Unmasking the Matrix
Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne face off in a battle that will decide whether computers will continue to rule planet Earth.
by Dr. Craig Reid
Welcome to a reality that is not what you think it is, a place in which you think you have been living that turns out not to be what you imagined it to be. Welcome to The Matrix, a film initially slated to be made in Chicago that found its way down under to Sydney, Australia.
Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski (Bound), Matrix is a story about a man named Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker in the 22nd century, who joins a band of freedom fighters led by his eventual mentor Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne). Morpheus and his cohorts are struggling against evil computers that control the Earth. The machines keep their human slaves passive by literally plugging them into The Matrix, a virtual reality universe that looks like our 20th century world. Neo is trapped in that virtual universe, a prisoner of the "Power Plant." So Morpheus and his gang are essentially 22nd century computer hackers, except they use themselves as living online services.
So is The Matrix a place or a state of mind? "It's probably more equivalent to the cyberspace of William Gibson," Andy Wachowski blurts.
Brother Larry quickly follows, "Yes. Also, part of the intellectual idea behind the film is that it's a journey of consciousness. Early on we reference Alice in Wonderland, because that's a brilliant story in terms of that a child-like consciousness is confronted with a world that she comes into, and all these rules are put on this kid that she doesn't understand. She's told to do things and there's no reason for it and it doesn't make sense to her. The child eventually evolves, and we've tried to do a similar thing with Neo's journey, an evolution of his consciousness toward a higher consciousness."
And the one who helps him on this journey toward self-awareness, knowledge, and realization is Morpheus.
Sporting a Shaolin priest hairdo, Fishburne (Apocalypse Now, Event Horizon) sits down confidently, sips his coffee, and shares with us who Morpheus is and what attracted him to the character.
"I've got to tell you, man," Fishburne coolly, yet gleefully, explains, "the film's premise really attracted me - the idea that human beings are being used as batteries in a world that's dominated by computers, or machines if you will, and the idea that humans have lost all sense of reality. That felt very real to me and it was also a very, very frightening aspect.
"I think the obvious words to describe Morpheus are mentor and teacher, and the not-so-obvious ones - a bit of a religious fanatic" - here he flashes a fanatical smile with that laugh you associate with his trademarked psychotic zealousness-"and a seeker. My mission? I'm looking for someone, basically Neo, 'the one.' Morpheus has found who he thought was 'the one' several times but it was a mistake, so now there's always uncertainty when I choose someone."
In his role as mentor to Neo, I inquire just what Morpheus might teach.
He gleefully relates, "Well, the first thing is I teach him how to wake up and pull himself out of the Power Plant. Once that's done I've got to convince him that he is 'the one.' Next he must learn combat training, then we expose him to a simulated world, a sort of construct, where we have to train him how to move in and out of The Matrix without being detected, let him know the dangers and the rules and that some rules are meant to be broken. So, it's basically survival skills and combatives.
"We're computer hacking, picking up on people's vital signs and brain-wave patterns. Of course this is illegal, and if we get caught inside The Matrix, well... the powers that be, the computer that runs this world, dispatches these programs called agents. These big bad agents are essentially viruses."
Enter, big bad agent, virus number one, Agent Smith, maniacally played by English-born, theater-trained Hugo Weaving (The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, True Love, and Chaos). I eagerly observe the Man-In-Black-ish, gentlemanly Weaving pugilistically attacking the spinning, bobbing, dressed-in-black-fatigues Keanu Reeves in a specially built, underground subway station. Between the 15 takes needed to satisfy Yuen Woo Ping, the film's imported Hong Kong action director, I scan the set. A greenish metallic steel girder bends under my grip, it's made of foam. Looking down the tube-like set that darkens into infinity, beer advertisements poster the wall, Puro Sabor, Pura Tecate! (pure tasting, clear Tecate!) and SOL. There is something New York subway-ish about the place except it's darker, more ominous, and the beer posters are Mexican brands.
Yuen's face folds. He is not happy with the shot. As he discusses new ideas with his Hong Kong crew, Weaving is free for a moment, but his moment is fading. I've got to act now.
With cracked knuckles, bloodied earlier from pounding the chest protector of Reeves' double, Weaving breathingly comments, "Agent Smith is the baddie, the villain. He's not human or an android but he moves freely in and out of The Matrix through people who are slave-like entrance points into The Matrix. He's there to keep an eye on everyone in The Matrix and to track down rebellious people like Neo and Morpheus who are trying to yank people out of The Matrix, out of slavery. You think you're sitting here now, but in actuality your real bodies are in these pods and the artificial intelligence rules the world by using your life forces to make factories run themselves."
