The second coming...
The Matrix blew away cinema audiences when it was released in the summer of 1999. Mark Wheaton explores the world of the two forthcoming sequels and finds he's living in a land of make believe...
When the first trailer for The Matrix Reloaded appeared last summer, audiences went wild, losing control the moment the familiar trickle-down of the glyphs that encode the Matrix began oozing down the screen. Whereas each new Star Wars film is met by fears of disaster, the Sci-Fi community seems confident that the two Matrix sequels will deliver.
When producer Joel Silver comments, "This will end the way movies have been made up to now," and claims that the film will "raise the bar" so high it'll never be surpassed, the claims go so far beyond the usual Hollywood hype that you can't help but sit up and take notice. Something very special may well be on the way.
But with the plotlines of these two sequels - hitting the screens almost back to back with The Matrix Reloaded in May and The Matrix Reloaded in November 2003 - under such tight wraps, what do we actually know about the movies?
Well, first of all, everybody who survived the first movie is back - including Keanu Reeves' Neo, Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, and even Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith, who was last seen being blown apart by Neo at the end of the first film. Joining them are Jada Pinkett-Smith as Niobe, a former flame of Morpheus, Brotherhood of the Wolf beauty Monica Bellucci as Persefone, a tempestuous witch of some sort who lives in the Matrix, Harold Perrineau Jr as a resident of Zion and Nona Gaye (in a role which was originally to be played by the late R 'n' B star Aaliyah) as Zee, another Zion resident.
This time round, the stakes are higher, as the conflict between the machines that created the Matrix to enslave humanity and the Human 'escapees' living in Zion reaches boiling point. Not only will much of the action take place in Zion itself, as well as in the sewer tunnels just below the surface which are used by the hoverships to download people back into the Matrix, but the Humans will also reach the surface world and even the city of the machines by the time Revolutions rolls around.
Even though we know from the end of the first movie that Neo now has some pretty spectacular powers when he's within the Matrix, the battle won't be easy, suggests the man behind the black leather and shades - Keanu Reeves. "The Wachowski Brothers have put up some great obstacles to test those powers," says Reeves. "The story goes outside of the Matrix and starts to concern itself with the machines and Zion, so it's almost like what he can do in the Matrix is not enough. He's still on the path of discovery and choice. He's told by the Oracle that he doesn't have a destiny as such, but that the choices he'll have to make will affect the survival of the Human race. There are some hard choices and then it's all of us trying to save the world. The relationship between Neo and Trinity is explored, too. I think that's about it. It's really the development of the 'hero journey' of my character. There are new challenges and choices. It's not so much about being born. It's like he wanted to find out where he was and now he knows. Or he thinks he does. That's one of the questions."
Carrie-Anne Moss agrees that Trinity has also changed since the last film, but says she'll go through even more as the next two movies progress. "She definitely goes through a transformation," Moss says. "It's hard for me to explain my character because I'm not far enough away from it, but I think she's more vulnerable. I think. I hope so. She's still as strong and committed of course, and believes in Neo, with everything that she has and is committed to the fight of saving the world and making a difference. Those are her fundamental qualities, but there are a lot of other places that she goes."
But what about these mysterious Wachowski Brothers? Two guys from Chicago, born 18 months apart (Larry's 37 and Andy's 36), their first script after coming to Hollywood, Assassins, was made by Matrix producer Joel Silver in 1995. Afterwards, they collaborated on their directorial début, the film-noir Bound, which is now remembered as much for its dark style as for its lesbian sex scene between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Beyond the titillation, Bound hooked the Wachowskis up with a team that they went on to use on The Matrix, including cinematographer Bill Pope, editor Zach Staenberg, and composer Don Davis.
"Little is known about the Wachowski brothers," Laurence Fishburne jokes. "They're very bright people. They have a secret code that exists between the two of them. They're not very verbal, but they are incredibly trusting of who we are and what we bring. There's a kind of shorthand that exists with them, and their visual style makes it very interesting to be on set and to be with them when they're composing or crafting these wonderful shots that they create - the mysterious kind of thing that happens. Larry generally will take the viewfinder and Andy will stand by the monitor and they'll just fool around with the camera and talk about it. It's as if it's already in their heads and it's almost inconvenient that they actually have to sit through it physically."
Silver agrees. "They draw every shot and every visual effect," the producer says. "They put it all on paper. There's a real frantic sincerity behind it all. They know what they're doing every day. Some of the rigs the guys come up with are so mind-boggling that I don't know how they came up with it. These are enormous rigs with enormous hardware. The computer allows them to work in an environment where anything's possible. Once you have that ability and you know how you're going to do it, it's just a question of getting through it."
