Favorite Cult Classics (Part the Second)

Welcome back! As promised, the second half of my nostalgic, cult classic favorites for you to peruse! Let me know what you think, and feel to add some contenders of your own. Cult hits are nothing if not personal, and what constitutes a classic is open to interpretation. Okay, six to ten, here goes:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Yes, this movie deserves top billing for being a classic! And yet, the movie really doesn’t seem to garner much appreciation from audiences, not unless they are self-professed film buffs or hard sci-fi fans. Not sure I qualify for either, but I loved this movie for the simple reason that it was packed full of mind-blowing themes. Much like Akira, it was chock-full of things that got my young mind thinking and completely shaped my outlook on science fiction.

Sure, there are those who complain that this movie is boring and esoteric, but I found all that a fitting price for the kick-ass subject matter, not to mention the mind-blowing climax. You got a mystery, speculations about human evolution, ancient aliens, space exploration, and existential singularities! All the while, the weight of the philosophical implications are weighing at your mind…

And let’s not forget how inspiration this movie proved to be. Today, the concept of ancient astronauts, aliens who came to Earth millions of years ago and tampered with human evolution, has become all the rage. From Star Trek to Stargate, Battlestar Galactica to Prometheus, the concept of ancient astronauts has played out. And frankly, 2001 has them all beat! Between Kubrick and Clarke, their concept of the aliens and how they altered the course of evolution on Earth was the most realistic I have ever seen.

But I think what I liked best about was the fact that the movie was the subtle nature of the whole thing. At once speculative, philosophical, and visually stunning, this movie was characteristic of Kubrick, who preferred to convey things visually rather than coming out and telling people what was going on. You never really quite knew what happened during that eye-popping final scene, but those who love sci-fi and imaginative filmaking were sure to have ideas!

Alien:
Granted, this movie wasn’t exactly under-appreciated, but compared to the lavish attention the rest of the franchise has garnered- even though it was all downhill after Aliens – this first installment truly was the diamond in the rough. Not only did it have a cool concept, awesome set designs and a kick-ass back story, the direction and cinematography captures the story’s sense of dread and claustrophobia perfectly.

Little wonder then why this movie spawned an entire franchise, because it really did have everything. You had your blue-collar peeps working for the major interstellar company (Weyland-Yutani), a frightening discovery made on an uncharted planet, a mysterious derelict belonging to an unknown race, and a terrifying creature awakened from its slumber. And not just any kind of creature, but a complex symbiote that was designed for and possessed of a single purpose.

Or as Ash put it: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He had a point didn’t he? In fact, all structures in this movie were pure genius, whether it was the Nostromo, the Derelict, or the Facehugger and Chestbuster combo. As with everything Scott does, attention to detail and the careful construction of a universe was paramount. Every set was richly detailed, well shot, and clearly made to elicit the right feel and impressions on the audience.

Much of the credit for this goes to H.R. Giger as well, the surrealist artist who brought Lovecraftian horror to the alien concept and set of the alien ship. Years later, I still find myself tuning in just to get a glimpse of that Gothic reconstruction, or to see the Space Jockey sitting in its chair, the tell-tale hole punching through its chest. Few movies have managed to capture that same sense of awe and wonder for me, with the possible exceptions of 2001 and Akira

Johnny Mnemonic:
Some people might think I’m crazy for listing this movie as a personal classic, but it can’t be helped! And my reasons are pretty simple. On the one hand, this movie kind of has that “so bad, it’s good” thing going on, but at the same time, I also felt it possessed some real signs of quality. Sure, the acting was pretty wooden, the fight choreography total crap, and the low-budget nature apparent throughout. But it was still a pretty faithful adaptation of Gibson’s work and introduced to that world at a still-young age. Hence why I come back to it every few years just to see it again.

Filmed in the mid-90’s, this movie is an adaptation of the short story by William Gibson and previewed a lot of what he wrote in Neuromancer. For example, you’ve got the big bad corporations, the cyberspace jockeys, freelance assassins, Yakuza, and the character Molly Millions. Things are also set in “The Sprawl”, the megapolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta and is contained in geodesic domes, and the look and feel is definitely of the cyberpunk variety.

Into all this, Gibson introduced the revolutionary concept of mnemonic couriers, people who have “wetwire” implants in their brains that allow them to carry vast quantities of data from point A to point B. Basically, these couriers are the answer of what to do in a world where information is the most precious commodity, and all databases are vulnerable to hacking and protected by “Black ICE” – hostile Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (aka. viruses)

And, in keeping with Gibson’s style, the story involves a titanic corporation that is fighting to maintain its monopolistic grip, while freelancers, smugglers and assorted little people are fighting to undermine them and distribute the information freely. Naturally, the main character of Johnny is an unlikely hero who is forced to take a break from looking out for number one and help others for a change. Might sound cheesy, and a little cliche, but it works and delivers on Gibson’s style. At the very least, it’s a guilty pleasure flick for me.

Screamers:
Now here’s a movie that’s high on the pleasure, low on the guilt. While a low-budget sci-fi flick that was (like Johnny Mnemonic) produced and filmed entirely in Canada, it had many signs of quality that immediately made it a cult hit. There’s the post-apocalyptic setting, the frightening tone, and the Cold War feel of the thing, updated for the 90’s. All the while, there is the knowledge that this is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety, which sort of makes it a must-see of PKD fans.

Much like in the original story, the plot of the film involves a race of self-producing, self-upgrading machines that are designed to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate all combatants. But of course, things begin to go awry when the people who produced them realize that they have upgraded to the point where they can impersonate human beings. And whereas the original story was set on Earth and took place between the US and Russia, the updated story takes place on Sirius 6b, a pining planet that became the front line between a the political-economic entity known as the NEB  and those who chose to resist its rule.

Personally, I felt the updated version works. Not only does the conflict seem more relevant, being between a mega-corporate entity and a coalition of workers and dissenters, but the off-world setting also feels more realistic. Perhaps it was the fact that in the post-Cold War world, nuclear war between two superpowers didn’t seem a likelihood anymore. Or it could just be that the whole NEB angle was reminiscent of Weyland-Yutani and Alien. All I know is, I liked it!

What’s more, a good deal of attention went into creating the setting and modelling the Screamers – aka. the automated machines that kill people. Designed to be the perfect terror weapons, they emit a high-pitched “scream” before making their attack, and can toy with their targets for some time before moving. This concept, combined with some good shooting, really created a sense of tension which is felt throughout. And of course, the paranoia which is engendered by the appearance of human-like machines was a very nice touch! A good movie, and a fitting adaptation which managed to capture PKD’s cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway progress.

Time Bandits:
And last, here is the classic time traveling tale that I first saw in my childhood. Recently, my wife was told by a coworker that she should ought to see it, and my memory was jogged! Yes, this is indeed a cult classic, and one which is deserving of plenty of kudos and praise. Well cast, well written, witty and poignant, it’s one of those quintessential 70’s movies which has been rediscovered by several generations of film buffs and sci-fi fans.

