Posts tagged movies
Dreamworks’ latest offering is one of their best.
How to Train Your Dragon focuses on the story of a Viking named Hiccup, who is scrawny, clumsy, and not at all possessimg the traditional Viking virtues of strength, battle-lust and a horn-laden hat (we can see here that this movie’s traditional viking is one of the Looney Toons tradition).
Hiccup is instead, an engineer, and a smith’s apprentice. He yearns to impress the lovely Astrid, a fierce young lady Viking. His clumsiness and odd sensibilities instead make him both a laughing stock and somewhat of a menace to his village.
This is a problem because his village is already plagued by dragons. In this world, there are dozens of varieties of dragons, from fat and ponderous pests to the fierce Nightmare and the seldom-seen and never-killed Night Fury.
Hiccup disobeys orders and runs out in the middle of a raid, deploying his latest invention, a net-throwing device. He manages to hit and bring down a Night Fury, but no one believes him.
Hiccup later finds the Fury, but cannot bring himself to kill the dragon, discovering that it is as terrified of him as he is of it.
Instead, the two begin a friendship. The night fury’s tail was maimed in the raid, so it is incapable of escaping the mountain lake glade where it crashed. Hiccup designs a prostetic wing-fan for the dragon, whom he names Toothless.
Hiccup is enroled in dragon training by his father (the Viking chief Stoic the Stout, voiced by Gerard “Sparta!!!” Butler. Hiccup uses the knowledge gained about dragons from Toothless to excell to the amazement of all.
Later on, Hiccup must choose between his dream of being a might warrior and his friendship with Toothless. The film ends in a great action sequence and finishes up with a good lesson and a cute conclusion.
Aside from positing dragons as not the bad guys, there isn’t a great deal of originality in the film, but it doesn’t matter. The characters are likable and relatable, the dragon species neatly distinguished, and the story confidently told. It’s accessible for kids but compelling enough for an adult audience. It’s as delightful as Kung-Fu Panda, if not a gut-bustingly funny for lack of Jack Black.
An early favorite for one of the best films of the year and a likely best Animated Feature contender, How to Train Your Dragon is great for all ages and very much worth seeing in theatres. The 3D is used somewhat sparingly, mostly for dragon action, and decently done, though I’d say not essential for enjoying the film.
Up in the Air (adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn) focuses on Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a man who travels for business for more than ¾ of the year and is most at home when he is flying. The mundanity and stress of air travel doesn’t get to Ryan Bingham. Due to the fact that he has nearly every loyalty perk available at the Hilton, Hertz, and American Airlines, traveling to him is a delight, where he is constantly greeted by name and shown the best of treatment. He makes single-serving friends on flights, seamlessly crashes other people’s parties at hotel conference suites and moves through the world with great efficiency, completely unfettered by attachments or permanency. He is developing a reputation as a motivational speaker with his program “What’s in your backpack?,” which teaches that material possessions are just ballast, and that the emotional connections with people are just another kind of ballast, tying us down in one place and grounding us with emotional inertia.
That is, until two women come into his life and provoke him to question his way in life. The first, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is a fellow unfettered traveler. They flirt by arguing the relative merits of various car rental companies, boast about their elite statuses and frequent flier miles. They tumble into bed before both flying off their separate ways in the morning, making plans to meet again with the same pragmatic efficiency that dominates their business life. The other woman who upsets Ryan’s status quo is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young Cornell grad who is a new hire for Ryan’s firm, promising to revolutionize the business. Ryan’s constant travel is in service of a company that is hired to downsize employees and offer assistance in career transition. What this really means is that Ryan comes in to fire people so that cowardly or compassionate bosses don’t have to do it. Ryan Bingham (and the people at his company) are the psychopomps of late capitalist downsizing, acting as 21st century Hermes to the souls of the recently terminated. In an economy tearing itself to shreds following the crash of 08, Ryan’s company is up while the rest of the country and much of the world is down.
In one of several powerful moves, writer-director Jason Reitman (of Juno and Thank You For Smoking) uses non-actors in the roles of most of the downsized employees. He brings in real people who have faced losing their jobs and captures their reactions, their emotions, their heartfelt pleas and desperate stories, stories that resonate with great strength. Most everyone in the USA knows someone who has lost their job when they couldn’t afford it, and this helps make the film almost painfully timely. Production on Up in the Air began before the wall street and housing crash, before the unemployment rate climbed above 10%, but because of that timing, Up in the Air has become one of the touchstone films for the contemporary US job climate.
