A Matrix in every medium

Anime, video games, movies: The synergistic storytelling frenzy of the Wachowski brothers is like nothing we've seen before.

Published May 12, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Four years of waiting are finally over for "Matrix" fans. This Thursday will mark the simultaneous release of "The Matrix Reloaded," the first of two sequels set to hit movie screens this year, and "Enter the Matrix," a companion video game. The second wave will arrive on June 3, with the release of a DVD titled "The Animatrix," containing a series of nine animated film shorts set in the world of the Matrix. The DVD of "Reloaded" is expected to follow in late October, clearing the way for the release of "The Matrix Revolutions," the third and final installment of the "Matrix" saga, in early November.

There is little doubt that the two "Matrix" films will top this year's box office charts: Pundits expect the two films to generate more than $1.2 billion in ticket receipts, and according to David Mumpower of Box Office Prophets, "Reloaded" should have no trouble crossing the $100 million line by the fourth day of its release. Back in January, Newsweek declared that 2003 would be the Year of the Matrix; five months in, it is hard to disagree.

But does the yearlong "Matrix" release schedule represent a significant advance in the art of storytelling or merely a new height of promotional franchising and profit-raising spinoff products? Even the most excited fans can't help noticing that the "Matrix" has returned bearing all the trappings of a standard big-budget Hollywood sequel, from an official video game to a reissued "Collector's Edition" DVD. (In a particularly poor move, Warner Bros. seems to have authorized a single promotional tie-in, which has yielded an awkward and slightly creepy "Matrix"-themed campaign for PowerAde.) Even if the new movies, game, and animated shorts live up to the high standards set by the first film, there's still an uneasy feeling that Warner Bros. is taking advantage of "The Matrix's" cult following to cash in while it can.

The hype from producer and "Matrix" mouthpiece Joel Silver is also a little over the top. In one recent interview Silver suggested that the triple-release of "Reloaded," "Enter the Matrix" and "The Animatrix" represents "the first time anyone's told a story in multiple mediums." That statement is highly debatable, but within it lies a nugget worth paying attention to: The entire "Matrix" franchise is under the close supervision of its writer-director-producer duo, the brother-brother team of Larry and Andy Wachowski, who have either directed or approved every product on the list of "Matrix" offerings. As a result, if all goes well, the various products will demonstrate a level of consistency and integration that no previous pop-culture franchise has achieved.

Not every critic agrees. A May 5 article in the San Jose Mercury News described the Wachowskis' approach to cross-marketing as mere "expandability." The author, Mike Antonucci, conceded that the strategy would allow consumers to choose their own level of "Matrix" engagement -- both emotional and financial -- but concluded that the Year of the Matrix would have more to do with the evolution of "smart marketing" than the arrival of "smart storytelling." Antonucci suggested that, "although the Wachowskis have upped the ante by the scope of their involvement, nothing about their strategy is unprecedented." Pointing to the expansive franchise surrounding "Star Wars," Antonucci notes that "over time, 'Star Wars' has developed its 'universe' by extending its history across different media. A character who originated in a video game, for instance, later was included in 'Star Wars' comic books." The Wachowski brothers can be saluted for their "digital-era vision," says Antonucci, but their greatest asset is their ability to "blur the difference between storytelling and merchandising."

Whatever the critical appraisal, the brothers -- both Warner and Wachowski -- stand to profit from their venture into multimedia storytelling. But it would be a mistake to write off the triple threat of "Reloaded," "Enter the Matrix" and "The Animatrix" as no more than supercharged slick cross-promotion. Little is known about the media-shy siblings, who, after the first movie, demanded that a "no press" clause be inserted into their contract before they would sign on for the remaining films, but what details we do have suggest a level of fanaticism and devotion to storytelling that is more usually associated with science fiction fans than Hollywood producers. The Wachowskis are passionate comic book readers, obsessive fans of Japanese anime, and avid video game addicts. In these limited details, we find everything we need to understand the origins -- and to evaluate the significance -- of the Year of the Matrix.

Start with Antonucci's claim that there is nothing unprecedented in the Wachowskis' attempt to deliver a single narrative through an assortment of media platforms. On this point, the "Star Wars" example is perhaps more instructive than it first seems, for while the various product lines in the "Star Wars" franchise have often featured common characters and settings, that has been a gradual development, a slow accretion of content. To equate this franchise to that of the "Matrix" is to obscure the new model of storytelling beginning to emerge: one in which, as Silver notes, a single story is told through multiple media.

Consider the exact nature of the Wachowskis' involvement in the various aspects of the "Matrix" franchise. In the past, film directors have had little interest, and even less participation, in the decisions that expand a particular film into other media. By contrast, the Wachowski brothers themselves conceived of both "The Animatrix" and "Enter the Matrix" as integral components of the "Matrix" narrative, rather than spin-off products to be outsourced to third parties. As a result, the Wachowski brothers wrote four of the nine animated shorts themselves, using them to provide context and explanation for the content of their live-action features. The first and second installments, collectively titled "The Second Renaissance," debuted as free Internet downloads and provided a historical overview explaining the origin of the war between man and machine. A third script, titled "The Kid's Story," introduces a character who will be featured in the remaining feature films, and shows how he came to join the fight against the Matrix.

But the most attention, by far, has been given to "Final Flight of the Osiris," the brothers' fourth script, which was produced by the digital animation team at "FinalFantasy" game studio SquareSoft. It debuted in theaters during March screenings of Lawrence Kasdan's "Dreamcatcher." Also referred to as "The Matrix 1.5," Osiris is intended to provide a bridge between the action of the first and second films.

