It's the movie to beat this summer
by Jeff Vrabel
In the summer of 1999, an unheralded little sci-fi thriller named "The Matrix" did something then considered unthinkable: It upstaged the bejesus out of "Star Wars." George Lucas' prequel "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace" was set to bulldoze movie houses nationwide, thundering down the boulevard in a convoy of hype and marketing so thick it kind of made fans forget there was a movie coming. As such, lost in the sea of soft drink and goo-candy tie-ins was the fact that at the end of the day, "Episode I" wasn't half the barn-burning sci-fi blowout that fans were anticipating.
Which is where "The Matrix" came in.
Rather than bearing the disappointment that one of the most anticipated films in the history of humankind was a dud, sci-fi fans quickly turned elsewhere. "The Matrix," released a month and a half before "Menace," was loud, brutal and super-cool--"Star Wars" all grown up, upgrading the corners of sci-fi where Lucas' flick was weakest (and, it should be noted, wisely avoiding the use of a talking Rasta-frog).
With its apocalyptic, hyperdrive vision of a future ruled by machines, its black-leather fashion, mythological characters, nods to Eastern philosophy and kung-fu cinema and effects sequences best described by the terms "kick" and "ass," "The Matrix" truly emerged from nowhere to steamroll the culture and set a new standard in sci-fi. It revolutionized the effects game (winning the Oscar for best visual effects in 1999 in an upset win over "Menace"), introduced "bullet time" into the national vocabulary and made Keanu Reeves more marketable than he had been since the glory days of Bill and Ted.
"The Phantom Menace" easily outgrossed "The Matrix"; "Star Wars" scored $431 million domestically, while "Matrix" clocked in at a healthy $171 million. But "Star Wars," like similar juggernauts "Spider-Man" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, were all rated the far more financially stable PG-13. "The Matrix" was Rated R all the way. But in the more shapeless realm of cultural dominance, box-office represents only a fraction of a movie's influence, which explains why many of your friends still quote "Office Space."
Now, with the sequel ready to drop, the "Matrix" series is as big a slam-dunk as those venerable franchises in terms of cultural madness, Internet presence, hype power and general fan geek-ship.
And this summer, "The Matrix" is the one to beat.
Two to beat, actually. In marketing strategy that would seem riskier if this movie wasn't going to be so ridiculously huge, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," both shot over a year in Australia, will be released just six months apart. "Reloaded" hits on Thursday on a mammoth 3,200 screens, including one at the Cannes Film Festival. (Locally, a few theaters will start showing it at 10 p.m. Wednesday) "Revolutions" follows on Nov. 5. (Tickets for the former have been on sale via Web sites such as Moviefone.com and Fandango.com since May 1. Fandango reports that at this point, advance sales for "Reloaded" exceed any other May debut ever, which would include "Attack of the Clones" and "Spider-Man.")
Such stunt scheduling is uncharted territory. It's not unusual to shoot multiple sequels simultaneously--that started with "Back to the Future" and continued through "The Lord of the Rings"--but, to date, the shortest wait between franchise installments has been the yearlong gulf separating "Rings" flicks.
That all said, it does make the wait considerably easier, especially since "Reloaded" is rumored to sport an abrupt cliffhanger ending and a sure-to-be-infuriating "to be concluded."
Will that kind of scheduling trick have a negative effect on business? Conventional wisdom says no, unless the films are an ungodly sci-fi disappointment. (Which does not yet appear to be a worry. A review by someone named Neill Cumpston on Harry Knowles' aint-it-cool-news.com site--a review that purports to be the first on the planet--opens with an ecstatic "Jim-Jammity Jesus Krispy Kreme Christ!")
Analysts say no as well; many are betting on "Reloaded" alone clocking $200 to $300 million.
What the trick does do is assign full and complete ownership of Movie Year 2003 to "The Matrix."
