Unlocking the Matrix

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

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    The Matrix also caught the wrathful attention of moral watchdogs when the fatal shootings at Columbine High School occurred a few weeks after the movie's opening, and it appeared that the two perpetrating teens had seen the film — as had 15 million people who didn't kill anyone.

    Anyway, the movie was a hit. And a hit, in the lower math of Hollywood, demands a sequel, whether or not the story has been completed. The brothers, though, had a vaster vision — one not easily contained in a single film. They had conceived The Matrix as a gigantic comic book, then stripped it down to movie form. "In the first version of the script," producer Joel Silver recalls, "you actually saw Zion. But they didn't have the time or the money to do that. If the first film hadn't been successful, nobody would have seen the rest of the story. But the boys had it in their heads. So when the studio said, 'Let's make a sequel,' they had already planned a lot of it."

    The brothers' production scheme was as audacious as their narrative vision: two films shot as one, and more than two years in the making of the real (sound stage) and virtual (computer-generated) elements. They also planned a DVD package called Animatrix — nine short computer films by top Japanese and American anime directors, elaborating on the trilogy's themes and subplots (it hits stores next month) — and a nifty video game, Enter the Matrix .

    Hoping lightning could strike thrice, the studio — Warner Bros., which, like TIME, is part of AOL Time Warner — said yes to the tandem of sequels. "The success of the first one created an environment for the producers to give the brothers a lot of resources," Reeves says. "It allowed them to pursue their use of a virtual camera, the time we got to spend on our fights. They could build whole worlds, like Zion. And they got the shooting schedule that allowed them to put all these things on film."

    It was no holiday, those long months spent Down Under; often it was a nightmare. Reeves' sister had a cancer relapse. Fishburne severely sprained his wrist. Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Trinity, broke her leg. Gloria Foster — the Oracle whose pronouncements goad Morpheus to find the One — died at 64 after finishing Reloaded . Aaliyah, the R&B thrush cast in a major supporting role, died in a plane crash before shooting; she was 22. (Nona Gaye, Marvin's daughter, replaced her.) The attacks of Sept. 11 increased the cast's fear and isolation. Jada Pinkett Smith, cast as Morpheus' ex-lover Niobe, tried to back out because she was afraid to take commercial flights.

    But the Wachowskis had earned the allegiance of the first film's cast and crew. Nearly all of them returned for the grueling sequels. It meant more months of arduous training, often under the supervision of Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, who devised the films' fabulous action scenes (he also masterminded the fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ). The result of those workouts shows onscreen: the stars look fitter, more weathered and sinewy than in the first film — their bodies reveal what they've been through. Says Moss, whose hard-earned buffness approaches the Amazonian look Linda Hamilton sported in Terminator 2 : "I genuinely wanted to serve these two guys who gave everything of themselves to write this story and then to make it happen."

    In addition to the long slog on Sydney sound stages, the team shot on a 1½-mile freeway track built for the car chase at an old naval base in Alameda, Calif. Cadillac was so eager to hitch a ride, it fast-tracked two new models, the CTS sedan and Escalade EXT sport-utility truck, so they could be in the movie. GM engineers even fished spare parts for the prototypes out of the trash where they were due to be compacted.

    As the opening date neared, Silver and the brothers judiciously nixed inappropriate merchandising tie-ins. "This movie doesn't fit into the Happy Meals world," Silver says. "And we were very concerned about fan backlash. We haven't beat them over the head with T-shirts and board games and coffee cups and underwear. We want everything we do to look cool." The team also works hard to keep secrets secret. Unlike the last two Star Wars films, Reloaded did not find its script posted on the Internet — though there are two complete, fake scripts. Says Silver: "One of them was actually pretty good."

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