The story opens with an imaginative and historically-minded child who lives in an overly-bourgeois neighborhood with his materially-possessed family. But upon realizing that there is a time-portal in his wall and that people from the past and future can come through it, his world is turned upside down. Quickly, he become the unwitting companion in a group of dwarves who are traveling through time, stealing precious artifacts, and being pursued by both the “Supreme Being” and an evil sorcerer.

Immediately, one can see the layered and inspired plot taking shape here. On the one hand, you have some decidedly Judea-Christian elements, plus a tale of childhood imagination and escapism. The dichotomy of the Supreme Being who possesses the power of time travel and the sorcerer who wants it for himself are representative of God and Lucifer, after a fashion. The dwarves who stole this power for themselves are a sort of Icaran allegory, or possibly Adam and Eve once they ate from the tree of knowledge. And ultimately, the way they are saved in the end from evil represents their redemption.

All the while we are left wondering if the boy is merely dreaming, or if what he is experiencing is real, which is an element that is intrinsic to all tales of childhood fantasies. On the one hand, the protagonists flights of fancy are seen as a weakness and immaturity to those around them, whereas we tend to see as it a rare gift to see past the surface. Should it all be a fantasy, then the story is left without a formal sense of resolution; but if it is real, then the hero has been vindicated and proven right. Appropriately, the movie plays with the two possibilities, going back and forth, but then giving strong hints at the end that it was in fact real. So really, you have a story that is inspired, imaginative, and also suspenseful!

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Well, that’s my top ten list for the best cult classic movies of all time. What’s yours? I know I have a few in common with some people ’round these parts, and I also know that a few were previously unheard of. Hence why I want to here from others. I have a feeling there are some which I need to see and would very much enjoy. Already, I’m poised to watch Sunshine, A Boy and His Dog, and a few others which I’ve heard good things about. And I hope that in the course of swapping lists, I might be able to find a few more I’d like to see. Take care, and enjoy the rest of the long-weekend, those of who are reading this in Canada. As for the Yanks in the audience, and the rest of the world for that matter, enjoy the work week 😉

Happy Canada Day!

Hello and welcome to my Canada Day post! As it is the True North’s national birthday – commemorating the day when the original provinces came together and agreed on Confederation, the first act of national building and quasi-declaration of independence – I thought it fitting that I do a post honoring Canada’s contribution to the field of science fiction. The list is extensive, contrary to what you might you think, and includes some of the most critically acclaimed examples of literature, film and television in this genre. But like most things Canadian, it suffers from a potential lack of recognition. Well, I, as a patriotic (but not nationalistic!) individual, shall do my part to promote. Hell, one day I want to be on this list, so I better make sure people know about it 😉

First up, movies that were filmed, directed and produced right here in Canada, eh!

Scanners (1981):
This film, directed by David Cronenberg, is considered a cult classic amongst fans of sci-fi and horror alike. In this movie, “Scanners” are people that exhibit powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities who are being sought out by a corporation named ConSec, a purveyor of weapons and security systems. Ostensibly, their purpose is to register scanners so the public can be protected from them, but it is clear that they have a nefarious agenda as well.

The story revolves around two rogue scanners, the dangerous Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) and the reclusive Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). After a “demonstration” goes terrible wrong where Revok causes Dr. Ruth – head of ConSec’s scanner section – to explode, ConSec becomes dedicated to finding all rogue scanners and stamping them out. On their radar is Revok, a known and powerful scanner who is a homeless transient, moving from place to place in the hopes of staying ahead of corporate spies.

In the end, Vale finds himself trapped between Revok’s renegade faction on the one side and ConSec’s goons on the other. In the end, he is captured by Revok and learns that they are brothers, that Ruth is their father, and that all scanners are the result of drug trials involving pregnant women and ephemerol. This drug, which was designed to combat morning sickness (echoes of thalidomide), is the same one which they now use to control scanners.

Revok’s plan is to now use a captured shipment of the drug and administer it to countless pregnant women worldwide, thus creating an army of scanners. When he learns of this, Vale and Revok begin to fight each other using their powers. In the end, Vale defeats his brother and then assumes his likeness, thus putting him in charge of the rogue scanners. The story thusly ends on a cliffhanger note, with Vale’s intentions open to speculation.

This movie was not only a cult classic, but very heavily inspired. It’s investigation of psychic abilities, with corporate controllers, rogue telepaths, and drugs used to control them, would all show up in later franchises, particularly Babylon 5. In addition, that head exploding scene is considered an iconic imagine, one which has been referenced many times over on the silver screen. Consider the line from Wayne’s World where Garth appears to be having a nervous breakdown on TV and one of their cronies asks: “Did you see that movie Scanners where the dude’s head exploded?”

Johnny Mnemonic (1995):
Though it was widely considered one of the worst adaptations in science fiction history, Johnny Mnemonic was nevertheless a faithful representation of William Gibson’s original work (also a Canadian). Set in the “Sprawl” of the 21st century, the story is about a mnemonic courier who uses wetwire implants (i.e. cybernetic brain implants) to carry information around illegally. This is apparently a common practice in the world of the future, where corporate control is absolute and the most precious commodity is information.

Enter into this Johnny (Reaves), a courier who is given a job to carry a package that is twice the size of his capacity. He takes it, knowing the risk it will pose to his brain, because he’s looking for that final payoff which will allow him to have his implants removed and his memory restored. This is something all mnemonic carriers must go through, which is the sacrifice of their own memories in order to make room for all the pirated data they carry.

Quickly, Johnny realizes the package he contains is incredibly valuable, as Yakuza close in and murder his contacts. His own boss betrays him as well, forcing him to turn to a freelance ninja named “Sally Shears” (aka. Molly Millions) for help. Like him, she has enhancements which are beginning to mess with her body, and she recommends they get help from her friend Spider. As a doctor, he is used to dealing with nervous system illnesses, particularly NAS (nervous attenuation syndrome).

When they arrive, Johnny is informed that he is the one who hired him, and that the information he carries comes directly from the pharmaceutical giant Pharma-Kom’s labs. It is nothing less than the cure of NAS, and the company will kill to make sure it doesn’t get it out, seeing as how they make billions off of treatment and will lose out if it is cured. The race is then on for Johnny to download the cure onto the open Net, and with the help of a group of counter-culture fighters named Lo-Tek, they manage to do just that.

Though the movie was generally panned by critics and did quite poorly at the box office, it remains a cult classic to many because of its gritty, cyberpunk feel and faithful adaptation of Gibson’s characteristic themes. It also boasted an all-star cast, which included Keannu Reaves (Canuck!), Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, and Udo Kier. On top of that, it also made use of pioneering special effects to give visual representation to Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, the movie also contained all the elements he so loves to include in his stories. Freelancers, Yakuza, mega-corporations, mercenaries, cybernetic enhancements, dirty environments, urban sprawl, hackers and techy geeks. This movie had all that, and is required viewing for fans of Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy.

Screamers (1995):
Here’s a cult classic I keep coming back to of late! Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety”, Screamers is another adaptation of classic sci-fi which was filmed, directed and financed here in the Great White North. And I mean that literally since most of the filming took place in a quarry in Quebec during the dead of winter. And though the story was updated for the post-Cold War world, set on a distant planet and being a war between corporate interests and quasi-national forces, the basic elements remained much the same.

