Tag Archives: The Matrix

Window Dressing

Taxis are in a rush. That’s a known fact (that I thought as I did my usual ritual of staring down a cab driver today). It’s also a vital part of the game Crazy Taxi. The arcade-style driving game has you speeding around a time, picking up customers and dropping them off as quick as you can. It’s fun, and an excellent time and/or quarter sink.

But how vital is the taxi part of Crazy Taxi? Sure, speeding around an ersatz San Francisco and dodging trucks is great, but does it need that taxi-ness — that surrounding narrative — to work? Strip away all the window dressing and the game’s mechanics are quite simple: the player drives around an area getting objectives which, when completed well, nets the player more points and time. Could be in space, could be blocks moving around, you could throw Mario on it and call it a day. Instead, you play as a crazy taxi driver dodging traffic.

So what does the narrative window dressing of a cab driver bring to the story? Why is setting it in contemporary (ca. 1999) America better than setting it in space? Because then it’d be a different thing. I mean, obviously. It’s why The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai can tell a similar story and yet still be completely different movies. Look at The LEGO Movie and The Matrix. Both adhere to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with a religious ferocity: a nobody turns out to be really special, goes into a different world, acquires new skills, and saves the day. One’s plastic toys and the other’s a cyberpunk dystopia. They have what’s essentially the same mechanics with different window dressing and thus gives them each different narratives.

Look at The Matrix: it filters the Hero’s Journey through a cyberpunk aesthetic and a decidedly blatant Messiah analogy. All these details — the window dressing — lets The Matrix mix in Plato’s Allegory of The Cave and a critique of consumeristic culture. George Lucas’ rendition of the Hero’s Journey (Star Wars, duh) doesn’t lend itself to that commentary — The Matrix’s aesthetic is incredibly important to its narrative.

Because The LEGO Movie is about, er, LEGO, it can play fast and loose with its setting and characters (Batman leaves a pirate ship to join Han and Lando in the Millennium Falcon? Awesome!). It also means the film can tap into the general collective consciousness concerning that plastic toy and what it has to do with being a kid. Imagination is a big part of playing with toys, especially LEGO ‘cuz, y’know, you build stuff. Mix that in with the child-like love of storytelling that lends the film’s live action segment its earnest seriousness and you have a wonderful movie that’s simultaneously similar to The Matrix and yet nothing like it. All because the same structure got given a different coating.

This is, in part, why Crazy Taxi works so well. We know that cabbies are in a rush. That’s a given. So it makes sense that if we’re gonna get to play as a cabbie, we’re gonna be rushing about the place. It’s what gives it an urgency that dressing the mechanics up as, say, a postman or a waiter wouldn’t. It’s because of the whole narrative surrounding speeding cabs that makes the game work.

That and, y’know, it’s just a whole lot of fun.


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The (Lego) Hero’s Journey, Part Two

It’s been a few weeks since The LEGO Movie came out and proved that everything was indeed awesome. As I said I would before it came out, I’m going to break down The LEGO Movie with The Hero’s Journey.

But wait.

Two things you gotta do before you read on. First; read that blog post. I’m not gonna bother explaining The Hero’s Journey again. Second: watch the movie. Seriously. It’s a great movie in the first place and, equally importantly, I’m going to ruin the film’s big, magical twist. And I don’t use that word lightly.

And in case you missed it:



That clear? Alright. Here we go.

(I’ll be more or less using TV Tropes’ outline here; with splashes of others. Do note, some of the pieces can be juggled around, as they are in this film.)

The LEGO Movie opens with Lord Business defeating Vitruvius and getting the Kragle, at which point Vitruvius makes a prophecy about The Special stating that the Special will, be, well special. That’s step one.

Then we see Emmet, our protagonist, living out his normal, dull, life. His life is boring and routine. This is Thomas Anderson going to work in The Matrix, this is Luke on the farm.

Emmet’s normal world comes crumbling down when, after work, he falls down a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance. Like Thomas Anderson/Neo before him, Emmet then finds himself a captive of the bad guys only to be shortly freed by someone else. This is his Call to Adventure, something he resists at first.

Then Emmet must cross the first threshold, in this case being when he and Wyldstyle break out of Bricksburg into the Wild West pursued by Bad Cop. In Star Wars this is when the Falcon leaves Tatooine pursued by storm troopers. Alternately, look at when Neo leaves the Matrix for the first time. Emmet’s life has changed for good. The following chunk (and next few beats) are part of the Road of Trials, where Emmet is tested and really yanked out of the world. Think Neo’s training with Morpheus, where he finds that he knows Kung Fu.

Emmet meets the mentor, Vitruvius, here; a vital part in any hero’s journey. Like Obi Wan to Luke and Morpheus to Neo, and Dumbledore to Harry; this character aids the hero on his journey and urges him on. As Vitruvius does.

