I recently watched The Matrix all the way through for the first time. Not in a negative way, like I’ve been trying to for a while and I just couldn’t because it was such a shitbox. I just had never gotten around to it. I knew all about the story, but I had never actually seen it.
The Matrix came out in theaters when I was nine. I remember seeing a trailer or something where two guys were suspended in mid-air firing guns at each other, and I remember that the bending backwards bullet time scene was spoofed, just, everywhere. That’s about it.
It wasn’t until i saw a clip on Youtube, the subway fight scene, that I decided to give it a watch. I’m not sure what it was about that scene that did it for me. I had seen Matrix Reloaded before the first one, and I liked the action, but it seemed disconnected somehow. The subway fight seemed more intense, more… I don’t know… real.
So I gave it a watch and here are the observations I took away from The Matrix:
The Agents Are Awesome Villains
Heroes, well movies in general, are greatly defined by their villains. The more terrifying, the more charismatic, the more hated the villain is the more memorable, the more powerful the movie becomes.
A villain has to seem formidable, and if at all possible, has to be the most formidable character in the whole movie. The harder the battle, the greater the victory.
The Matrix does a great job with this. First, we learn that anyone in the Matrix can be an Agent. Men, women, children they’re all potential enemies. Right off the bat that’s chilling. The worst kind of monster is the one that you can’t see but know is there. Everywhere. Omnipresent like Bruce The Jaws Shark in the ocean or Freddy in a teenager’s dreams.
Second, we’re told that they’re basically unbeatable. “I won’t lie to you, Neo,” Morpheus says at one point, “every single man or woman who has stood their ground, everyone who has fought an agent has died.“ I mean, Christ!
So now the hero, Neo, is up against these omnipresent killers that cannot be beaten. Morpheus does tell him that he’s The One and that one day soon he will be able to kill them, but we have no evidence to that fact. In fact, later on The Oracle tells Neo that he is not The One making him super murderable again.
Every time the Agents show up, it ratchets up the tension because they’re not even enemies at this point. They’re these forces that can only be escaped, like a tornado or a wild fire. Even Terminators can be blown up or crushed, but you can hit an Agent with a Subway train and it’ll just come back in someone else’s body good as new. They’re nightmares.
That’s why when Neo finally becomes The One, when he can bend the Matrix to his will, it’s such a triumphant and cool moment. These cruel, cold, inhuman forces are finally put in their place.
I think it might be a problem with the later Matrix movies. In Reloaded I believe one of the first fight scenes is Neo against hundreds of Agents. It takes away the threat in the movie. Agent Smith returns as some kind of ‘Super Agent’ but his big new weapon is his power to create more hims, but as we’ve already seen that’s no problem for Neo.
Mysticism in Sci-Fi Movies
I think The Matrix presents a lot of cool ideas, but I believe the genius part was introducing the Prophecy. If you handed The Matrix to 10 writers, 9 of them would just keep it to a hacker who finds out he’s living in a computer simulation run by machines and joins a resistance group to stop them. Where I’m at in my writing, I think I would’ve just kept it there. The Wachowskis didn’t, and the added mysticism takes it in a whole new direction.
You know, you do see mysticism injected into sci-fi movies here and there. The first Star Wars trilogy did it with the Force. I’m surprised I don’t see it more, it adds an interesting new layer to the story, but I suppose it’s incredibly difficult to make it feel authentic.
Anyway, the Prophecy aspect of The Matrix fits so well with the themes of the movie. Is fate real? Do you have any will outside of what was predestined for you? Can you control your own destiny?
And here’s the thing, it seems like the movie is saying that no. No you can’t. The Oracle tells Neo that he’s going to have he and Morpheus’ life in his hands, and that he’ll have to choose between the two. If he chooses Morpheus then he’ll die. Neo eventually does choose Morpheus and he dies. When a hundred movies would have him saving Morpheus and living to give the finger to fate, The Matrix kills their protagonist.
Everything the Oracle says comes true. Morpheus does find The One, Trinity does fall in love with The One. Sure the Oracle says Neo isn’t The One, but I think she might have been right about that too. The man who went to see her wasn’t Neo, wasn’t The One, it was still Thomas Anderson. She says that if he was The One he’d believe it, he’d just know. Mr. Anderson doesn’t believe, that’s his flaw. It’s not until the subway when he refuses to run away, when Morpheus literally says “he’s starting to believe”, that he begins to become The One. Thomas Anderson gets shot to death in that rundown hotel, but it’s Neo who returns.
