Reloading the Matrix
Four years ago Larry and Andy Wachowski revolutionized the action genre with The Matrix. Now, with two more movies, the first ever Matrix video game and a groundbreaking companion DVD taking fans deeper into its richly imagined universe, find out why NEWSWEEK called 2003 "The Year of the Matrix".
In February of 2001, a construction crew was hired to erect a two-mile freeway, complete with exit signs, dividers, an on ramp and an overpass - on an old US naval base in Alameda, California. It is here that action filmmaking and visual effects will be redefined for years to come. This unconnected freeway is the stage for what Newsweek described as "the most audaciously conceived, thrillingly executed car chase ever filmed." And like everything else in two of 2003's most anticipated movies, it's the kind of chase that could take place nowhere else but inside the Matrix.
The high speed chase - which involves dozens of wrecked cars, high risk kung fu inside multiple moving vehicles, and villains that can take the wheel of any car on the road - is unlike any live action stunt ever put to film. But for Larry and Andy Wachowski, it's just one component of the writing/directing duo's plans for an assault of jaw-dropping visual experiences that will reinvent the action genre while kicking up the adrenaline in everything from gaming to home entertainment, making 2003 the year of the Matrix. Fans who have been waiting five years to return to the Matrix universe will get a year's worth, starting with Matrix Reloaded, the first sequel, which opens in May 15 in the US and several territories around the world. Also on May 15, the adventure will be brought to audiences' fingertips with the first-ever Matrix videogame, Enter the Matrix, followed this summer by an unprecedented DVD collection of original anime short films that take fresh looks inside the universe the Wachowskis created. Titled The Animatrix, the DVD will be unleashed worldwide in June. And finally, Matrix Revolutions, the final film in the trilogy which provides answers to many of the films' myriad puzzles, will be released just six months after Reloaded, in November.
THE MATRIX PHENOMENON
In 1999, writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, whose only big screen credit was the acclaimed noir film Bound, came out of nowhere with a film that would flip the concept of an action movie and bring a new level of style to everything from fight choreography to visual effects to runway fashion. Like the film's unsuspecting protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves), who has to free his mind to truly see, audiences knew they were glimpsing a brave, new world for the first time - the world of the Matrix, a complex computer simulation created by machines to enslave the human race. Once awakened from his lifelong sleep, Neo discovers that he's a messianic figure known as the One, and that it is his destiny to save the world. The Matrix grossed $171 million in the US and $209 million internationally before becoming the first DVD, then a relatively new format, to sell a million copies. Over the years since its release, the film's legion of fans have mined the DVD and the groundbreaking website, whatisthematrix.com, for layers of meaning in the most arcane details of the film, eagerly anticipating the time they could enter the Matrix again.
That time is finally here.
After years of careful planning, inventing and execution, the Wachowski brothers are gearing up to deliver a new Matrix experience: Matrix Reloaded, which features the original surviving cast from the first film, in May; followed by Matrix Revolutions six months later, in early November. "Our fans would be angry at us if we made them wait any longer," producer Joel Silver told Newsweek. "Reloaded ends, I promise you, at a moment of true filmus interruptus." Following seven weeks of principal photography on the Alameda base and other northern California locations, a marathon 270-day schedule commenced in Australia, where both films were shot simultaneously throughout 2001 and 2002. The production has been shrouded in secrecy, with even the stars only seeing a few scraps of film by the end of principal photography. It's a feat that demanded not only far-reaching vision, but also intricate planning and coordination between what was live action, computer generated, and an imperceptible fusion of both.
THE MATRIX REVEALED
Though fans are divided between clamoring for information and remaining "spoiler-free" on the storylines of the next two films, some plot details have funneled out. Reloaded begins where The Matrix left off. The machines made a terrifying discovery: they've learned the location of Zion, the last human city, hidden near the Earth's core, and the humans have only 72 hours until thousands of Sentinels - the squidlike probes from part one - tunnel down to obliterate it. Their only hope is to track down a mysterious figure known as the Keymaker, who is being guarded by a pair of switchblade-wielding villains known as the Twins (Neil and Adrien Rayment), unnaturally white assassins that can vanish and reappear like ghosts. In addition to the now-iconic returning cast - Reeves as Neo, Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith and the late Gloria Foster as The Oracle - Reloaded introduces new characters including a Buddha-like figure named Seraph (Lung Yun Chou); Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), a former lover of Morpheus; and Persephone (Monica Bellucci), a deadly temptress who has her eyes on Neo.
The revelations in the next two films are many. Reloaded reveals the dimensions of the Matrix itself - a megacity more than ten times the size of New York - for the first time. We also learn of the existence of powerful machines that have been surpassed by newer, more ruthless models, and are ambivalent of what their own generations of innovation have wrought.
Agent Smith has learned to replicate himself like a virus, and in one bravura sequence filmed with a breakthrough technique the Wachowskis call "virtual cinematography," when Neo faces off against 100 Agent Smiths. Reloaded ends as a cliff-hanger, setting the stage for the final film in the trilogy, Revolutions.
Matrix Revolutions is one all out war between humans and the machines. While Reloaded is largely set inside the Matrix, Revolutions unfolds in the smoking ruins of the futuristic real world. Joel Silver, the titan producer behind the Lethal Weapon series, promises action on par with nothing that's ever been seen before in movies.
