New Powered Generation
by David Eimer
CINEMA evolves on its reliance that every generation will throw up, at the very least, one maverick mind willing to not only reflect the age but to redefine our perspective on it. One of the defining products of Sixties cinema was Dennis Hopper's depiction of the intolerant void which existed between mainstream society and hippy culture in Easy Rider. All The President's Men starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman encapsulated the public outrage at the political deception of the Watergate riddled Seventies, and Oliver Stone's Wall Street gave us the spiralling descent of the yuppie culture of the Eighties.
Four years ago, The Matrix joined this premier league by swooping into the information age with enough leather to put Peter Fonda to shame and with it redefined the way action movies would be made for ever.
By Hollywood's extravagant standards the film was released to little fanfare, but its ground-breaking combination of revolutionary special effects, philosophy, martial arts and sci-fi helped turn it into a runaway hit that made its competitors, like the Star Wars prequels, look tired by comparison. It inspired a level of devotion from its fans that verged on the religious.
Now the pressure is on the two brothers, Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed the film, to do the same again as not one but two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, are released later this year. Produced at the combined cost of $300m, they have been the subject of incessant rumour on the internet, with some overly ambitious fans even going so far as to write their own scripts for the sequels. There will, of course, be a tie-in computer game, 'Enter The Matrix', as well as 10 animated shorts, the Animatrix, that explain the pre-history of the story.
That the sequels are the most eagerly awaited cinematic event of the year is not in question. It's not just that the original Matrix took more than $460m at box offices globally, it's the fact that it was the first film to sell over a million copies on DVD.
With total sales now around the $300m mark, it is testimony to the addictive nature of the Wachowskis' paranoid vision of a world where reality is a computer simulation and mankind is fighting for its freedom against an onslaught of super-sophisticated machines.
With its central, messianic figure of Neo, the former computer hacker played by Keanu Reeves, whose mission is to save humanity, The Matrix is more like a hi-tech parable for our times than just a movie. It's that mix of philosophy and chunks of the bible, as well as special effects like 'bullet-time', where the camera appears to revolve 360 degrees around its subject, making the frequent kung fu-inspired fights look stunning, that have helped turn it into a global cult.
But if the pressure to make the sequels live up to their giant budget is huge, you wouldn't guess that was the case from a visit to the soundstages at Fox Studios Sydney, Australia, where the films were shot back-to-back between March 2001 and September 2002. There's an almost eerie lack of activity and the Wachowski brothers are nowhere to be seen. Avoiding the press like an Iraqi scientist would bodyswerve a UN arms inspector, the two thirtysomethings from Chicago prefer to leave the talking to their producer, the bearded Hollywood veteran Joel Silver.
"They're great guys, they just don't like this part," explains Silver, who quaintly refers to the Wachowskis as 'the boys'.
"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'll rob the audience of their enjoyment. But they're great to work with and they haven't really changed at all. They're still really competitive and they want their movies to be better and more successful than other films."
That's part of the reason why they've broken with sequel convention and decided to put out the films within months of each other, with Reloaded appearing in May and Revolutions in November. "The boys have a story that they feel the audience won't wait a year to see," says Silver. "Look, I know that when I saw Two Towers, I wanted to see Return Of The King straight away."
The original movie is more like a hi-tech parable for our times than just a film.
Reloaded and Revolutions though, aren't really distinct films in the way that each instalment of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy is. Instead, and here is where the Wachowskis have been really clever, they are one giant movie that has been literally cut in half. Reloaded even ends in mid-frame, after a chase sequence along a walled motorway that makes all other cinematic car chases look like the Keystone Cops, and that alone should ensure that everyone is queuing up to see Revolutions.
All of which makes the vast budget even more staggering, dwarfing the relatively modest 66m cost of the original. "The numbers are enormous," concedes Silver. "At 300m it's probably the most money ever spent on a movie; it's probably around the same amount of money that Peter Jackson spent on all three Lord Of The Rings movies. But for that price we've made two movies and it would probably have cost twice that if we hadn't done them at the same time."
Almost a third of that cash has gone to John Gaeta, the special effects genius who won an Oscar for the first Matrix, and his computer animators so that they can come up with some suitably eye-popping magic. That is one of the reasons why there appears to be so little going on at the Sydney studio because, with close on 2,500 special effects shots in the sequels, a significant amount of the work is done with computers.
In fact, this time around Gaeta has come up with a new technique, 'virtual cinematography', that may well signal the beginning of the end for the conventional process of shooting a film 'live'. The process involves five digital cameras photographing the actors from various angles. The resulting images are then fed into a computer, which uses them to create 'virtual' actors who can be placed in any situation that the Wachowskis want them in.