Wiping the sweat off his brow, he takes a deep breath and continues, "Smith is seemingly indestructible, without feelings, and becomes more passionate and angry that he has to stay within The Matrix to catch people. He doesn't like staying in The Matrix because the longer he stays the more he acts human, having emotions, ideas, and philosophy. For lack of a better word, he's programmed to evolve within his own program. As I evolve I become self-destructive and as I move in and out, I enjoy committing bad acts" - here he makes an intense snarl and shakes - "using my kung-fu abilities."
The film's executive producer Barrie Osborne (Face/Off, Roger Rabbit) adds that the Wachowskis' cool visual imagery and their dealing with clever reality as being only a fraction of the film - it's Larry and Andy's intelligent use of the wild and wooly, frenetic-paced Hong Kong stylized action, stunts, and sight gags that will wow the audiences.
Enter, one of Hong Kong's premier action directors, Yuen Woo Ping, the guy who directed the films that made Jackie Chan, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, Jet Li (he fought Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 4) in Tai Chi Master, and Michelle Yeoh (latest Bond lady) in Wing Chun. Some of Yuen's other must-see Sci-Fi-like, fant-Asia films include Fiery Dragon Kid, Iron Monkey, and Fong Sai Yuk. (For those interested, Yuen's films are only available through Tai Seng Video at 888-668-8338.)
Interviewing him in Mandarin Chinese, he is surprised that I've heard of him and know about his films. A short, thin, elderly unassuming man, you'd never guess that his action methods are psychotically genius and unrivaled by anyone in the West.
Yuen initially admits that he had never heard of Keanu before the film but feels that he learned his kung-fu fast. "I agreed to get involved in this project," he says methodically, "only if I had complete control of the fights and that I got to train the actors for four months before we shoot. I design the fights and tell the directors. They've always taken my advice but they also have their own vision for fights, and that's good, but they'll always listen to my suggestions. But we have done things slower here compared to Hong Kong films because in Hong Kong the actors are used to the action and the pace but the Americans aren't used to it. Plus, in Hong Kong we're always rehearsing on set before shooting or outside preparing and training during off times. So the challenge has been to make the actor look good on such a short amount of training time."
I note that he looks very relaxed. He bursts into laughter and then nods. "Yes. Americans have more time to do things, plan and design, while in Hong Kong it's fast, more stressful - but I'm used to that pace. This is slower but allows for more creativity."
When I joke that, "You could've made 4 Hong Kong films during this time," he wittingly quips, "If not 4, definitely 3."
However, Weaving and Fishburne were far from being relaxed because they were on the receiving end of a training regiment they'll not soon forget. Before Keanu is slated to counter Weaving's seemingly futile attacks, Weaving strainingly speaks about his training ordeals.
"Ahhh," he exasperates, "we started training last October ['97]. It's a mixture of styles - basically whatever the film requires. Yuen and his guys are fantastic. I was doing a fan [crescent] kick and got a bad injury, and due to the injuries, fights had to be put off until later. So basically we are still training. Neo's and Morpheus's kung-fu is very beautiful, with cool punches, head butts, and pulling kicks. Mine is just very straightforward. I have two fights with Keanu and one with Lawrence. The tough thing is remembering to do the sound effects." He stands and throws some martial art stylized punches while keeping cadence by screaming, "Huh, ho, ha, huh." People look over, staring. "We've also done wire work."
Reading his grimace, I ask, "What was that like?"
A grin and frown later, Weaving admits, "Painful. I mean, we're up there for a long time. I actually enjoyed some of it, but after a while it became excruciating." And speaking of excruciating, he must now return to battle the trim Keanu.
Fishburne, on the other hand, appears to have a different take on his experiences.
"To me," he candidly confesses, "the training has probably been the most beneficial thing I've ever done. It's been great for my health. I started training last year and we started with three hours of kung-fu every day-movie kung-fu that is. We'd stretch for an hour, do kicking, and then Yuen would put us through exercises to learn the actual choreographed movements. We had personal trainers, aerobics, strengthening and agility exercises for about six months and then we started shooting. I was really blown away by the films Yuen has choreographed and directed. You all should watch them. So I came prepared to do whatever he asked us to do. It was also great hanging around on the wire rigs. The thing about the Hong Kong wire style, once [I was] doing the stuff and the wire stunts, I could understand why we needed all that training, because you have to be a lot stronger to deal with the wires. You must be in good shape.
"The choreography was worked out at a very early stage in our training, so we had the opportunity to do these fights over and over. By the time the camera rolled, we had it in our minds. All we had to do is act the character and scenes, and just let the moments happen. We all learned our perspective poses. The pose downs are really one of the great selling points. It tells you a lot about our personalities and our fighting styles."
Carrie-Ann Moss, Keanu's love interest, plays the "for-real" butt-kicking beauty Trinity and perennial bad guy Joe Pantoliano portrays the "Judas" character Viper.
