Anthologies have never been more popular in science fiction. From Netflix (Black Mirror and LDR) to Disney+ (What If...? and Star Wars: Visions), the format offer a quick and easy way for streaming services to provide endless entertainment without committing to expensive multi-season stories. It also lets directors explore lots of different stories and sub-genres without needing to commit to anything for more than 20 minutes.
But before you could even watch shows and movies on your computer — let alone your smartphone — one sci-fi anthology paved the way for some of the best shows of the streaming era. In 2003, two trailblazing directors set out to tell a different kind of story, one that could fill in the gaps and crevices of a beloved movie while pushing the limits of visual storytelling.
The result was The Animatrix, one of the best and most underrated sci-fi anthologies of all time, and one that helped pave the way for some of our favorite new shows. You can watch it now on HBO Max, but before you do, here are a few things you need to know first.
The influence of Japanese anime on The Matrix has always been evident — the Wachowski’s credit classics like Ghost in the Shell and Akira as some of their primary inspiration. So when the director duo visited Japan to promote their movie, they used the opportunity to meet with some of their favorite anime creators.
The result was The Animatrix.
The Animatrix consists of nine animated shorts set before, after, and during the events of The Matrix. The Wachowskis wrote some but not all of the shorts, and didn’t direct any. The English language version also features voice work from much of the English cast of Square Enix's Final Fantasy X, along with Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as their original Matrix characters.
Like any true anthology, The Animatrix explores various storytelling forms. The animation style, tone, and setting all change from episode to episode. In Program, two liberated humans discuss betraying their allies to the machines while sparring in a beautifully rendered simulation of feudal Japan. In another, a star athlete runs so fast he’s able to briefly see the truth behind the Matrix without ever taking a red pill.
Many of these stories have nothing to do with the core characters of The Matrix and its future sequels (Animatrix was released straight-to-video in 2003 just months before Reloaded premiered in theaters). But the anthology’s most memorable story is required viewing for anyone who wishes to truly understand the franchise.
In The Second Renaissance Parts I and II, a poetic narrator tells the story of how robots first rose up against humanity, fought for their survival, and eventually enslaved their old masters. If you haven’t seen The Animatrix, I won’t spoil this surprisingly twisty prequel, but I will share one of its best visual flourishes.
Here’s a shot of the robots visiting the United Nations both before and after defeating humanity.
Before their victory, the robots design and dress themselves to resemble humans, but by the end, they’ve evolved beyond humanity. The narrator doesn’t have to say this out loud; the animation makes it clear exactly what’s happened. (Also, they’re holding an apple in both images.)
The Animatrix is full of clever moments like this. It’s also shockingly violent and sometimes unexpectedly funny. And just like The Matrix and the movies that came after, it’s also a little uneven.
But that’s the beauty of an anthology. Not every episode has to be perfect, as long as there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
The Animatrix is streaming now on HBO Max.