Taking place in 2078 on a planet known as Sirius 6b, the story revolves around an ongoing war between two factions who are fighting for control of the planet. On the one side is the NEB (New Economic Bloc), a super-corporate entity that controls mining in outer space. On the other is the Alliance, a resistance formed out of the former miners and scientists from the colony.

After the NEB bombarded the planet with nukes, turning it into a radioactive wasteland that is perennially experiencing nuclear winter, the Alliance resorted to creating devices known as the “Autonomous Mobile Sword”, a race of self-replicating machines built by a self-sustaining underground factory. These weapons, which tunnel underground and use high-pitched sonic blasts to paralyze opponents, carry the nickname of “Screamers”.

The story opens when a NEB representative comes to the Alliance bunker offering a ceasefire. After investigating the situation, the Alliance commander JOe Hendricksson (played by Peter Weller, aka. Robocop) realizes that the war still rages back home and no one cares what happens to them anymore. He decides to take the NEB up on their offer to end the fight on Sirius 6b, but during his trip to the NEB bunker, learns that new breeds of Screamers are out there. After meeting with Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), the NEB mercenary commander, they attempt to investigate the Screamer factory and learn that there are in fact four varieties now, each of which is becoming more human!

They make it back to the Alliance bunker, only to see that it too has been overrun. In the end, only Hendrickson and Jessica survive and begin making their way to the emergency escape shuttle hidden in the nearby mountains. Once there, Hendrickson learns that Jessica herself is a Screamer when an identical model of her appears and attacks them. Apparently, she is the fifth variety and the most advanced model to date, one that bleed, cry, imitate human emotions, and even have sex. Jessica sacrifices herself to protect him, and Hendrickson learns that her mission was to find the escape shuttle and go back to Earth where they could be sterilizing it of all life as well.

This was in keeping with the Screamer new mandate which was to destroy all human life, not just their enemies. However, that ended when Jessica became over-sympathetic to Hendrickson and broke with her original programming, thus demonstrating the most human characteristic of all, that of empathy. Hendrickson then takes the shuttle himself and leaves the planet, bound for Earth, and safe in the knowledge that the Screamers will never get off Sirius 6b.

Thought it differed in many ways from the original PKD short story, the thematic nature of the movie was accurate. You have the idea of the Screamers, the automonous, self-replicating and intelligent machines that are left to their own devices and end up turning on their own masters. You have the concept of runaway technology erasing the line between what is real and fake. Thought it ended on a happy note, unlike “Second Variety” where a machine made it off planet, the movie still managed to deliver on its message. And it was pretty damn scary too boot!

Cube (1997):
Here is another cult-classic that practically created its own sub-genre in science fiction film making. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and produced by the Canadian Film Centre as its first First Feature Project, Cube became an instant hit due to its paranoid, Kafkaesque feel and psychological thriller tone. Set inside a giant (you guessed it) Cube, made up of countless adjoining rooms that are numbered and contain different booby traps, the story revolves around a series of strangers who wake up inside and must find their way out.

What is immediately apparent to all the characters in the story is that they all possess different abilities and share the same story. Each and every one of them was carrying on with their daily lives, only to wake up and find themselves inside a cube-shaped room. None of them know each other or can remember how they got here, but once they found each other, they agree to work together and find the way out.

Amongst the captives is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a charismatic police officer who takes command, Leaven (Nicole deBoer) a young mathematics student, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor and conspiracy theorist, and Worth (David Hewlett), a pessimistic man who refuses to talk about himself. Quentin believes they all have a role to play, Holloway believes they are part of a government experiment, Leaven develops a theory that the room’s numbered in prime are the safe ones, and Rennes follows but seems skeptical of their chances.

As they continue, they find that Quentin’s theory about the prime numbered-rooms is flawed. Tensions also begin to rise within the group because of Holloway’s paranoia, Quentin’s controlling behavior, and Worth’s reticence. The group then experiences a bit of a breakdown, during which time Worth finally reveals that he was one of the architects who helped design the Cube. He never knew what it was for or who even commissioned it, the specs merely passed his desk and he added his own insight. He believes that essentially, the Cube created itself, the result of human stupidity and complacency.

However, Leaven concludes from Worth’s description that the numbers might actually be Cartesian coordinates, and the group begins working its way to one of the outer edges. They also come across a mentally challenged boy named Kazan, who Quentin wants to leave behind by Leaven insists they bring. But in time, their efforts prove futile when another feature of the Cube is revealed, the fact that it periodically shifts its rooms around. Another breakdowns occurs as Quentin becomes paranoid and shows his dark side. After a confrontation with Holloway, he lets her fall to her death, thinking she was out to get him.

The group begins to truly fall apart as Quentin’s true nature is revealed. It seems he is a violent man with a penchant for young girls, the reason why his wife left him with their kids. He begins to run the group through bullying and fear. But a ray of hope emerges when Leaven concludes that the numbers are not primes or coordinates by powers of prime numbers. She cannot calculate them, but the mentally challenged boy Kazan – an apparent autistic savant – can. They continue on their way and Worth incapacitates Quentin, who has now gone completely insane.

Eventually, they find their way to the outer edge and prepare to leave, but Worth wonders if it’s worth it considering that there is nothing out there but “boundless human stupidity”. They are about to step out when Quentin sets upon them. Leaven jumps in to help, and the three are pulled back in as the room’s once again shift. Kazan is left alone to walk out into the light of day, free of the Cube.

Where to begin? This story was a masterful piece of psychological thriller and paranoid fantasy! The fact that we never truly learn who built the Cube, what purpose the “test” really served, and the possibility that complacency and ineptitude is what built it not only makes for a mysterious story, but a big, fat existential allegory! For in the end, are we not all prisoners within a giant maze we can’t discern, who’s maker is unknown and who’s purpose in indistinct? Calling to mind Kafka, Sartre and the “Allegory of the Cave” – a la Socrates – these movie was not only a nail-biting thriller but a fittingly dark philosophical commentary.

Last Night (1998):
Filmed and set in Toronto by writer/actor/director Don McKellar, this apocalyptic sci-fi film tells the story of the last night on Earth, and shows various people choose to spend it. Though the date is not specified, and no explanation is given as to what calamity will be bringing the world to an end, it is made abundantly clear that it will be coming at the stroke of midnight, leaving everyone in the story only a few hours with which to live life to the fullest.

Naturally, the streets are filled with people who have decided to riot, loot and generally wreak havoc. But the main focus of the story is on the lives of various intersecting characters who have chosen to use their time more constructively. One is Patrick (played by McKellar himself), who lost his wife not long ago and is spending the time saying goodbye to family and friends, but who seems to want to spend the last of it alone.

His best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) chooses to spend it in a non-stop sexual marathon as he attempts to fulfill every possible erotic desire he has, not to mention those of his partners. This includes having sex with his former French teacher, a black woman, a virgin, and just about any other scenario he can think of. When Patrick comes to say good-bye, he clumsily tries to encourage him to have sex with him as well. Patrick awkwardly declines, but Craig manages to get a sustained kiss out of him before he goes.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Sandra Oh), who has become stranded in the streets, meets up with Patrick and they get to talking. After realizing their time is short and they have only each other to spend their last hour with, they begin talking and sharing. Many times over, she insists that Patrick open up, saying “make me love you”. They agree to a suicide pact on the roof, listening to “Guantanamera” and drinking wine. In the end, they cannot shoot each other and end their time on the Earth with a heartfelt kiss.