The Flaws Make the Man (or Woman) (or Sentient Program)
Sci-Fi is a tough little genre. It doesn’t share the same luxury that stories that take place in our world have, wherein the audience already understands the world’s rules and history. The story’s world IS a major character in all of sci-fi and as such, you have to sacrifice a lot of script space to set up its own rules and history.
And The Matrix is huge world. There are lots of rules and stakes to set up before hand, along with two sets of histories, and then another layer of mysticism on top of that. THEN you can start in with plot points and normal story conventions. We haven’t even started with character work yet!
So how does The Matrix set up such great characters without eating up script space? Flaws and irony, my friends, flaws and irony. Everyone is presented by their flaw or ironic twist and becomes unique in the audience’s eyes. Most of the characters in The Matrix are not super complex with quirks and flourishes, but they feel real because everything about them is informed by a flaw or irony we understand.
Take a look:
– Neo. He has the most screen time, character wise, so they can make him more complex. However, at his core, he doubts. He disbelieves. He doubts Morpheus when he tells him to climb out a window. He doesn’t believe Matrix is real. He doesn’t believe the “real” world is real. He doubts if he’s The One. He doubts himself during The Jump. His character is created by this, informed by this. You don’t need huge character exploring scenes, you get what makes Neo, Neo right off the bat.
– Morpheus. Morpheus is trickier because he remains a mystery for the beginning of the movie, but his flaw is awesome nonetheless. He believes the Prophecy so much, so blindly, that even the Oracle herself couldn’t turn him away from it. He’s defined by it. We understand everything he did before this moment, and everything after, not because of all the time spent setting him up, but because of one single line said by the Oracle. After Neo walks out of the Oracle’s kitchen and we KNOW he’s not the one, Morpheus smiles because in his head, he knows Neo is the one. It’s an amazing scene that changes the way we think about Morpheus going forward. He’s no longer this super in control guy, he’s a religious fanatic blindly following the belief that Neo is The One. An idea that we the audience know to be a lie. At least sort of.
– Agent Smith. Agent Smith is built on a genius irony. He’s a warden of a prison he himself is trapped in. He can no longer stand to be around the humans he’s supposed to keep docile, like a farmer who hates cows but cannot stop farming. It takes a cold villain and changes him into an intriguing, almost tragic character. He’s evil and twisted, but he’s also something of a victim. Trapped in a system he himself is a part of.
– Trinity. Trinity is odd because for being such a big part of the movie, even OPENING the movie, we don’t get a lot of her. I believe her flaw is that she’s too guarded. She believes in Morpheus but is unwilling to admit it to Cypher or herself. Why would she? It’s implied she loved, or tried to love, everyone who Morpheus thought was The One (included possibly Cypher), but they turned out to be just people. When she crashes through a window at the start of the movie and stays there, aiming back up at where she came from, she tells herself to move, but hesitates. It seems Trinity has a tough time even listening to herself.
-Cypher. Cypher is the antithetical Morpheus, defined by a flaw of blind disbelief. He doesn’t want to know all this, doesn’t want to be apart of this. He laments not taking the blue pill, he literally says “After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” He chooses to go down a path that will take away his belief, a choice that kills his former friends, endangers humanity, and ends up getting him killed.
Mystery is One Hell of a Story Engine
Look at all this exposition. Tons of it. Heaping, great piles of it. One would need a story engine powerful enough to help this little thing keep moving along without it getting bogged down in exposition hell. The Matrix uses one of the most powerful story engines around to do this: mystery.
This movie is built on questions, specifically the big one “What is the Matrix?”. More than that though, the plot strings us along with mystery after mystery. When one is solved there is another to take its place.
Why is this lady so good at kicking ass? Who was she talking to? Who are these agents? Where did the lady go in the phone booth? What is Thomas Anderson selling for money? Who is Morpheus? What’s the Matrix? Are these Agents aliens? What was that thing they put in Thomas Anderson? What is happening?
The Morpheus mystery is built up very well. We just get a name, he’s someone important. Then he is somehow able to get a phone to Thomas Anderson, call him when he gets it, then he’s able to walk him out of the building. When we finally get some kind of answer, that he’s a terrorist, WE GET ANOTHER MYSTERY. The agents are able to take away Anderson’s mouth and then they put something inside of him! MYSTERIES ABOUND!
Now it was spoiled for me, because I knew the answers to the questions going in, but I could see how this movie was one hell of a mind game. I could also see how all the mysteries worked so well. The exposition was able to easily slip in because we just wanted to know what the answers to these mysteries were. Genius.