Staring at a rear-lit, gigantic, scaffold-supported two-hundred foot-long, forty-six-foot high translight (digitized photograph) of Sydney, from the three-story high, about to be flooded, government building set built at Sydney's Fox Studios which, according to the film's executive producer Andrew Mason (Dark City), prior to Rupert Murdoch's intervention the studio was an agricultural exhibition ground for fruit and cow shows-one notices that the famed Sydney Harbour Bridge landmark is missing.
Production designer Owen Paterson (Beast) fills us in not only on this peculiar aberration but also on what the ship, pods, and ecto-chairs are all about.
"We're in the Government Office Building where Trinity and Neo must rescue Morpheus, have this massive gun battle to get to an elevator, go to the roof, then the elevator crashes down, catches on fire, and sets off all these sprinklers. Then this life-sized [points to ceiling] steel, sub-structured helicopter model suspended on a wire and able to support a full camera crew and actors 20 feet in the air, will drop down, shoot out the window, then through showers of bullets and a sprinkler system that churns out 1000 liters of water a minute, Morpheus must leap out this window and fly toward the outstretched hands of the leaping-out-of-the-helicopter Neo. It'll all be done physically without green screen."
I point to the "Sydney" back drop.
"Ah yes," Paterson nods, "that photographic backdrop was done back in the States. It's a two hundred degree photo shot of Sydney done with ninex simultaneously firing cameras. We then separately shot other buildings we wanted in our cinematic city. All the photos were digitized into large negative digital files and the other buildings were added in to cover up the bridge and other obvious landmarks, because this isn't really supposed to be Sydney. Each negative went through an enlarging process. Eventually, 80 sections of enlarged digital photos were pieced together to form this 200 foot long, 46 foot high translight or digital photo that was rolled up on a big cardboard tube and put in that big standing over there. [He points at the building-sized box]. It could only be this big because of the limits of what could fit in a jumbo-jet to be sent here."
Walking past what appears to be a large, egg-shaped pod full of a red gelatinous goo Paterson vaguely elucidates, "The pods contain all sorts of fetuses to full-grown people. They lay flat on their back and have holes in their bodies where the computer jacks into them and sucks out their heat to generate power. The goo is sort of an amniotic life sustaining fluid. So there's a cerebral needle within their head attached in a socket, and then there are a number of sockets that run down the center of their spine with IVs that shoot into their arms. The cerebral needle is a beautiful piece of machinery that has been created for the film, and we'll see it being 'defitted' out of Neo when he comes out of the pod. It has a slow clockwise movement and looks like a mechanical wishbone that's being retracted out of his head."
Entering a room that has seven chairs situated in a circle in what appears to be a heavy metal rendition of a dentist's office, Paterson continues, "We're now inside the main deck of the Neb (Nebachanezer), Morpheus' ship, and these seven chairs for seven crew members are called ecto-chairs. Each chair has three hundred movable parts and is sort of a cross between a barber and dentist chair, and are basically entrance points into The Matrix - out of the real world into the hard drive. The chairs make you digital. We'll see Neo being injected back into The Matrix via these chair which can be jacked into the back of his head and he can be connected to these IVs through the ports he's had his whole life."
Staring at the rest of the ship, one sees bits and pieces of recognizable materials, automotive components, exhaust pipes, pieces of carburetors. Of one, I thought, "Didn't I see that in Soldier?" "What we've tried to do is also give the craft a retro-feel," Paterson explains, "provide things that have familiar elements and shapes. It's still a mechanical look but outwardly organic. It looks like the inside of a submarine yet in reality it's more like a bottom-dwelling fish in a lake." Andy Wachowski adds, "We wanted to create two worlds where one world was to be hyper-real and technical. Larry and I come out of the comic book world and our favorite artist is Jeff Darrow. We brought him on to do a lot of our conceptual work in terms of how we wanted our future world to look like."
Larry interjects, "Yes, we're pretty bored with the way technology works in terms of Science Fiction. We like his nuts and bolts kind of future technology where everything looks like it's metal and heavy duty, looks functional, and very industrial instead of plastic, slick, smooth, and clean."
A matrix is something, as a substance, within which something else originates, develops, or is contained. Whatever substance The Matrix holds, it's a film that finds Keanu Reeves jumping back into the hard drive of life in an attempt to perhaps delete the memory of previous antiquated programs that almost purged his career. The Wachowskis aim to engage in a dialogue with the audience by mixing their genre. They like big action films and film noire but aren't satisfied with each by itself, calling Matrix, "An intellectual action film that pushes the action and noire look beyond Bound."
If Matrix can ride the success of Jackie Chan's Rush Hour, Sammo Hung in CBS' Martial Law, and Jet Li in Lethal Weapon IV, the Wachowski brothers' Internet web of intrigue will be added dot com proof that the Hong Kong film industry is as legitimate as these second-time filmmakers.
The Matrix opens April 3 in the United States.