The movie became an instant hit because of its personal nature and the realistic way in which it depicted the end of the world. By not specifying how the world was ending, McKellar kept the focus on the people themselves and how they chose to confront death, bringing out the very best and worst in themselves. While some chose to lose all control and commit murder, others chose to spend it with loves ones, or took a chance on forming new bonds with total strangers.

This last performance, between Sandra Oh and McKellar himself, was the most touching part of the film. We have two people who would never have known each other, both of whom experienced personal tragedy, and who came to experience one brief, shining moment of love – the most life affirming thing of all – before all life ended forever. So sad, yet so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

eXistenZ (1999):
From the same mind that brought you Scanners (David Cronenberg) comes this twisted psychological thriller about reality and the way technology affects our perception of the world around us. Featuring an all star cast that included Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Willem Dafoe, this movie received multiple awards and was well received by critics, though its box office gross was overshadowed somewhat by the release of the Matrix that same year.

Set in the not too distant future where organic game consoles known as “game pods” are all the rage, the story revolves around two game companies – Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics – who are competing to create the best in bioware. At the same time, a group of “realists” – people who are opposed to the technology because it “deforms reality” – are engaged in a guerrilla-style fight with both companies.

Enter into this Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the greatest game designer in the world who works for Antenna and is testing her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. During a seminar, she is shot in the shoulder by a realist using an “organic gun” – a device which can pass through security checkpoints – and the console appears to be damaged. As a result, she must plug in and test it with a trusted person and asks Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard to join her.

As they enter the game, reality becomes increasingly distorted as the two undergo behaviors which seem odd to them but are “consistent with their characters.” At the same time, they are stalked by characters that appear to be Realist fighters who are trying to sabotage them. Geller eventually realizes that they have been double-crossed by the people who installed Pikul’s bioport, the interface which is inserted into a gamer’s lower back, in order to infect and destroy her game. On top of that, Cortical Systems personnel are also inside, looking to copy the game for their own purposes. Pikul then reveals that he is in fact a Realist agent who was sent to kill her. She answers by saying she knew for some time and detonating his bioport.

However, in a finay twist, the two then appear on a stage with the other main players from the game and realize they were all part of a virtual reality game called “tranCendenZ”. This game was being played by the cast,  mirroring the first scene, but with electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish (played by McKellar), feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers.

Pikul and Allegra approach him and ask him if he should pay for his “crimes” of deforming reality. As Merle (Sarah Polley), Nourish’s assistant, calls for security, Pikul and Allegra grab hidden pistols  and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As with the other game, the other players appear more frozen than shocked, suggesting that they are still inside. Pikul and Allegra point their guns at another player, who is at first dismayed, but then asks if they are still in the game. Pikul and Allegra don’t know, and the last scene ends with the fear written on their faces.

Much like the Matrix and Inception, this movie was characterized by it’s mind-bending sequences and unpredictable twists, showing how one’s perception of reality can be distorted thanks to the effects of mind-bending technology. But whereas other films chose to delve into the relative aspects of it all or sought to make an existential point about mind control, Cronenberg’s aim was clearly in showing the dangers of such reality-based technologies by equating them with drugs. All throughout the film, the psychoactive nature of the game is played up, showing how the ability to distort reality and tamper with one’s own psyche can be an addictive form of entertainment. The dangers in this are obvious of course, in that one’s ability to tell reality from fantasy will be worn down, leading to potentially fatal consequences.

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Well, that’s movies covered! It will take a few more days to cover the rest, respectively television and literature. These are even more fertile ground than films, so expect some detailed and lengthy posts. I will try to be brief as possible, but this is a tribute to my country of origin so don’t expect any topical treatments. No, sir! In the meantime, Happy Canada Day to all Canucks at home and abroad. Hope you are with the one’s you love and are having a good time. And to you Canada, happy 145th birthday! Cheers!

Sci-Fi Drugs

The other night, I had one of those moments. It was a moment where I found myself thinking about a cool concept and realized that it would make a damn fine post. It’s also one that interests me quite a bit and has even influenced my own writing. So as quickly as I could, I hopped on my laptop (even though it was 2am) and began making a list of all the sci-fi drugs I knew!

To me, the reasons for including drugs as part of a sci-fi franchise are obvious. For one, drugs and drug cultures are very much a part of our society, so it’s only natural that a sci-fi author should have something to say about it. As Gibson said, all sci-fi is really about the time in which it is written, ergo fictionalized drugs in future settings are really a reflection on the attitudes of today.

On the other hand, creating fictitious drugs and inventing subcultures that use them are a good way to give a story some realistic background. Wherever and whenever a story takes place, you have to assume that they will have narcotic substances there, and what form they take and how they go about dealing with them tells you much about that culture.

Either way, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for quite some time. So here are some highlights from the wold of sci-fi drugs!

Can-D:
Here we have a designer drug that was created by none other than sci-fi great Philip K. Dick. As fans may know, this guy was somewhat of an expert on drugs, having taken part in the Californian drug counter-culture during the 60s and 70s. As a result, he had a lot to say about drug use, their impact, and drug policy.

In this particular case, the drug comes to us from the story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Taking place in the 21st century, where global warming has sent millions of people off Earth to the hostile environments of the Solar System, people have turned to a combination of the drug Can-D and what are known as “layouts.”

Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the off-world colonies or life on Earth. By taking the drug in conjunction with the layouts, people are able to experience a sort of shared hallucinogenic state. This in turn has given rise to pseudo-religious cults that have grown up around the use of layouts and the drug, consisting of people who dream of better worlds than the one they are forced to endure.

Dancer:
To complete the semi-dystopian setting of his Bridge Trilogy, Gibson was sure to add a designer drug that was all the rage amongst Californians in the near future. The drug was named Dancer, a powerful and addictive hallucinogen that apparently came in the form of a red dust. People would take it orally, rub it on their gums, smoke it or snort it.

In short, Dancer was like a red cocaine, except that it caused hallucinations rather than manic behavior. People who consumed it would typically become euphoric and mellow, causing them to get all rhythmic and break into dance (hence the name). However, it was was also known to make people violent from time to time, which made it more akin to the the effects of PCP.

Inspired by California’s drug culture and the emergence of designer drugs in the early 90s, Dancer was clearly meant to serve as an allegory for multiple drugs, or as a prediction of what the next big craze could be.

Dust:
Fans of Babylon 5 ought to remember this one. Basically, the drug was a hot item on the black market because it had the ability to give users temporary telepathic powers. It was violently addictive, and known for giving a very powerful and unique high. However, in the course of trying to stop the Dust trade to B5, Psi Cop Bester acknowledged that the drug was originally created by the Psi Corps as a way of creating telepaths.