Natalie comes in to CTC (Bingham’s company) with a Glocalization approach – make the global local. She puts forward a system where instead of flying “transition specialists” like Ryan from city to city to personally oversee the downsizing, the company can perform their duties via web-conferencing from their home office in Omaha. This threatens to destroy Ryan’s frequent-flier-mile-chasing, rollerback suitcase lifestyle. Ryan objects, and is tasked with showing Natalie the ropes. He provides prejudiced but effective advice on efficiency in travel, as well as sharing his love of flying. He teaches her how travel has a way of making all places one place. Kendrick’s Natalie is a very contained, restrained, buttoned up young professional woman, a woman that wants career mobility but also the comforts of a traditional family life with an ideal husband whose qualities she enumerates with the matter-of-factness of a technician naming off features in a designer computer. She contains emotion well, which makes it all the more striking when her Cornell-taught professional walls come crashing down.
Much of the film rides on the back of the three leads. Clooney and Farmiga find a comfortable intimacy for their characters as two people used to being alone in a crowd find themselves becoming a team and falling in love. Keener’s Natalie comes to be a surrogate daughter to Ryan, as she challenges his worldview while learning from it and coming to see that the world does not care for her five, ten, and fifteen year bullet-point life plans. Vera Farmiga is effortlessly sexy as Ryan’s match and opposite. One of Alex’s best lines, to Ryan, asks him to think of her as him, but with a vagina. Farmiga effortlessly oozes sensuality and maturity, in contrast with her junior co-star Keener (though as Retiman says in the commentary, they are playing the same woman at two points in her life, 23 and 38-ish). Clooney is of course the central figure, as we begin and end with his story. Clooney’s signature charm serves very well in making Ryan Bingham a likable character instead of an insufferable entitled hermit. Ryan is believable as the right man to help people through what for many is one of the worst days of their lives.
As a “transition specialist,” Ryan is an artist, rolling with people’s various reactions to getting fired sometimes with strength as needed, sometimes with compassion and encouragement. He is not their friend, he is not their enemy. He is their guide in the journey from their old job to their new life. Much as the people at Hilton, Hertz and American Airlines make Ryan’s journey smooth, he works to make the journey of the recently-terminated a bit more tolerable.
The film maintains tone well, has a strong style and point-of-view showing the world of travel through Ryan’s eyes at first and then letting realism creep in as Ryan comes to depend on people more and make himself vulnerable. The ending is a calculated question that each viewer must answer to themselves. It is a film that is easily read as provoking thoughts in the viewer such as “what is important in my life?
Extra features include a commentary with Director/Writer Reitman as well as Director of Photography Eric Steelberg and First Assistant Director Jason Blumfeld. They discuss the casting, the actor’s performances, the pressures of their multi-location set, as well as editing and lighting and other appropriate matters for crew-end commentary. The commentary is insightful, but not particularly remarkable as film commentaries go, with most material coming from Reitman himself, talking about his previous films and how they helped lead into Up in the Air. In addition, there is a featurette about Shadowplay, the company which did the opening credits sequence for this and Reitman’s other two films, as well as deleted scenes and trailers.
One of the sequences in the deleted scenes shows Ryan buying a condo in Omaha (instead of a rented one-bedroom) and nesting there, making a home for himself where previously, home had been the sky and the apartment was just the layover spot between trips. It shows Ryan putting down roots and putting effort into a localized life – he goes running in the neighborhood instead of on a treadmill, shops for groceries, and tastes the life that he had shunned before. I believe that this sequence’s omission in the film does the theatrical release a disservice, even though I understand Reitman’s commentary about why it was cut (he wanted to minimize the delay between two critical scenes, with Ryan & Alex at the wedding and then in Chicago). However, as is, the ending of the film felt incomplete to me in a way that proved disappointing. Ryan’s arc at the end of the film felt more complete when I mentally integrated the Omaha sequence into the film.
On the personal level, this film resonated with me a lot. I mean a lot a lot. I work as a traveling salesman, so I do a fair amount of flying, and a great deal of driving for work and staying in identical hotel rooms far away from the woman I love and my friends back home. In Ryan I can see the elite status fliers that I see pass me in line, I see reflections of my boss and my boss’s boss, men who travel for a living, and have spent many years growing expert and comfortable with living out of suitcases and garment bags. The isolation that the film clearly shows (first as irrelevant to Ryan, then deeply felt as the film goes on) is very real to me and I imagine to anyone who has to spend a reasonable or unreasonable number of nights each year away from home, sleeping in a foreign bed in a place that is not “home.” Bingham has a good lesson to teach in the way he makes all places one place, collapsing the world into a string of experiences and moving confidently through the world of travel.
