When The Matrix released in March 1999, it warped pop culture and the blockbuster film industry around its presence. Its blend of science fiction, technology, and philosophy would go on to have lasting impacts, despite the disappointing attempts of writer/director siblings The Wachowskis to recapture lighting in the subsequent bottles of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
The gravity of the sequels pulls conversations about the series in a very particular direction, which I hope to ignore(as much as possible) to focus on the self-contained narrative of The Matrix, with its dominating themes of reality, self, and technology.
What stands out most after first returning to the world of The Matrix is the amount of attention devoted to its aesthetic. The film clearly wants to convey sleek and cool, even to a fault — characters and relationships take a backseat to special effects and world-building. The mirroring effect on spoons and sunglasses still impresses, but does nothing to enhance the interactions or conflicts. The wire work and fight sequences fundamentally shifted audiences’ expectations for action. Much of the dialogue still feels quotable through its delivery, if a bit anemic in its content. With its intertwined use of meta-settings (the artificial world and the real), The Matrix rightly directs more-than-average attention to its world-building, though often in a way that, itself, feels artificial.
A Tale of Two Systems
Beyond the artificial and real worlds, the story is split into two narrative parts: the cryptic and the revealed. The cryptic shifts between the familiar and the unknown, while the revealed follows straightforward storytelling.
The revealed begins 32 minutes into the film once Neo (Keanu Reeves) first wakes into the real world. Here, his path begins to take the shape of the hero’s journey, with the familiar crossing of the threshold and learning from the mentor. Even as Neo moves in and out of the artificial world, the story remains in the revealed — the curtain has been pulled back. In the revealed, the story finds its stride. Cause-and-effect relationships and the stakes of the conflict come through clearly, all while retaining narrative complexity.
In the revealed, characters are able to have meaningful conversations about The Matrix rather than talk around it (though they still sometimes do). And looking back, it was the narrative and events of the revealed that stuck with me most clearly from previous viewings of The Matrix. What continues to feel strange is the film’s presentation of the cryptic.
In the cryptic, Neo is some kind of hacker on some kind of mission to discover some kind of truth. Even knowing how to story plays out, the cryptic feels no easier to navigate. The film appears to nod to this ambiguity when Neo asks his hacker client, Choi, “You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” And in keeping with the symbolic nature of dreams, Neo follows the clue of the white rabbit tattoo to his confusing first encounter with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). The cryptic as a whole feels like a missed opportunity to seed the story with symbols and images that will actually matter later on, to send in Chekhov to bury a few guns.
Instead, ironically, this preface to Neo’s discovery of the real world is as hollow and meaningless as he laments upon first returning to The Matrix and encountering the relics of his former life. Trinity’s flimsy consolation that The Matrix can’t tell Neo who he is (but that The Oracle can) doesn’t even advance their excuse of a romance.
It’s tempting to trace this narrative problem of the cryptic back to the film’s inspiration: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Since Plato’s tale depicts people living in constructed, shadowy confusion deep underground, claiming that the cryptic tries to illustrate this confusing life feels like a promising explanation. Except we’re not provided with Neo’s singular perspective for the cryptic (as someone still trapped in the artificial world), and Trinity’s experiences (as someone who has been liberated) are similarly plagued by empty dialogue and showy special effects.
The revealed successfully explores many concepts of reality such as senses and emotions contrasted against the waking world, but if the cryptic is intended to explore the unknown or the preternatural, it misses the mark.
The Undefined Variable
As for the hero himself, Neo also suffers from a mysterious treatment. Compare his character to most other crewmates aboard the Nebuchadnezzar. Mouse is young, impulsive, and eager. Tank is determined yet compassionate. Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is cynical and jaded. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburn) himself exhibits traditional leadership traits like stoicism and altruism.
And Neo…is also there.
Obviously he’s the most recent addition to the crew, which means his relationships won’t be as developed. But he should still have some kind of personality.
Consider how Cypher’s characteristic snark is only enhanced once we understand that he’s frustrated to be a footsoldier in Morpheus’s crusade rather than the architect of his own agency. Morpheus promised the truth, but Cypher feels he wasn’t freed so much as enlisted. Neo’s interactions feel all the more contrived given the number of times characters flatly tell him they know what he’s thinking or feeling rather than have a genuine interaction. Imagine the power of Neo’s ultimate transformation if Cypher unearthed even the smallest bit of doubt during his communion with Neo.
Morpheus, the mentor figure, offers little more from his own relationship to Neo, revealing that he “believe[s his] search [for The One] is over” after their meeting, but gives no evidence what drew him to Neo in the first place or why Neo stands out from the rest of the crew. More interestingly, Morpheus’s idealism does occasionally put him at odds with Neo. Delivering his tough love approach to mentoring, Morpheus provokes the closest thing to a personality trait that Neo has: a rocky relationship with authority.
Neo’s first interaction with authority is the mysterious meeting with Trinity in the dance club, somewhat disarmed by her womanhood. The scolding from his boss, Rhineheart, the next morning reveals a similarly meek response from Neo. Strangely, Neo decides to grow a backbone and make flippant remarks during his interrogation by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) — where the stakes are significantly higher.
His chest-thumping with Smith also seems to affect his second meeting with Trinity, where Switch ends up pulling a gun on him as a safety measure. This is the closest signal to Neo’s pushback against Morpheus’s training, though he later has no qualms passively accepting The Oracle’s rendering on his fate, despite chafing at the very concept of fate earlier. His inconsistent relationship to authority undermines any narrative that Neo completes his transformation into The One by standing up for what he believes in.
Because Neo never presents a clear picture of who he is, it becomes difficult to appreciate how he has changed by the end of the film. When Morpheus’s life is on the line, the music swells and Neo confidently asserts to Trinity, “I know that’s what it looks like but it’s not; I can’t explain to you why it’s not…I believe I can bring him back.” But it feels like a superficial change when we don’t get a good look at what’s been going on underneath.
More than anything, Neo is defined by his antithesis to Smith as if by default. If Smith represents authoritarian control, then Neo is left to represent individual freedom. Smith represents hatred and ego; Neo, therefore, must represent compassion and love. And while it’s tempting to assume that Neo learns to value relationships through his contact with the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, no compelling evidence makes it onto the screen.
The film ends up telling us (and Neo) a lot about self knowledge, but unfortunately doesn’t say much in the process.
For all its shortcomings, the most lasting impact of the film is, and should be, its opening the door for other stories to step onto the pop culture stage. The film holds up as a solid introduction to deeper science fiction content (including the entire cyberpunk genre) and more complex philosophical material about artificial intelligence and the nature of reality. It also advances several conversations on technology both in its narrative and in its production. While it begins to crumble under scrutiny, it no less presents an entertaining story that continues to engage the imagination.
And the industry at-large took notice.
Even with the amount of hand-holding that Warner Brothers demanded for the script, it was clear that there was an audience for the kind of complex, experimental stories that were able to come along later like James Cameron’s Avatar and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Ironically, The Matrix anticipated an Orwellian future of control and denial rather than Huxley’s vision of a dystopia dominated by vapid entertainment and input overload.
But as scary as a world dominated by machines operated people farms may be, I shudder to think of a reality without the influences of The Matrix in it.