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The Complete Matrix Trilogy (HD DVD)
Warner Home Entertainment / 1999 / Rated R
Street Date: May 22, 2007
List Price: $99.95
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Editor's Note: Warner is releasing two 'Matrix' box sets to HD DVD concurrently: the super-sized 'Ultimate Matrix Collection' and the slimmed-down 'Complete Matrix Trilogy' (reviewed here). Portions of this review not specific to this release also appear in our review of 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection.'
She jumped in the air and the camera swirled around her. At that one moment, everything about big-budget moviemaking changed. While many late-1990s science fiction films such as 'Dark City' and 'Strange Days' embraced a similar grim, urban aesthetic, 'The Matrix' absorbed it, internalized it, and expanded upon it. The original film would be seminal in stretching the boundaries of computer-generated imagery -- literally. Characters run along walls before delivering a kick. Bullets visibly ripple through the air, moving slowly enough for their intended targets to move out of the way. Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), wearing black trench coats and black sunglasses, shoot their way through an office lobby leaving heroic amounts of shattered concrete and dead bodies. By the time it was over, audiences had a new benchmark for what constituted cool.
It's been nearly a decade since 'The Matrix' first ripped through the pop culture consciousness, and two sequels and over a billion dollars in worldwide box office later, the dust has finally settled long enough that it's possible to look back and better assess the film's place in the sci-fi cinematic pantheon. It's clear now that the writing and directing team of Larry and Andy Wachowski were not content to just drape everyone in black and call it style. Nor did they simply rely on their extraordinary visual sense. 'The Matrix' depends on obvious religious parallels (Neo has been interpreted to be a spiritual stand-in for everyone from Jesus Christ to Buddha) to give it a familiar, universal feel and a philosophical bent.
But, like the outlet embedded in the back of Neo's head, the real power of 'The Matrix' is its ability to plug into the psyche of its target audience: young males. The idea that our world is an elaborate simulation meant to divert us from the knowledge that our bodies are being enslaved and harvested for energy by sentient computers is at once heady, ridiculous and supremely clever. As such, it played right into the hearts and minds of a generation. Much as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' introduced mainstream American audiences to the Chinese martial arts films, 'The Matrix' introduced us to the kinetic visuals of Japanimation, John Woo-inspired violence and the Cyberpunk ethos pioneered in the novels of William Gibson.
Though the first 'Matrix' is undoubtedly a classic of its genre and a highly-influential blockbuster, its cross to bear is its two sequels. After the first film grossed over $500 million worldwide to become the sleeper sensation of 1999, it was inevitable that there would be follow-ups. And so the Wachowskis and Warner devised back-to-back sequels, shot over a period of year and to be released six months apart in the spring and fall of 2003. 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' would form a trilogy with the original 'Matrix,' and gargantuan box office seemed inevitable. Indeed, 'Reloaded' opened huge, but the sequels seemed to quickly suffer from the law of diminishing returns. It is impossible now to look back on 'The Matrix' phenomenon and not see the kinks in the armor -- namely, that 'Reloaded' and particularly 'Revolutions' disappointed not just the mainstream but also the franchise's massive legion of devoted followers. Not since the 'Star Wars' prequels has a sure-fire sci-fi franchise suffered such a steep drop-off in cultural relevance.
Unfortunately, the passage of time has done nothing to improve 'The Matrix' series. While the first film can still be appreciated for its prescient vision and trail-blazing aesthetics, 'Reloaded' and 'Revolutions' both feel like a creative treading of water, or worse, parasitic cash-ins. All that black leather and Euro-tech interior design starts to feel awfully tired by the time we get to silly, maudlin climax of 'Revolutions.' The religious allusions also feel belabored and incredibly ham-fisted. Even the once-pioneering effects begin to veer toward the campy and self-referential -- neither 'Reloaded' or 'Revolutions' introduced any new concepts that could approach the first film's "bullet time" -- instead, they only regurgitated the same old tricks.
Yet we still have a lot to be thankful for in The Matrix trilogy. At its core, it embodies a delicious paradox: using state-of-the-art technology, it tells its story of mankind's near destruction brought about by our reliance on state-of-the-art technology. In the dark ages of the late 1990s, with society reaching a point of no return in its dependence upon the internet, cell phones and global positioning systems, 'The Matrix' asked moviegoers to think about the implications -- and to never underestimate the power of black leather.
