The Matrix Reloads
by Evelyn Teo
NINETEEN NINETY-NINE was the year of The Matrix. American Beauty may have won the Best Picture accolade at the Academy Awards but it was The Matrix, a movie about a future run by machines, and humanity's battle to regain control of their own destiny, that changed the face of filmmaking history and captured the hearts and minds of audiences the world over.
The movie held its own against the highly anticipated first prequel to the Star Wars saga, trouncing it at the Oscars by walking away with the honours for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Sound Editing. If that is not impressive enough, the action sci-fi flick took in a whopping US$475 million in worldwide box-office receipts and it was the first DVD title to sell one million units.
With such impressive credentials for the first film, it's only natural that expectations run feverishly high for The Matrix sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, which incidentally, are coming out just six months apart this year. But what initially began as a mind-blowing philosophical futuristic thriller is now a universe of its own - complete with a comprehensive website, videogame, anime shorts, comics, books and more.
Make no mistake, the Wachowski brothers' vision was that of a Matrix trilogy in the first place and not an attempt at reviving a once successful concept. Genius directors Larry and Andy had it all planned from the start and it was just a matter of investing resources into their cross-multimedia concepts and visionary filmmaking technologies. The only thing now is that the original film's groundbreaking bullet-time photography will look like a kiddie invention next to these visually challenging sequels.
Reloaded continues right where The Matrix left off. Neo and his comrades, Trinity and Morpheus, together with a group of individuals awakened from The Matrix (a computer simulation of real life), wage a war against the machines that have taken over the planet. Needless to say, it's an uphill battle since they are dealing with super intelligence, but then again, the humans do have Neo, a saviour with extraordinary abilities on their side.
Earlier this year, 29 journalists from all over the world, this writer included, were flown into Los Angeles for a special interview with actors Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Carrie-Anne Moss as well as producer Joel Silver to get a feel of what it was like filming Reloaded and Revolutions. Reloaded, which also stars Harold Perrineau, Harry Lennix, Monica Bellucci, Nona Gaye and twins Neil and Adrian Rayment, had just gone into post-production along with Revolutions then.
The interview sessions were running late but no one complained since this was the biggest movie event this year. Besides, while waiting, the journalists were treated to a three-and-a-half minute B-reel of Reloaded in a suite at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, decked out in Matrix paraphernalia, consisting mostly of posters and photos.
In the short clip, we saw Keanu's character, Neo, back in flowing black and kicking quite a few Agent Smiths on the film set. We also saw Hugo Weaving (who plays Agent Smith) making funny faces at the camera between takes. In another scene, we saw Morpheus (Fishburne) addressing a large crowd in an underground cavern called Zion. The shots looked grander in scale and more complex than the first movie.
The glimpses were but a few pieces to a very large puzzle and anyone who's seen the Reloaded trailer will attest to that. Zion is about to be discovered by the Sentinels (scary-looking machines with tentacles designed to destroy rogue humans); Agent Smith has learned some new tricks; there's an awesome freeway car chase sequence; and Neo flies (yes, you read right). Of course, this is still merely the tip of the iceberg. Everyone involved in the two movies were tight-lipped about what really goes down on film but shared their amazing experiences bringing their characters to life in these landmark films.
How intensive was the build-up for these films compared to the last?
Laurence Fishburne: I sprained my wrist pretty badly and Carrie-Anne broke her leg trying to learn what we were required to do. Hugo sustained an injury to his rib in the first movie (Reloaded).
Keanu Reeves: I didn't get hurt on this one.
Carrie-Anne Moss: No, he was just in pain everyday.
KR: With what the Wachowski brothers wanted, everyone had to do more than they did before. The sophistication in the moves is a little more advanced than the first one.
How impressed were you when you read the script?
LF: It's really beautiful. The storyline for both movies are really incredible. It's hard to think of them as two movies really because the story takes place in a very short period of time in both films. It's incredibly dense and full of ideas.
CAM: I remember thinking that it is such a great opportunity to make these two films because I loved working with everybody on it and I'm happy to go back to it again. I love the brothers' work. They had all these ideas, beautiful writing, soulful relationships and intense physical challenges lined up. Thank God for such an opportunity to be part of something that highlights something so important.
Jada Pinkett-Smith: ...And representing women in such a strong way, which is very rare.
LF: It's really amazing because the women in this movie kind of occupy roles that are traditionally occupied by men.
It must be tough to make the sequels better than the first Matrix.
LF: The brothers put themselves under some kind of pressure to outdo not just themselves, but anything that may come down the pike in years to come. Not just to tell a great story and tell the story in multi-media but also to create something that nobody has ever seen before. They are determined to make something truly spectacular.
What's the reasoning behind releasing the movies so close to each other?
Joel Silver: I think the boys (Wachowski) have made (just) one movie really (but) because of the length and time, they decided to put it out at two different times. But it really feels like one story. The boys actually elected for it to be released even closer to each other - four weeks. We feel the fans would want to see the next half of the picture (quickly) and that's why we're rushing it out, and the earliest we could get was November. I think that having both the movies in one year is a good, unique idea. I think people will be happy about it.
How have the characters changed in relation to the story?
LF: Well, I'm kind of out of a job because I've found The One. So, I've got to do some other things. I have to figure out where I can be useful. There's an interesting complication that sort of involves Jada's character.