The Wachowskis don't operate in a vacuum, however. On top of the people they brought in from Bound, they also recruited a crack design team to create a distinctive look and feel for the saga, including concept designer Geofrey Darrow, production designer Owen Paterson, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta (who won an Oscar for the first film), and costume designer Kym Barrett. Their work spawned the popular hardcover book, The Art of The Matrix and dozens of imitators. For the cast, the design team's work in creating a world for them to act in, is invaluable.
"Our wonderful costume designers have taken the sequels to another level," suggests Moss. "I think the costumes are a little more extreme. It's the same idea that she created in the first Matrix, but she's taken it to a whole other level that I think is just beautiful. What's so wonderful about the costumes, for me anyway, is that as soon as I slip into my Trinity outfit, I'm her. The costumes give me a big part of my character. You really appreciate that in a movie like this."
There's more to the costumes than's apparent onscreen, Moss reveals. They may look consistent from scene to scene, but are rarely the same outfit from one shot to the next. "For every pair of pants that I wear, I'll have four different cuts," admits Moss. "One's the beauty fit, that's for standing and looking as good as I can look. One's an action fit so I can have flexibility and move. They have gusset pants so I can have flexibility, so I can kick and I can run. Then we have the really big pair so I can put a wire underneath. I can't really say that I'm ever that uncomfortable or maybe I'm just used to it now."
One of the most impressive parts of the first Matrix was the groundbreaking fight scenes, utilizing choreography that had previously only seemed possible in animation. Though 'wire-fu' was nothing new to fans of Hong Kong martial arts movies, it had never been combined with the level of technology on display in The Matrix. A showcase of equally cutting edge technology is almost certain to permeate the sequels, including work from such varied companies as Centropolis (Independence Day), Tippett Studios (Starship Troopers), and BUF (City of Lost Children), and it's been deployed in an unusual way. While most films finish principle photography and then begin work on the effects, the 'post'-production on Reloaded and Revolutions began at the same time as shooting because there is so much to do.
"The computer is allowing us to do things we never dreamed we could do before," says Silver. "The bullet-time sequences, which were in the embryonic stage of what the computer could do, is now at such a level that they can do anything they want. Again, the guys have enough intellect and understanding the process of it, that they're able to create an arena that this stuff exists that could not exist anywhere else."
After the so-called 'bullet-time' effects appeared - pioneered by The Matrix - they immediately showed up in other movies, commercials and television spoofs. This time out, though, the Wachowskis want to create effects so difficult that no one could replicate them without great cost.
"A television commercial came first," Silver explains. "Then we began to see it in a few movies here and there - and then everywhere. For a while they saw it as flattery, but after a while, the brothers got angry so they decided that in these two movies, they would create visual effects that could never be copied. So, we have done visual effects in this movie that, because of the time it took them to make and the cost, we'll never see again. So, I really think that the bar has risen so high that there is no more bar!"
But effects like that are expensive. During the first couple of months of production outside Oakland, California, the film went over-budget, leading to a much-publicized decision by Keanu Reeves and others to change their contracts to 'back-end deals', so that the money they would have got 'up-front' was available for the shoot. Silver admits, "the studio has been really, really generous to us," in reference to both the new contracts and the budget they approved in the first place. Fishburne agrees. For him, it will be worth it having worked on a franchise like this.
"With the technology that exists, with the fact that the studio has been so generous to fund this whole thing, with the Wachowski brothers' vision of this world that seems to go on without end - there are so many possibilities. We are all aware of the fact that we are involved in something that is absolutely history-making in terms of cinema in the world, so it's a great, great honour and great opportunity for all of us," Fishburne says. "What they're doing now, the things they are creating, are really going to change the way that we're able to make films. It's going to be remembered as a monumental event in the history of filmmaking."
While the actors and the technology are undoubtedly reasons why people can't wait to get back in the theatres for more of The Matrix, it wouldn't have become the worldwide sensation that it has if there wasn't such a compelling story underlying the trilogy.
"This is designed as a commercial venture from a large corporation - Time Warner - but it takes a turn," admits Silver. "It's not about what we're used to seeing movies about. It is on such a heroic level about all of us - about our role in our lives and what are our lives about? It sounds so silly to let it out like that, but the whole notion of a society that will understand about the machines it's created for itself - the boys are geniuses. They've come up with a concept of a system, which is exactly where we're going and where we have to stop. It's so weird to say that. It's a treatise on our times and where we're going and how to not go there. It's about global warming and the Catholic Church, and all that stuff that's going on in our lives that we can't really grab onto, but the Wachowskis have found a way to couch it in a story that the masses will understand and it's a positive response, not negative, it's not bad. At the core, it's about people and that they can survive if they believe in something."