Simply put, 'The Matrix' may be the most important release yet for the HD DVD format. There have certainly been some high-profile titles released thus far -- 'King Kong,' 'Children of Men' and 'Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift' all come to mind -- but none have had nearly the lofty expectations riding on their plastic shoulders as this one. Add to that the fact that Warner has chosen to release 'The Matrix' trilogy on HD DVD well in advance of a Blu-ray version, and many of the format's most ardent supporters are looking to this release as the sales trojan horse that will help open the mainstream floodgates and ensure that HD DVD can, if not win the format war, then at least hold its own in its hard-fought battle against Blu-ray.
Needless to say, Warner had its work cut out for it, but HD DVD fans will be pleased to hear that Warner has absolutely delivered the goods. In fact, this release compares favorably to anything I've seen yet on either high-def format. All three 'Matrix' films look fantastic on HD DVD, and I'd be more than happy to whip out any of them when I need a demo disc to show off my system. (Note that the transfers and soundtrack configurations on 'The Complete Matrix Trilogy' as well as the more supplement-rich, pricey 'Ultimate Matrix Collection' are identical.)
'The Matrix,' 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' are each presented in 1080p/VC-1-encoded transfers, and framed accurately in 2.40:1 widescreen. Given the mixed reaction the original transfers of all three initially received when first released on standard-def DVD, the good news is that Warner has clearly gone back and remastered the trilogy, minting new high-def masters. Doing a direct compare with the original discs, the results are immediately obvious. One of the many impressive aspects of the set as a whole is its consistency -- despite the four-year gap between 'The Matrix' and its two sequels, I could scarcely tell any difference between them. Cue up any sequence of any of the flicks, and prepare to be suitably wowed.
The most immediately noticeable upgrade is detail. Though I felt the previous DVDs certainly looked good, all the black-on-black of the 'Matrix's trend-setting visual aesthetic often faded into inky mush in standard-def. Not so in high-def, where fine texture is a revelation. For example, during the scene in the first 'Matrix' when Neo and Trinity blast their way into the bank, the supple details of the clothes and the shiny black leather is so good I wanted to freeze-frame and just revel in its ultra-realism. One other compare was particularly revealing -- there is a push-in shot through a grill that the cops are ensconced behind, and on the DVD, it looks pixilated and jagged -- but on the HD DVD, I never saw a single moment where the image broke up or looked stair-stepped. This is the kind of three-dimensional, picture-perfect image high-def is all about.
The colors of 'The Matrix' films have always been controversial. The dominant hue is clearly green. Though there are many uses of deep purple and occasional splashes of incredibly vivid reds, the transfers have been obviously skewed. Yet I was impressed with the level of detail and "naturalism" (albeit highly stylized) that remained despite the tint shift. And all things considered, fleshtones are as accurate as possible. I was also relieved that Warner did not overpump or oversaturate the transfers -- there's no bleeding or chroma noise, and again, consistency is excellent.
Finally, compression artifacts are not an issue. There is not a moment of macroblocking or any noise, even on the many flat surfaces and static shots, which often hold on a particular image for what seems like minutes. And the source itself is beautifully maintained -- there is a bit of grain here or there, but it is clearly part of the intended effect and there are no instances of dirt or blemishes. This is really fantastic stuff -- 'The Matrix' trilogy easily earns an exemplary five-star video rating.
Since its original announcement, there has been some controversy regarding this set's full tech specs. Warner never released a complete breakdown of which audio formats would make the cut, so speculation has run rampant. Happily, the studio has opted to include full-blown Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks (48kHz/16-bit) for each film, as well as optional 640kbps Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mixes. I was just as impressed with the audio as I was the video -- this one absolutely rocks the house.
All three 'Matrix' are naturals for high-resolution audio. Sure, there are plenty of long, talky bits in each installment, but there are also a long list of top-flight action sequences to choose from when want to drive your home theater rig into the ground. My favorites are the office break-in from the first film, both the humongous car chase and extended rave scenes about mid-way through 'Reloaded,' and the sheer aural delight of the climax in the otherwise-silly 'Revolutions.' The aggressiveness of the surrounds is phenomenal throughout -- imaging is seamless between channels, and the "wall of sound" the emanates from the rears is incredibly forceful. These are the kind of sequences you go back and rewind over and over again, just to revel in their effectiveness.
Dynamics are also top-notch. Just as "bullet time" revolutionized modern special effects, the sound design here is also pioneering. In hindsight, it shouldn't have been a surprise that the original 'Matrix' swept most of the 1999 Oscars given for tech categories over 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.' The use of extended low bass, and the way the mingling of natural and mechanical effects and tones to create a chilling, suspended-animation-like aural effect is fantastic.
