Sunday, 22 May 2011

Rabbit-Hole Theory: The Trenchcoat Club

[This is part of an unfinished series looking at the Matrix trilogy of films from the perspective of immersive storytelling—where they worked, where they didn't, and how this might have affected their success as films. Last part.]


The captains have assembled for a meeting. They are all, along with their crew members, wearing trenchcoats and/or shades.

Look, everybody! We're a glitch in the Matrix!
Leather-clad captains gathered for a meeting in The Matrix Reloaded

In the last part, I mentioned how stylistic elements of the first Matrix film had a tendency in the sequels to fall out of their original stylistic context so that they became too literalised, distracting, or even parodic. In some cases, it seems that certain elements just aren't as effective once supplanted into a larger context or required on a larger scale, because something goes wrong in the scaling process.

Take the leather-and-shades look. It's effective in the first film as part of the noirish, cyberpunk aesthetic and in portraying the tough attitudes of the rebels. When applied to a handful of operatives, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, it looks quirky but cool, with a vaguely utilitarian (and admittedly leather-fetishist) edge. They're basically just snappy dressers in a modern, grungy update of the best noir traditions.

The group is small enough that there's room for each character to have their own idiosyncratic style, too. Morpheus has the biggest, heaviest trenchcoat and his circular pince-nez; Neo looks the least sharp, and so on. In a move of inexplicable visual genius, they put Switch in white and it offsets the whole black-clad thing. Basically, they look like they all dress how they want to dress, while implicitly all conforming to their role in the film as stylish rebel tough guys.

Crew of the Nebuchadnezzar standing around stylishly in The Matrix

But then compare this to the gathering of Zion operatives in the Matrix underground at the start of Reloaded. It's a meeting of a fairly large group of people—at least half a dozen captains and their crews. They're all wearing the shades and the leather, but somehow, it doesn't look quite as cool. In fact, it looks a bit ridiculous. Like maybe they're attending some kind of bizarre convention.

It makes that whole aesthetic, which in the original film seemed mostly governed by stylistic imperatives, now seem increasingly like an unusual dress code consciously instated by the Zionites as some weird culty uniform.

Attempts at idiosyncrasy on such a large group don't fare too well, either. You can tell the wardrobe department tried to work in as much variation as they could, but between the Morpheus cosplayers and headmistresses who look like they're into S&M, the net result isn't too pretty. The aesthetic is simply stretched too thin, and instead of being stylish, a few look like they've come off the worse for some sadistic Zionification process.

Close-up of assembled captains in The Matrix Reloaded

(In a way, it's the usual lot of extras in sci-fi, where everyone is the owner of some half-baked costume quirk that's supposed to distinguish them. This is usually in a bid to be other-civilisationy, which isn't quite the same thing—but for some of that cheap other-civilisationy magic, go watch the scene with the panel of old Zion councillors. I believe at least one of them has a bird's nest on her head.)

Not to mention Neo runs around in a cassock. Not a bad choice, I guess, if you feel like making a point of the whole messianic thing, but again it's just a push too far away from the distinctive but grounded contemporary dress sense of the original film's rebels. Or maybe I just think it looks dumb. To quote a character from the Path of Neo game, 'Are you sure you should be running in that dress?'

And again, there's that kind of 'pop out' phenomenon like there was with the colour grading, maybe because once again the sequels are just less consistent with the whole grungy look. Sat down in the Merovingian's restaurant, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity look comically awkward. Scuffling their way down those white corridors, they look like loonies set loose in a lab.

Trinity, Morpheus and Neo sitting at the Merovingian's dinner table

Sometimes it's hard to tell how much the Wachowskis' own sense of humour plays into it, just like it surely does with the Agents and their suits (or former Agents, in the eventual case of Smith). For instance, when Neo has his second conversation with the Oracle, stiff and awkward as it might be for other reasons, the sight of Mr Cassock sat on a park bench with this old lady seems like it's supposed to make him look a little bit daft, as part of a humbling experience. But for the most part, there's no denying that the Zionites are supposed to look cool. Instead, they often look out of their depth in ways that probably weren't intentional.

In the same vein as all this is the naming of the rebel characters. In the first film, we learn that the rebels take for their names what used to be their hacker aliases, and Neo does this too. Some names are vaguely computer-related (like Cypher, Switch and Mouse); others are not. Again, the hacker alias premise works convincingly for this small crew, but when it's applied to a larger Zionite population, with many names to be assigned, it starts feeling a little absurd. Names like Corrupt, Binary and Vector turn up, like they were spat out of an unimaginative Matrix name generator, with Keyboard, Megabyte and Printout next on the list. Once again, the effect is almost self-parodying.

One Zionite looks at another as if to ask, What the fuck are you wearing?


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