"Once you have them in 3-D, you can compose shots and make directorial decisions just like you would with real actors in a real scene," explains Gaeta. It sounds like another step towards the time when computer-generated 'actors' will take over from human ones, but Gaeta thinks that is still a while away yet.
"True performance will never be replaced," he insists. "Impromptu human performance is something you can't get from an animator. It's an incredible amount of work for a start and the result is so much better when it's an actor doing it."
Despite that, whole sections of the sequels were solely created in the computer. "We almost enter animated movie mode at the end of Revolutions. A lot of material in those sequences is 100% computer-generated images (CGI), rather than integrated or virtual stuff," confirms Gaeta. Nor is he trying to make those scenes look like they were shot conventionally. "We like to do effects that don't look real. That's one of the reasons we look at Japanese anime so often, because it's so stylised and they do stuff purely for visual impact."
So far ahead are Gaeta and his team that the rest of Hollywood is still trying to learn how to re-create the effects from the original Matrix. "It will take other people years to catch up because it's so difficult to do and it costs so much money," boasts Gaeta. He should know, as he's been working on the sequels for over two years both in Australia and the States. "It's exhausting and you have to pace yourself in an entirely different way. It's like a mental marathon."
For the cast, which includes the survivors of the first film: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss, as well as newcomers like Italian actress Monica Bellucci and Marvin Gaye's daughter Nona, it's been more like running a marathon. Much of the Wachowskis' inspiration for The Matrix comes from martial arts movies and all the actors have been trained by Woo-ping Yuen, who choreographed the fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and directed Jackie Chan's early films.
"After I made the first one, I took up alcoholism," jokes Reeves when he appears in one of the empty soundstages, "but since then I've been on a very strict diet and a very rigorous training routine."
It has paid off because Reeves, who is getting a reported 30m for the sequels, looks lean and fit, as well as younger than his 38 years, and judging by Reloaded, where he fights up to 100 people at a time, he could have a future in martial arts movies if he wanted one. Although some of those fight sequences are examples of 'virtual cinematography', many of them were shot 'live' and nearly all the cast have cuts and bruises to show off.
"I think a lot of people don't realise how taxing all this work is," says Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, Neo's mentor. "The amount of training we did and the time it took is comparable to what professional athletes do."
Reeves though, is just like the fans and seems more interested in the philosophical musings that underpin the Wachowskis' vision than in the physical demands of the shoot. "I read some Baudrillard and I read about the notion of will," he says. "In terms of how that relates to my character, I think it's all synthesised into the way Neo views the world. But I don't have the facilities to have an academic discussion about that. You know, contrast and compare the Nietzschean Superman to Neo, the reluctant hero or messiah. Larry Wachowski can do that but I can't."
Larry, like his brother, is somewhere around the Sydney studio but is staying out of sight of the press. So reclusive are they, that few people have ever seen a picture of them. "Little is known about the Wachowskis," points out Fishburne. Despite having spent years working with them, he's only half-joking. "They're very bright people and they have like a secret code that exists between them: they're not very verbal."
When they are on the set however, they seem to function as one person. "It's a mysterious kind of thing with Larry at the viewfinder and Andy standing by the monitor. It's almost as if the movie is in their heads and it's inconvenient that they have to do it physically," claims Fishburne.
The amount of training we did is comparable to what professional athletes do
"They plan things out together and they come to the set knowing exactly what they want," adds Silver.
Prior to The Matrix, they had done little to suggest that they would become cinematic pioneers. They wrote the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins and had only directed one other film, 1996's Bound, and that was just a test for the studio to see if they were up to directing The Matrix movies.
Even back then, they insisted on making a trilogy of films, a tactic that seems to have been partially inspired by their reading too many comics as kids. "They're big fans of serial fiction," notes Silver.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone in Hollywood understood just what the Wachowskis were trying to do and that is the main reason why the original film was, at least initially, released to a refreshing lack of media hype. In particular, older studio executives and critics had problems getting to grips with a concept that says reality is actually a computer simulation and where the villains are computer programs that can replicate themselves at will.
"There was one executive who kept saying, 'The bad guy is a robot right?' and I said, 'No, he's a program' and he was, 'Yeah but he's a program inside a robot'," smiles Silver. "If you know how to use a computer, then you understand very quickly how the ethos works. But if you've never used one and don't know what an icon is, then you're going to be confused."
It was that feeling that you either got it or didn't though, that helped turn the original into such a cult. Tapping into our obsession with the internet and the sense of paranoia engendered by an all-powerful, all-seeing state, The Matrix seemed like the perfect film for the zeitgeist. Four years on, that paranoia is only increasing as everything from security threats to the irrational fear of asylum-seekers makes us ever more wary. Once again, the Wachowskis seem to have got their timing right.
The Matrix Reloaded goes on general release on May 23, The Matrix Revolutions will follow on November 7