Taking action to the next level

While 'The Matrix' is dazzling viewers with high-tech moviemaking, it might also be challenging them to think.

April 11, 1999|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,los angeles daily news

LOS ANGELES -- In many ways, "The Matrix" represents the next step in high-tech action moviemaking. And, if its target audience of sensation-seeking young males can follow its convoluted plot, the film also might represent a new leap of intelligence for the notoriously dumbed-down genre.

"IQ? What IQ?" jokes Larry Wachowski, who, with younger brother Andy conceived, wrote and directed the complicated cyberpunk allegory. "Yeah, we were tired of dumb movies, that was sort of our starting point. We like action movies, like seeing kung fu, we like all sorts of genre films. We just want them to be smarter, to have some social or political relevance, to be about something more than just having a good time."

Comprehensibility would be nice, too. "The Matrix" will confuse anyone who doesn't pay close attention, thereby calling into question both the movie's fictional reality and, at least metaphorically, a viewer's own. Still, enough viewers have made sense of "Matrix" to push it to No. 1 in the country. It took in $37.2 million in its first five days, making it the biggest Easter weekend opening ever, according to Warner Bros.

The film is set in a contemporary city (Sydney, Australia, where the film reportedly was shot for a bargain $60 million). Keanu Reeves plays a cog in a giant info-biz corporation. He moonlights as Neo, a super-hacker who pirates and illegally distributes software programs. After coming in contact with a cyber-terrorist dubbed Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo discovers that the world he thinks he lives in is a computer- generated illusion where only a handful of people can distinguish between true human consciousness and virtual reality.

It gets more complicated from there, with enough monster machines, automatic ordnance and Hong Kong-style martial-arts acrobatics to keep a dozen movies from getting dull. But there are also reams of references to Judeo-Christian as well as Zen philosophy, mythic archetypes and quantum physics, among other topics.

"It's full of some of the most explosive action I've ever been involved with in my life," says producer Joel Silver, the man behind such franchises as "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard." "I mean big, exciting stuff. If people can't find their way through the story's different layers of reality, there are other things that they can enjoy in the picture. But I think it's all there."

"It starts," says Reeves, "with my character asking, 'What is the Matrix?' and from there you're asking, 'What is reality? What is around me?' The film also introduces themes of choice and what happens when you make choices. You can either learn about reality in answer to your question or you can go on living in ignorance."

Providing, of course, you survive at all. Reeves claims that, despite enduring four months of intensive martial arts training to perform the balletic, wire-assisted, gravity-defying fight stunts, he came through his "Matrix" experience unscathed.

Meanwhile, his co-stars Laurence Fishburne ("What's Love Got to Do With It?"), Carrie-Anne Moss (TV's "Dark Justice") and Hugo Weaving ("Proof," "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") all suffered sidelining injuries.

And even the stalwart Reeves admits that "I couldn't walk a couple of times. I'm exaggerating a little bit, but there were scenes where I had to carry about 50 pounds of weapons. Standing around waiting for them to set up these special-effects sequences -- bullet hits, etc. -- the legs just gave out. Also, some of the triple kicks in the dojo sequences caused a lot of wear and tear."

The Wachowskis wanted to film some firefights in "The Matrix" in extreme slow-motion, but with the same kind of unhindered camera movement available at regular speed.

"Action in slow-motion is more beautiful, it becomes more graphic and is just more interesting to look at," says Larry Wachowski, 33, the more talkative of the brothers. "We began with this idea that we wanted to move the camera at regular speed while we shot slow-motion, which is basically impossible. Our first thought was to build this giant rocket-camera, put it inside a crash box and move it at, like, 250 miles an hour. It was going to come screeching right up to the actor, but the lawyers didn't like the idea of putting Keanu Reeves in the path of something like that. 'Are you crazy?' I think was their response."

Then the Wachowskis met John Gaeta, who directs visual effects for a Northern California outfit called Manex. He helped develop a system that involved a series of up to 100 still cameras, set up along the path of action, that would snap single-frame shots of the live actors and moving objects as they went along. The resulting photos then were scanned into a computer, which then virtually generated the missing movements between each shot to create a smooth visual flow.

That footage then could be run at any speed, slower or faster, that the filmmakers desired. The brothers called the whole process "bullet time" photography.

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