Matrix, The (1999)
“The Matrix” was an underground sensation that went on to become the Star Wars for the new millennium. A sleeper, “The Matrix” was a risky film whose unexpected success took the world by storm.
In 1999, the Wachowski Brothers and producer Joel Silver unveiled “The Matrix,” a visionary fusion of powerful action and dense storytelling. The film was inspired by the Japanese animé films, such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, the hyper-kinetic work of comic book artist Geof Darrow, and the science fiction of William Gibson, Philip K. Dick and Lewis Carroll.
Intrigued by questions at the intersection of philosophy, mythology, religion, and mathematics, the brothers conceived an epic story that explores technological alienation, the cost of ignorance, the price of knowledge–and above all, the importance of free will.
The filmmakers not only electrified audiences with audacious visual innovations that have since been imitated in countless commercials, music videos and movies, they also created a provocative actioner that ponders the essence of reality and identity, illuminating the choices we must make and the strengths and weaknesses that compel us to make them.
The Wachowskis have always envisioned the sprawling saga of The Matrix as a trilogy, and the success of the first film allowed the writer-directors to tunnel deeper into mythology. They approached the production of the second and third installments, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, as a single film to be presented in two parts.
The visual benchmarks set by the trilogy, such as the groundbreaking technique invented to capture the animé-inspired conceptual state of “Bullet Time” in “The Matrix,” or the pioneering of the Universal Capture process to produce photo-realistic virtual humans for Reloaded and Revolutions, continue to redefine what is cinematically possible.
It may be a paradox, but a film trilogy about the horrors that may happen if we push technology too far has itself pushed cinematic technology exponentially.
The Matrix films have also pushed boundaries in the physics of their action sequences. Simultaneously brutal and elegant, they combine elements of classic Kung Fu films with Western gun-slinging action, Eastern martial arts and Western wire work. In the tradition of Hong Kong directors John Woo and Yuen Wo Ping, the actors perform their own fights. This method allows for greater storytelling through action. Indeed, the combat propels the narrative rather than serving as an entertaining detour from it. In this way, every minute of the film offers something exuberant to the audience.
Part of what makes the Matrix films intriguing is their dense story which inspires limitless interpretations. While most films provide the audience with answers, The Matrix unfolds as an open-ended question. Casual references serve as conduits to various threads of thought, themes of mythology, philosophy, emerging technology, evolutionary psychology, literature such as Alice in Wonderland, and theological references (Christianity exists comfortably alongside Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought). The films’ strength lies not in what they tell us, but rather in the audiences’ capacity to absorb–at their own pace–the films’ ideas.
The Wachowskis’s synthesis of philosophy and technology has inspired several books (including The Philosophy of The Matrix, edited by William Irwin; Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present, edited by Karen Haber; and Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy & Religion in The Matrix, edited by Glenn Yeffeth). In the wake of the first film’s success, new college courses have emerged in philosophy, science fiction, computer-mediated communication, religion and contemporary culture. The vast amount of thought devoted to the examination of the Matrix cultural phenomenon is evidence of the films’ ability to hack into the collective consciousness with their provocative notions.
The Wachowskis are well-versed in philosophy, mythology–and comic books. The themes running through their films reflect perception of the timeless questions that have driven man’s quest for knowledge and understanding,” says Joel Silver, producer of the Matrix trilogy. “They’ve created an epic story told it in a visionary way that revolutionized entertainment, a thinking person’s action picture.” The Matrix trilogy aims to appeal to the largest possible audience–there’s something for everybody. Silver explains: “You can enjoy the films on a purely visceral level, but if you want to go deeper, there’re profound ideas to consider.”
Those fans who dare not seek the truth can live vicariously through the choices made by Neo, Morpheus and Trinity; those who choose to explore the philosophical, literary, mythological, theological and technological themes that inform the Wachowskis’ universe can go as deep into the rabbit hole as they dare.
