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The 'Matrix' expands on Imax

Special-effects magic is enhanced, but also more apparent are limits of computer graphics.

June 13, 2003|Robert K. Elder | Chicago Tribune

A viewing of "The Matrix Reloaded: The Imax Experience" suggests that yes, bigger may be better with a digitally remastered, multichannel soundtrack and the film's negative size doubling to 70 millimeters, but it also magnifies weaknesses.

Improvements have been made in Imax technology since last year, when an IMAX version of "Apollo 13" lost 22 minutes because the system's projectors couldn't show films longer than two hours. Now, "The Matrix Reloaded: The Imax Experience" can be shown in its full 138-minute, version. That's not to say, however, the movie couldn't use trimming.

Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a prophecy-fulfilling "chosen one" leading humanity against a race of sentient, enslaving machines. As we learned in the 1999 original, the Matrix is an artificial reality designed by the machines to keep humanity docile and producing biochemical electricity for its systems. Neo, awakened by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and love interest Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), now has to deal with his awkward messiah status among the quarter-million inhabitants of Zion, humanity's subterranean final stronghold.

Ten times larger in Imax's film format, Zion looks splendidly grimy -- a clammy, mechanized world of rock, iron and citizens with bad complexions. Sporting pores the size of hubcaps, Neo's razor burn takes on gargantuan proportions.

But it's precisely this scale of realism that can take audiences out of the movie's fantasy world, especially in scenes when computer graphics dominate. On Imax screens, the vast chasm between computer animation and real-world photography widens.

The first sign of trouble comes early in a computer-animated sequence meant to showcase Zion's vast caverns and monolithic ships. As massive, underground security doors shut, the camera pans to a "human" guardian in a gigantic robotic suit. But not for a second do we mistake this computer doll, with his baby-smooth skin and halted movements, for human.

The same problem returns several minutes later when, in a fight with 100 self-multiplying enemies, Neo's slow-motion kung-fu stylings -- as his arms start to bow -- look too rubbery. It seems today's animators face the same problems in animating human figures that Walt Disney fought in 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." While Disney animators struggled to make humans look less wooden, modern-day computer animators will have to strive to make their creations look less plastic.

However, this chink in the cinematic armor doesn't diminish the size and scope of writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski's uncompromising vision. And in Imax size, their imaginations swell in sharp, eye-dazzling scenes of octopus-like enemy sentinels drilling toward Zion and Neo flying through a cityscape so fast that cars, lampposts and street debris swirl in his wake.

Because "The Matrix Reloaded" opened a month ago, audiences seeing its Imax incarnation may be seeing it for the second (third? fourth?) time. And while the Wachowskis' movies are driven by special effects, they are also dense philosophical jigsaw puzzles, easier to piece together the second time.

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