JS: I've been involved with a lot of sequels in my life and I went through times when sequels were considered cool, not cool and then, really sh*t. I've done a lot of sequels where the movie ended and then we had to come up with an idea to make another movie. It's always a fool's errand to figure out how to make a movie out of a movie that is over already. This movie was designed as a story. The brothers planned this entire story. If the first movie had not succeeded, it would have been a shame. The story they really want to tell is now. They had to make the first movie to introduce this particular world and characters. It's a complicated story and it's truly brilliant. It's not a sequel that's an excuse to use the characters in a movie again. We made a decision not to reveal the story because we felt that the fans wouldn't want to know the story. They'd want to see the films.
JPS: And we can't do any justice to it. We can't really put it into words, to be honest.
JS: When the story comes out, you'll know why. Revolutions is the end to the story. Could there be more stories in The Matrix? Sure. Will the boys make more movies about The Matrix? I doubt it. They completed 270 days of shooting and they ended their experience with these characters. They probably won't continue the story. Yes, it's a commercial endeavour because we want to make a successful movie but the great thing about the Wachowski brothers is that they are artistes (foremost) and their art just happens to be commercial.
What can you tell us about the technical advancements employed in the sequels?
JS: I can only use superlatives. It's beyond anything that you can ever imagine.
KR: They are called virtual cinematography and human replication.
JS: It's going to change movie-making forever. It changes the way you look at movies. Concepts are changing and the computer allows you to tell stories differently.
What was it like working with a team of martial arts experts?
JPS: As a newcomer, I was really surprised at the patience the team had. They were just so laid-back. There was no stress. "We're going to teach you movie kung fu," they said. The whole team was just so helpful. I thought they would have been more intimidating but they weren't. Instead, they were very encouraging and supportive. I had my kids with me sometimes on the set and they played with the kids. They created a nice, warm environment. It was a lot of fun to work with them.
LF: It was easier working with them this time around because they knew us and we knew them. Wo Ping, for the first movie, was very concerned about what we would be able to do and not. After the first training, they knew what our abilities were and it allowed them to relax a little bit. And I think that made us feel more comfortable with some of the stuff.
Keanu, do you think Neo enjoys playing Superman?
KR: That's part of the story. In my storyline, it explores how Neo feels about being The One, what other people's expectations are. But I think Neo likes it a lot - being able to fly. It takes his mind off things [he jokes].
What was it like slipping back into character?
KR: My experience was, it was familiar yet the scripts and what was happening in the stories was very intense. It was at a fairly high emotional level and demanding a lot of investment.
LF: Getting back into character was not easy or hard. I think the difficult part was maintaining the character for the period of time that you work - two years.
What was the strangest Matrix homage you've ever seen?
LF: The strangest thing I've ever seen is a photograph of a tattoo that someone had on his back. It was an image of the three of us - Morpheus, Neo and Trinity - from the first film. That's when I realised how much of a cultural phenomenon the whole thing was.
Do you remember watching the movie as a member of the audience for the first time?
JPS: I do. I remember seeing the actual drawings that they had, even before they shot the first movie and I thought it was going to be incredible. Sitting there during the movie, I was thinking to myself, "I can't believe they did it." The concept that they talked about was basically bringing Japanese animation to life. I'm a huge Japanese animation fan. So, the first scene I saw with Carrie-Anne, I was sold. I didn't need to see anything else. When the second movie came, I said, "Listen, if I have to cut one of my arms off to get on this film, we're going to make it happen..." I always wanted to be part of such an incredible project. It's history in the making. A year-and-a-half that it took to shoot it... I had to pick my family up and take them to Australia while my husband was doing something else. There is no other project that I would have made that sacrifice for. It would have to be only The Matrix.
Is your husband, Will (Smith), jealous of you now?
JPS: He is! After he saw the first one and they called me for the second, he was like, "When you go in there for the meeting, you need to ask them..." That's my meeting! "I ain't asking nothing for you," I said.
LF: We were watching 20 minutes of it and he was losing his mind - he was hysterical.
JPS: I told him, "Hey, you can't have all the blockbusters!"
Was there a point during shooting where you thought, "Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?"
LF: We knew exactly what we were getting into.
JPS: It was actually easier than I thought. I went in and I thought I was going into hell but at the end of the day, there was always a lot of sunshine. It could have been that I thought I was making the biggest mistake, you know. I had to move to Australia and do this and that. But it really turned out to be an incredible experience.
Obviously for some of you, The Matrix proved to be a life-changing experience.
CAM: It definitely changed my career. I didn't really think about it while I was shooting because I just wanted to get through it. I took about three or four months to grieve getting over the first one being over. It was just so painful to let it go. This time around, it was very different. I felt a lot more confident about myself. The first time around, I thought, "How did I get this job?" I had dreams everyday of Joel firing me, you know. I feel that both my character and I have grown since the last one. And through the two years of shooting it, I grew so much and my character went on such a journey that it sort of mirrored each other. I was so sad to see the journey of this character end. Yet, at the same time, I felt grateful to have had this experience and to have my life back. I didn't go through the whole grieving process again because I've had such a full experience playing the character. There was nothing more I wished I had put in there. I got to do it all.