At the end of the day, I have to agree with what he says towards the end of the movie. “If you think about it. Your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life. Were you alone?…Life’s better with company. Everybody needs a co-pilot.”
Up in the Air is a brilliantly acted, stylish film that is highly topical and timely, emotionally resonant, and critically adored (with Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild and Academy Award nominations among others). It’s a good view for fans of subtle comedy, mature romance, and anyone who’s ever been fired, had to fire someone, or spent too many hours on flights, in airports, and away from the ones they love.
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
This is going to be two reviews: The one without spoilers and the one with.
I first started seeing material for Pandorum late last year, where it looked like a film in the space horror tradition. The previews also suggested the possibility of a Big Action Movie element as well.
Pandorum is a German/American production directed by Christian Alvart and written by Travis Malloy. It stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster as crewmen on the Elysium, a long-term colony ship bound for Tanis, the only habitable planet identified by a humanity on the edge of annihilation — in the 24th century with a population of 24-ish billion people. Their memories return to them only in chunks after extended hyper-sleep, heightening the initial tension as they discover the power is comprimised and the proper rotation of crew is very very off.
The film maintains tension quite nicely, parceling out information in chunks. Though there is some “As You Know Bob,” it’s more like “As You Should Remember, Bob” with the two leads reminding one another about things drawing from their fuzzy memories. The title, Pandorum, comes from the term given to extended-space-travel sickness. Remember one of the theories about Reavers (from Firefly), how they were people who traveled too deep into the nothing and it consumed them? Kinda like that. There are creepy monster people doing creepy monster people stuff. There’s some fighting, but it stays as more of a horror/thriller than an action movie most of the time.
The film was very freaky, and notably original in several places. Yes, it seems apparent that Alvart and Malloy are familiar with films like the Alien Series, Event Horizon, and the like. Many critics whose reviews are collated at Rotten Tomatoes calls this being ‘derivative,’ but for me that just means Pandorum is a continuation of the discussion that is the Space SF-horror genre.
Go see this movie if you missed Event Horizon in the theatres and then discovered it years later to great enjoyment. Go see this if Alien took your breath away with Ridley sneaking through the corridors of the Nostromo hoping to never see that black-glossy carapace again. See it if the idea of a psycho-thriller-slash-horror-movie-with-some-action appeals to you. Chances are this is going to bomb in the box office and then sell well over several years in DVD/Blu-Ray, but if any of the above sounds appealing, do yourself a favor and see it in theatres.
And now the spoilers (as in stuff that’s farther than 15 minutes into the film and not given away by trailers).
District 9 was advertised widely on SF sites such as i09.com. I’ve been excited about this film since the first previews, promising an apartheid metaphor SF film with a distinct setting. Good sociological SF is hard to find, and to be commended when it shows up.
I expected a Sociological SF film in a fictional documentary style and got something else.
There will be spoilers needed to actually talk about the meaty bits of this movie.
The film I was expecting to see lasted about 20 minutes into the actual film, and then it turned into something else. Those 20 minutes, it was a fictional documentary about the history of the aliens’ arrival and the current forced relocation to the concentration camp/refugee camp far from Johannesburg. This first 20-ish minute film was a slow burn, captivating and disgusting, showing prejudice and exploitation.
The film takes a turn that to me was unexpected, with Wikus Van De Merwe infected by the black liquid and beginning to transform into one of the aliens. The second 20 minutes, I was expecting a contagion/virus storyline, with the aliens creating a bio-weapon to strike at humanity.
But District 9 was not that movie, either. It became an action-ish film with Wikus fighting his way out and into MNU, learning to empathize with the aliens after having been casually and cruelly bigoted. It turned out to be a redemption story with tons of exploding people rather than a subtle sociological study of bigotry and xenophobia, with a constant apartheid metaphor. The apartheid metaphor in District 9 was really just centered on that first 20 minutes, and once the infection/transformation got going, the metaphor went away.
The film left a lot of questions unanswered. These are things that you could interpolate or extrapolate on, and I will do so below.
Things like — why did Christopher Johnson (the lead alien) only have one helper/ally within the alien population? Are all the other aliens too addicted to cat food? They show the rampant addiction, akin to depictions of “Firewater” for American Indians, where the aliens trade priceless military technology for 100 cans of cat food after asking for 10,000. The documentary has Wikus (I believe) talking about the aliens being members of the worker caste, lacking independence, but that’s just a human perspective.