The cult of 'The Matrix'
Summer is a cage match, but this year's crop is ridiculously stocked with wannabe blockbusters. May has already seen the $85 million opening weekend of "X2," and it's only a few weeks before "The Hulk" and the third installment in the similar death-by-robots "Terminator" series, "Rise of the Machines."
But "The Matrix Reloaded" seems to be operating on a different level of expectation. Entertainment Weekly called it "the most anticipated movie of the year, if you don't count 'Revolutions,' " and readers of entertainment Web site zap2it.com agreed, ranking "Reloaded" No. 1 in anticipation over runner-up "X2" by a count of 32 percent to 21 percent.
Since the final trailer has been available at thematrix.com, it's been downloaded more than 4.5 million times, putting it on schedule to be Warner Bros.' most downloaded trailer ever. (Once again, that's thematrix.com. Not to pour gasoline on the smoldering hype here, but you gotta see this thing. Bring a fast computer.)
There are plenty of reasons for all this mania. The first "Matrix" was the definition of a sleeper smash, born of word-of-mouth rather than pre-programmed buzz and one that still, thanks to its long tentacles into the comic book and Internet universes, maintains its original pedigree as a "cult hit." And it came complete with a jaw-dropping array of special effects, including that bullet-time business, which you may remember as a revolutionary little gimmick before it became the most exhaustingly parodied ("Shrek," "Scary Movie," "The Simpsons") and copied ("Charlie's Angels") special effect of all time.
But "The Matrix" also got a nice, long second life on home video. Thanks to those brutal action sequences and killer techno-industrial soundtrack, "The Matrix" was the first DVD ever to break the million-sales mark, and has gone on to worldwide sales of more than 15 million copies. It's even gone so far as to spawn "The Matrix Revisited," a supplemental disc that proved successful, especially so considering there wasn't actually a movie on it. (Both the original disc and a two-pack containing both "The Matrix" and "Revisited" were just re-released at lower prices.)
Attack of the clones
And if nothing else, "The Matrix" is a giddy, effects-soaked, sci-fi super-blowout. The sequel is expected to be the same, only with an augmented arsenal of special effects. Where the original "Matrix" boasted 412 effects shots, "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" have closer to 2,500, including, but not limited to:
*Perfect digital clones of actors, including Hugo Weaving as the nefarious Agent Smith(s), dispatched by Neo in the first flick but returned in a Version 2.0 form that can clone itself.
In grossly oversimplified form, here's how those clones are born: FX guys shoot a batch of hi-res images of Weaving from several angles and pour them into a computer, which creates a digital photocopy of Weaving's appearances from every angle the cameras missed. Every angle. All of them. What this trick does is make possible an intense clash between Neo and the clones. (There's a story angle here about a movie about a virtual world being shot with a cast of virtual actors, but it kind of makes our heads lock up, so we'll pass.)
*A trick called "ghosting." More on this later.
*The piece de resistance: a 14-minute monster of a freeway chase scene. This is "Frogger" on about eight pounds of speedballs, shot on a freeway set that the brothers Wachowski had built expressly for the movie on an old naval base in California. Said piece includes one kung-fu battle in the back seat of a Cadillac, one clash atop a speeding 18-wheeler, several examples of that "ghosting" and a jaw-dropping shot (available in the trailer) of an agent landing on and demolishing the hood of a speeding sedan.
To keep up as much of the original vibe as possible, writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski have kept all the original parts in place (except, er, for the budget. They had $300 million to play with this time, five times the amount spent on the original "Matrix.") The brothers, ultra-reclusive sorts who like to keep that secret-Svengalis-behind-the-scenes vibe and are duly turning down all interview requests, claim to have envisioned the story's machines-rule-the-Earth framework as a trilogy, and recruited all the surviving characters from the original movie.
In addition to Weaving, back in the cast are Reeves as Neo, monosyllabic last hope of humanity; Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, the wise general leading the human army against the machines, and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, the warrior/love interest who brought Neo back to life with a "Snow White"-style smooch.
