Unlocking the Matrix

An exclusive look at the year's most avidly anticipated film epic.

  • Strap yourself in for a road-rage theme-park ride in The Matrix Reloaded . Trinity, coolest of woman warriors, is revving down the street with an old Asian man called the Key Maker in the backseat, her boss Morpheus riding shotgun — and the Twins, remorseless computer-world Restoration fops, riding machine gun in an SUV pursuing her. Cop sirens keen, steel-belted radials scream bloody murder, as bullets decorate Trinity's car. She takes a sharp turn, hurdles a median and crashes onto a freeway. One Twin vaults into the car to battle Morpheus, while a dark-suited Agent leapfrogs onto the hood, his gun aimed at Trinity. Their car takes a few too many bullets and is totaled. As Morpheus plays matador with another Agent's car, Trinity spots a truck with a cargo of motorbikes about to pass on a lower level. She and the Key Maker jump, and now they're thigh-hugging a 140-h.p. Ducati. She blasts off the truck ramp, onto the road and scoots between two semis — where Morpheus is miraculously perched to scoop up the Key Maker! But now he must fight a deadly Agent atop one speeding truck. And where the heck is Neo?

    By now we're only partway through a 14-minute chase scene that has plenty more stunts, fights and fatalities in store. And that's just the car candy in a movie the writer-directors, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, have vacuum packed with enough action and meditation, enough complications, conundrums and kung fu to keep viewers rubbing their eyes and scratching their heads until ... well, at least until Nov. 5, when their finale to the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions , is released. (This second episode ends with a cliff-hanger and the legend, "To be concluded.")

    Reloaded , which opens around the world next week, is the expansion of what Keanu Reeves, who plays the central character Neo, calls a modern myth: "The first film was the birth of a hero; the second and third are the life of that hero." With a sequelmaker's ambition that dates back to Homer (don't most readers prefer The Odyssey to its predecessor, The Iliad ?), the Wachowskis worked for four years with the aim of outdoing their 1999 cyberepic The Matrix , as well as every adventure film since that devoutly imitated its computer wizardry and dense action scenes. They had the bankroll for it. The two sequels, shot back to back over 18 months in Sydney, Australia, cost more than $300 million, or about five times the original's budget.

    The Matrix was, in the words of Laurence Fishburne, who plays Captain Morpheus in the trilogy, "a combination of science fiction, Hong Kong kung fu, cyberpunk and classic American action, with heavy doses of spiritualism and philosophy." It earned critical hosannas, popular wow-ees and $460 million at the worldwide box office. But unlike the new film, which comes encrusted with four years of anticipation and expectation, the first one had the advantage, initially, of relative anonymity. Arriving in March 1999 with no special fanfare or pedigree, and thus no outsize expectations, the Wachowskis' movie rose like a surprise sunrise.

    That cinematic dawn revealed a grave new world where nothing was as it seemed. What we knew as reality in the late 20th century, the movie suggested, was a fiction imposed on human beings by intellectually superior machines. In fact, it was the late 22nd century, when humans, who provided bioelectric power to the machines, spent their entire existence in pods; they were nourished by the liquefied remains of their fellows and by the Matrix, a virtual-reality computer program of their lives. A few rebels had escaped the Matrix with the aim of destroying it and liberating humanity. Now if Morpheus and his insurgents from the underworld city of Zion could only find a savior, the One of an oracular prophecy. Perhaps this One is a young man called Thomas Anderson. Code name: Neo.

    The money earned by The Matrix was nice, especially for a movie whose audience was limited by an R rating. The film's success on video was gratifying. But the cultural impact was near phenomenal. Cybernerds, proliferating like the film's men-in-black computer Agents, studied the Wachowskis' host of referents — to the Bible and Buddha, to novelist William Gibson ( Neuromancer ) and comic-book artist Jack Kirby ( Captain America ), to cybernetics and higher mathematics, to Hong Kong action films and Japanese anime — and filled more than 1,000 websites with gnarly exegeses. Half a dozen books have investigated the film's subtleties and invented still more. The Matrix stoked the adrenaline of millions of moviegoers and the intellects of many active, lonely minds.

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