The Dolby TrueHD format easily handles this complex presentation, with airtight low bass extension all the way down to the lowest frequencies. Mid- and high-range is also wonderfully clear and free from irritating harshness. As loud as this soundtrack gets, I never felt bombarded with treble, which is can be a problem with high-impact soundtracks, where it often seems like the sound mixers simply crank everything up to eleven. Dialogue also is accurately balanced in the mix -- Keanu Reeves' now-famous utterance of "Whoa!" is (for better or for worse) perfectly intelligible. For that reason alone, 'The Complete Matrix Trilogy' earns yet another five-star for audio.
'The Matrix' trilogy has been released on standard-def DVD numerous times -- so many, in fact, that trying to make sense of which version is which is about as complex as trying to unravel the intricacies of the Matrix itself. Warner is not, of course, a dummy studio, and knows that diehard fans will always buy (and re-buy) the same movie over and over so long as the latest incarnation is fancier than the last. Thankfully, however, the studio has apparently jettisoned the double-dip philosophy for HD DVD (in this case, anyway), and is giving consumers the option to purchase the full package right out of the gate.
As such, fans are faced with two box set options. There is the 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection,' a mammoth five-disc set (read our full companion review here) that compiles every last commentary, featurette, vignette and TV spot on all of the previous editions, all in one high-def package. Or, you can opt for this more tidy 'Complete Matrix Trilogy.' Streamlined to three single-sided, HD-30 dual-layer discs, it drops a good portion of the video-based supplements, as well as the two-disc 'Matrix Experience' addendum. However, a sizable portion of goodies remain, including the HD DVD-exclusive picture-in-picture commentaries (see below).
There is one big caveat for both the 'Complete Trilogy' and the 'Ultimate Collection,' though. Though the feature films themselves and the HD DVD-exclusive picture-in-picture commentaries are presented in 1080p video, the remaining supplemental content is 480p/i/MPEG-2 only. It's a bit disappointing, because though it is fantastic to have so much content spread across both configurations, the lack of upgraded video leaves each a bit shy of being a complete, total high-def immersion in the world of The Matrix. That said, this more streamlined 'Complete Trilogy' is still a very attractive alternative for fans who don't desire the hours and hours of added material, especially since the video and audio quality of the main features remains as strong as it is.
Now onto the extras. Things kick off on 'The Matrix' (Disc 1) with a Written Introduction by the Wachowski Brothers, a feature which is similarly included for each of the two sequels. It's fine enough, but only a hint at what is to come. The fun really begins with a suite of audio commentaries. Each of the three films share a continuing set of commentary tracks -- a "Philosopher's Commentary" featuring Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber, and a "Critics Commentary" with noted cinema journalists Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson. I sampled about thirty minutes of each (on all three installments), and found both groups of participants fascinating and often humorous. Granted, the "Philosophers" at times seem to stretch the significance of the later installments in the series a bit, but it only serves to make the "Critics" commentaries that much more hilarious by comparison -- Warner allowed them free reign to totally rip on the sequels, and their often pointed criticisms on the apparent self-indulgence of the Wachowski Brothers and the ever-more-ludicrous plot contrivances is highly entertaining. God, how I wish George Lucas would allow something similar to be put on the DVDs of his 'Star Wars' prequels!
'The Matrix' also includes two additional commentaries of its own. Carried over from the very first DVD release of the film is a track with effects personnel Zach Staenberg and John Gaeta, plus actress Carrie-Anne Moss, as well as a music-only track (in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1) featuring comments from composer Don Davis (which are inserted in the silent passages, in between cues). The cast and crew track was certainly informative back before Warner re-issued the film so many times, but now it is easily eclipsed by the copious video material. As such, best to leave this one off your checklist. The isolated score, however, is great to have, and it's also wonderful to hear from the composer as they're so often overlooked, even on box sets as expansive as this.
Next up on this disc is 'The Music Revisited,' an exhaustive catalog of no less than forty-one(!) audio-only music cues from the film. This was originally included as an easter egg on the original DVD set, but is now very easy to access right from the Extras menu. Finally, closing out Disc 1 are the original Theatrical Teaser and Trailer, eight TV spots, and a music video for Marilyn Manson's "Rock is Dead"
Moving onto 'The Matrix Reloaded' (Disc 2) some of the content seems to have been reorganized, at least compared to the hierarchy of the original DVD releases. In addition to the aforementioned Written Introduction and Philosopher's & Critic's Commentaries common to each of the movie discs, also included here are 42 minutes of "Enter the Matrix." This featurette compiles all of the footage shot by the Wachowski brothers specifically for the videogame. Story points and characters are introduced that built upon the 'Matrix' milieu, and for some, the game was preferable to the two sequels. There are 22 segments total, along with a 1-minute introduction by producer Joel Silver and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith. (Note that the audio for "Enter the Matrix" is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo only.) Closing out Disc 2 are 'The Matrix Reloaded's original Theatrical Teaser and Trailer, plus eight more TV spots, and a music video for P.O.D.'s "Sleeping Awake."