The same attention to detail is at play in the game "Enter the Matrix." From the beginning, the Wachowskis insisted that the game serve not as an adaptation of the film, but as a distinct and self-supporting narrative. As a result, the game revolves around a concurrent, independent story line that intersects with and informs the action of "Reloaded" at regular intervals. "Enter the Matrix" puts players in control of two supporting characters from the film as they pursue their own missions and objectives and, in the process, sheds light on details of the film plot that are never addressed in the films themselves. Bruno Bonnell, president of game co-developer Infogrames, boasted to the Hollywood Reporter that "'Enter the Matrix' was not an afterthought or a licensing deal; the Wachowskis wanted this game as part of the 'Matrix' universe from day one. When this game ships, people will see what interactive entertainment should be, rather than a subproduct of licensing."

During their first meeting with the game-development team at Shiny Entertainment, the Wachowskis were prepared with an original 244-page script for the game alone, and they announced their intention to shoot more than an hour of exclusive footage (which they have dubbed "cineractives") to develop the narrative of the game. According to Shiny's president, Dave Perry, their participation was far more explicit than suggestive. Says Perry: "They basically had an arc for the story and they knew exactly how it would all fit together -- the beginning, the middle and the end -- and they had gotten right down to the point where they said to me, 'Okay, you're in this situation and you get this and head to the front door but the front door has been all sealed and the place starts closing in on you.'" By contrast, most film-based video games -- such as Electronic Arts' rendition of "The Two Towers" -- feature plots that are more adaptation than supplement. Even when these games are well implemented, they are ends unto themselves. To those fans that choose to pursue it, "Enter the Matrix" provides access to an obsessive level of authoritative detail and offers a potential enhancement of the film-viewing experience.

Of course, it helps to remember that the Wachowski brothers are, themselves, passionate fans of both anime and video games. (Perry has noted that the brothers have an Xbox and PlayStation 2, and play "tons of games.") This gives them an edge that most directors will never have: They understand the logic of these media on a basic, instinctive level. The Wachowskis view these forms, which are so often seen as the extraneous trappings of a film's product line, as meaningful projects of their own.

For "The Animatrix," the brothers insisted on handpicking the directors and production teams, and the final roster reflects their long-standing admiration for anime: Those involved in the production of the five non-Wachowski sequences include members from the production team that developed "Akira," an anime staple, and the director of the much acclaimed "Cowboy Bebop" series, which recently reached American theaters in the form of a feature-length film. Film stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss have both lent their voices to individual chapters of "The Animatrix," an endorsement that would, by itself, put the series in a class far above previous attempts at animated tie-ins.

Quality standards for the video game were even higher. Reports place the production budget for "Enter the Matrix" at figures in excess of $20 million, more than four times the usual budget for a PlayStation 2 game. And while big budgets don't always correlate with better products, the Wachowskis' involvement in the game's development and production bode well for those fans hoping for something more than an exploitative video game tie-in. Footage for the game was captured at the same time as footage for the feature films, using the same sets, costumes and props that appear onscreen in theaters, and the game production crew was given unrestricted access to all of the film's resources.

The Wachowski brothers themselves wrote and directed more than an hour of exclusive footage for the game, which features active participation from all of the film's significant characters. (As a point of comparison, the video game tie-ins to the James Bond franchise have received praise from fans and critics for the mere use of Pierce Brosnan's visual likeness.) According to the cast, the Wachowskis were no less demanding of the game's stars than those featured in the films. In an online interview, Jada Pinkett-Smith, who appears as Niobe, one of the two central characters featured in the game, reported that the experience of shooting for the game was identical to the production for any feature film: "It's serious business, down to how you walk, the tone of your voice, how you pronounce the words, the whole attitude -- just everything. [The Wachowskis] were just as involved in the process of the videogame as they were the movie. It's all one [and] the same -- there was no separation. It was just one, big, massive project." According to most actors, in fact, the cast was unaware of which scenes were being shot for the game and which were being shot for the movie. In most cases the Wachowski brothers refused to clarify.

In an online production journal, lead game programmer Michael "Saxs" Persson explained: "Traditionally, the development studio is left without access to assets from the movie, such as the primary talent, and the effects and sound departments. That all changed on 'Enter the Matrix.' We have had unprecedented access to any and all assets generated from the movie, right from the get-go."

Taking all of this into account, the critique that argues that there is nothing new unfolding in the multimedia experiments of the "Matrix" team appears unfounded. Yes, the Year of the Matrix will advance the science of franchise marketing, just as the first "Matrix" film advanced the art of computer-generated visual effects. And yes, all this multimedia synergy represents a huge opportunity to cash in. To get the "entire" "Matrix" experience, fans will have to shell out at least four times this year: twice at the box office, for "Reloaded" and "Revolutions," and twice at the cash register, for "Enter the Matrix" and "The Animatrix." It's true: Warner Bros. could not be in a better position. But the same might also be true of audiences who have waited four years for the second coming of "The Matrix." The Wachowski brothers have made an enormous commitment to developing the "Matrix" universe, and if the phenomenal following of the first film is any indication, fans will thank them for it.

As it did in 1999, the revived "Matrix" franchise is guaranteed to raise the bar for special effects. If we're lucky, however, the Year of the Matrix will also raise the bar for how stories are conceived and executed. Presenting a single unified narrative in the form of two movies, nine animated shorts, and a cinematic video game, the Wachowskis have offered a new model for storytelling in the detail-obsessed, information-saturated digital age. We can only hope that other directors will follow their lead.

By Ivan Askwith

Ivan Askwith is a senior at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, graduating this spring with a focus in social philosophy and technoculture.

MORE FROM Ivan Askwith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------