8 Days (Singapore), May 15 - 22, 2003

Reality bytes

The Matrix reloads this week. Whoa! Whang Yee-Ling, in an exclusive interview, plugs into the virtual universe and very real thrills of the cyber-sci-fi sequel blowout.

The date and place: mid-January 2003, Los Angeles. Am I ready to go down the rabbit hole? I am asked. Yes, I boldly answer. Thence I am escorted out of my hotel by a Warner Bros studio publicist, into a house across the street. In the living room is the producer Joel Silver. The actors Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne sit opposite; sharing a couch are Carrie-Anne Moss and Jada Pinkett Smith. They are the superheroes and the wonder women of The Matrix, and they have specially convened this morning to reveal to me the marvels of the final instalments in The Matrix trilogy. They offer me a choice of the red or the blue pill. I swallow the red one.

The Matrix Reloaded finally arrives Thursday, four years after The Matrix, and will conclude with The Matrix Revolutions in November.

Says Silver: "The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are really one movie, broken into two halves. Revolutions follows directly from the cliffhanger at the end of Reloaded and I think our fans would be angry if we made them wait too long in between, but still, having a pair of back-to-back releases come out the same year is unusual and remarkable."

It has never been attempted before. "Never," he emphasizes.

The sequels will be the cinematic event of the year. Already, they are the most anticipated.

Allow me to recap. The Matrix was a little-publicised creation by a couple of barely known writer-directors, the Wachowski brothers, Larry, now 37, and Andy, 35, their only prior feature a 1996 lesbian noir called Bound.

The cyberpunk sci-fi became a sleeper smash, a groundbreaker. "If The Matrix didn't do as well as it did," says Silver, "there wouldn't be a second movie."

It grossed US$460 million (S$805 mil) globally and sold an unprecedented one million copies on DVD. It won four Academy Awards including for Best Visual Effects. It reinvented the genre, blowing my mind with its hybridization of comic books, Hongkong gongfu, Japanese animé, Eastern religion, Greek mythology, Lewis Carroll, William Gibson, Plato and Snow White. I even started wearing black PVC.

Silver: "The Wachowskis came up with a new visual grammar.

Says Laurence Fishburne: "We knew it was a brilliant concept and what the brothers were attempting was amazing if we could pull it off, but, really, nobody knew what The Matrix was. We came in under the radar."

The Matrix posits reality is a virtual simulation. Keanu Reeves is the hacker Thomas 'Neo' Anderson who discovers he is The One, the messiah destined to join the rebels, the leader Captain Morpheus, played by Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity, in saving the world from computer enslavement.

The three continue their revolt in Reloaded with Hugo Weaving returning as their arch nemesis, Agent Smith. They have 72 hours until the Machine Array send 250,000 sentinels to dig into and destroy the City of Zion, the last human enclave in the centre of the earth.

Reeves: "The first movie was about birth. The second, life, and the third," Revolutions, essentially an epic war between the humans and the machines, "death."

Reloaded and Revolutions were filmed simultaneously in Sydney, Australia, at a combined cost of US$300 million. Principal photography lasted 270 days straight through August 22.

Reeves: "'I started training four months before." In the sequels, Neo has gotten all-powerful. He can fly. He can stop bullets. He has a total of seven fights more intensive, more complex than the original movie's in their choreography, weaponry and number of opponents.

"I hadn't been doing any gongfu or anything like that since The Matrix so I was looking forward to getting back into it," says Reeves. "The wirework is tricky unless you get it right, and then it's really fun."

The cast trained together everyday, under the guidance of Hongkong action coordinator Yuen Wo Ping.

"The brothers didn't want the stunt people to do any of the scenes unless it was really dangerous," says Moss who broke her right leg during the second week.

Fishburne himself hurt a wrist: "It was weird because the first time there was just the four of us, just myself, Keanu, Carrie-Anne and Hugo. Now, there are those two fabulous gentlemen you see in those white coats." He points above any head at a poster of The Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment), a villainous albino duo capable of walking through walls and dematerializing. "And there's Jada. It was nice to have another woman."

Pinkett Smith's Niobe is a captain of the Logos hovercraft and a former lover of Morpheus, and, like The Twins, new to the franchise. "At first it was a little intimidating," says the actress. "But as soon as I stepped into the training facility everybody made me feel at home. I was just so excited to be a part of the project. I bench-pressed about 170. I put on 15 pounds of muscle."

Reeves: "It was kind of like a Big Top."

Fishburne, laughing: "Yeah, like being in the circus. I mean, it just grew. These two films are about four times the size of The Matrix...."

Reeves: "How about 'scope'? That sounds better than 'size.'"

Fishburne: "Yeah, the scope of these two films is tremendous."

Silver: "The Matrix was about this big." He separates an inch between his thumb and forefinger. "When we analysed what happened and what we saw, it was really a very small story. In the new movies you learn a lot about the Matrix which you didn't know before. You get a sense of this artificial intelligence world, of how it evolves, what its format is and how the people have survived. It's a much broader, panoramic tale."

