May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

What is The Matrix? Once upon a time it was a catchy line to help sell a perplexing movie. Ask anyone in Hollywood these days, and you’ll hear The Matrix is (1) a $130 million spring sleeper; (2) an auteur tour de force for Larry and Andy Wachowski, the writing-directing siblings whose credits included the minuscule caper Bound; (3) a much-needed sequel generator for Warner Bros. (especially after its Batman series suffered franchise interruptus); and (4) the first honest-to-God sci-fi cult since Mulder met Scully.

What none of this explains is why The Matrix retains an otherworldly hold on moviegoers. Warner Bros. has no hard data on repeat viewership, but reseeing The Matrix has clearly become a new spectator sport, especially among filmgoers hot for head-spinning pop philosophy and high-tech whupass. Vic Oquendo, 26, VP of technology for a Seattle-based online company, is typical of Matrix repeat goers (a predominantly Gen-X and -Y male crowd, according to CinemaScore). ”The second time I saw The Matrix,” says Oquendo, ”I wanted to focus on everything outside the story — background characters, signs, and symbols. The third time, I picked up the subtleties. The more you see it, the more it rocks.”

In the Silicon Valleys of the world, The Matrix is the apotheosis of cybergeek chic. It’s a movie for gearheads — so cruelly and repeatedly tricked by Hollywood — that genuinely rewards computer savvy. Says Jamie Pallot, 39, an exec producer with Microsoft: ”It does everything that Johnny Mnemonic so dismally failed to do.” It’s also the trippiest film since Brazil. One four-time viewer, a Web programmer who would prefer to remain anonymous, suggests the film’s digitized psychedelia is particularly groovy for those in altered states. ”The Matrix,” confirms James Poniewozik, 30, a media critic for Salon, ”is a classic stoner fantasy.”

Along with deconstructing the film’s intricate mythology, some fans rush from the megaplex to the Internet to explore the movie’s virtual universe. Go2Net, which tracks frequently searched words on the Web, reports that Matrix was recently among the most inputted words (other red flags include hardcore and Zeta-Jones). Says Go2Net director Mark Peterson: ”Of the 10,000 words people type, that’s pretty significant.”

If you go searching for The Matrix, you’ll eventually land at the official Warner Bros. website (http://www.whatisthematrix.com). The one perk available here is a downloadable Matrix screensaver that mimics the movie’s hypnotic stream of code. But Warner claims the site’s lack of Wachowski-powered bells and whistles is not a sign the movie’s cultish popularity caught the studio by surprise. ”I don’t think any movie is really viewed as a franchise until it suddenly establishes itself as one,” explains president of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura. ”It’s now a very viable franchise. No question.”

Currently, no official Matrix paraphernalia exists (not even those Keanu Reeves sunglasses, which everyone has their eyes on). Di Bonaventura says that’s not for want of trying. ”Of course we tried. Everybody said, ‘Thanks. Nice project. When are you gonna do Superman?’ Those guys are rarely in front of the curve.” (The good news is Richard Walker, the movie’s optical designer, has made a separate deal with Sunglass Hut to sell Matrix-inspired shades.)

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