Monday, November 10, 2003

Looking To The Stars: The Matrix - Revolting

First things first. If you haven’t seen The Matrix Revolutions and/or if you have not yet read any of Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” series and you plan to at any point in the near future, please do not read this column. SPOILERS ARE CONTAINED WITHIN!

There. Now. Where shall I begin?

I saw Matrix: Revolutions this weekend and the only comparison I can make is that I feel the same way about the original it as I do “Return of the Jedi”. Indeed, the Star Wars Trilogy and the Matrix Trilogy stack up almost perfect.

The first part of the trilogy? Stands up quite well on its’ own. A true classic.

The second part. Technically superior to the first in most regards. Expands the universe but ultimate a bit slower and more involving than the first part.

The third chapter? A lot of cheesy action with a bunch of plot twists that surprise no one but an ending that brings things full circle and ends things on a satisfactory, if bittersweet note. It’s the weakest of the three parts but is hardly bad. Just not as good.

And the comparisons between Matrix: Revolutions and Return of the Jedi don’t end there…

Plot Progression – Both movies open with a scene where the team must rescue one of their own (Neo vs. Han) who is in the hands of a character who is hostile, but not the main enemy. (Jabba the Hut vs. The Merovingian). They all go off, with the savior hero (Luke vs. Neo) going off to win the spiritual battle alone even as everyone else engages in the much larger epic battle between the masses of good vs. evil.

Thematic Progession – Man vs. Machine. Nature vs. Technology. Romance vs. Reason. Logic vs. Intuition. Ultimately, it is the same old themes.

Ultimately a War Movie- Throw out the scenes of Luke and the Emperor and throw out the scenes of Neo fighting Agent Smith. What do we have? Just your basic war movie. A very high tech, well-shot War Movie…with all the same stock characters. You have the excitable newbie, the grizzled-old soldier, the soldier with a sweetheart at home, the sweetheart herself…

Actually, to be honest the whole thing is a blatant rip-off of The Holy Trilogy. I’m amazed George Lucas hasn’t sued.

“Now wait a minute, Starman!” I hear you shout. Well, not you. Actually, I mean Ben Morse, who is standing behind me and reading over my shoulder as I write this. Anyway, Ben just said “Having the same clichés doesn’t mean that you can go accusing something of being a rip-off”.

Well, you know what? He’s right. The previous half-assed argument is not my own. This was the argument made by two random passersby of ye old shoppe of random fanboy bitching. They contend that The Matrix is irredeemable trash because of the way it shamelessly ripped off Star Wars. So what? The Matrix ripped off the works of Phillip K. Dick. And Greek mythology. And The Bible. And the teachings of Buddha. And a whole lot of other things besides.

As Albert Einstein once said, “creativity is learning how to hide your sources.” A bit cynical of the creative process but accurate in some cases. Let’s take Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favorite writers. Where would Neil be today if it weren’t for the vast mythologies and fairy tales of a thousand cultures fueling his own creative endeavors?

Perhaps he would be at his old job as a freelance writer, typing out reviews and interviews for some hack rag on the Internet, while getting frenzied e-mails from angry fans, asking for his qualifications to say that Chris Claremont is a tired old hack who should have retired with grace five years ago…No, wait. That’s where I am today!

(Just joking. I’ve never said Chris Claremont is a tired old hack. At least, I don’t think he is tired… and even is he is, he’s still more fun than Chuck Austen.)

My point is that our culture has a wide variety of sources that all writers draw upon. And if a character or a story seems familiar, it is because that character or story has been around a while and lasted because they are true to us. Take the scene in the Matrix, where Trinity, Morpheus and Seraph must journey into the realm of The Merovingian in order to rescue Neo. The whole scenario is rife with comparison to the Greek legend of Orpheus, who went into the underworld for the woman he loved. Of course the Matrix scenario has several differences- the sexes of captive and rescuer are switched and Trinity uses violent methods rather than persuasive ones to win her lover’s freedom, but it is very much the same ultimate story. If that is so, then the writers and directors of The Matrix deserve credit for having found a new way to tell some old stories in a new way. That, and for having advanced the effects technology enough that someday, God willing and hopefully with someone other than that guy from “Dude, Where’s My Car?”, we will have a Superman movie worthy of the name.

Nevertheless, having now seen the entirety of the Matrix Trilogy, I feel that I can weigh in with some authority on one of the more persistent rumors in the fan community, regarding the original Matrix. That is, that the movie was almost a wholesale rip-off of Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles”.

As I said before, there is a common pool that all writers draw out of. But there does come a point where coincidence stops being coincidence. And I do believe that The Matrix crossed that line in the first film. And I don’t mean with the elements that are common place to superhero comics as a genre, like the names and renaming.

The adoption of a new name as you are born into a new life is a part of tribal culture as well as superheroism. So as Mr. Anderson becomes Neo and Dane becomes Jack Frost so did Bruce Wayne become Batman and certain Native American tribes have their young men go through a vision quest to earn an adult male name. Incidentally, one can have a fun afternoon tracking down the names of the characters to their symbolic function in the film. To spell out one of the easier connections, Morpheus is named for the god of dreams who watched over and protected sleepers in the dream world. (But you Sandman fans knew that already, eh?)

But certain other elements are too similar to not suspect an uncommon link between them. To parphrase Morpheus in the second Matrix film, “I do not see coincidence, I see plagiarism.”

  1. The World and the Plot

The Invisibles – advanced beings from a different reality who use human beings as an source of psychic nourishment, ruling the world from the shadows. Our heroes are a rag-tag group of rebels using guerilla warfare and magical altering of reality in order to fight the system.

The Matrix- An alternate-reality generated by advanced machines who are using humanity as a power source. Our heroes are a rag-tag group of rebels using guerilla warfare and hacking the computer world in order to fight the system.

  1. The Heroes

The Invisibles – A potential Messiah is rescued by a charismatic bald guy who wears sunglasses a lot, who slowly sets about teach said Messiah about how to use his untapped powers before letting him onto his team as a full partner. Said Messiah falls for the short-haired babe on the team and then constantly argues with the sassy Brazilian drag queen sorceress.

The Matrix – A potential Messiah is rescued by a charismatic bald guy who wears sunglasses a lot, who slowly sets about teaching said Messiah about how to use his untapped powers, before letting him into his team as a full partner. Said Messiah falls for the short-haired babe on the team and argues constantly with the sassy Brazilian drag queen sorceress.

(Okay, I’m just kidding about the Brazilian drag queen in The Matrix. Just making sure you’re still paying attention. Puckish sense of humor that I have…)

  1. The Villains

The Invisibles- Major enemies are the Myrmidons (hostile, hive-minded agents who wear a variety of guises, some of them human others not) and the Lovecraftian Archons of the Outer Church.

The Matrix – Major enemies are The Agents (hostile hive-mind programs who can possess any body within The Matrix) and the squid-like, Lovecraftian Sentinel robots.

  1. The Jump Scene

The Invisibles- Jack Frost is made to jump off a building so he can experience death as part of his training.

The Matrix – Neo is forced to fall off a building as part of his training.

And this is just what I can remember off the top of my head, folks. I highly recommend that you go and pick up some of The Invisibles trades. Even if you have little interest in conspiracy theories of films plagiarizing comics, I think you will find them well worth reading. And reading beats movies any day of the week. Ask anyone who read the Princess Bride book after seeing the movie and see which one they liked better.

Tune in next week. Same Matt Time. Same Matt Website.

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