It's an entire Matrix juggernaut, in fact. An interactive video game, Enter the Matrix, will hit stores the day The Matrix Reloaded opens, its live-action footage employing the same cast, crew and sets as the movie. Then debuting on VCD and DVD June 3 is The Animatrix. The collection of nine amine shorts were conceived by the Wachowskis as an expansion of the Matrix mythology. They were produced by Silver, three of them written by the Wachowskis who oversaw the screenplays and designs of the remaining six. Such is the exhaustiveness of the Wachowskis' vision that the first, 'Final Flight of the Osiris,' which was attached to the beginning of the recent Stephen King thriller Dreamcatcher, is both the plot of Enter the Matrix and the prologue of Reloaded.

Silver: "If you don't see it, it won't hurt your enjoyment of Reloaded but if you do, it may enhance it. There's a lot of material out there connected to the Matrix movies."

Just don't refer to these ancillaries as promotional tools. Silver doesn't like that. "Promoting is a marketing terra and the animés and the game aren't merchandising or advertising" he says. They're content-driven. On the other hand, Samsung is making the phone used in the movies which was designed by the Wachowskis and built by our production department. Now that's promotion. For the first time in history, a company is manufacturing a prop that works and it is the most advanced phone ever."

Pinkett Smith: "Are we going to get the phone?"

Hubbub of excitement among her gathered co-actors.

Silver: "Yes you are."

Pinkett Smith: "Oh good! I need one."

Fishburne, nodding: "As long as we get it.... "

Reeves: "I want that international model."

Silver: "The phone, that's promotion. But the animé, the video, the movies, they're telling the story in multimedia which is one of the many brilliant and unusual things the brothers have done."

To prepare for today's interviews, I had surfed the Internet and 1,100 Matrix sites in addition to the brothers' own . Many are obsessive, almost rabid in their dissecting and debating of the movies' religio-philosophical arcanae. Example: The name Neo is from the Greek "neos", meaning newly-born or new, as well as an anagram of one as translated into "Anointed One" in Hebrew text.

There are books on The Matrix like Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy & Religion in The Matrix edited by Glenn Yeffeth, and college courses on computer-mediated communication and contemporary culture.

I suggest to Silver the fans are wackos.

Silver laughs and says they scare him, too. "They have such fervour, but the religious elements are there and the ideas get bigger as Reloaded and Revolutions progress.

"The reason the brothers aren't sitting here with us is because they don't want to clarify - what they're doing in a finite fashion that will resolve what the stories are about and what they mean." I should point out that the brothers have not done a single interview since 1999. "They feel that as with all great literature," Silver continues, "it's up to the viewer to take whatever works for him or her. And if all people want to see are lots of action and gunfights and car chases, I'm sure they can enjoy those."

Reloaded's climax alone is a freeway chase to outdo all chases. It was the first sequence for the sequels the Wachowskis tackled. In an old naval base near California's Alameda the filmmakers spent US$1 million building a two-mile loop complete with dividers, runoffs and an overpass, and on this highway, for 14 breathless minutes, Trinity and a Japanese mystic known as the Key Maker (Randall Duk Kim) ride a Ducati motorbike pursued by the bad guys.

There are auto smash-ups and gravity-defying acrobatic battles amid the 40mph traffic.

Yet another showstopper is the Burly Brawl pitting Neo against one hundred Agent Smiths, the rogue agent having acquired the ability to replicate himself. Bullet Time, that slo-mo effect trick in The Matrix plagiarized by every film from Shrek and Charlie's Angels to Swordfish? It's primitive by comparison. Says Fishburne: "The pressure to raise the bar was all the greater because of the success of the first movie."

The Matrix had 412 effect shots, supervised by visual effects Oscar-winner John Gaeta. Reloaded and Revolutions have more than 2,500, and Virtual Cinematography is, unquestionably, the breakthrough invention: The 99 clones of Agent Smith were created from digitally photographed impressions of the actor Weaving's movements and expressions and are photorealistic down to their hair and background.

Reeves: "We're certainly early guinea pigs for technologies that are in developmental stages. The ambition for the filmmakers is to have CGI versions of us that feel real, so that, when you see it, you won't go...."

Fishburne: "...'It's a doll!'"

Reeves: "...and you disconnect."

Don't these actors worry they are losing their jobs to their synthespian counterparts?

Reeves: "In terms of the data we're still the source. They're collecting our movements and our voices digitally and in those environments we're still acting."

Fishburne: "It's not like we're outside the loop. It's challenging more than anything because it's different, it's new. What's great is, we're not throwing out the old hand craftsmanship. People are still building sets, designing costume. Writers have to write and actors have to act, but we've got all these new tools now and we're all helping to figure out how to use and entertainment with them."

Still, as Reeves says, the intention is to "eventually produce situations where you won't know a person is a digital stand-in."

It's uncanny, a movie warning of a computer-generated reality should, itself, be simulating reality.

Silver: "The story in The Matrix is about an artificial world which the people living in believe is real and from the standpoint of the production of the movie, we've certainly done the same thing."

Fishburne: " My take is that we live in a society which places much more value on the artificial than what's real."

Silver: "That's why The Matrix had such resonance. The brothers have crafted it so that it mirrors the politics of our lives."

And with Reloaded, they have achieved the unprecedented. They have made a movie wherein the real is no longer distinguishable from the digital.

Silver: "Absolutely."

Fishburne: "Yep. Scary."


Article Focus:

Matrix Reloaded, The , Matrix Revolutions, The


Matrix, The , Matrix Reloaded, The , Matrix Revolutions, The , Animatrix, The

You need to be a member to leave comments. Please login or register.