Next up is the Land of Adventure, which TV Tropes describes as “a strange, dreamlike realm, where logic is topsy-turvy and the “rules” are markedly different from the ordinary world.” In other words: Cloud Cuckoo Land. Here Emmet is developed and the set up laid for his Night Sea Voyage.

Which, courtesy of the attack on Cloud Cuckoo Land and a hastily built sub, actually takes place at sea. Now, this Night Sea Voyage marks the end of the Road of Trials and when the Hero mounts an attack on the enemy stronghold. In The Matrix this is Neo and Trinity rescuing Morpheus; in Star Wars this is saving Leia. For The LEGO Movie this means stealing a hyperdrive and getting to the Kragle.

Alright folks. I’m getting into the real spoiler bit. If you haven’t seen the film yet, bail now!


An optional part of the monomyth (Joseph Campbell would argue it was essential) is the hero’s Death and Resurrection. This messianic tropes is on full display in The Matrix with Neo, and in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To my surprise and immense pleasure, The LEGO Movie throws it in. Emmet sacrifices himself to save the Master Builders. Basically, he dies. The proceedings in the ‘real’ world with Finn and his Dad (about which I could write a whole ‘nother rant essay on the way it doesn’t feel jarring because of how it masterfully works in the themes, but I digress) leads to Emmet’s resurrection. Like Neo, Emmet can overcome death and return to his world.

And returns he does in what’s dubbed the Apotheosis. Ever trusty TV Tropes defines this thusly: “The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, either because of a critical breakthrough he’s made or some crucial information he’s uncovered.” Where Neo can fly and defeat Agent Smith, Emmet can harness the full powers of a Master Builder (his Ultimate Boon), creating a construction mech and charging through Micro Managers and back to Lord Business’ command brick, in order to have his Fight Against the Big Bad.

With Lord Business redeemed, Emmet makes his Return to Bricksburg, changed and, well, special.


So there you have it, a fairly in-depth (but not as much as it could be) look at The LEGO Movie through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as defined by TV Tropes (and myself). It’s a beautiful structure which, honestly, I haven’t seen pulled off this magnificently since The Matrix.

Seriously folks, this movie is awesome.

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Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse

Did you ever read The Day of the Triffids? It’s by John Wyndam and was probably the first piece of proper post-apocalyptic fiction I read ten years ago. It’s typical of the genre. We’ve got the world impairing event, the monsters that begin wiping out humanity, and of course the few survivors who band together to try and find a way to continue civilization. It’s a classic.

Now, like I’ve said before, science fiction provides a great way to examine reality and the issues therein. As such, it’ll heavily reflect the world in which it was written. So let’s see what The Day of the Triffids says about culture then. It was written in 1951, six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post-apocalyptic fiction began to flourish then, reflecting the horrific visions of what humanity could do and how we kept looking for more ways to destroy the world. This is what happens in Triffids; nukes in space blind most of the population and genetically engineered killer plants set about, well, killing people. Humanity brought this on themselves, their hubris caused the apocalypse.

We see this in more recent (post)-apocalyptic fiction too. In The Terminator we created Skynet with our computers; in The Matrix our drive to technology created The Machines and enslaved us. Within this and, yes, Day of the Triffids and countless zombie movies too, lies the implicit fear that as society delves into technology we’ll destroy ourselves. The solutions vary. InThe Terminator our heroes destroy the evil technology. The heroes of The Matrix and The Day of the Triffids find a way to overcome their creations to create a new civilization. It could be argued that it reflects some of the sentiment we find today; the world’s so screwed up the only solution is to start over.

Yet the trend in recent fiction has been to focus less on the how of the apocalypse and more on the what now. We never find out what caused the fungal outbreak in The Last of Us, but we do see Joel and Ellie develop twenty years later. In Zombieland, Columbus mentions that no one knows where the zombies come from. No longer are we watching us destroy ourselves, now we’re figuring out what we’re doing in the aftermath. We see the relationships form, we see the recreation of a family. Fiction like The Last of Us and Zombieland presents a world where the protagonists are handed a lousy hand and make the most of it. Starting over may be rough, but there remains that glimmer of hope.

If anything, Pacific Rim takes that conceit and fires it at other apocalyptic fiction. Suddenly, the technology classically feared is not the root of our problems but instead a savior. As protagonist Raleigh puts it early on: “You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.” Today’s culture is reflected in Pacific Rim in that technology isn’t something to be feared, but something to be used. How? To fight back against what we cannot control and to become closer to one another.

Pacific Rim introduces drifting, two people sharing a mind to control a Jaeger. The closer the pilots’ bond, the better they’ll fight. We love to deride the Internet and all as the death of true relationships, but Pacific Rim accepts this sort of digital connection and physicalizes it. With that, the film acknowledges the growing global identity facilitated by these connections. The heroes in Pacific Rim aren’t just all-Americans; we have an international coalition of Americans, Japanese, Australians, Russians, British, Chinese, and Idris Elba saving the world together.

