigued moviemakers before--in the twenties with "Metropolis," in the fifties with "Forbidden Planet," and, of course, in the eighties with "The Terminator," among others. But most movies hadn't elaborated the concepts so thoroughly or so graphically until "The Matrix."

You'll also remember that in the first film a group of human resistance fighters were doing all they could to thwart the machines while waiting for a savior, who turned up in the person of a computer hacker named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), later called Neo, presumably the new deliverer of Mankind. The plot of "The Matrix" unfolded slowly, finally revealing the predicament the world was in and implying that Neo would save the day. It was fun. And it probably should have ended right there. But where would the profits have been in that? Sequels are a time-honored Hollywood tradition.

So, next we got "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," made back to back and released in 2003. It was a two-for-the-price-of-one deal. Frankly, though, one movie would have been enough, since there really wasn't enough material to spread out effectively over two complete films.

"Reloaded" started out several months after the first movie left off, the machines marching against the last remaining human city, Zion. The script added an exploration of free will versus fate, a point pursued only to a minor extent and which I had hoped the filmmakers would amplify in the final segment, since the way they handled it in number two had simply left things confused. Alas, it didn't happen. "Revolutions" only expands upon the action-adventure aspects of the previous movies.

Nevertheless, I had enjoyed "Reloaded" for its extended visual style, meaning that its sets and special effects were more complex and more fascinating than ever to look at. The second film was less innovative than the first film, true, but it was still enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately, though, this third episode, "Revolutions," does little new in terms of storyline or visual effects. It is basically just more of the same, with nothing surprising, nothing any longer mind-boggling, and nothing most viewers couldn't guess would happen going in.

As the movie begins (taking up exactly where part two left off), there are only some twenty hours left until the machines reach the human citadel of Zion, and it's up to Neo to rescue the human race. He must go to the Emerald City, speak to the Wizard, and free the land of the Wicked Witch of the West. Or something like that. If you're the sort of person who enjoys finding pieces of "The Wizard of Oz" in Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," you'll have a field day with this picture.

As "Revolutions" starts, Neo find himself trapped between the real world and the Matrix, and only the Frenchman can help transport him between the two planes. Next, a whole lot of stuff happens inexplicably, just it looks good. We meet some program people, for instance, who turn out to be more human than most humans. But the story makes practically nothing of it.

In fact, the whole movie comes more than ever to resemble a video game, with one encounter after another, each bigger and more eccentric than the ones it left behind, each with increasingly more-exaggerated special effects. The movie is overlong at 129 minutes, but if you take out all of the punching, kicking, shooting, somersaulting, jabbering, and intense staring, it's about two minutes, probably long enough. And don't forget the old war-movie clichés and red herrings, which don't help, either.

People in the film continue to indulge in the same sort of fortune-cookie philosophy they were spouting in the last film, like the Oracle saying, "No one can see beyond a choice they don't understand." This kind of pseudo-mystical dialogue permeates "Revolutions" for no other reason, I suspect, than to make the movie appear more profound than it really is. Apparently, the filmmakers expended their repertoire of abstruse ideas in the first film and had to resort to nonsense in the second and third segments. The "Architect." The "Source." The "One." Whatever happened to the magic and mystery of the first installment? The Wachowkis replaced them by more diffuse language, more extravagant computer graphic imagery, and more mundane explanations. Arthur C. Clarke did not improve upon "2001" by over-explaining things in "2010." Neither do the Wachowskis improve upon "The Matrix" by taking us behind the curtain of Oz. More is not necessarily better.

I was willing to give "Reloaded" the benefit of the doubt I enjoyed its look. But "Revolutions" adds nothing fresh to the formula. The big battle sequence, which comprises maybe half the film with its conflict between squid-like machine Sentinels and Mech-Warrior human weaponry, is glorious for about ten minutes but then goes on forever. Further, while some of the CGI work is terrific (the aforementioned Sentinels especially), too much of it appears frustratingly ordinary rather than approaching anything like fantasy realism. The laser fire, for instance, seems to me no better than the laser blasts in the original "Star Wars" over a quarter of a century ago. Then, after an admittedly clever confrontation with Smith, the movie ends. Sort of. Yet it doesn't really end. As any computer user knows, what you can delete, you can undelete.

It isn't that "The Matrix Revolutions" is a bad movie; it isn't. It's that "Revolutions" is a disappointing movie, given all that has come before it and all that it could have been. I suspect many "Matrix" fans like me were looking forward to some kind of smart, startling, imaginative climax, something that would make us all say, "Wow! Cool! I never expected that!" But it doesn't happen. Instead, we get a wholly prosaic, commonplace ending.