When they realized it didn’t work, the drug was abandoned, but made its way to the black market because of its obvious appeal. As a longtime fan of B5, I can honestly say it was elements like this that made me like the show. Not only was the concept and the name cool, the fact that it began as a government-sanctioned drug was also believable and clearly inspired by the history of many real-world drugs.

Neuroin:
Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short story, Minority Report was a quasi-dystopian future where the use of precognitives promised to eliminate all violent crime from society. But of course, there’s a dark side to all this, and it just happens to be linked to the underworld drug known as Neuroin, a powerful and addictive psychoactive substance.

Though it is never explained in any real detail, the name suggests that it is of the opiate family and possibly combined with a neural stimulant. In addition to being the drug of choice of the protagonist, it is also the very thing that created the precognitives in the first place. All three psychics were once children who suffered brain damage in utero as a result of their mothers’ neuroin use. Though damaged neurologically, a side effect was the development of precognitive powers, which the state began to use in order to engineer the process known as “PreCrime.”

Based on the film adaptation, the principal means of taking neuroin appears to be through a specialized inhaler. This would allude to the fact that neuroin was taken in vaporized form. In the end, this drug served as both a commentary on the dangers of escapism as well as a plot device. While neuroin was the reason for the precognitives existence, it was also how the main character chose to numb himself over the loss of his son.

Nuke:
The designer drug from Robocop 2, and one man’s attempt at achieving his dream of becoming a Jesus-like figure! Designed by Cain, Nuke was an extremely pleasurable and addictive substance that began making the rounds in Old Detroit by the second movie. Coupled with a Police strike and financial ruin, Nuke seemed to be the thing that would finally break Detroit and allow the greedy bastards at OCP to finally take over.

There are several kinds of Nuke, but by far the most popular variety comes in the form of the red sludge. This is known as Red Ramrod, and was followed shortly thereafter by White Noise, Blue Velvet, and Black Thunder. The color scheme alluded to Cain’s “patriotic” sentiments, as he was known to say that his drug was making “Made in America” mean something again.

Nuke comes only in liquid form and is taken by means of small needles that inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. Because of its highly pleasurable nature and chemical properties, only a few doses are needed before a person becomes hooked and will experience intense withdrawal if they don’t get a regular dose. A commentary on the emergence of designer drugs, it was also served as a means for making some tough observations on drug use and its effect on society.

Snow Crash:
This drug is, admittedly a little off the beaten path. Featured in the Neal Stephenson novel of the same name, Snow Crash was essentially an allegory for a system crash, but in neurological form. Taking the form of both an inhalant and a digital virus, the “drug” had the effect of rendering users docile, passive and babbling an idioglossia similar to speaking in tongues.

But of course, there was more to it than all that. Basically, Snow Crash was designed by an information tycoon named L. Bob Rife who wanted control over people’s minds and daily habits. Using a Sumerian tablet, he basically encoded the ancient “Enki virus” – a virus that altered humanity’s neurology and spawned modern languages. So really, he was looking to reverse the Babel myth, making humanity neurologically simpler and thus programmable.

In addition to being a commentary on the drug culture, Snow Crash was also an observation about the proliferation of computer viruses in the early 90s and an allegory on the similarities between ancient myth and modern technology. It was also pretty cool and weird!

Soma:
When it comes to designer drugs, Soma pretty much takes the cake. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s classic tale of dystopia and social engineering, Brave New World, Soma was the kind of drug that came with the label “good for what ails ya” and meant it literally. Designed to cure any and all emotional problems, the pill was mass produced and a key feature of the World State’s apparatus of social control.

Use of Soma is prescribed at a very young age to citizens of the World State, as soon as children are old enough to begin sleep conditioning. Slogans such as “a gram is better than a damn” are programmed into their minds so that they respond to emotional stress by simply popping a pill. This is often referred to as “taking a vacation”.

To illustrate the effects of the drug, Huxley relied on his own experience using mescalin and other drugs. Apparently, subjects using Soma would enter a dream-like state where everything became pleasant and agreeable, all their worries and unpleasant emotions melting away. This dream-like state could be discerned by observing a person’s eyes, which would become noticeably glazed.

In addition, though the state freely distributed the drug and there were no shortages, Soma was still designed to be non-addictive and with no harmful side effects. This, added to its effectiveness, made it the ultimate designer drug and a very effective means of social control. A commentary on the pharmaceutical industry of his day and on the drug culture of the 1920s and 30s, Soma remains the most popular example of a fictional sci-fi drug!

Spice:
Then again, the spice melange is pretty damn popular too. However, as the only drug on this list that is not designed or synthesized, and is by definition an “awareness narcotic,” Spice is really in a category of its own. Taken from the Dune series, Spice was the most precious resource in the universe in more ways than one.

For starters, Spice could only be found on one planet, the desert world known as Arrakis. Mining Spice was also a highly hazardous duty, due to the inhospitable climate of Arrakis and the presence of Sandworms. And given its many benefits, which included prolonged life and expanded awareness, it’s little wonder why it was so damned expensive!

A clear allegory for oil, all life and commerce in the Imperium of Dune revolved around Spice in one way or another. The Guild Navigators used it to achieve their limited prescience and guide ships through foldspace. The Bene Gesserit used it to enhance their mental and physical acuity and make contact with their “Other Memory”. And every house used it to improve their health and longevity. In short, without Spice, all trade and commerce in the universe would end and countless people would die.

And of course, there never would have been a Paul Mua’dib or a Leto II, and humanity would have died as a result! That’s quite a drug them people got there!

Substance D:
Once again, we have a fictitious drug that comes to us straight from the mind of Philip K Dick. Featured in his 1977 book A Scanner Darkly about the drug subculture of California, Substance D was a powerful psychoactive drug that also went by the name “Slow Death.” The name proved apt, as the drug was not only violently addictive, but resulted in brain damage due to overuse.

According to the story, Substance-D was synthesized from the fictitious blue flower Mors ontologica, which is Latin for “death of being”. In the course of the story, the protagonist – an undercover narcotics agent – becomes addicted to the drug, suffers brain damage and is sent to one of the new recovery centers (“New Path”) to get clean.

In time, he is given the task of working on one of their many farms and learns that these places serve as grow ops for the flower. Hence, we see that “New Path” is the source of Substance-D, and is therefore benefiting from both the drug and the harmful effect it has on society. A commentary on strong-arm governments and the pharmaceutical industry perhaps?

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to fictionalized narcotics, a few basic features become evident. For one, fictional drugs can take one of two forms, being either of the organic or synthetic (i.e. designer) variety. Second, their use as part of a story’s background is meant to call attention to our current drug wars, warts and all. But above all, they seem to serve as a form of social commentary by pointing to the ongoing nature of temptation, escapism and repression. On the one hand, human beings will always be looking for escapes and ways to ease the burden of existence. On the other, we are always likely to feel the need to control the flow of narcotic substances and legislate what people can and can’t put in their bodies.

Finally, I found that just about all the authors here were taking a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach. Essentially, they were content to sit back and make observations on the whole issue of drug use and moral legislation, rather than making pronouncements. This would seem the preferable option considering that you can’t really offer a clear resolution without sounding either enabling or preachy. Some say that drug use destroys society, other say that people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodes. And then there are those who say that human weakness is a constant, and that criminalizing such a thing turns a flaw into a war. Complicated!