It all culminates with where Pacific Rim goes with its story. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re a self-perceived failure, an egotistical jerk with daddy issues, a haunter young woman, or a research scientist you can hardly walk properly: you can save the world, you can be a rockstar. It is paramount that Pacific Rim takes place before the world ends: the protagonists refuse to accept it. When the authorities opt to cancel the resistance and to hide behind a wall instead, the heroes choose to fight on. In the traditional pre-final mission heroic speech, Stacker Pentecost declares that they will “face the monsters that are at our door and take the fight to them!”, they will stand up the end of the world because they refuse to accept that the world they’re given. We don’t need to start over from scratch, we can make a better world with what we have. Or as he says a moment later: “Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” It’s no longer important who caused the end of the world: we’re stopping it.

Jon Foreman wrote a piece for the HuffingtonPost a few years ago reflecting this dream of a better world. As he says: “Against all odds, against all that we know about this world, we could choose to hope for a better one — to hope for love, for peace, for a form of contentment and solace that we have never fully realized.” Pacific Rim is saying the same thing: no matter how bleak the world may seem, we can hope to save it, to fix it. It isn’t so much that we’re no longer blaming ourselves for the world gone wrong; it’s that we know we can make it better, with or without giant robots.

Though giant robots would be nice.

Credit where credit is due: This sort of ‘close reading’ of Pacific Rim grew out of this Tumblr post. Jon Foreman’s column can be found here.

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Red Pills

So y’know how there’ll be this story but there’s this one break from reality? The one thing that makes this world just a little different from the normal one?  It’s pretty much the foundation of the story; the one pill that the audience has to swallow to make the whole story digestible.

If we can believe that ‘reality’ is really just a virtual construct and the real real world is a dystopian post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by machines, The Matrix makes perfect sense. Since the world is virtual, running on walls and dodging bullets seems natural. Like Neo, we’ve gotta swallow that red pill and enter this world.

Or Harry Potter where  there’s a secret society of wizards and witches and other magical people living right under our Muggle noses. If we can believe that, then the Ministry of Magic, Centaurs, and all the rest fit right in.

An audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is vital to a story. If they don’t buy it, they won’t invest. A lack of investment means they won’t care about it. And that’s terrible.

So how do audiences swallow this pill?

Well, a little bit of grounding helps a lot. Iron Man establishes Tony Stark as being a genius within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the film. With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe that he could build an Arc Reactor and a suit of powered armor in a cave with a box of scraps. It’s been established that he’s outrageously intelligent, so we buy it. When we see his garage/workshop we see that he has a couple of robot assistants with a limited amount of AI. Though this (and Jarvis, and his holographic workspace) is well beyond 2008 technology, we accept it because not only of how intelligent Tony is, but with the lack of focus he gives it. It’s simply there, it’s part of his world. Since it’s normal for him, it’s normal for us.

There is a limit, of course. In Iron Man 2 they filmed a scene where the Tony and Pepper’s jet flew in the upper atmosphere, where gravity no longer affected them. It’s no big deal for them. Ultimately, Jon Favreau and crew chose to cut the scene as it wound up being just too much. Introducing the idea of a jet essentially going into space would have been one piece of tech too much in a movie with AI and powered armor. It would have shattered the suspension of disbelief. There’s a limit to how much you can give the audience.

The Mass Effect games’ fantastic technology is all explained by the titular mass effect. It’s a fairly basic concept (currents applied to the mysterious Element Zero will either increase or decrease an object’s mass) that allows for faster than light travel, artificial gravity, and all that. Add some mysterious ancient technology and bam! Humanity joins the galactic community and gets caught up to speed with the other races.

It’s not another world (like Star Wars) or flung way in the future (Halo, Firefly, or Star Trek), but it’s believable because of the simple technological conceit they present. Furthermore, the idea of mass effects is not only exhaustively fleshed out in the game’s databank (encyclopedia) but is internally consistent. It has its limits: mass effect fields can do a lot but they aren’t magic. All this keeps it believable.

So we have movies with basic conceits: cursed treasure exists in Pirates of the Caribbean, the zombie apocalypse finally happened in Zombieland, Back to the Future asks you to believe that if you hit 88 miles per hour you will see some serious …stuff, in Up we believe a house can fly. It’s that doorway into the world.

Of course, like all things, it’s not set in stone. Sometimes you can just say the Earth was demolished for a hyperspace bypass and if you make it fun enough we’ll play along. Because sometimes the only rules you really need is the rule of of fun; so you can have Scott Pilgrim do battle with the psychic-powered vegan or Westley and Buttercup fight a Rodent of Unusual Size. These movies are fun, serious logic need not apply.

Unless, y’know, you break one of the rules you’ve already set up in your world. Then bam goes our suspension of disbelief.

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