Masters of the Matrix
by Christopher Parkes
As Morpheus informs Neo, alias Keanu Reeves: "Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."
Those who have yet to log in to the sci-fi, comic-book, cyber-punk parallel worlds invented by the writer-director Wachowski Brothers, and unveiled in the 1999 cult-commercial hit The Matrix, will surely see "it" soon. They will find it hard to avoid a marketing blitz of unprecedented intensity in the history of the US entertainment industry.
It started in April with the release in cinemas of an animated short film, Final Flight of the Osiris, intended as a prequel to the sequel The Matrix: Reloaded, which opens in US cinemas on May 15.
Friday marked the shopping mall debut of a revamped double-disc DVD set of the original film. Yet to come are a multi-platform video game, out on the same day as the second film, closely followed by the launch of Reloaded on many of the nation's multi-storey Imax screens.
As the year progresses, eight more derivative cartoon shorts in the Japanese animé style are due to trickle onto the internet, and on November 5, the grand finale, The Matrix: Revolutions will open simultaneously on thousands of cinema screens worldwide. For good measure, it will debut on the same day on the US Imax circuit: a cinematic first.
"The aim is to advance the Wachowski Brothers' vision for telling the trilogy's story in multiple formats," says Joel Silver, producer of this digital deluge on behalf of financing partners Warner Brothers and Australia's Village Roadshow Pictures. Quite when this vision swept over the Wachowskis - Andy, 35, and Larry, 37 - is unclear. The pair may remain an eternal mystery unless they overcome the chronic media-shyness which has yielded only a handful of desultory interviews in an admittedly brief career. They even ducked out of filming the pre-requisite "director's commentary" segment for the DVD, claiming it would be unfair on the other collaborating artists for them to hog the limelight. And: "We were too tired."
In one modest and not altogether helpful breach of their code of silence, recorded by the New York Times shortly after The Matrix opened, they revealed a fascination with the relationship between Zen Buddhism and quantum physics. Larry said he had been re-reading The Odyssey - "I always get something out of it" - and the duo conceded that in the event of creative differences Mom was called in as arbiter.
The Wachowski Brothers were born in Chicago and have lived in lock-step since dropping out of college to take up house painting and carpentry. Since their first and only cinematic success they exist, like Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?), as a single entity: Brothers with a capital B.
They shared a fascination with film noir and the career of Roger Corman, king of the B-movie, auteur of Attack of the Crab Monsters, and writer of How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.
They had a sideline in writing and drawing comics. It was this craft which was to lead to their emergence as unlikely revolutionaries in the world of film. They wove The Matrix from a seeming rag-bag of philosophical, religious and fantasy material, kung fu, references to Alice in Wonderland and special effects.
Balletic "bullet-time photography" - combining ultra-slow motion and dynamic filming in a single series of frames - is one example of the innovative effects developed to their specifications. It has since been shamelessly exploited to further the careers of Austin Powers and Homer Simpson, reportedly to the irritation of the Wachowski maestros dedicated to their concept of an "intellectual action movie".
Their introduction to Hollywood came with their script for Assassins, a 1995 Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas dud. A year later, their directing-writing debut with Bound won modest critical success, but squeezed only $3.8m out of the box office. And all the while the script of The Matrix was written and waiting.
"We started out thinking of it as a comic book," they told the New York Times. And that, in the end, was how they sold the idea to Warner Bros executives befuddled by the dense, convoluted story. With the aid of graphic novelist Geof Darrow and Steve Skrose, a Spider-Man comic artist, they turned in a 600-page hand-drawn storyboard delineating the entire movie. Keanu Reeves agreed to star and the studio suits saw the light.
By the time it had finished its run in cinemas and first DVD release, The Matrix, made for about $80m, had earned worldwide revenues estimated at more than $700m, a record for a film with an "R" rating intended to exclude many of the younger, most ardent moviegoers in the US.
But the latest Wachowski project is altogether more audacious. The two films, shot in parallel in Australia to keep costs down, are said to have cost $150m apiece. Total marketing costs are close to $100m.
"When you think about it, it's one hell of a gamble," says one Hollywood executive. "They've only made one good movie, and I still don't know what that was about. But I wouldn't have minded having a piece."
Releasing two sequels in the same year has never been tried before. Launching a video game as the box office opens is also an innovation, as is the experiment with Imax.
But the "buzz" is already deafening. Amazon.com reports strong pre-orders for the game, Enter the Matrix. At the latest count, Warner Bros reported 4.5m internet downloads of the film's trailer. According to a poll by Fandango, the online cinema ticket seller, together with final installment of The Lord of the Rings, was by far the most anticipated release of the year.
Wall Street analysts estimate The Matrix Reloaded could garner $200m-$300m in US cinemas alone, compared with $171m for The Matrix. It is not just audiences and investors who are enthusiastic about the project. The leading actors, including Mr Reeves, rejoined the Wachowski brothers to finish the trilogy - and to script and film an extra hour of footage and dialogue for the video game. Principals typically disdain such "ancillary" work, leaving it to specialist development and software companies.
The Wachowski brothers clearly prefer the warmth of the cult to the glare of the limelight. But it is impossible to decide whether they are enigmatic in the teasing Hollywood fashion, or merely shy. They have been known to call themselves "nerds". Sightings have produced reports of a geeky, dishevelled duo. Even producer Joel Silver appeared still to be foxed when he remarked from the set of The Matrix Reloaded: "Little is known about the Wachowskis: they have a secret code . . . They're not very verbal."
Like their comic book heroes, the brothers are long on action and short on words. This much was clear from an online chat on the Warner Brothers website. Asked for their favourite lines from The Matrix, they replied in speech bubbles: " 'Dodge this' and 'There is no spoon'. We also liked that one."