On a brighter note, all this talk puts me in mind of my own fictional creations. Years back, when I was coming up with the concept for my Legacies story, I spent a fair bit of time pondering what kind of drugs people would be using in the relatively distant future. I think I might just dedicate a page or a post to just that topic. In truth, I’d like to know what people think about my inventions. Look for it, it shall be coming soon!

The Matrix: Revulsions!

The Matrix: Revulsions!

With the final movie hitting theaters, fans believed we were coming to it at last! The explanation as to what it all meant in Reloaded, whether their was a Matrix within a Matrix, how would Zion survive, why Neo was able to destroy those squiddies, and who the hell that Bane guy was now. Most or all of these questions would have been easier to answer if the second movie hadn’t left people befuddled and confused. But at least now, with the third movie, some of that confusion might be dispelled. And I for one was eager to find out who was right in the whole “what’s going on” debate!

The Matrix: Revolutions
As it turned, none of us were! The answers we were waiting for turned out to have nothing to do with any of our theories, and we were quite unhappy about that! Not just because we were wrong but because ultimately, the explanations for why things had happened the way they did in movie two… kinda sucked. The critics felt much the same way, with most reviewers panning the film and it earning roughly half of what the sequel had. When describing it and how it wrapped the series up, words such as “anticlimactic” and “unsatisfying” were often used. Most people I knew just called it dumb! And the reasons were obvious.

1. Weak Opening:
So the movie started with Neo finding himself in limbo which is basically a part of the Matrix. (Note: Mobile station is an anagram for Limbo, which was what Neo – anagram for One – was in. Get used to it, the franchise is full of them!) So in addition to the questions about the squiddies, how he’s supposed to save Zion, and whether or not the Oracle is the enemy, there’s the added question of how the hell he could find himself in the Matrix when he’s not jacked in. Meanwwhile, Morpheus, Trinity and the crew of the Hammer are trying to find him, and the Oracle tells them they got to find YET another program who’s being guarded by the Merovingian in order to get to him. Didn’t they do this plotline already? And reusing one so early in the movie is a bad sign, makes the audience think the whole movie’s going to be a rehash of the last one. And after some needless action sequences in the Merovingian’s night club, which just seemed like an excuse to do the one thing they hadn’t tried yet (fighting upside down!) they find Neo and they are free to pursue all the other plot threads they left open.

2. Weak Explanations:
The movie reached a climax of sorts around the time that Neo reached the Oracle and asked her for explanations. There I was in my seat thinking “Here we go!” Finally, we’d get to see what all that stuff was about. And what the Oracle said was interesting at best, lame at worst, and disappointing somewhere in the middle. So apparently Neo was able to stop those machines because “the power of the One extends to the Source” which is, apparently, where his powers come from… Uh, okay. So Neo has powers that enable him to control machines in the real world as well as in the Matrix… Why? Come to think of it, why does he have powers at all? The way the Architect explained it, his powers were a systemic anomaly, suggesting that they were just exhibited in supposedly gifted individuals that cropped up from time to time. But why the hell would those powers extend to the Source, aka. the machine mainframe? And what the hell did she mean when she said they CAME from the Source? Does that mean the Source willed Neo and all his predecessors into being? Did it do this just so it’d have something to do? Or is he just some kind of super-cyberman who defies all comprehension? Seriously man, this was just weak! Compared to all this, what my friend said (hey Sam!) about Neo being a program actually made sense!

Oh, and the bit about Neo’s mind breaking off and running loose in the Matrix? Also weak! Apparently, he “wasn’t ready” for these abilities, so that’s why he went comatose after killing those squiddies, woke up and found himself in Mobile (Limbo) Station. Yeah, because that’s what happens when you’re the One and you use your abilities prematurely, you go to a train station! I know that the Wachoswki brothers were trying to be cool and mysterious when they wrote this, but this is just inexplicable nonsense! To top it off, we never did get an explanation as to how the Oracle could be on humanity’s side when thus far, all she’s done is lead them into a seemingly hopeless situation. When Morpheus and Trinity confront her, not once do they ask the obvious: “Why did you lie to us, bitch? Why did you say the war would end once Neo went to the Source when in truth, it meant the war would continue and the whole cycle would just repeat itself?” Not asked, not answered. The Oracle just acts like this was all part of the unfolding plan and she’s just telling them what they need to know. Sure, she did tell Neo he’d have to decide between saving Trinity and Zion, which was true, but everything else still felt like lies, or at the very least, convenient half-truths.

3. Obvious Biblical References: In this movie, the mythological references were not only way over the top, but obvious as well! In movie one, much of the mythology was biblical in nature. In movie two, it was more classical. Third time around, it seems like the wheel came back around and returned to biblical. But holy shit was it obvious here! First, there’s the part where Neo is blinded during the fight between him and Bane/Smith. Not only is this an obvious allusion to the biblical Samson, Bane even comes right out and says “A blind messiah!” Are you kidding me? Did the art of subtlety die somewhere between movie’s two and three? No, I can’t defend that. Movie two was never subtle! And the part at the end where Neo decides to sacrifice himself to save Zion? Of course, this particular biblical allusion was building up all throughout the whole of movie three. Scarcely a person in the audience expected Neo to live, especially after Trinity died. But by the end, when Neo’s dead body was being ferried off by the machines, all splayed out Jesus-style? C’mon, Wachowskis!

4. That Lame-ass Death Scene: Trinity survived movie two, which I believe I mentioned was kind of hokey, only to die here. And it took place after she delivered Neo to the machine city, which basically meant she died as soon as she was no longer of use! As if that wasn’t enough, her final farewells dragged on foreeeeever. Seriously, I heard people snickering in the theater, it had gotten so cheesy! Yes, I’m sure there were plenty of people who might have found it touching as well, but I refuse to believe Carrie Ann Moss actually cried when she first read this part of the script! More like she confronted the Wachowskis and said, “You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”

5. Smith Gets Comical: I’ve already mentioned how Smith had most of the best lines in the first movie, right after Morpheus. Part of what made his dialogue so cool was the fact that it was cryptic and delivered in a real cool, badass way. Aside from his incredibly even tone, which made him sound all the more menacing, Weaving showed himself to be an expert at catching the right look. That hard stare, those arched eyebrows, that cruel mouth – he was bad reborn! Then the second movie came out, in which he was still pretty bad. He even had some decent lines, even if they were a little monosyllabic. Remember “Me too…”, or “More!” Or how about “The best part about being me is there are so many of me”. Those were pretty good and captured the essence of Smith’s growing megalomania. But by this movie, he so overdid the evil madman routine that it just got creepy, even laughable. For example, that drawn out scene where he smashes the Oracle’s dish and then does that evil laugh as soon as he assimilates her… That was painful to watch. Oh, and lets not forget that long, hammed-up lecture he gave Neo when they were fighting at the end: “Why Mr. Anderson?! Why do you persist?!” Seriously, he was yelling through clenched teeth! I seriously hope for his sake he was choosing to have fun because he found the dialogue so crappy!