Finally, we get to 'The Matrix Revolutions' (Disc 3). In addition to the Written Introduction and the Philosopher's& Critic's Commentaries common to each of the movies, this disc features another "Behind the Matrix" primer on the third film in the series (24 minutes total): "Revolutions Recalibrated" (6 min.), "Neo Realism: The Evolution of Bullet Time" (4 min.), "CG Revolution" (2 min.), "Super Big Mini Models" (1 min.), "Super Burly Brawl" (2 min.), "Double Agent Smith" (3 min.), "Mind over Matter: The Physicality of The Matrix" (3 min.) and "Future Gamer: The Matrix Online" (2 min.). (Note that the remaining two segments of "Behind the Matrix," "Before the Revolution" [4 min.] and "3-D Evolution" [3 min.], are continued on side two of Disc Three in the 'Ultimate Collection' version only, so if you opt for the 'Complete Trilogy,' you'll have to do without them.)
Closing out this disc are the original trailer for 'The Matrix Revolutions' and six TV spots.
To sum up, this supplemental package is noticeably pared down from the gargantuan 35 hours of material on the 'Ultimate Collection.' However, it still is a pretty good overview for casual fans, especially if you factor in the HD DVD exclusive video commentaries (see below). Were this a standard-def release, I'd probably be inclined to give this slimmer package a still-hefty three-star Supplements rating. However, this is the high-def age, and as such, it's really time for the studios to start upping the ante, and offer quality above and beyond what's gone before. With all of the video-based extras above in standard-def 480p/MPEG-2 video only, I'm knocking down the Supplements rating a half a star. Hopefully in the future we'll start seeing more upgraded, full-quality bonus content on all HD DVD (and Blu-ray) releases.
After wading through the 30+ hours of standard-def supplements on the 'Ultimate Collection' set, by the time I got around to watching the picture-in-picture video commentaries exclusive to both HD DVD releases, I really thought I'd had it with the Matrix series. But simply put, these three tracks (one per film, for 'The Matrix,' 'Reloaded' and 'Revolutions'), are a godsend for fans like myself who are intrigued by the 'Matrix' mythology, but looking for a more concise, general overview of their making.
It is worth noting that there is no new material here, per se. Neither the Wachowski brothers, nor any other of the cast and crew, have been reassembled to record new intros or other content. Instead, these video commentaries simply compile the best bits from existing documentary material, organizing it around the framework of each film. For me, that's what is so welcome -- it's like the perfect highlight reel of the 35 hours of extras on 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection,' without the need to wade through endless menus across multiple discs. Another plus is that the lack of 1080p upconversion on all the recycled video-based material is not a problem here, since the small picture-in-picture boxes don't lend themselves to high-res video anyway.
If nothing else, these picture-in-picture commentaries also make a good case for opting away from 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection' and instead going for this more compact (and cheaper) three-disc 'Complete Matrix Trilogy.' If you are not an absolute diehard fan (or if you don't care for the 'Animatrix' or the other culturally-related bonus features included in the 'Ultimate Collection'), you'll still get a great overview on the making of the entire series just by watching the video commentaries. That's definitely something to consider with such a pricey pair of box sets as these.
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'The Complete Matrix Trilogy' comes with huge expectations, but overall it manages to lives up to the hype. Granted, the trilogy as a whole suffers from the law of diminishing returns, but it is impossible to argue with the series' lasting impact and influence on pop moviemaking. And in sheer technical terms, Warner has certainly done this landmark sci-fi franchise proud on HD DVD. The video and audio are five-star stunners, and even with a slimmed-down set of supplementary materials, there is more here than you'll find on most box sets of this type.
So do I have any caveats at all in recommending 'The Complete Matrix Trilogy'? Only one: its price. While it's less expensive than the 'Ultimate Collection,' even this scaled down version is pricey at a $99.99 list. Given the chance, I think many fans would opt for a stand-alone version of the original flick. Still, if you can afford it, 'The Complete Matrix Trilogy' remains a feast for both the eyes and ears -- you'll be hard-pressed to come up with better demo material for your HD DVD rig.
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