By the time the third and final installment of The Matrix unspooled in 2003, it seemed as if one of Hollywood's most valued properties had been infected with a nasty computer virus. The reviews for Revolutions were rotten, the box office was slipping. A once red-hot franchise had turned very cold. Neo saved humanity, but who would save The Matrix? Andy and Larry Wachowski are hoping it will be you.
On Jan. 18, a portal will open to The Matrix Online, a massive multiplayer world in which anyone with a decent computer and modem can join the fray. Players will have ''an opportunity to enter the Matrix, to create their own identity, and to take the story wherever they can,'' says Laurence Fishburne, who reprises his role as Morpheus in the game and is joined by castmates Monica Bellucci and Lambert Wilson.
The game is the brainchild of the Wachowski brothers, the series' directors; Warner Bros. backed them before the sequels were released eventually paying roughly $40 million for the privilege. A risky bet since online universes are hardly proven moneymakers. The most popular, EverQuest, has about 500,000 users worldwide who pay $12.95 per month to log on. (Matrix's monthly fee is expected to be comparable.) But even a seemingly sure-thing venture like Star Wars Galaxies has attracted a smaller (but devoted) following.
A lot is riding on this virtual world. ''It's specifically designed to carry on the franchise,'' says Jason Hall, senior VP of Warner Bros. Interactive. ''What happens in The Matrix Online is considered canon for the property.'' By creating a haven for Matrix believers, it's clear the Wachowskis will either ensure the survival of their franchise, or surrender Zion once and for all.