Neo World Order
In the autumn of 1999, on the flight back from the Japanese premiere of The Matrix, Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed the film with his younger brother, Andy, came up with a plan to dominate our free time in 2003. There would be not one but two sequels to their revolutionary blend of sci-fi, philosophy, martial arts and ground-breaking special effects; there would be a computer game that would look like a movie; and, for the truly dedicated fan, a series of 10 short animated films that explained the prehistory of their story.
Four years on, and Larry's ambitious scheme is about to become reality. The Matrix Reloaded will be released in May, as will the computer game, Enter the Matrix; the third film, The Matrix Revolutions, will follow in November. The first of the 10 Animatrix shorts is already playing in US cinemas, and, last month, the Wachowskis chose half-time at the Super Bowl as the moment to screen the first TV trailer for Reloaded.
That the sequels will be the biggest movie event of the year is certain. It's not just that the first Matrix took more than $460m (£290m) at box offices around the world, it was also the first film to sell 1 m copies on DVD. Total sales are now more than $300m, and those same fans, who watch the film over and over again, downloaded the first teaser trailer to the sequels 2m times in the first 72 hours of its release on the internet last May. In doing so, they obliterated previous records set by the websites for the second Harry Potter film and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In short, The Matrix is nothing less than a global cult. Its devotees are drawn to the Wachowskis' paranoid world - where reality is a computer simulation called the matrix, man is locked in a battle to the death with machines, and the messiah who will save humanity is Neo, a former computer hacker, played by Keanu Reeves - as much as they are entranced by effects such as "bullet-time", where the camera does a 360-degree twirl around its subject, a technique that gives the frequent kung-fu fights an almost balletic beauty. Jean Baudrillard meets Bruce Lee, with chunks of the Bible thrown in. It's cinematic crack: one viewing and you're addicted.
The Wachowskis won't talk about their creation to the press. Instead, their producer, Joel Silver, a bearded, rotund Hollywood veteran who gave us the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises, acts as their mouthpiece. "They're great guys, but they think the films should speak for themselves, and that the audience should take from them what they want to take. They feel that if they're precise about it, it will rob the audience of their enjoyment."
Making sure that the sequels live up to the expectations of the fans is an awesome task. It helps that the Wachowskis conceived of the story as a trilogy, and this time around they have been entrusted with a budget of more than $300m to make the two sequels back to back. "The numbers are enormous," concedes Silver. "But it would probably have cost twice that if we hadn't done them at the same time."
When you consider that the first Matrix was made for a paltry $66m, it's a vast increase in resources for the Wachowskis and their special-effects guru, John Gaeta, who won a deserved Oscar for his work on the first film. It is made more staggering by the fact that, unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where each instalment is a film in its own right, the two Matrix sequels are really one giant movie. Reloaded even ends in mid-frame, which should ensure that everyone will be queuing up six months later for Revolutions. Much of the money has gone on effects, but one of the reasons The Matrix worked so well is that they were never used gratuitously, and it will be the same in the sequels. "What the best sci-fi films show is that if you stay as close to the intent of the story as you can, your visual effects will be integrated, and it will be a fluid experience, with visual-effects spikes to go along with the emotional spikes of the story," says Gaeta. "It sounds simple, but 9 out of 10 visual-effects films don't follow that pattern, so they suck."
Finding out the plot of the sequels is not easy, and, of course, the Wachowskis are no help. They are so elusive that there was no sign of them when I visited Fox Studios Australia in Sydney last year, even though they and the cast - which includes the survivors from the first film, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving, as well as newcomers such as Monica Beliucci and Jada Pinkett-Smith - had been shooting for almost a year by then. What we do know is that Reloaded begins with the war against the machines reaching a new intensity after their discovery of Zion, the last human stronghold and a city hidden near the earth's core. We are still in the matrix at this point, but after Reloaded climaxes with the car chase to end all car chases, the action in Revolutions switches to the devastated real world - and the whole trilogy ends with the final showdown between mankind and the machines.
Such is the secrecy surrounding the plot, the cast speak about it only in the most general terms. "It's really the hero's journey, with new challenges and choices," mumbles Keanu Reeves. Now a youthful-looking 38, Reeves is getting a reported $30m for the sequels. By the standards of Hollywood, he is having to earn it. Along with the rest of the cast, he has been trained by the Hong Kong martial-arts maestro Yuen Wo Ping, who choreographed the fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - and judging by one sequence in Reloaded when Neo fights multiple Agent Smiths, the villain played by Weaving, he could have a future in chop-socky movies if he wanted one.
"Keanu is like a machine," enthuses Silver. "Having made movies with Jet Li, I'd say Jet is great, but Keanu is better. I'm not saying Jet is lazy - he's not - but he understands the process and does his shots, whereas Keanu just wants to blow past all that. He wants to do combinations for three minutes, not 30 seconds. He's like a hydraulic pump: he just keeps going." That doesn't mean Reeves has neglected his mental preparation. "I read some Baudrillard, some evolutionary psychology, which I got into a little bit," he reveals. "In terms of how that relates to Neo, I think it's all synthesised into the sort of character he is. He's always asking questions, always searching for truth."
There are those who say the ideas behind The Matrix are just rehashed versions of what the Wachowskis have gleaned from philosophy books, divinity classes and a close study of Japanese anime films such as Akira, but they seem to have the knack of tapping into what is happening in the world. The first film came out when the interact boom was in full swing, and now their deeply paranoid vision seems perfect for a time when we are more security-conscious and the state is closing in around us.
How much of that is deliberate is another matter. "If you look at the movie, then you know nothing is a coincidence," smiles Silver. "I guess they do keep an eye on things, but these are the same problems mankind has been having for thousands of years." Despite the fact that he is in closer contact with the Wachowskis than anyone, you get the feeling Silver doesn't really have much of an idea about what makes them tick.
All that the rest of the world knows about them is that Larry is 37 and Andy 35, and that they Hew up in Chicago. Before The Matrix, they had written the screenplay for the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins, and had directed just one film, 1996's lesbian drama Bound. 'the only comparison I have is with the Coen brothers," says Silver. 'the Coens come to the set knowing exactly what they want because they write their films together, and Larry and Andy are the same kind of guys. They, too, come from the Midwest, they are very well read and articulate and they plan out everything together."
It's Gaeta, though, who has the responsibility of making sure the effects are suitably radical. A confident, hip, 36-year-old Harvard graduate, he is pinning his hopes on what is being called "virtual cinematography". An extension of the "bullet-time" technique, it involves five cameras photographing the cast from every conceivable angle. The resulting images are then fed into the computer, which then assembles them to create "virtual" actors, who can be placed in any situation the film-makers want them in. Although it sounds like a significant step towards the time when human actors will be replaced by computer-generated ones, the technique does require real performers as its starting point, and Gaeta does not think Equity need start worrying yet. "Impromptu, emotive performance is something you can't get from animators, no matter how talented they are," he insists.
Other highlights include a selection of new machine enemies that Gaeta describes as "biomechanical monstrosities". Then there is Reloaded's astonishing car chase. "It's classic Wachowski superstyle action," says Gaeta. "They're into surreal action, unpredictable events, and because the characters have superpowers, you can change the dynamic. Anyone can be your adversary, so there's this paranoia, and that's different."
With 2,500 effects shots in the films and a number of companies in the USA and Europe still working on them. all those involved are confident they have set a standard other films will have to live up to. "We were in the Stone Age when we made the first one," says Silver. "Now we've raised the bar so high, there is no more bar. This will end the way movies have been made until now."
The Matrix Reloaded opens on May 23 (UK)