"The Matrix Revolutions" may go out with a lot of loud bangs, but when it's over, it seems more like a whimper. Maybe we can pretend it didn't happen. 5/10

Video:
Since the Wachowkis filmed "Revolutions" and "Reloaded" at about the same time, we would expect them to look pretty much alike, and they do. The Blu-ray disc picture quality continues to shine, and the remarkable clarity and definition continue to increase one's enjoyment of the film's often spectacular visual effects.

Audio:
Again, choose Dolby TrueHD 5.1 if you can. Basically, the sound is identical to the sound in the previous film, which is to say, it's excellent.

Extras:
As with the previous films, we get a ton of extras, including an "In-Movie Experience," two audio commentaries by our pals the film critics and the philosophers, the same language and BD options as before, and a written introduction by the Wachowskis. In addition, there are thirty-three scene selections with bookmarks, a guide to elapsed time, a theatrical trailer, and six TV spots.

I swear after watching all of these making-of features, they began looking alike to me. Anyway, the big documentary here is "Behind the Matrix," containing things like "Neo Realism: The Evolution of Bullet Time," more on special effects; "Super Big Mini Models," filming the world of models and miniatures; "Double Agent Smith," a look at what it took to make the final scene, including the work to replicate Hugo Weaving with body doubles, lifelike mannequins, head casts, and costumes; "Mind Over Matter: The Physicality of The Matrix," a look at the dramatic stunts of "The Matrix"; "Before the Revolution," a timeline of the development occurring in the "Matrix" story, followed by "3-D Evolution, with concept art and storyboards, and on and on.

Next, we have "The Crew," twenty-five minutes on the art department, the second unit, the cinematographer, and the lighting people. After that is "Hel," twenty-seven more minutes on special effects. Then there's "Super Burly Brawl," seventeen minutes and divided into five segments: "The Skybarn," "The Crater," "The Egg," "Anatomy of the Superbrawl," and "Super Burly Brawl." Moving on, we have "New Blue World," twenty-six minutes' worth of info on the geography of Zion, the ships, the Neb, and such. And then "Siege," about forty minutes on the final battle. Lastly, there is a thirty-nine-minute ordeal called "Aftermath," four segments on the film's composition and final adjustments.

"The Animatrix":
The fifth Blu-ray disc in the set is "The Animatrix," a series of nine animated short subjects in high def, all of them related to the theme of "The Matrix." The nine films total about 100 minutes, and they range in style from 3-D CGI through anime, rotoscoping, dark comics, and graphic novels, mostly in color, with one in black-and-white, and all of them looking great in 1080p. In addition, you'll find almost an hour of "Making of" material related to "The Animatrix"; audio commentaries on the films; text information on the directors and producers of the films; and a twenty-two-minute segment on "The History and Culture of Anime."

"The Matrix Experience":
Here you'll find two standard-definition DVDs, one of them double-sided, filled with more of the same. There are two sixty-minute documentaries titled "Return to the Source: Philosophy and the Matrix" and "The Hard Problem: The Science Behind the Fiction." You can guess what they're about and how they try to persuade you that "The Matrix" movies are more than just punch-kick-and-special-effects extravaganzas. You'll also find "The Burly Man Chronicles," "Pre-Production," "Alameda Shoot," and "Australian Shoot." I'd swear I had seen all of this the day before when I was watching the first three movie discs, but, as I've said, it began looking alike to me after a while. "The Burly Man" business is about ninety-four minutes long; the other three parts total about thirty-two minutes, with additional information if you want to click on the "White Rabbit" icons along the way.

The final disc wraps everything up...finally. It contains "The Zion Archive," galleries of storyboards, characters, ships, machines, etc.; "The Rave Reel," nine minutes of spacey graphics; "The Matrix Online," a nine-minute preview of the video game; two music videos; and yet more theatrical trailers and TV spots.

Parting Thoughts:
Despite the fact that the original "Matrix" can stand perfectly well on its own, and despite the fact that the filmmakers could have combined the second and third installments into one shorter movie instead of padding them out into two longer ones for more profit, I still found the overall premise fascinating enough, the stunts exciting enough, and the Blu-ray picture and sound good enough to enjoy them over again.

My film rating below, a 6/10, is an average score for all three movies (7/10, 6/10, and 5/10).

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
10
Extras
10
Film Value
6