Revolutions of 'Matrix'
by Scott Bowles
BURBANK, Calif. — Morpheus is giving Neo an earful about the arduous journey they've undertaken for The Matrix. "You knew it would be this hard?" Morpheus bellows, with Trinity at his side. "Why didn't you warn us?"
No, it's not a scene from the final chapter of the franchise, The Matrix Revolutions, which opens Wednesday at the same time, all over the world, 9 a.m. ET. The man who plays the proselytizing Morpheus, Laurence Fishburne, is teasing co-star Keanu Reeves about the rigorous martial arts regimen the actors went through for the trilogy. Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Trinity and broke her leg training for Revolutions, feigns a hard glare at Reeves before they all break into laughter.
They can afford to joke now. The heroes of one of the most successful franchises have taken a rare moment to gather and reflect on a film series that began as a gamble, shot the actors to new heights of stardom and raised the standard for special effects in action movies.
"I knew the first day I read the script that this would be different from anything we were used to seeing in movies, if a studio would take a chance on it," Fishburne says. "No one could have predicted it would be this big. But I knew this was special. After doing the first film, there was no question we'd all be back to take this as far as the story needed to go."
But will audiences be back? To be sure, May's Reloaded was a box office smash, taking in $281 million domestically and $735 million worldwide. It is the 20th highest-grossing film of all time and the fastest to reach $150 million. And combined with 1999's The Matrix, the frenzied, fever-dream movies have taken in more than $1.5 billion worldwide in ticket and video sales, apparel, video games and soundtrack sales.
But among fans and some analysts, Reloaded was a disappointment. Time magazine, which is part of the conglomerate that cranked out the movies, declared 2003 "The Year of the Matrix" before Reloaded even opened. But the film was only the third biggest of summer. Neo was roughed up by Nemo, with the cartoon fish story Finding Nemo taking in $338 million. The bumbling swashbucklers of Pirates of the Caribbean also bested Reloaded, raking in $301 million.
Reloaded also was viewed by many as a letdown from the mind-altering original. While the sequel featured some gee-whiz stunt work, including "The Burly Brawl," with dozens of Agent Smiths, and a freeway scene that raised the bar for car chases, it was criticized for sacrificing story for special effects.
And savvy marketing, including releasing a nine-part animated series and a hit video game timed to Reloaded's release, struck many fans as selling out.
"I'll be there for the last movie. I have to be there to get the answers," says Kevin Martinez of Colorado Springs. The 26-year-old non-profit fundraiser purchased The Animatrix DVD and Enter the Matrix video game but says he was disappointed to see "such an intellectually challenging concept go so commercial.
"It's still the smartest franchise Hollywood ever created. But The Matrix was always about breaking free of a superficial world. And here are the Reloaded billboards and the commercials and the video game tie-ins bombarding you on TV. I was hoping for something a little more subtle, like the original."
Distributor Warner Bros. appears to be following that mantra for Revolutions. Gone are the video games and animated shorts. The television campaign promotes the new film and the DVD of Reloaded, released earlier this month.
That should please the Matrix faithful. But if the franchise wants to continue its astounding commercial success, analysts say it will have to get back to the high concepts of the original film, which was as much religious parable as cool kung fu movie.
"There were a lot of people who saw the last movie as straight action interrupted by boring dialogue," says Brandon Gray of BoxOfficeMojo.com. "Revolutions will have to better integrate the high concepts with the great action — the way the first one did — if it wants to end the story with a bang instead of a whimper."
A 'Matrix' marriage
So far, early reviews on sites including aintitcoolnews.com have been positive, praising the movie for getting back to its roots. Not that the stars care: If they are the slightest bit nervous about Revolution's future, Reeves, Fishburne and Moss don't show it.
If anything, they seem relieved to have survived the seven years since they first gathered in a warehouse in Sydney to begin four months of martial arts training.
"We walk in, and there are all these guys from Hong Kong, sitting around waiting for us in the middle of all these mattresses, wires and mirrors," Fishburne says with a laugh. "After the first day, there was pain. After the second day, there was pain. For four months, we lived in a house of pain. We had no idea what we were in for."
Reeves pipes up with a grin. "I had an idea."
And the ribbing begins. The actors are quick to joke, embrace and finish each other's sentences, like spouses. In many ways, Moss says, they formed a marriage of sorts.
"The training was so intense, and we were so isolated with one another that we created a kind of family," says Moss, who added to her own in September with her first child, a boy with actor husband Steven Roy. "I was kind of green and nervous the first time around. But by the second film, I came to depend on them for my sanity. I adore them."
The family was run, all agree, by the director/writers of the three films, Andy and Larry Wachowski. While the actors speak in awed terms of the brothers, they also concede they often had no idea what the mysterious duo had in mind. Since the first movie, the directors no longer do interviews.
Just as the films wreak havoc with what's real and what's imagined, the brothers seemed to enjoy letting the actors stew on the Matrix's many religious and literary references.
"The brothers would say things like, 'It's about the infinite and the finite,' " Reeves says.
"What does that mean?" Fishburne asks.
Reeves nods his head. "Exactly."
Fishburne takes off his trademark shades. "They're obviously some brilliant guys. But I'm still not sure what planet they're from."
Whatever their origins and inspirations, the Wachowskis' work struck a nerve. The first two films have inspired more than 1,000 tribute Web sites, seven books and dozens of college courses that dissect the films' references to Buddhism, Jesus, Japanese animé and Hong Kong martial arts films.
In the process, it changed the three stars of the film.
"It's changed the way I choose movies," says Moss, who next stars in Suspect Zero, a murder mystery with Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley. "After this experience, I can't work on movies I don't respect, that has a script I don't love. You can't go from this to just taking a movie to keep working."
Saying goodbye to her character, she says, was harder than expected. On the final day of filming, the Wachowskis announced that Moss had performed her final scene. Co-stars and crew members gathered, with champagne toasts, hugs and congratulations.
Moss couldn't hold back the tears. "I couldn't believe it was over," she says. "I've cried every time we all get together. I'm sure I will on the red carpet when we go to the premiere."
Reeves, too, admits he was shaken. "People were very nice and congratulating me," he says. "But I just had to sit down for a bit. I had to think about it and let the reality that it was over settle in."
He next stars in Something's Gotta Give, a comedy co-starring Jack Nicholson due Dec. 12.
Fans of the franchise may have equal difficulty letting go.
"On the one hand, I'm going to see it the first day, as many times as I can," says Patti Grossman, 31, of Rochester, N.Y. "On the other, I don't want this to end. I guess there's always video."
Grossman, a retail-sales consultant, says she plans to watch all three movies back to back when the final DVD is released. "I think I'll need to, just to answer all the questions I have."
While many of those questions are answered in Revolutions, some remain open for interpretation. Still, the stars of the franchise feel they have a pretty solid answer for the question first raised on the posters promoting the 1999 film: "What is The Matrix?"
For Moss, "It's a love story." For Reeves, "It's a journey of the self." Ever the orator, Fishburne offers a possibility that would make Morpheus proud. "The Matrix," he says, "is whatever you want it to be."
Contributing: Christopher Theokas