This being a sequel, though, the cast also has been upgraded. Jada Pinkett Smith is on board as Niobe, the pilot of another rebel crew and an ex-lover of Morpheus. Monica Bellucci steps in as Persephone, a voluptuous temptress with a shady background and motives (though it might be helpful to note that in mythology, Persephone was a beautiful young goddess who was abducted by the dark lord Hades, forced to become his wife, then allowed to return to Earth for only a few months out of every year). Nona Gaye is in as Zee, the supporting role originally held by Aaliyah, before she died in a plane crash in August 2001.
And there's Adrien and Neil Rayment as The Twins. These are two silver-clad assassins who have been dispatched to capture the Keymaker, a tiny Asian man who, to use a rather clunky metaphor, holds the keys to the humans' success in the war against the Matrix.
Not to take anything away from Smith and Bellucci in tight leather, but of the new characters, the Twins have the coolest powers: They are the guys who can "ghost"--electrify, dematerialize and pass through solid objects, their white dreadlocks crackling and animating like one of those glow orbs at Spencer Gifts. "That's a nice trick," sniffs Trinity.
A virtual mythology
But if the "Rings" flicks and the "Star Wars" prequels taught us anything, it's that all the bullet-time in the world can only go so far in spinning a tale. For all the wonder of their landscapes, both prequels came up bone-dry when it came to the story (and sometimes cringe-inducing when it came to the dialogue). Fans want to see Spider-Man rocketing through Manhattan, sure, but they hate being cheated plot-wise.
This isn't lost on the Wachowskis. Two full-length sequels (and a handful of short films, see sidebar) won't make the story any less complex. The plot, as you might guess, is pretty locked down, and we figure it's probably better that way. That said, if you want to go into "Reloaded" totally cold, you should probably skip the rest of this article. Thanks for reading, enjoy the movie.
WARNING--POSSIBLE (THOUGH LIGHT) SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO MIGHT WANT TO GO IN TOTALLY BLANK:
When we last saw him, Neo had learned to develop godlike powers inside the Matrix. The sequels pick up six months later, in one 48-hour period; "Reloaded" provides the bulk of the setup, "Revolutions" is rumored to be essentially a giant battle sequence, the final showdown between man and machine.
We learned from one of the "Animatrix" shorts that the machines discovered the location of Zion, the last human outpost near the Earth's core, and that the fall of Zion would effectively wipe out humanity. "The machines are digging," Niobe says, referring to hundreds of thousands of "Squiddies" ships that almost shut down Morpheus' ship in the first film. "They're boring right from the surface straight down to Zion."
We know that Neo is troubled by a startling dream he has involving Trinity, and we know that the relationship between those two gets fairly hot and bothered. We know that "Reloaded" offers more background about the machines' initial takeover, a deeper look into the back story of Morpheus, and some jarring revelations about the all-knowing Oracle (played by Gloria Foster, who died in 2001 after filming most of her scenes for "Reloaded").
We know that Agent Smith can now replicate himself at will. We know that the unassuming Keymaker holds a singular power over the master machines, a power he wishes to transfer to Neo. And we know you should try to avoid a bathroom break before that car chase scene.
And we know that you should stick around after the credits roll for an extended trailer for "Revolutions," which, after all, is a scant few months away.
Film editor helps keep the series a well-oiled machine
by Jae-Ha Kim, Staff Reporter
"No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself," Morpheus says in "The Matrix" (1999).
Four years later, the world is ready to feast its collective eyes on "The Matrix Reloaded"--the first of two sequels that have already been filmed.
Given the success of "The Lord of the Rings" franchise, which shot all three of its films simultaneously, shooting two sequels at the same time doesn't seem to be as much of a gamble these days. "The Matrix" grossed $459 million worldwide and is all but guaranteed the No. 1 spot on its opening weekend.