6. Final Fight!: At this point, the movie already had outdone itself in weird, over the top special effects. But that big-time, burly brawl at the end of the movie? That was just plain overdone! Sure, Smith and Neo are both superhuman by this point in things, but did their fight have to resemble a battle between two Supermen? Did you not rip off that franchise enough already with all Neo’s flying? Hell, Link even said it in movie two: “He’s doing his Superman thing!” In any case, the action itself was terribly over the top, and was made worse by Smith’s antics which, as already noted, had gone from cryptic to comical! That, plus all the CGI – which always makes a scene look fake – made this entire scene feel totally superfluous. Mainly I just waiting for it to end so we could see how Neo was going to die and whether or not he would take Smith with him!

Okay, some stuff was good in this film. That battle scene where the machines reached Zion, that had some good parts to it! The action was pretty intense and it did have the right feel. Sure, there was the part where Kid (that’s his name, no fooling!) commandeers a mech and shoots the doors to Zion open, saying “Neo, I believe!” right before he shoots. Oh, and of course the part where Link’s wife and some militia women are popping off rockets and taking down the big drilling machine, but then start to get cut to pieces by squiddies shortly thereafter. Those were pretty cheesy, not to mention a pretty cheap attempt at making the audience care about some tertiary characters. But hey, the action was cool so I can forgive. I can even forgive the Aliens rip-off with the mec suits (known here as APU’s) since they are cool in ANY context AND were put to good use! Oh, and and that whole squiddy/hovercraft chase scene? Also not bad! It was fun and tense, and as opposed to the lesser characters dying in Zion, the audience actually seemed to care about what happened to Morpheus and Naobi (as always, played by Jada Pinkett Smith). Her badass delivery and sharp wit also made the scene believable, but dammit did they have to repeat that crappy “There are some things that do not change… and some things do” line?

And you might even venture to say that part of why this last movie seemed so disappointing was because they did a pretty good job of making things seem hopeless in Reloaded. In addition to being confused, I seriously went away wondering how the good guys could possibly win at this point. Yes, the plot was underdeveloped because of pacing problems and too many action scenes being piled on, but the whole concept of the Matrix being centuries old and there being several predecessors to Neo was still borderline genius! After movie one, with what seems to be an open and shut plot, they had their work cut out for them making it seem like everything was about to take a turn for the worst. And yet, they managed to pull it off! From movie one to two we went from thinking Neo was invincible and humanity would win to believing Neo was helpless and humanity screwed. So you might say there was little inspiration left for when it came time to brighten things up again, to find a way to make the good guys win that was plausible and consistent with the whole theme of prophecy and “this has all been foretold”.

But alas, the weak ending where Neo dies and the machines for some reason decide to leave Zion alone cannot be so easily forgiven! That, on top of all the other flaws in this movie meant that this franchise was ending on a groan and not a hurrah. Seriously, why did the machines leave Zion when they were an inch away from wiping it out? And why, for that matter, did the Architect promise the Oracle the “red pills” would be set free from now on? That was never part of the agreement! Neo said he wanted peace, not that all humans who couldn’t accept the program should henceforth be set free so there would be no reason to go to war. Makes sense, but why would the machines accept it? Because they felt honor bound to acknowledge Neo’s sacrifice? Because they promised they wouldn’t? What kind of machines are these? Honor, promises, solemn oaths; these are HUMAN things! They are based in emotion and ethical insight, not mathematics or cold calculation! And you call yourselves machines! Pah! I spit on your machineness!

And let’s not forget what kind of moral this all amounted to: that humanity and robots need to live in peace. Sure, the whole concept of human-machine interdependency came up repeatedly. It came up first in the original when Morpheus explained how humans power the Matrix, and how this was ironic given humanity’s historical dependence on machinery. It was resurrected in that needless scene where Councillor Hamann (that old dude from Zion) takes Neo tot he bowels of the city to look at the machines and reflect on the irony of THAT. But to take that to the point where they must learn to live in peace and harmony, Kumbaya-style, just seemed lame! And as the Architect said to the Oracle: “How long do you expect this peace treaty of yours to last?” Good question! As it stood, the only thing protecting Zion from exterminations was this treaty; but in time, humanity was likely to recover and expand, at which point they’d be wanting to shove a great big EMP up the Matrix’s ass! Any calculating machine would know this, hence why they would have finished the job when they had the chance! But at this point, no one was looking for practical. They were looking for over…

The Matrix: Revolutions, people. A disappointing but not terrible ending to a very promising franchise. Perhaps, like with Highlander, there really should have only been one. Or perhaps they shouldn’t have tried so hard to top everything from the first. In truth, I think that if they had just taken their time and gone with those rather genius ideas – the ones about rogue sentient programs and how the Matrix and the whole One thing were a lot more complicated than originally foretold – the sequels would have been much better. But, as I said, greater people than the Wachowskis have tried to make lighting strike twice. Who can blame them for not succeeding?

The Matrix: Revolutions:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Plot: 5/10
Direction: 6/10
Total: 6/10

Matrix plotlines…

Before moving onto the final installment in the Matrix trilogy, I thought I’d tackle the big glaring issue that stood out during Reloaded. And that would be that whole subculture that came out between sequels, the one where people seemed to think they knew what was going on, but really had no idea. That was the rationale I asserted in my last review, and yes, its based in part on the fact that I never agreed with them. And that they were WRONG! Yeah, I was too; the theory I came up with to explain how Neo could have neutralized those squiddies in the real world and how it was all going to end… WRONG! That’s the consensus that that friend of mine and I came to once we both saw Revolutions and reconvened. But it just goes to show you how little sense a movie can make when everyone who went to see it had to make up their own ending, only to come away disappointed by the actual one.

But I digress. Allow me to recap on what happened during that eventful summer when Reloaded came out and fans everywhere showed up at the theater to see what was going to happen, only to leave confused and bewildered. Given the need for some brevity, I was only able to gloss over what actually happened in the movie and why it confused the hell out of people to the point where they had to make up their own plot. So to recap, here is what happened:

Reloaded: Okay, now this movie takes place about six months after the first movie. Neo is at the height of his power and is beginning to have prescient nightmares. He sees Trinity die, and is haunted by the feeling that even though he is the One and has realized his potential, he has no idea what he is to do now. Solid, it makes perfect sense that a messianic figure, once they’ve realized their role, would not know how to proceed. After all, the prophecy that was alluded to several times in the first movie never gave any details as to how the One’s arrival would end the war. Just that it would…

We also learn that the machines are tunneling to Zion. This was first mentioned in Final Flight of the Osiris, the animated short that was part of the Animatrix. It is also recapped during the opening expository scene where the Captains of the various hovercraft meet up inside the Matrix, which is difficult given all the squiddy activity of late. Question! Why not just meet up in the real world if its so dangerous? Is it just so they can all be decked out in their leather outfits and shades and Neo can have his big fight with the agents? Who cares? Point is, Morpheus attributes this attack to the success they’ve been enjoying of late. Neo’s powers seem to be a decided advantage now that they don’t have to run and hide from the agents but can actually face them.

