clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Filed under:

What each Animatrix short brings to the world of The Matrix

Nearly two decades since its release, the Matrix anime anthology still reigns supreme

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski’s return to the universe of the Matrix nearly 18 years since the conclusion of the original trilogy, returned to streaming on HBO Max this week following its premiere last December.

Back in 2003, the Wachowskis created what remains to this day one of the most ambitious multimedia storytelling projects attempted in mainstream cinema: an interconnected universe of comic books, video games, and anime designed to be released and watched within and after the six-month release window between 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded and 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions.

While certain titles, in particular the 2003 video game Enter the Matrix and the 2005 MMO The Matrix Online, have either become harder to find or discontinued outright — thus rendering it impossible to experience the original story as it was intended — the 2003 anime anthology The Animatrix remains both widely available (streaming on HBO Max) and highly acclaimed by both fans of the franchise and animation enthusiasts alike. Produced by the Wachowskis and boasting the inimitable talents of directors such as Mahiro Maeda, Shinichirō Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and more, The Animatrix reigns supreme as the platonic ideal of what one would want out of another franchise anthology tie-in of its ilk.

In honor of the arrival of the latest Matrix entry on streaming, let’s take a look back on one of the enduring cornerstones of the Matrix multimedia project and break down how each short ties into the larger mythos of the series and what they contribute to the universe as a whole.


Final Flight of the Osiris

Two blindfolded fighters sparing in a dojo in Final Flight of the Osiris. Image: Square Pictures/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What it is: Directed by visual effects animator Andy Jones (Avatar) and produced by Square Pictures, Final Flight of the Osiris depicts the discovery of a massive Machine army by a resistance hovercraft crew and their last-ditch effort to warn the human city of Zion of its imminent attack.

How it relates to the original Matrix: Final Flight of the Osiris is a direct prequel to 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded and the 2003 video game Enter the Matrix, offering details pertaining to an important event that transpires between the events of the original Matrix film and its cinematic sequels.

What it adds to the Matrix: More cool, sexy dojo fights; more terrifying mechanical squid monsters; and more spectacular acrobatics and parkour, rendered in the same uncanny valley-adjacent animation style of 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

The Second Renaissance (Part I and II)

Two soldiers in hazmat suits standing next to a dying tree, a ray of sunshine shining through the clouds in the distance in The Second Renaissance. Image: Studio 4°C/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What it is: Directed by Mahiro Maeda (Blue Submarine No. 6, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo), The Second Renaissance tells the story of the beginnings of the Human-Machine War, from the end of the golden era of artificial intelligence to the creation of the Matrix.

How it relates to the original Matrix: Written by the Wachowskis, and partially based on the 1999 web comic Bits and Pieces of Information, The Second Renaissance is the canonical prequel to the original Matrix trilogy.

What it adds to the Matrix: Quite a lot, in fact! Before this film, the closest audiences had to an explanation of the Matrix’s origins was Morpheus’ “Desert of the Real” speech from The Matrix. Unlike Morpheus’ take, though, The Second Renaissance doesn’t paint humanity at all in a flattering light, conjuring parallels to multiple historical atrocities to depict the cruelty humans inflicted on their Machine creations. The second part goes on to explore the Machines’ thwarted attempts to peacefully coexist with their creators, the creation of the nanite shroud that covered the planet in perpetual darkness, and the last-ditch creation of the Matrix by the Machines out of existential necessity.

The framing of the short, that of a Zion archive program guiding the viewer through a historical simulation, implies that certain members of Zion — contrary to what others might believe — are in fact aware of the true origins of the Human-Machine War, and have chosen to conceal this truth so as not to undermine the morale of the human resistance.

Kid’s Story

A Kid’s Story - Animatrix short film Image: Studio 4°C/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What it is: Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo), Kid’s Story follows a teenager who discovers the Matrix and enters the Real World through surprising, albeit fatally tragic, means.

How it relates to the original Matrix: Written by the Wachowskis, Kid’s Story depicts the origin of Kid, a supporting character in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions who would go on to perform an important role in the humans’ defense of Zion while under attack by the Machine army. It also features a brief vocal cameo by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as Neo and Trinity.

What it adds to the Matrix: Aside from arguably being the grisliest short in the entire Animatrix anthology, Kid’s Story introduces the concept of “self-substantiation”: the ability to exit the Matrix without the use of a red pill through willpower alone. Although not explained in detail, a similar phenomenon is mentioned by Morpheus in The Matrix when discussing the legend of the first founder of Zion, who freed himself without outside assistance.

Program

Cis clasping the broken top half of a samurai sword between her palms against a blood red sky in Program, an Animatrix short. Image: Madhouse/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What it is: Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), Program tells the story of Cis and Duo, two human resistance members sparring in a training simulation modeled after ancient Japan. When a terrible revelation comes to light, the two are forced to battle one another to the death.

How it relates to the original Matrix: No direct connection with the rest of the Matrix franchise.

