Dark world, high hopes
by Rene Lynch
Eye-popping special effects? Check. Computer-generated humans? Check. A story line that aims to appease the cultish fans of "The Matrix," who have been waiting four years to find out the fate of humanity? Double-check.
Few sequels have been greeted with as much anticipation -- and as many high expectations -- as the final installments of "The Matrix" trilogy: "The Matrix Reloaded," which opens in May, followed by "The Matrix Revolutions" in November. The first movie sparked a revolution in moviemaking, delivering a mind-bending look at the future and stunning visuals. Its greatest strength, however, came from an emotionally gripping plot.
That's a tough act to follow.
But producer Joel Silver insists "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" aren't simply sequels offering contrived variations on the same theme. From the start, writers-directors-brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski envisioned a tale that unfolds in three parts like a superheroes comic book sprung to life. "The Matrix" served as the introduction to this world in which reality is turned inside out.
"The story continues to be everything. It's the driving force," Silver said in his office at Warner Bros., the studio releasing the films.
For "Matrix" newbies, the trilogy is set in a dark, dreary future run by machines that enslave humans in a dreamlike state to extract the energy produced by their bodies. An alienated computer hacker, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is rescued from this captivity after an all-knowing oracle anoints him "The One" -- as in the one who unknowingly possesses the superhuman strength needed to save humanity.
At first, Neo is filled with self-doubt. Eventually, he comes to believe in himself.
Although some critics found fault with the film's plot and structure, the movie became a hit even among those who generally avoid sci-fi flicks. "The Matrix," which cost about $65 million to make, earned more than $458 million in theaters worldwide. Twenty-five million videos (VHS and DVDs) were sold. It also won four Academy Awards (editing, sound-effects editing, visual effects and sound).
The plots of "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" have been closely held secrets but take moviegoers into Zion -- the world's last remaining haven for humans -- and an epic showdown between Neo and the forces of evil, Silver said.
Several characters will be back to help Neo, including his love interest, Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, and Morpheus, the rebel leader played by Laurence Fishburne, as they try to save the world. New arrivals include Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who is Morpheus' former lover and, like Morpheus, is captain of a rebel ship. Princeton scholar Cornel West has a role in both movies as a Zion elder.
Like the first movie, the sequels continue to draw on a variety of sources, from Japanese anime to Eastern philosophy as well as kung fu films and the Bible, the kinds of concepts "Matrix" fans have relished dissecting and discussing. "All the ideas and concepts are there," Silver promised, "only better."
The same goes for the computer-generated images and special effects in "Reloaded" and "Revolutions," said John Gaeta, senior visual-effects supervisor.
"This will be the most sophisticated depiction of humans ever that are not real, they are computer-generated," Gaeta said.
That remains to be seen. But a few snippets of footage show astonishingly realistic images of Neo flying through the air and hint at the array of villains that Neo must combat to free humanity from increasingly sophisticated machine masters.
Neo's nemesis, Agent Smith, is back, played by Hugo Weaving. In the first movie he possesses the ability to transport himself across virtual time and space as he attempts to hunt down and kill Neo. By "Reloaded," Agent Smith's mutating powers have endowed him with the ability to replicate himself. In one of "Reloaded's" climactic scenes, Neo finds himself battling more than 100 Agent Smiths.
"We wanted a chance to explore an event that was not possible to choreograph," Gaeta said. The result, he said, is a sequence in which Weaving's and Reeves' characters are digitally rendered and brought to life -- with moviegoers probably unable to tell the difference. Or so the filmmakers hope.
The Wachowskis also wanted something so sophisticated that it couldn't be easily ripped off, Silver said. After the release of "The Matrix," the groundbreaking techniques unveiled in that movie have since become old hat. Witness the 360-degree multi-camera action shots that have shown up in everything from commercials to "Shrek" to "Charlie's Angels."
There will also be plenty of special effects, including the virtual land of Zion and the world of the machines, fantastic creatures who do battle, and acts of superhuman strength, Gaeta said.
Interestingly enough, one of the most highly anticipated sequences in the trilogy's next installment -- a freeway chase against the flow of traffic -- could not be generated in a computer world, at least not yet.
So the Wachowski brothers built a stretch of freeway on a retired naval base in Alameda, at a cost of about $2.5 million.
The two new movies cost more than $300 million to make, sources said. The price tag would have ballooned were it not for the decision to shoot all at once in Australia, where Hollywood can buy more with less because of the cheap Australian dollar. The team started in March 2001 with the most technologically challenging scenes -- Neo versus Agent Smith, the freeway chase -- to give the six special-effects houses the maximum amount of time to perfect more than 2,000 shots.
Fulfillment versus overdoing it
Shooting more than one sequel at a time isn't new -- all three installments of the "Lord of the Rings" films were shot at once, and the two "Back to the Future" sequels, also shot consecutively, were released six months apart, in November 1989 and May 1990. But with "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" coming out in the same calendar year, the prolonged multimedia marketing campaign threatens to dominate moviegoers' collective consciousness. Newsweek has already dubbed 2003 the Year of the Matrix.
It kicks off next weekend when the first TV spot for "Reloaded" is slated to air during the Super Bowl. There are also nine animated shorts titled "The Animatrix"; a few will be available online and all will hit DVD in June. One will be coupled with the March release of Lawrence Kasdan's film "Dreamcatcher." "Enter the Matrix," a video game, will be released at the same time as "Reloaded."
Combined, they sketch a "Matrix" back story, including details about the machines' rise to power and enslavement of humans.
Coming soon everywhere, too, will be a tricked-out Samsung mobile phone just like the one Neo & Co. will use.
Silver and the Wachowskis hope this will give "Matrix" junkies all they want and more -- and still avoid the type of marketing overkill that could turn off more casual fans and newcomers.
That may be difficult if "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" approach the pop-cultural phenomenon that "The Matrix" did after its 1999 release; it spawned Internet fan sites and influenced fashion, music and movie-making.
"It's a concern," Silver conceded. "There is such a thing as too much."