The last time two sequels were released this close together was back in 1988, when Back to the Future II ended with a cliffhanging trailer for Part III. The ending of Reloaded promises to be an equally shocking cliffhanger that will make clear the meaning of the Oracle's words in The Matrix ("Choices, Neo..."), before Revolutions delivers a rip-roaring final battle as Mankind makes its last stand against the machines. But while Revolutions will undoubtedly find a way to tie up this epic Sci-Fi trilogy, will it be the last we see of this world? After all, Return of the Jedi ended that story, but there's been more Star Wars films... So, sequels? A 'Coming of the Machines' prequel?
"Does this story continue?" comments Silver. "I don't know. You might be able to do it, but I don't know if we want to do it. After we're done, we'll see where we are, but I do know the story that The Wachowskis wanted to tell when they started this ends at the end of The Matrix Reloaded. "
"On a spiritual level, it's been quite a journey"
The latest addition to the Matrix franchise is Niobe, a warrior of Zion - and former flame of Morpheus - played by Jada Pinkett-Smith.
"When I first took the role of Niobe. I was nine months pregnant," Pinkett-Smith admits. "As far as getting into the physical condition I needed to be in to participate in the movie, I've never had such intense training in my life. I have to say, I'm in the best condition that I've ever been at 31!
The character of Niobe at first, doesn't trust in Neo the way the others do, refusing to believe that he could possibly be "the one", so she has the furthest to go in her character arc. "On a spiritual level, it's been quite a journey," Pinkett-Smith says. "It has challenged my concepts spiritually and it's helped strengthen my faith. It's part of Niobe's journey throughout the movie, because she does not believe at the beginning."
On top of that, Niobe even gets her own videogame...
"The videogame was written also by the Wachowski Brothers," says producer Joel Silver. "It stars Niobe and is a story that takes place parallel to the first movie. It features scenes with the character, which will not be in the movie. It has scenes that were specifically created for this videogame and it's another, different, story."
"The machines are forced to flee to protect themselves"
"When I first met the Wachowski Brothers," says Laurence Fishburne, "they explained what they wanted to achieve with The Matrix. They said, 'We want to make a Japanimation film, but we want to do it live.' I thought that was a brilliant idea and I was very excited about being a part of that!"
With such influences being prevalent from the beginning, The Animatrix seems like a perfect extension of that. These ten animated shorts (four of which were written by the Wachowskis) were created by animation companies from all over the world and released on the internet from Autumn 2002, leading up to the final one being shown on the big screen directly before The Matrix Reloaded next May.
"Their function is all expository," says visual effects supervisor John Gaeta. In those Animés, you learn that the machines at first are, forced to flee to protect themselves, but once they've evolved to the point where it's apparent that they're thinking, emoting beings, then they basically start a machine nation. That's all in the Animé backstory."
"The Wachowskis had the idea to tell the story in multiple mediums," adds producer Joel Silver. "They felt if they could make it available in other areas, that our fanbase, if they wanted to, could seek out and find other material that would maybe add to their enjoyment of the feature films."
"Why is he soaking in a tub of ice like that?"
Though The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Reloaded set the Internet abuzz when shooting began, they first made news in the 'old media' because of the number of injuries that plagued the training part of the shoot.
"Carrie-Anne and I were injured during the very beginning stages of our training for Reloaded and Revolutions," admits Laurence Fishburne. "Keanu was recovering from surgery on the first one. Hugo [Weaving] was injured a couple of times on the first one. A lot of people, I don't think, understand just how incredibly taxing all this work is physically. The amount of time and the hours we are required to train are the kind of hours professional athletes deal with."
Even though she only has one fight in the movies, Jada Pinkett-Smith admits that she learned a thing or two about healing herself afterwards from watching Reeves.
"I saw Keanu after a fight scene and he was in the big old pool, a kids' swimming pool full of ice," Pinkett-Smith says. "I was like, 'What is Keanu doing? Why is he in the tub of ice soaking like that? This is just trippy.' For my one fight scene, I had two days that I had to shoot. After those two days, I got off the wires and I was like. 'Thank you, Lord, that I don't have to get on these wires tomorrow!' I could not move my body. I was so swollen and so sore and I just said. 'I get it! Get me the ice now!'"