So, Neo goes to the Oracle, who tells him that the One must go to the Source. That’s where his path will end and the war too. But of course, there’s cryptic, convoluted answer shit to be sure! He’s also told that his dreams, after a fashion, are true. Once at the Source, he will have to decide between saving Zion or Trinity. Tough call, but one he must make! Why? Because he’s the One. Harsh shit, man! But it sets up some obvious tension. But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a snag! Smith is back! And he’s brought friends. Like a perfect metaphor for a virus, or “ego” as Hugo Weaving described it, Smith is expanding, copying himself onto other programs and absorbing their powers. That much is cool because it means he’s able to upgrade his software and is becoming more and more of a threat to Neo and the system. And it kind of fit nicely with what the Oracle rambled on about sentient programs running around the Matrix in defiance of the system. Sure as shit, we didn’t get anything else from that speech, like what the hell it meant or how it was significant! She just says it in passing as if it was a segue into the bit about how Neo must go to the Source and how he’s haunted by dreams about it.

Getting back, Neo and his buds, after a long, convoluted series of events, get the Keymaker, who is the key (sorry!) to getting to the Source. He is just one in a long list of characters who we get the feeling were supposed to be complex and inspired, but ultimately served no real purpose other than being stand ins that advanced the plot. Seriously, all they do is show up, make a big speech, and then go! But anyway… the characters do more action-shit to make sure Neo can get to the Source and – wouldn’t you know it?- Smith shows up! Seems that he too has access to the backdoors of the Matrix, he wants everything, he says, and is getting more powerful. They escape him, and make it to the Source where (wait for it!) another character is introduced, makes a big speech, and we get the last, confusing explanation we need.

So here’s how it is… The Matrix is many centuries old. It was, as Smith said in movie one, originally meant to be a perfect world but humanity wouldn’t accept it because the human cerebrum is designed to expect suffering, misery and conflict. That was a cool idea, but here it just gets convoluted like everything else! The solution, after some trials, was what the Architect described as the “choice” option. The Oracle, an intuitive program created to study human feelings (holy obvious case of pairing here!) designed this concept where humans were given an unconscious choice to either accept the programmed reality or reject it. 99 percent of subjects did, but the remaining one percent were like Neo and the rest – they could not bring themselves to embrace the delusion. And of course, every so often a One would emerge who not only rejected it, but could manipulate it to his advantage.

These two phenomenon represented an “escalating probability of failure”, as the Architect said, so something needed to be done. Basically, this was accomplished by a one-two punch. One, force the One to comply by threatening to crash the system and take out every human being wired into the Matrix. And two, sending the squiddies out to destroy Zion. The Matrix would then reboot, the One would take a handful of humans to start a free colony (aka. Zion) where the “red pills”, the one percent who wouldn’t accept the program, would be sent off to. When a new One would emerge, the whole thing would start over again. The machines would head for the new Zion, the system would lurch towards crashing, and the One would be driven in the direction of the Source where he would be given the same choice. Reboot the system and restart Zion, or watch humanity die! Naturally, all the Ones prior to Neo complied…

What was brilliant about this was it successfully managed to subvert everything we saw in movie one. The One seems invincible, but when confronted with this problem, he essentially becomes helpless. Really, what good can such powers do someone when all of humanity is held hostage? Second, the weapon at humanity’s disposal is a prophecy that foretold of victory, but it was essentially a lie. The war would “end”, it said, but it never specified how. In truth, the entire war and ongoing nature of the struggle between free humanity and the machines was something designed by the mathematical genius of the Architect. It serves the sole purpose of keeping the Matrix running and the machines functioning. Very 1984! Whereas humanity believes its been fighting the AI war for over a century, the sad truth is they lost, and what they’ve been doing ever since is been playing a part in play much bigger than themselves. No one knows the truth, because no one is old enough who remembers. Seriously, 1984!

And if you think about it, it was all hinted at throughout the movie. Speech One, where the Oracle says the war would end and how she’s a program and there are others like her who defy the system. Speech Two, where the Merovingian tells them that the true nature of life is cause and effect, and we are all out of control. Speech Three, where the Architect explains how Zion and the One represent a “systemic anomaly” which is the only remaining exception to what is otherwise “a harmony of mathematical perfection” or some such shit! It essentially comes together in the end. Only problem was, NOBODY GOT IT! It was told in such a quick, rushed way between action sequence and using cryptic, expository dialogue that everybody just gave up and accepted the last few minutes of the movie as their truth of what was going on. Which brings me to phase two… what fans thought was happening.

“Matrix within a Matrix:” So like I said, in the months between the release of the second and third movie, fans everywhere formed up and began detailing what they thought was the coolest idea ever proposed! Far from being based on the many, many, big speeches in Reloaded, it was based entirely on the last few minutes and the assumed significance thereof. Perhaps I am being harsh. In truth, it was a cool idea.

To recap! Neo managed to stop those squiddies because they were STILL in the Matrix! Neat! But what would this mean? Well, according to the theory, the Matrix exerted control over the free humans by ensuring that once they broke free from the first Matrix, they were still contained in a second. Some went so far as to say that there were up to seven or more layers of the Matrix, like it was based on some variation of the Superstring Theory or something! Also neat, and years before Inception! One problem… makes no sense! If there were multiple layers of the Matrix keeping humanity controlled, what the hell was the point of everything we’ve been told up until this now. The red pills are controlled by allowing them to form a colony, then periodically destroying it. The One is controlled by crashing the Matrix in time with Zion’s destruction and making him reboot it so that humanity will continue to live.

Why do all that if they’re all still in the Matrix??? If they’re just part of a delusion no matter what, let them have their victory! But even more to the point, if the red pills – i.e. that one percent that was always aware that they were living inside a program – couldn’t bring themselves to accept the program, what were the odds they would accept the program within the program (or any other layer of it for that matter)? It was a cool idea, but in short, it negates EVERYTHING the movie was based on up until this point. But asking the fan community for perfect consistency is even worse than asking it from a writer/director, or worse, two of them!

My Idea!: Lastly, let me get to what I thought was going on. It’s short, so bear with me just a little longer. Basically, I thought Neo stopped those squiddies because his contact with Smith meant that HE was changed too. Smith said his destruction in movie one changed him, and we all saw it in action. So why couldn’t the same be true in reverse? It too seemed hinted at, Neo was always somehow aware of Smith’s presence, as well as the “connection” Smith mentioned. I thought that this would be the means through which Zion would be saved and the war would be won in movie three. Neo would be given insight into the machine’s minds, how they functioned. He would be able to stop them in the real world just like he did in the Matrix. I admit, it was thin, but as far as the rest was concerned – what did this mean, what did that mean? – my answer was, who the hell cares? We’ll find out in movie three. As for what’s happening, the only people who knew that were the Wachoswki’s, and of course the actors and set people.

But of course, that wasn’t going to stop us armchair critics from speculating. And here I am still talking about it now, even though the movie came and went! But what the hell, it was fun while it lasted! And considering how we all ended up disappointed by the real ending, I’m thinking maybe some armchair critics could have done a better job of writing the ending! Speaking of which, stay tuned for the final installment, The Matrix: Revulsions!