Unlocking the Matrix

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

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    The Matrix Reloaded is sure to fuel avid speculation. Scholars will note that the Merovingians were a European tribe from the Dark Ages, and that Morpheus paraphrases King Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel. That strange number, 314: Could it refer to pi (3.14); or to Cerebral Cortex 314, the website for the Commander Keen computer game; or to the lifetime batting average of White Sox outfielder Bibb Falk? As for the Architect's apparently crushing revelation: Couldn't this be another lie — the biggest?

    WARNING OVER: All right, Gentler Readers. You can come back now.

    To get answers on Matrix arcana from the first film, TIME went to the Source: the Wachowskis, who cheerfully illuminated their dense, allusive text. But now, after just three features as writer-directors (their first was the darkly comic femme-revenge thriller Bound ), the brothers have turned Trappist, gone Garbo, pulled a Pynchon — they've refused to speak to any journalists. At least that's what we're told. And if we hear they have broken their vow of silence, we'll be on them like a thousand Smiths.

    Some of their actors are also reluctant to break the code. Fishburne: "I can't talk to you about them." (The brothers not only created a cult, they practically are one.) Others are less guarded. "They're not comic-book nerds," Pinkett Smith avers. "They're intellectuals. These cats study. Larry reads everything! When you think you've got him figured out, he pops something else out on you, like ... Cornel West!?"

    Larry was such a fan of West's books Prophesy Deliverance and Race Matters that he wrote a role for West in Reloaded . So last April, the Princeton professor flew to Sydney to play Councillor West in an action blockbuster. For the teacher, it was quite an education. "Larry and I got into these great philosophical discussions," West recalls. "We talked about the history of the epic, from Homer to Nikos Kazantzakis. The brothers are very into epic poetry and philosophy — into Schopenhauer and William James. It was unbelievable! We'd shoot from 6:30 a.m to mid-afternoon — 50, 75 takes — it was hard fun and hard work. Then we'd go off to a restaurant and have a philosophical discussion. I was impressed with their sheer genius, their engagement with ideas. Larry Wachowski knows more about Hermann Hesse than most German scholars."

    Hesse, Homer — Wachowski films contain multitudes. But not everyone goes to The Matrix for the articles. A few like the glossy pictures — the vivid color schemes, the pirouetting camera and, most of all, the special effects. The first Matrix introduced Bullet Time, the process that allowed us to see Neo outfoxing his opponents in super-slow motion. In Reloaded , which has some 1,000 virtual-effects shots (compared with 412 in the first film), special-effects supervisor John Gaeta trumped that effect with such devices as Universal Capture (putting five high-definition cameras on an actor so he can be duplicated or, in Agent Smith's case, centiplicated, and shown from any angle, as in the Burly Brawl) and Virtual Cinema (which can give emotion, in the anime style, to elements like fire and water). The idea was to make the effects so dauntingly sophisticated, says Silver, "that people can't just rip us off again."

    That's the problem with being instant superstar auteurs. Hollywood has become a cult of Zion, and for just this moment the Wachowskis are a Neo duo: saviors of the intellectual action film. Now everybody expects everything — in box office (if it's less than a smash, it's a disaster), in artistic achievement (if it's less than a masterpiece, it stinks). Silver is already trying to deflect expectations: at the TIME screening last week, he said, "Remember, it's only half a movie." (But you will pay full price.)

    Already audiences are in a show-me mood. At a screening for exhibitors, the courtyard fight and the big car chase raised the room temperature but didn't earn the spontaneous gasps and applause that mark a movie sensation. The reaction was less "Wow!" than "Huh?" Some thought it was half a terrific action movie — the second half — with a sluggish buildup. A few compared the film unfavorably to X-Men 2 .

    That's unfair for a film as ambitious and demanding as this one. Reloaded is a six-month cliff-hanger: the plot points in its slower early scenes may pay off in Revolutions. But, hey, it's tough being an action hero. And it's even harder being two brothers who, we'll bet, just want to make terrific movies.

    — With reporting by Desa Philadelphia / Los Angeles

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