In “The Matrix Reloaded,” Neo continues the journey he began when he chose the red pill in The Matrix. Having made the decision to believe in himself and accept his role as the One, Neo assumes greater command of his powers. But being the One brings responsibilities, not only toward fulfilling what Morpheus believes to be Neo’s destiny–to end the War with the Machines–but in living up to the expectations of those whose lives depend on his choices.
As the rebels brace themselves to protect Zion, the last enclave of humanity, from extinction by the Machine Army boring down on them, Neo is searching for the right course of action. “The second film is a personal quest for Neo,” says Reeves. “He’s coming to terms with what he’s been asked to do. He’s on a further quest for the truth, and this means he has to fight harder and confront visions of the future.”
Meanwhile, having completed his mission to find the One, Morpheus is driven to defiance by his convictions. “In the first film, Morpheus is a teacher,” comments Laurence Fishburne. “In Reloaded, he becomes a spiritual leader. His belief in Neo and the Oracle’s Prophecy is absolute, and he brings great strength and passion to his important role in the fight to save Zion. But the truths he encounters along his path put his faith to the test.”
“The only two people in which Trinity has absolute faith are Morpheus and Neo. Her love for and belief in Neo infuses her with resolve and she becomes more of a warrior than she was in the first film,” says Carrie-Anne Moss. “The world that Neo and Trinity fight in is so dismal and horrific that, by contrast, their love is pure and beautiful. The love softens her but it also gives her strength.”
Hugo Weaving’s role as the indefatigable Agent Smith is complicated by his ability to consume the essence of other beings. In The Matrix, Smith starts off as being a rigid character with a defined mission to accomplish,” Weaving notes. “During that journey, he starts to feel human feelings, anger and jealousy. He starts to have a hint of what it’s like to be human, and he hates that. He sees it as a weakness. In Reloaded, he’s accepted these powerful feelings and he actually starts to relish them. His ego has expanded and he’s been liberated.”
Matrix Reloaded also introduces new characters, both in Zion and in the Matrix. A crucial member of the Zion resistance, Niobe is the captain of the Logos, the smallest, fastest hovercraft in the rebel fleet. The filmmakers selected Jada Pinkett Smith to portray Niobe, a central figure in the films and the video game Enter the Matrix, another of the trilogy’s components. “Niobe doesn’t have faith; she doesn’t believe in anything but herself,” Pinkett Smith (who’s married to movie star Will Smith) says. “Her ego is a beast and she’s arrogant. The only thing she’s connected to is her heart as a soldier. She knows what she has to do and she’s good at it. I’m very much like Niobe in that once she’s got her mind set on something, you’re not going to change it.”
Then there’re Merovingian and Persephone, the latter played by beautiful Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who’s rapidly becoming an international star (She recently co-starred in Bruce Willis’ Hollywood actioner, Tears of the Sun). In contrast to Niobe’s tenacity is the Merovingian, a perversely indulgent Matrix powerbroker who’s flanked by his alluring wife Persephone and bodyguards, including ghostly, razor-wielding Twins. He’s the personification of all forms of indulgence in life,” says Lambert Wilson of his role. “What he lacks, and therefore likes to indulge in, is emotion.”
“The Merovingian and Persephone are like vampires,” says Bellucci, who plays the trophy wife. “They want to provoke emotion in other people so they can feed on it. Persephone is elegant, sophisticated, but also corrupt, and she’ll use her power to get what she wants which is to feel.”
Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15, The Matrix Reloaded receives one of the fastest, most global theatrical releases in history. Warner has decided on another novelty for a popular franchise. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, for example, the Matrix third segment, “Matrix Revolutions,” will be seen worldwide on November 5, just six month after the second chapter.
Whereas The Matrix came out of nowhere to become one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, the sequels are two of the most highly anticipated films ever made, movies poised to break box-office records and redefine the role of special effects in pictures–not to speak of the new methods Hollywood will use in the future to market its blockbusters.
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