ARCHITECTS OF THE MATRIX
Brothers Larry (37) and Andy (35) Wachowski made their first film largely to prove themselves to Warner Bros, in a bid to make the original Matrix, which they had always conceived as a trilogy. Little is known about the brothers themselves. Silver, who has been deputized to speak for "the boys," calls them naturally storytellers who rose through the ranks in comics, distinguishing themselves as visionaries, who have created a deep universe of stories and themes for the Matrix, some of which is only touched on in the film. The cast and crew of the films all refer to the brothers as two parts of one whole. They note that the siblings never seem to disagree, are heavy readers - of philosophy (Larry) and science fiction (Andy). In the game of "good cop/bad cop," Andy is the softer of the two.
Also returning to the dual productions to reprise their artistry from The Matrix are Academy Award-winning Visual Effects Supervisor John Gaeta and Special Effects Supervisor Steve Courtley; Director of Photography Bill Pope; Production Designer Owen Paterson; Oscar-winning Editor Zach Staenberg; Costume Designer Kym Barrett; Oscar-winning Sound Recordist David Lee; and master fighter Yuen Wo Ping, the choreographer and wire team leader of the highly innovative fight sequences in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
To take visual effects to the next level, John Gaeta's task was to utilize, and in some cases invent, all-new technology to truly present images that have never seen before, as The Matrix did when it was released. Gaeta's previous company, Manix, battled effects giant ILM's Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace for that year's visual effects Oscar and won. But Manix was too small to handle the output for the next two chapters of the trilogy, and as technology to mind hadn't been invented yet, Gaeta regrouped a team to establish Esc (the word on the "escape" button on a computer keyboard), based in Alameda, California. Esc is in a huge 250,000 square-foot hangar on the base in Alameda, in which the edgy effects maestro's offices sit directly above the pyrotechnics department, where at any time of day they could be blowing up sentinels or wrecking cars.
Esc and six other effects houses will together deliver more than 2,500 separate shots, many of which have been three years in the making, eclipsing the 412 digital shots in The Matrix. As with "bullet time" in the first film, "virtual cinematography" will soon be burned into the contemporary vernacular once the next chapters of the trilogy are released. Virtual cinematography blurs the line between what is real and what was created in a computer. Every detail, down to a single strand of hair, is not only an approximation - it's perfect. Gaeta's team can create anything virtually, from humans to cars, rooms, vehicles, any environment or object. The key is basing each digital image on a live one. Using five high resolution digital cameras, the effects team records an actor's performance down to the pores and hair follicles. This process is called universal capture (U-cap for short). The information from all five cameras is then fed into a computer, which calculates the actor's t performance from every angle. Once the actor's body is captured in immersive 3-D, the visual effects team use it to portray virtually anything, from a kung fu fight to Neo flying at 2,000 miles per hour through a metropolis.
As with the Matrix itself, those watching the film will be likewise immersed in a world in which the difference between what's real and what isn't is virtually imperceptible.
The Matrix universe is heavily influenced by several sources - mostly comic books, Japanese anime (such as Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell), cyberpunk fiction (such as the work of visionary William Gibson) and Asian kung fu movies, but also with a large degree of mythology gleaned from sources as diverse as Greek mythology and the Bible.
Conversely, since the first film was released in 1999, it is The Matrix that has become prime source material for homage - inspiring everything from commercials to other films - utilizing the dazzling "bullet time" technology, in which the camera appears to whiz 360 degrees around a central image. It has been used in fightchoreography in Charlie's Angels and parodied in Shrek and Scary Movie. The Foxnetwork used the technology at the 2002 Superbowl to show plays from different angles. The frequency and utility with which the technology has been mimicked has motivated the Wachowski brothers to work twice as hard to create images that no one could reproduce in the upcoming installments.
THE YEAR OF THE MATRIX
In the fall of 1999, after The Matrix exploded across movie screens around the world, Larry Wachowski took out a yellow pad and drew up the brothers' plan for worlddomination. Not only would there be two films and the pioneering website www.thematrix.com, the brothers had plans for a series of side projects that would expand the world of the Matrix across different media.
First, they wanted to produce a collection of anime short films set in the Matrix universe. They also wanted to accompany the films' release with the first-ever Matrix videogame, Enter the Matrix. But the Wachowskis wanted to maintain deep involvement in all aspects of the world they created. They wrote four of the nine animes that make up The Animatrix DVD, hitting the market this summer, then personally approved the screenplays and designs for the other five. "The Final Flight of the Osiris," which features the next level of near photorealistic computer generated images from the makers of Final Fantasy, will debut in theaters with Warner Bros. Pictures forthcoming Dreamcatcher. "Second Renaissance," part one and part two, directed by Mahiro Maeda, tells the story of the machines' takeover from the perspective of the machines themselves. The two part adventure will debut on www.theanimatrix.com this spring and be downloadable freely to anyone with an internet connection.
The Wachowskis also wrote a 244-page script specifically for the first-ever Matrix interactive game and broke out of the industry standard by shooting all new footage using the same cast, crew and sets as for their films. The game fleshes out off screen moments only alluded to in Reloaded, using Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Ghost (Anthony Wong) as its stars. Enter the Matrix recreates the rush of watching the movie, with all the heart-stopping stunts, running up walls and taking balletic turns through the air, all created by master choreographer Yuen Wo Ping and his Hong Kong stunt team. The game makers have also dreamed up a text- based game that allows the player to "hack" into the Matrix using DOS commands, upgrade characters and unlock the games secrets. Shiny, the company that is developing the game, describes it as a way to have a deeper understanding of the world laid out in the Matrix films.
According to producer Silver, the dramatic synergy of this film's inventive multi-media assault - the animes, the website, the game and the movie - all work together to tell the story and bring into deep focus the complex universe of the Matrix. It is this multi-level attack - from the big screen to the small screen to the videogame console - that will make 2003 the year of the Matrix.