With the final sequel, "The Matrix Revolutions," still left to edit, film editor Zach Staenberg doesn't have closure on this project quite yet. Much of the cast and crew worked over a 270-day stretch from 2001 to 2002, with seasonal hiatuses penciled in.
But Staenberg, who won an Oscar for his editing on "The Matrix," opted to work straight through most of the days off.
"It's not that I'm a selfless person," he said, laughing. "There's just so much to do when you're dealing with a film like this."
Which is why many of his seasoned colleagues regard him with awe.
"The one person who has more to do with the success of these movies--other than [filmmakers] Andy and Larry Wachowski--is Zach," said Don Davis, the composer who has scored all the "Matrix" films. "He was there for every moment of the shoot. He was involved with the brothers in planning what would be shot and how it would logistically be put together. He kept everything straight and never seemed to be confused by any of the chaos."
Though filming two complicated, action movies simultaneously would seem to be confusing for anyone, the parties involved say the preparations were so meticulous that it wasn't too difficult to keep track of who said what when.
Keanu Reeves, who plays Neo, told Time magazine: "The first [film] was about birth. The second one is life. The third is death."
In the sequels, Neo has to persuade the machines in the Matrix to set the humans of the real world free. Most of "Reloaded" takes place in the netherworld of the Matrix, while "Revolutions" promises to be set in the darker real world.
"I didn't get confused about which [sequel] I was doing a scene for because the brothers were painstakingly clear about what had just happened and what was coming up," said former Chicago-based actor Harry J. Lennix, who portrays Lock in both sequels. "They took great pain to keep us in the loop about what was going on, which made it easier for everyone. If you read the scripts--and they gave us separate ones for each movie--you knew exactly what was going on."
Speaking of the scripts, each page was watermarked with the actors' names on them--the better to trace back to whomever might to sell the contraband on, let's say, eBay.
Staenberg admits that while the cast may have been fooled by the seemingly seamless operation, even he at times was unnerved by the magnitude of the $300 million project.
"It was a grueling process at times, but [the brothers] and I planned and plotted the sequels out the best we could," he said. "Every now and then I needed to get an explanation from them on the internal workings of a scene, but over all, it went pretty smoothly."
Once he finishes editing "Revolutions," Staenberg has another "Matrix" project on his wish list. He'd like to take the two sequels and turn them into a four-hour feature-length DVD.
"Truthfully, 'Reloaded' and 'Revolutions' are one movie if you take off the tail credits of one film and the opening credits of the other and splice them together," he said.
"Even releasing them as two sequels, I always felt we were working on a four-hour movie, and I'm going to try to make that happen down the line."
Gamers, prepare to 'Enter the Matrix'
by Misha Davenport, Staff Reporter
Hold on to your leather trench coats. Andy and Larry Wachowski--the team behind "The Matrix" films--want to take video-game players to a place they've never been: into the Matrix. Are you game?
"Enter the Matrix," to be released on Thursday--the same day as the first sequel "The Matrix: Reloaded"--isn't just some marketing tool to promote the film. "Reloaded" doesn't really need a game to hype it. Even if half the people who witnessed "The Matrix" jack into it, it's still going to be one of the summer's biggest movies.
Nor is it merely a run-of-the-mill video game based on a movie. Rosanna Sun, the interactive producer for the Wachowskis' film company Eon, said the brothers--both video-game fanatics--had a keen interest in developing something extraordinary. "It became known on the set as the third Matrix film," Sun said.
Games based on movies have typically been hit or miss. Two of the top 10 games from last year were movie titles. Activision's "Spider-Man" scored with gamers, thanks in part to most of the voice talent from the film and its skill at mirroring the look and feel of the film. Electronic Arts' "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" also succeeded by raising the bar even higher, adding film footage and unlockable Easter eggs such as interviews with the cast and concept models as bonuses.
