The Matrix (1999)

Carrie-Anne Moss as TrinityStarring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Gloria Foster.
Written and directed by Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski.

Grade: A

This analysis contains spoilers and is intended only for people who have already seen The Matrix.  We suggest that you read our review before reading this analysis.

Analysis (with spoilers) by Carlo Cavagna.

It's entirely possible, despite the hype and anticipation surrounding the soon-to-be-released Star Wars: Episode I, that the best science-fiction/action movie of 1999 is already in theaters. In The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers have created a pulse-pounding masterpiece.  From the beginning they were determined not to make any compromises. Using storyboards, they meticulously planned the exact kicks, punches, and stunts they wanted to see. Every shot and every stunt they desired to do, they found a way to do. They sought out Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (Fist of Legend) to direct the fight sequences and train the actors. Reeves, Fishburne, Weaving, and Moss actually spent about five months with Wo Ping and his stunt team learning kung fu and training on the wires used for many of the balletic stunts. The result is that the four leads look like they've known kung fu their entire lives. Because they do all their own fighting and stunts, the Wachowski Brothers were able to film in longer takes, with wider shots and fewer cutaways.

The actors' willingness to train on a daily basis for several months and the Wachowskis' visual style are not all that is extraordinary about The Matrix. Rather than using standard slow-motion during the action sequences, the Wachowskis invented the concept of "bullet time." Visual Effects Supervisor John Gaeta realized their vision. By shooting scenes with both motion picture cameras and still cameras, Gaeta permitted the Wachowskis to slow down or speed up the action seamlessly while preserving an incredible amount of detail. Carrie-Anne Moss in action

For example, in the opening shot where Carrie-Anne Moss jumps into the air and kicks a police officer, the action slows down to a near-stop while the movie camera seems to swoop rapidly around Moss, as she hangs in the air nearly motionless, before the action speeds up again. Of course, there is no way to create a shot like that using one movie camera and standard slow-motion. It would be impossible to move a camera that quickly around Moss during the fraction of a second (of real time) that she is in the air. What Gaeta actually did was to set up 120 normal cameras in a circle around Moss, along with two motion picture cameras. By taking a still photograph from each of the cameras and making each a frame of the film, Gaeta manufactures the illusion that a single motion picture camera circles around Moss in the instant before she kicks the policeman. In addition, the photographs capture a level of detail that movie cameras do not--for example, look at how perfectly outlined the splashing water is in the shot where Laurence Fishburne runs through a puddle before leaping out of a window.

To enjoy The Matrix, it is not necessary to view it as anything more than an action movie.  But The Matrix is more than jaw-dropping action and visuals. It is also sophisticated science fiction. Many critics--even those who liked The Matrix--have criticized the story for being confusing or nonsensical, but it is more carefully constructed than given credit. Unfortunately, there are many who automatically dismiss all science-fiction as "just fantasy" or "just action." Such a dismissal is unfortunate, because The Matrix is highly thought-provoking in addition to being great escapist fun.a human is grown

The premise of The Matrix is that our world is actually a virtual reality computer program called The Matrix, and that we are really living in the 22nd century. Intelligent machines have taken over the planet. As a result of the war between humans and machines, the Earth is a sunless place in the throes of what looks like a permanent nuclear winter. The machines had depended on solar power, but now they have found an alternate source of energy: human beings themselves. Human beings generate both heat and electricity, and the machines have found a way to harvest both. To keep humans under control and to provide stimuli that enhance a body's electrical output, the machines created The Matrix.

A small number of humans, including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), live outside of The Matrix, in the real world, in an underground city (that we never see) called Zion. It is possible for humans in the real world to hack into The Matrix and liberate others, but inside The Matrix they must avoid the machines' indestructible Agents, including Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). These Agents can bend the rules of The Matrix. They are stronger, move faster, and leap farther than normal people. Outsiders who hack into The Matrix also can bend its rules, just as a hacker can manipulate an infiltrated computer system. (For more on the plot and the premise, see Frequently Asked Questions, below.)

