2003's 'The year of The Matrix': An experiment ahead of its time

All three <i>Matrix</i> movies are returned to cinemas on the 20th anniversary of the first film. (Warner Bros.)
The Matrix returns to cinemas in 2021 (Warner Bros.)

As Warner Bros. would have it, 2003 was planned to be “the year of The Matrix”, but the rabbit hole went a little deeper than the two cinematic sequels.

Shot back-to-back, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions — released in 2003 just seven months apart — were the main attraction. But they were also complemented by an animated anthology — The Animatrix — and a tie-in video game — Enter The Matrix — both released around the same time as the first sequel. Whether you like or loathe Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s original trilogy, the sequels made the most of their hugely anticipated status.

Read more: The Matrix 4 will 'change the industry'

Now Marvel Studios is on the cusp of doing this more extensively. Obviously, you’ll be a bit lost if you wander into Avengers: Endgame having never watched another MCU film but — for instance — you don’t have to have seen Guardians Of The Galaxy to enjoy Ant-Man. Movies are getting more interconnected by the sheer weight of pop culture, and with WandaVision and Loki making significant in-roads on the movies’ status quo, this is only going to continue.

But almost two decades later, the Matrix sequels still look fairly experimental in their style and release strategy too…

What is The Animatrix?

“May there be mercy on man and machine for their sins.”

Stoking the fire for what was already one of the most anticipated sequels of the year, The Animatrix is an anthology of nine animated shorts, co-written by the Wachowskis and directed by various anime filmmakers whose work had inspired the first Matrix film. These shorts either served as prequels to Reloaded or provided much-needed world-building.

In the former category, the CG-animated Final Flight Of The Osiris sets up the beginning of Reloaded, when the resistance learns of an impending Sentinel attack on Zion. Meanwhile, Kid’s Story shows how Clayton Watson’s character, Kid, breaks free from the Matrix with Neo’s encouragement.

On the other side of things, the anthology explores ground not covered in the live-action trilogy, whether in World Record, in which an athlete becomes aware of the Matrix at the peak of his performance, or Matriculated, which looks at how the machines perceive reality.

The Animatrix: The Second Renaissance (Warner Bros.)
The Animatrix: The Second Renaissance (Warner Bros.)

But the jewel in the crown is The Second Renaissance, an oral history of the war between men and machines, which places the start of the conflict squarely on human prejudice and arrogance. Written and directed by Mahiro Maeda based on the Wachowskis’ story notes, the two-parter covers everything from the origins of robot slaves to the blackening of the sky and the creation of the Matrix.

Next to a pair of sequels not known for their deft exposition, The Animatrix is a vivid portrayal of the backstory that drives the live-action movies and lends new context to Reloaded and Revolutions in retrospect.

Reloaded and Loading…

BURBANK, CA.  - FEBRUARY 4:  Actor Laurence Fishburne plays Enter the Matrix at a screening of
Laurence Fishburne plays Enter the Matrix at a screening of "Final Flight of the Osiris", and a party to celebrate the debut of the new video game "Enter The Matrix" at Warner Bros. Studios on February 4, 2003 (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“If we fail, Neo fails. That cannot happen at any cost.”

Given the success of The Matrix, a tie-in video game was inevitable. While 2004’s Path Of Neo took the more typical route of adapting the trilogy, (with a few cheeky changes along the way) 2003’s Enter The Matrix was altogether different in providing a major sub-plot alongside the events of a new movie.

Also written and directed by the Wachowskis, this kind of plot expansion was unheard of at the time. The game centres around Jada Pinkett Smith’s character, Niobe, and everything she gets up to during the events of Reloaded.

The Matrix Reloaded (Credit: Warner Bros)
The Matrix Reloaded (Credit: Warner Bros)

Players control either Niobe or her first mate Ghost (Anthony Wong) as they encounter the Keymaker, the Oracle, the Merovingian, and — of course — a whole bunch of Agent Smith clones. The game also features live-action cut-scenes that play like extra scenes from Reloaded, setting up various characters and storylines that feed into The Matrix Revolutions.

Appreciating that we’re not all keen PS2 or XBOX gamers, it’s possible to follow the movies without playing the game. Still, it remains unique in the landscape of blockbuster storytelling even years later.

Revolutions in sync

Signage of the countdown to see
Signage of the countdown to see "The Matrix Revolutions" (Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

“Everything that has a beginning has an end.”

Despite shattering Terminator 2’s opening weekend record for an R-rated movie at the time, Reloaded proved more divisive than its predecessor, in part due to its cliffhanger ending. The Wachowskis wanted the trilogy-topper, Revolutions, to come out in June, a month later, but Warner Bros set a November release with a wholly original strategy.

Where the first two films had taken between three and six months to roll out around the world, The Matrix Revolutions debuted in more than 100 markets on the same date (5th November 2003) at exactly the same time (approximately 2:00 p.m. GMT). It was also the first live-action film to be released simultaneously in IMAX cinemas.

In the days before standardised digital projection, the so-called Zero Hour stunt was no mean feat, necessitating the production and delivery of 18,000 film prints to achieve a synchronised release worldwide. It certainly blew the previous biggest-ever rollout (that summer’s X-Men 2, in 80 territories) out of the water and generated some hype around the trilogy-topper.

Jada Pinkett-Smith, Carrie Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Nona Gaye and Harrold Perrineau arrive with Joel Silver (producer) at the premiere of
Jada Pinkett-Smith, Carrie Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Nona Gaye and Harrold Perrineau arrive with Joel Silver (producer) at the premiere of "The Matrix Revolutions." (Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images)

Nowadays, global rollouts and IMAX releases for tentpole movies are commonplace, but The Matrix Revolutions got there first. The epic finale received lukewarm reviews and made less money than its predecessors, but the release strategy was undoubtedly influential on where we are now.

And now, into the current market comes Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections, the last of Warner Bros’ big 2021 movies to drop on HBO Max in the US at the same time as it arrives in cinemas.

Moreover, we expect its closely guarded plot will offer meta-commentary on “legacy-quel” stories as well as being one itself. In any case, it will continue a tradition of this franchise experimenting with both storytelling and scheduling.

The Matrix trilogy is available to stream on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.

The Matrix Resurrections is in UK cinemas 22 December. Watch a trailer below.