"Enter the Matrix," from Shiny Entertainment, the development team handpicked to make the game, hopes to take things even further. Though Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox have the capacity to deliver near-cinematic experiences, they've never been as taxed as with the Wachowskis' game.
Both "Enter the Matrix" and "The Matrix Reloaded" were designed to enhance the experience of the other. Plotlines, actions and outcomes weave seamlessly from one medium to the next. Playing the game without seeing the film (and vice versa) means you're missing out on half the fun.
The Wachowskis penned a 244-page script for the game (more than twice the size of the average film script). They also shot a full hour of scenes with the cast, and allowed Shiny Entertainment full access to actors, sets, stuntmen and special effects. They even directed both the film and computer-generated scenes, inventing the word "cineractive" to differentiate the computer-generated scenes from the cinematic ones.
So connected are film and game, the credits of "Enter the Matrix" run as long as the end credits of the film. Nearly everyone involved in the sequels, from the acting talent right down to on-set electricians, also worked on the game.
Eon, Shiny and the game's publisher, Atari, are remaining tight-lipped about the game's plotline. What they would reveal is while the film focuses on the further adventures of Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the game follows a parallel story line where players can jack into the game as supporting characters Niobe (Pinkett Smith) or Ghost (Anthony Wong).
Though it has been reported that the film and video game start off at the same time frame, that's not exactly true. Sun said the game actually begins where the animated short "Animatrix: The Final Flight of the Osiris" ended.
In "Osiris," the crew of that ship discovers that machines are preparing to attack the last bastion of humanity, Zion. In the final moments before their ship is destroyed, they succeed in uploading a transmission into the computer-generated world of The Matrix. The first mission in the game is to retrieve the package and get it to the Zion command center. The film begins after that data has been uploaded and the various generals have gathered to decide the next course of action.
The game is certainly one of the most ambitious undertakings to date in the video-game industry. David Perry, president of Shiny Entertainment, said it's also possible because of the Wachowskis' involvement.
"It would have easily cost $100 million putting the game together if we had to do it on our own. That's why the collaboration has been so great. It's enabled us to break new ground," Perry said.
It's also a smart business move, said Richard Ow, a video game industry expert for the market research firm NPD Group. "Gamers will want to both play the game and see the movie, and moviegoers just might be compelled enough to pick up a game," Ow said.
Repeat business wasn't really on the Wachowskis' minds. The brothers saw the video-game medium as a way to flesh out the world of "The Matrix" that they couldn't in a motion picture.
"There are things you can do in a digital universe that are cost-prohibitive on film," Sun said. "Just the action sequences alone can take you into a new, exciting level."
For the former Chicagoans, that meant they could realize their dream of using Lower Wacker Drive. Even without the ongoing construction, it would have been nearly impossible to use Wacker in an action sequence on film. So one of the first things they requested was that Wacker be featured in the game.
It was no easy task for Shiny to authentically capture the drive.
"We had to send a location scout to Chicago to make sure we were getting the texture of the concrete right," Perry said.
"We laugh about it now, but it probably wasn't a great idea to send one of our Arabic employees with a video camera to shoot Wacker after 9/11."
Making the music mesh
by Jae-Ha Kim, Staff Reporter
Don Davis had one advantage working on the "Matrix" films.
Unlike most of the cast and crew that worked on both sequels at the same time, the composer got to work on each separately.
"Composers generally are involved after the filming process is over, so I've only now started working on the second sequel ['The Matrix Revolutions']," he said. "Film music is a medium that is married to a visual, not a script. So you really don't want to write music until you know how the directors are treating a scene and what the pace is. Then you have an idea of how you want to approach a sequence."
Though he didn't have to worry about creating beautiful music for "Revolutions" until recently, Davis did have to keep in mind he also would be scoring "The Animatrix"--nine anime films that serve as prequels to "The Matrix" mythology--and "Enter the Matrix," the highly anticipated first video game of the franchise.
