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the matrix RELOADED

What is The Matrix? Easy. But how about when will we see Zion? Lest you sound like a witless copper-top, here are five need-to-knows about The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

WHAT TOOK SO LONG? Start with the scripts: Andy and Larry Wachowski didn’t finish writing the films until almost a year after the original opened. Then there were the logistics of storyboarding and budget. Says exec producer Bruce Berman, ”These guys like to go in knowing exactly what they’re doing.” The $300 million-plus, two-movie shoot started in March 2001 in Oakland and wraps this summer in Sydney, Australia; add a complex postproduction and presto! Four years pass. ”It was a far more demanding shoot – I started training in October 2000,” says franchise hero Neo, a.k.a. Keanu Reeves. ”But we’re all friends. We go out to dinner or movies or theater, but not that much. Or maybe they’re going out and just not telling me.”

In an unusual move, the films will be in theaters in May and November of 2003, respectively, an ultra-quick release designed to take advantage of Reloaded’s cliff-hanger ending and to underscore ”the serial quality of the stories,” explains Warner Bros. president of worldwide production Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

WHAT’S THE PLOT? Details are as tight as Trinity’s pants, but here’s what we’ve learned. Reloaded will take place mostly in the CGI universe, as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo (Reeves), and Co. continue their revolt against the machines and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). (In Revolutions, the scorched real world will play a larger role.) We’ll also finally get a peek at the human city of Zion and meet Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), a former lover of Morpheus, and Zee, the freedom fighter originally slated to be played by R&B singer Aaliyah. After she died in a plane crash last August, Ali’s Nona Gaye stepped in.

WHO WON’T WE BE SEEING? Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle, died of diabetes complications at age 64 on Sept. 29, 2001. Then there’s the peculiar case of Marcus Chong, who played Tank, one of only four major human characters to survive the original. The actor had a falling out with the producers and embarked on a series of bizarre episodes which, he told EW, included crashing a press junket, harassing the directors by phone, and sneaking into – and taking food from – the Matrix offices on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. He was, unsurprisingly, not invited back for the sequels.

WHAT WILL THE SPECIAL EFFECTS LOOK LIKE? ”There are more action sequences,” says Reeves. ”What the Brothers wanted is more sophisticated and demanding. More kicks. Instead of fighting one-on-one, I fight one-against-many. There’s some weapons stuff as well.” And aerial stunts: Producer Joel Silver, for example, has been promising a groundbreaking, 14 minute, low-altitude helicopter chase. Says di Bonaventura: ”Last time, the Wachowskis came to us and said, ‘There’s this thing called bullet time and we want to try it.’ You saw the results. This time they said, ‘There are two things that technologically need to be invented to accomplish sequences in the movies.”’ Don’t suppose you could tell us what those are? ”Uh, no.”

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