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Designer's Notebook: Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)
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Designer's Notebook: Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)

July 6, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Spoiler warning! This column gives away details about the movie The Matrix, although since until last Saturday night I was probably the only person in the western world who hadn't yet seen it so it's unlikely that anybody reading this can have it spoiled for them.

We game developers love movies about computers, especially if they have virtual reality and other neat concepts like that in them. So I figured I'd better see The Matrix, after all, I hurried down to the cinema to watch Tron when it came out, and what a mesmerizing experience that turned out to be. Didn't you love that scene where Bruce Boxleitner passionately kissed a computer program? Ok, she looked like a woman, but the movie told us quite unambiguously that she was a piece of software. Now, I admit that on occasion I have been tempted to give my monitor a little smooch, a kind of congratulatory peck on the cheek when I finally evict a really evil bug from my code. But I've never actually planted a big old smack on a subroutine, and frankly, I can't imagine what Bruce Boxleitner got out of it.

So I finally got around to watching The Matrix and it was just awesome how they shot the entire movie through a green filter. I would never have thought of that. And how does it stack up as computer movies go? Well, to start with, it gets a ten out of ten for being extremely hip and stylish. We've got all the required elements: skin-tight, shiny black clothing, gritty urban environments, unnecessary sunglasses, loads of gratuitous slow-motion violence, and nice camera work. Pity everything's green, but what are you going to do - I suppose worlds projected by computers are just green (except for Quake, which is brown). Anyway, the old hip-meter was redlined (or should that be greenlined?) from start to finish.

The Maxtrix: green filter

But there were some slightly funky plot elements - one inexcusable deus ex machina resurrection (Tank's) and another more excusable one because Neo apparently is literally a deus… ex…machina. It was interesting, although biblical allegories normally make me want to yell, "Find your own plot you lazy slob!" at the author. There were some other unexplained logic gaps too, but with enough special effects a movie can dispense with logic, right?

There was one other thing that kind of shattered my suspension of disbelief though; the whole premise of the film. In a nutshell, it was human beings being farmed by evil machines for the energy their bodies produce - electricity and body heat.

I'm sorry but that's just stupid. It's not only goofily impractical - I'm willing to pretend that you could find a way to do it if you worked hard enough - but also completely pointless. There's this little thing called the First Law of Thermodynamics, which I'm sure every evil machine knows by heart. It states very simply that you cannot get out of a system more energy than you put in. The machines were necessarily expending more energy keeping those human beings alive - not to mention simulating an artificial world as well - than they could possibly have gained from them. Imagine if, instead of human beings in vats, the evil machines were keeping endless rows of hamsters, each with its own hamster wheel attached to a generator. They would still have to feed the hamsters and the energy in the hamster food must be greater than the energy produced by the hamsters. They would be better off to burn the hamster food in a power plant instead.

The Matrix: humans used as batteries

(Where does the hamster food get its energy? From the sun, but of course in The Matrix the human beings have blocked out the sun, so the machines couldn't actually grow any grain to feed the hamsters anyway. But there's still coal, oil, gas, uranium, hydro, the wind, the tides, and geothermal energy to tap - any of which would be more efficient than using human beings, or hamsters.)

So, ten out of ten for style, but only three out of ten for knowing what the hell they're talking about. Now, I'm sure this is not a popular view. I can already hear the jeering: "Man, you are such a nerd! That movie was totally radical, and only a serious propeller-head would be quibbling about the First Law of Thermodynamics in the face of so much awesomeness."

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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