Davis composed more than seven hours of music for "The Matrix" franchise. Forty of those minutes are featured on the two-disc soundtrack of the first sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded," which also includes contributions from the Dave Matthews Band, P.O.D. and Marilyn Manson.
"The stress level was high on this movie, but anything I felt--or the film editor or sound designer felt--was much higher for [filmmakers] Larry and Andy [Wachowski]," he said. "They supervised everything.
"They are perfectionists who don't leave any stones unturned, and you'll see that in the quality of this film. No one is more excited than me about its release and I can promise you right now that you will not be disappointed."
Like many of the behind-the-scenes players on this film, Davis first worked with the Wachowski brothers on "Bound" (1996), which essentially was a test film for Warner Bros. before the studio gave them the go-ahead to make "The Matrix."
Though "Bound" wasn't a box-office smash, critics loved the dark film and the brothers' fresh approach to filmmaking.
"After working on 'Bound,' I was confident they could pull off [the first 'Matrix' film] because I knew what they were capable of," Davis said. "[On 'Bound'] they were flying by the seat of their pants. But what a pair of pants."
'THE MATRIX RELOADED': THE TRACK LIST
Marilyn Manson--"This Is the New S---"
Rob Dougan--"Furious Angels" (instrumental)
Team Sleep--"The Passportal"
Rage Against the Machine--"Calm Like a Bomb"
Dave Matthews Band--"When the World Ends" (Oakenfold remix)
Don Davis--"Main Title"
Don Davis--"Trinity Dream"
Juno Reactor--"Tea House"
Juno Reactor--"Mona Lisa Overdrive"
Don Davis vs. Juno Reactor--"Burly Brawl"
Don Davis--"Reloaded Suite"
Clothes make The Matrix
by Lisa Lenoir, Fashion Editor
The action might make the movie but those moves wouldn't have as much impact without kicking threads and tresses.
Get ready to see the style/action synergy with "The Matrix Reloaded." Costumes make a sock-it-to me statement as the returning characters, Neo (Keanu Reeves,) Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) strike against evil fully decked out in combinations of dark crocodile-print leather, shiny leather and skintight latex. Like the first "Matrix" flick, the duster coats get prime exposure on the principal characters as they administer their martial arts theatrics.
A new character, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) enters the digital world with nubian knots and head-to-toe brown croc. And let's not forget the finishing touch, shades to die for by Blinde Design. (They can be yours, too, for a whopping $240.)
The trailers give a sneak peak at what to expect. Evil Agent Smith returns in his uniform--a dark suit, white shirt and a black tie with a tie clip. Morpheus forges against evil in knockout suits, dark shirts, a green tie with stud and John Lennon-esque earless shades. (Fishburne told Newsweek he wanted to have an "old-timey 1930s Chicago look.")
Newcomer Persephone (Monica Bellucci) epitomizes the sexy temptress with her second-skin latex halter dress. Bellucci bragged in Entertainment Weekly that she will look better in latex than Pinkett Smith. We'll see.
Look for other characters to sport blond dreadlocks, three-piece suits with matching overcoats and fingernail polish.
And of course, the shades.
WAIT, THERE'S MORE
The May 15 opening of "The Matrix: Reloaded" has been timed to coincide with other fragments of the "Matrix" grid. The first and probably most anticipated is the video game "Enter the Matrix", but also coming is the full and complete "Animatrix," a series of nine animated short films, varying in style from Japanese anime to full-on CGI, that will be released June 3 on DVD.
Portions of the "Animatrix" are already available. A nine-minute short called "The Final Flight of the Osiris," in which the machines find Zion, premiered before the horror flick "Dreamcatcher" in March. Three episodes, "The Second Renaissance Part 1," "Program" and "Detective Story" are available for free download at www.theanimatrix.com; a fourth, "The Second Renaissance Part 2," will be available before "Reloaded" opens, and will detail the origins of the Matrix itself.