Christopher said it took 20 years go gather enough liquid/fuel to power the command ship — did he only have a handful of helpers the whole time? Did the rest of his cell get evicted without incident/off-screen? If Christopher was a member of a leader/overcaste, why didn’t he have more followers/subordinates? We see precious little interaction between Christopher and any other aliens save his son (and his green helper who is killed), which makes these questions impossible to answer in-narrative.
Why did the aliens get stuck here in the first place? The command module fell out shortly after arrival, but if it’s what was buried and what Christopher and son used at the end, where are the rest of the command staff/caste? The aliens were depicted as almost completely without agency barring our protagonist aliens, save for the ‘feral pack’ attack at the end and the aliens’ various desperate grabs for cat food.
It was hard to like Wikus during the film. I was able to empathize, but Wikus was too unlikable in the beginning, too callous and bigoted. Yes, he was just a person with a loving wife and dedication to his job, but still. I think it was the gleeful description of the popping of the alien eggs, the ordering of a flamethrower to incinerate an entire hatchery that did it for me. After that, I could root for him, but really only in context of helping the aliens. The ending with Alien!Wikus making the metal flower was touching, however. And they’re clearly set up to do a District 10 film, with Christopher’s return, the healing of Wikus, etc.
Let’s talk for a moment about the action and effects. The alien mecha was super-cool looking, and I think this film wins for most humans exploded on screen during 2009. We’re supposed to accept that Wikus’s modified DNA allows him to intuitively control the mecha, which allows the cool action sequence.
My main beef with the film comes down to this: Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden says that in a story, you get one ‘Gimmie,’ one thing where you can say ‘In this setting, Something Works Differently’. If you tell your story well, and parcel new information out properly, you can earn the audience’s trust and get more ‘gimmie’s.
I think that for me, District 9 asked for more gimmies than it earned. It left far more things unsaid and unexplained that I would have liked, and not even in a way that is okay to leave unsaid (like Cloverfield‘s lingering questions about the monster).
I’m very glad to have seen the film, I enjoyed it once I got on board with the story it was actually trying to tell, but I think it may have missed the chance to be a better film when it turned into an action film. This may also come from the same impulse that will have me write my Anthropologists! In! Space! novel.
Final verdict — go see it, but know that it’s a SF action film with a slow burn start and a strong sociological undercurrent. It’s more akin to Children of Men than I had originally imagined. Hopefully, if you go into the film armed with a firmer sense of what to expect, or with no expectations whatsoever, you can enjoy it for its merits.
After a long hiatus, the Star Trek franchise returns with the J.J. Abrams-directed re-launch film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Following a Ultimates-kind of model (Marvel’s re-imagining re-launch of classic Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men), the new film takes the chance to re-introduce the classic characters of the original series in a way that allows for new growth and storytelling less bound by decades of continuity.
Star Trek is commonly known for its sociological SF slant, but this film is a pure character study. We follow James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) through their pre-histories and their paths through youth into adulthood and the foundation of their friendship. Pine succeeds in capturing the swagger and cunning of Kirk without hamming it up too much, and Quinto’s Spock excels at displaying the conflict between his Vulcan and Human sides. Each member of the cast had the chance to shine in their area, but were also depicted as vulnerable and imperfect.
The design aesthetic for the new Star Trek is the love child of Apple and the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s shiny on top and gritty on the bottom, combining the dirty functionality with the pristine shine. The future is not white-washed or sterile, but it does have the shine of optimism. The graphics were breathtaking, re-capturing the ‘Sense of Wonder’ mode of SF visuals which has been so central to the genre’s cultural impact.
Eric Bana’s Nero is a singularly driven villain who, along with Spock, ties together the plot twists that give us the new continuity. Nero may not go down as one of the franchise’s best villains, but he was compelling in his own right.
The pacing was tight, with slow moments spaced out here and there to give moments for character notes, but the majority of the film was an unrelenting roller coaster ride.
Star Trek is an exciting, accessible, fast-paced character-heavy film that requires no substantial knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, but is clearly a part and doing homage to the long-established Star Trek universe. Critical acclaim and likely box-office success mean that a sequel following the same continuity is very likely, and may also provide support for a new Star Trek television series. Heroes producer and Pushing Daisies creator Brian Fuller has already expressed strong interest in helming such a property, and with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the role of ‘Best SF show on TV’ is open for competition once more.
Final verdict: Go see it. See it if you’re a Trekker, a casual fan, a SF aficionado, or if you just want a fun two hour ride of a film.
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.