What it adds to the Matrix: Ninja Scroll was one of the anime films cited by The Wachowskis as a core inspiration behind the original Matrix film, alongside 1988’s Akira and 1995’s Ghost in the Shell. Here, Kawajiri takes the same kinetic swordplay and feudal Japanese aesthetic of that film and transplants it into the world of the Matrix to stellar effect, delivering a heart-racing duel that gradually escalates with wuxia-like grace and ferocity.

World Record

Dan Davis at the starting line of a race in World Record, an Animatrix short. Image: Madhouse/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What is it: Directed by Takeshi Koike (Redline), World Record tells the story of Dan Davis, a disgraced American athlete whose attempt to set the world record for the 100-meter sprint brings him to the brink of becoming aware of the Matrix.

How it relates to the original Matrix: No direct connection with the rest of the Matrix franchise.

What it adds to the Matrix: World Record touches on the same concept of “self-substantiation” broached in Shinichirō Watanabe’s Kid’s Story. While that is interesting in and of itself, the real draw for this short is in its visuals. Koike is a superb animator with a distinctive style that evokes comparison to the aesthetic flamboyance of Franco-Belgian comics, the exaggerated character designs of his contemporary Peter Chung, and the stark, silhouette-heavy aesthetic of Frank Miller’s Sin City.

World Record’s strength is in transforming the spectacle of physical exhaustion into high drama, with muscles spasming and thin geysers of blood erupting as Dan comes within hair’s breadth of the finish line. In a lot of ways it feels like an indirect tribute to his former mentor Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s previous short for the 1987 anime anthology Neo Tokyo, ironically enough titled “Running Man.” In the end, World Record itself amounts to another tragic yet moving story of perseverance in the face of impossible odds, the kind of story that speaks to the heart of the core themes and ideas behind the Matrix series.

Beyond

A screenshot of Yoko transfixed by the sight of bird frozen in mid-flight from the Animatrix short “Beyond.” Image: Studio 4°C/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What it is: Directed by animator Kōji Morimoto (Memories, Akira), Beyond follows the story of a teenage girl whose search for her missing cat leads her to an abandoned building “haunted” by strange, inexplicable phenomena.

How it relates to the original Matrix: No direct connection with the rest of the Matrix franchise.

What it adds to the Matrix: The in-universe explanation of supernatural phenomena as “glitches” in the Matrix dates as far back as the original film and was later expanded on in 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded. Morimoto’s short explores this concept, as well as an alternative to the phenomenon of déjà vu, from the unwitting perspective of a rambunctious group of adolescents. Beyond repurposes the core elements of The Matrix in service of a story that touches on the imaginative possibilities of childhood and the melancholy of witnessing a place that meant so much to you in your youth being demolished and bulldozed to construct yet another identical parking lot.

A Detective Story

A screenshot of Ash sitting in a train car pointing his pistol while lighting a cigarette in the Animatrix short “A Detective Story” Image: Studio 4°C/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What is it: Shinichirō Watanabe’s second anthology short follows the story of a private detective whose search for a mysterious hacker will lead him to question the very nature of his reality.

How it relates to the original Matrix: Set in a version of the Matrix entirely independent from the one glimpsed in the Matrix trilogy, A Detective Story nonetheless features a prominent cameo by Trinity.

What it adds to the Matrix: While the plot of A Detective Story has no direct ties to the rest of the Matrix franchise, the short arguably stands out as one the most visually distinctive of the anthology, with grainy, monochromatic visuals; analog, steampunk-adjacent technology; and an eerie, noir-inflected score by Matrix trilogy composer Don Davis. It’s those visuals, and in particular the appearance of Trinity, that gesture toward a tantalizing possibility that the Matrix as seen in the original trilogy and the one seen in this short — or for that matter, any of the Animatrix shorts — are in fact nothing but a handful of an incalculably vast number of Matrices running simultaneously alongside one another.

Matriculated

The human rebel Alexa from the Animatrix short “Matriculated” Image: DNA Productions/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

What it is: Directed by Peter Chung (Æon Flux), Matriculated follows a group of above-ground human rebels who attempt to use a “Matrix” of their own design to convert an enemy Machine sentinel to their cause.

How it relates to the original Matrix: No direct connection with the rest of the Matrix franchise.

What it adds to the Matrix: The concept of a human-created Matrix is a fascinating one. We’ve seen training simulations, such as the jump test and sparring dojo where Neo fought Morpheus in the original Matrix film, but a Matrix created specifically for Machines in mind to navigate and interact with is unique to Matriculated. Far from the sterile hyperreality of the Matrix we know from the films, the Matrix glimpsed here is a labyrinth of earthly delights composed of pulsing fractal-like textures, writhing organic masses, and hallucinatory dimensions.

What to Watch

Best winter-themed anime to get in the mood for the season

Pokémon

Our ranking of Pokémon's hottest professors

TV

Netflix is leaning hard into video game adaptations

View all stories in Anime

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon