Rage of the Machines Universe
A few years ago there was an article on Cracked that stuck with me that created a head canon with Inception as a prequel to The Matrix in their own little cinematic universe. I loved the idea so much that I kept finding other movies that fit into the concepts and timelines of the Matrix movies in similar ways that Inception acts as a prequel to the technology of a shared consciousness in a sleep state for multiple people that have the ability to take control of their surroundings with the awareness of the artificial world. There is a lot more that makes the future world of the Matrix what it becomes and a lot of other movies of the last 30-something years tread on these grounds, so what the hell, let’s throw them all together into the same universe. A universe for the Rage of the Machines.
The Terminator, 1984
I used to look down my nose at James Cameron’s movies and it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I didn’t just come around on his movies but come to realize that I really enjoy his movies. The Terminator was one of the first movies of his for me to come around on, I also have prejudices against movies from the ‘80’s but this makes excellent use of special effects and action scenes that make up for the awkwardness of the decade. This is the movie that kicks off the war with the machines, at least the opening shots of a cold war fought between the surviving humans of the future and the machines. It’s funny to think that John Connor isn’t in this movie at all, this is the Christmas story of the future war, the birth of the savior against the machines.
And so the first shots in the war with the machines was fired and the humans instigated the matter by sending back a man from the future to spawn the machines’ greatest enemy, John Connor.
Oh hey! We won the war with the machines before it even started! I think that’s the last we’ll ever hear from the machines. This was the very first R rated movie I ever saw, at least the very first one that was definitely a rated R movie, as far as violence and overall intensity goes. I was maybe ten years old when this came out and my brother chased me around like the T-1000 when the movie ended. The machines had sent back a liquid metal Terminator in the ‘90’s and the humans sent back a good version of the Terminator in the first movie for a teenage John Connor so that he and his mother would recognize him and after they shook off their pure terror from the previous movie they would trust it. It’s a perfect movie and one of the best action films ever made. How could you not love perilous car chases involving a big rig truck?
Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019
Perhaps all of this time travel trying to change the future has been ineffective in changing our fate in the war with the machines. Three years after T2, John Connor is killed by a terminator and a cybernetically enhanced soldier from the future, Grace, comes back to save Dani Ramos, the newest leader of the future resistance, against a new terminator who is sent back. The film ends with preparations for the war in the future that has a few years to come. It’s a bit of a flashback film, set in a bit of a fracture of the timeline where we see events from just after Terminator 2 and before Judgment Day. This was a return to form in the Terminator series of films, although there was only one not great movie and one stinker out of the six. This does reset the timeline as another shot at a T2 sequel.
Source Code, 2011
Meanwhile, while the Terminator movies might split timelines and the inevitability of fate intervenes over and over again, this merges possible splits in the timeline in time travel, maybe, but the big innovation on this timeline is the military’s use of realistic world building through subconsciousness to create a new reality with real consequences. Jake Gyllenhaal is a military pilot who had been shot down and reported dead, but his brain and consciousness are used to run simulations/ travel through time to solve a terrorist attack. This movie tells of the military experimentation with shared subconsciousness in the early stages after its invention. This was the follow up film after Moon for Duncan Jones and although this seems to be less remembered, it just might be the best of his filmography.
A former military technology that puts soldiers into an artificial reality while sleeping is co-opted by criminals for corporate espionage. In the movie they establish that it was used for training, but the Source Code concept that it was used for playing out different scenarios and in ways that alter reality works, too. This is just a next step on the expansion and privatization of shared virtual reality. A favorite movie of mine, the visuals are incredible and the world building utilizing rules of dreaming that hold together pretty well.
Ex Machina, 2014
It was inevitable. Machines are put to the test at the invention of AI that can fool a person into not knowing whether the intelligence they are speaking to is authentic or artificial. The AI does more than fool the tester, it gets loose into the world, leaving the compound. A tense drama, it’s not as sweeping as many of the other movies in this watchlist, but the worldbuilding of the secluded tech mansion in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest is imagery that has stuck with me for years, more so than dance moves and head games.
Terminator Genisys, 2015
Skynet is actually Genysis, a phone AI that makes itself too powerful. While the team of future soldiers and present day heroes thwart Genysis from coming online, they are well aware that the war with the machines is bound to happen through the inevitable advancement of technology. The announcement of this movie was widely mocked for its name, and the timeline bounces all over the place from the 80’s, closer to the present day and into John Connor’s time as an adult. It’s actually a pretty fun ride of a movie and Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor is very good. I’m not a big fan of the John Connor part of the story, but there’s enough
that is well done to make up for it.
A man falls in love with the futuristic AI on his phone. The Samantha AI joins with other AI’s to upgrade together. Love has made her stronger and she has been talking to thousands of people, falling in love with many of them. The AI’s leave the people at the end, signifying a break from human’s involvement with developing the machines and the machines growing on their own. The AI personalities ultimately leave the lives of the people, unplugging them from technology, but in the context of these movies perhaps it’s just the break in the relationship with man and machines before things get really ugly.
When John Connor sees the Terminator again he says “but I thought we had defeated skynet,” in the last movie, and Arnold responds, “it was inevitable” because the procession of technology was unstoppable and a sequel was needed to make more money for everyone. Judgment day is unavoidable and John Connor’s relationship with the Terminator are just to ride out the machines’ first strike. This is not a great movie, but it is entertaining.
Terminator Salvation, 2009
This is the closest thing to showing the defeat of the humans by the machines to the point that the remaining humans are driven underground. The humans win the battle, but they do not win the war, and their fate to slowly lose to the machines seems inevitable. Easily the most disappointing of the Terminator movies, the buzz in production came from a Christian Bale outburst and the sense that it would be very dark and edgy. Ultimately it ended up being a pretty bland post-apocalyptic action flick that felt too removed from all of the pre-Judgment Day Terminator movies.
The Matrix, 1999
Humans have lost the war with the machines and are being held as “batteries” in an alternate reality which they are never intended to awake from. The Matrix, which is a simulation of the 1990’s and not the 2000’s, you know, because 9/11 I’m sure, is based in the historic past for humans and not a perfect society as those simulations always seemed to break down. Neo awakes from his sleep to realize that he just might be Superman Jesus. Watching this soon after it came out when I was in high school was an experience that truly flipped all other action movies on its head. While it doesn’t have the same surprises of 22 years ago, it’s still incredibly entertaining and a perfectly made movie. It’s really quite impressive how many of the sci-fi action movies on this list have turned out to be perfect movies made by amazing directors.
However, not every attempt at artificial realities directed by prestige directors have resulted in success. David Cronenberg famously made a more video game based virtual reality movie in 1999, the same year as The Matrix, with the cringeworthy title of eXistenZ. This plays on level upon level of gaming realities that ends on an ambiguous note on whether we ever find ourselves back in the true real world reality of the film. The movie plays as a thematic echo of his earlier film Videodrome that also plays on a biological surrealism and the overwhelming influence of technologies, eXistenZ’s video gaming and Videodrome’s video and TV addiction, although the earlier film is ultimately much more engaging. The recent film Jesus Shows You The Way To the Highway touches on a similar story of experimenting with virtual reality where the viewer loses track of the stakes of the film, whether we are seeing peril purely in a game or a multi-level experience that is more or less benevolently created for them. This film from Spanish born Ethiopian based director Miguel Llanso is much more off the wall and embraces more crude graphics for style and humor.
While it could be up to interpretation on which level of the film is the true reality outside of a virtual world, Total Recall (both film versions) is a pretty good interpretation of an immersive virtual reality game. The original 1990 film directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger tells the story of a man hoping to escape his boring life to live a game as a spy, but the computer seemingly breaks down as he is being loaded in and he is at risk for some kind of brain damage as a result. That brain damage seems to snap him out of his cover and awakens him as his true, spy self. This movie has perhaps one of the biggest spoilers in its title as the virtual reality system is called “Recall” and the title suggests that the movie is completely from this world, rather than just referring to his newfound memories. This was based on the writing of Philip K. Dick, an author who loved to set his stories in virtual realities of many different sorts, including Ubik, Maze of Death and to some extent, Time out of Joint just to name a handful that I am familiar with.
Thanks to Philip K. Dick’s love of setting his stories at least partially in virtual realities, it wouldn’t insane to place a story based on his writing in a Matrix program even if no such setting were alluded to in the film. The Blade Runner movies really should be placed just before the Matrix, not as the downfall of Man vs. the Machines, but it does feel like it would be an example of one of the failed utopias in previous versions of The Matrix. This statement by the program that there had been previous Matrix worlds is a piece of world building I have always loved because it tells us that we are much further in the future than expected. The Blade Runner movies really feel like a technological utopia that has gone very wrong and it would be fitting that the machines would attempt to give humans a virtual world where humans and artificial intelligences live together. It would make sense if the machines would view it as a bit of a disaster if the robots of the Blade Runner world would become servants and hunted by humans, leading to a dystopian world and a failed program, much as the machines fought back after being relegated to servitude in the backstory of The Matrix told through The Animatrix. Either way, it’s an excuse to throw these two great films into this watchlist themed on the tensions of humankind and sentient machines. The one tricky spot in timing these movies on this timeline is that 2049 takes place years after a world wide blackout and the loss of recordings before the blackout. That could have been an event of a shift from the virtual world, waking the consciousnesses from this version of the Matrix and placing them back into an identical real world that coexists with machines rather than living in a computerized reality.
The Matrix Reloaded, 2003
Humans are living in an underground world of techno orgies and not enough bathing. I have a theory that the Wachowskis split the duties on the two sequels as they were made pretty much at the same time because this weaker installment feels a little different than Revolutions which came out later in the same year. Unfortunately, this is by far my least enjoyed movie on this list.
The Matrix Revolutions, 2003
Parts of the program are working against the machines, Neo loses his real world sight but brokers peace with the machines outside of the Matrix rather than a miraculous defeat in battle. It’s an interesting conclusion to the trilogy although some of the fights seem to be overlong. It’s interesting that the final faceoff of man and machine here is more philosophical and supernatural than violent and technology based, that was the underlying concept of The Matrix that Neo’s existence is prophesied as if someone has seen into the future. Although, perhaps it is more of a prophesy of probability rather than supernatural seeing, much like the concept of The Foundation book series, and once the adapted series comes out and the fourth Matrix movie is released, I’m sure they will both blow this whole watchlist to pieces.
Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015
I’d like to think that this is what the world is like after people are given the world back to the humans without any technology. History is lost to the point that language is broken and people live in an environmentally depleted wasteland. Frankly, I just wanted an excuse to tack on one more great sci-fi movie even if it’s after the downfall of technology and grammar. Fury Road might be the movie that I enjoy more and more on every viewing, I was lukewarm on it when I saw it in the theater and now I find it to be perfectly made movie that's incredibly entertaining as well.
Once you make it through all of these movies you can finally sleep, falling into a dream of electronic sheep.
Coming Up: As this "month's" installment took several months to come out, this might change from a "monthly" format to a collection of Featured Movies and Watchlists. It will still be close to a monthly feature, it just might be that posts come several at once or with a few months in between. I make no promises!
The Next Featured Movies involve the hunt for serial killers, Zodiac, Shadow of a Doubt and little on Memories of Murder.