In telling their story, The Wachowskis don't skimp on imagery or allegory, weaving references to Alice in Wonderland throughout the film, playing heavily on a New Testament motif, and repeatedly positing the question of whether we are ruled by fate or free will. They freely adopt the Jungian archetypes seen so often in science fiction and liberally draw on Jung's theory of the collective unconscious.

The references to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are easy to spot. When we first meet Neo (Keanu Reeves), he receives instructions to "follow the white rabbit." The white rabbit turns out to be a tattoo on the shoulder of Dujour, a woman who shows up at his door moments later. Again the rabbit appears when Morpheus comments to Neo, "I imagine, right now, you must be feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole?" Then Morpheus offers Neo a choice between two colored caplets. If Neo takes the red pill, he can "stay in Wonderland" and learn "how deep the rabbit hole goes." Not only does Morpheus refer to both Wonderland and the rabbit, but the scene is reminiscent of how Alice is constantly given strange things to eat (cakes, teas, mushrooms), many of which have unusual effects. Shortly after, Neo stares into a mirror, which turns to liquid. He dips his finger into it, and the liquid clings to him, covering him completely before he wakes up from the virtual reality of The Matrix. Neo has gone through the looking-glass. Finally, we see white rabbits once again on the television in the Oracle's waiting room. It's showing Night of the Lepus, a cheesy monster movie about giant meat-eating rabbits.

While the references to Alice in Wonderland are simply a recurring motif, the religious themes are an intrinsic part of the story. Neo is The One. Neo's coming has been prophesied. As Morpheus explains to Neo,

When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside that had the ability to change what he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was this man that freed the first of us and taught us the secret of the war; control the Matrix and you control the future. When he died, the Oracle at the temple of Zion prophesied his return and envisioned an end to the war and freedom for our people.

Neo's arrival portends the destruction of The Matrix and the creation of a new order--not unlike a Judgement Day. Neo dies momentarily, yet returns. His name (which is an anagram of "One") means revitalization or rebirth. Clearly, Neo is a Messianic figure. He is nothing less than the savior of the human race.

In Christianity, there is one true Messiah, but there is also a trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. So, too, there is a trinity in The Matrix. When Tank is about to "plug the plug" on Morpheus, he comments that Morpheus is "more than a leader to us," he is "like a father." Morpheus, who gave birth to the new Neo by separating him from The Matrix and becoming his mentor, is the Father, and Neo is the Son. Carrie-Anne Moss's character, named Trinity, completes the trinity. However, it is not clear how Trinity corresponds to the Holy Ghost, if at all. Joe Pantoliano as Cyphre

Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is the fallen member of Morpheus' crew. Once a trusted and important member of the team, Cypher no longer believes in the prophecies of The One. He betrays his companions in order to return to the comforts of The Matrix. When Cypher meets with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Cypher is eating a large, juicy steak--a strong visual representation of the carnal pleasures for which Cypher forsakes his friends. Cypher's name is a reference to Lucifer, the fallen archangel (not unlike the name of Robert De Niro's character in Angel Heart, Louis Cyphre). Just in case viewers don't understand the reference, the Wachowskis have given Cypher a Mephistophelian mustache & goatee.

The free humans live in a city called Zion, named after the mythic Biblical city described in the Psalms: "Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion" (Psalms 48:2); "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shineth" (50:2). God dwells in Zion, which is both a locality of past greatness and a future hope for the redemption of this world. It will be a haven for the enslaved and the exploited. The Lord will "roar out of Zion," and her enemies and oppressors will be destroyed. "The sons of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you; and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 60:14). The free humans in The Matrix have named their own city Zion for obvious reasons. Their city represents hope for the liberation of humanity from the slavery of The Matrix.

Morpheus and his crew travel on a hovercraft called the Nebuchadnezzar. An Old Testament figure, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia (605-562 B.C.) destroyed Jerusalem and brought the Israelites back to Babylonia in captivity. One of these captives is Daniel. Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel begins:

In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; and his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him.  Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned, to tell the king his dreams.

Thus, the Nebuchadnezzar is a reference to the "dream world" that Morpheus tells Neo he has been living in--the dream world of The Matrix. There is more to the story, however. Nebuchadnezzar demands that the magicians and wise men interpret his dream, but, because he suspects they are charlatans, he refuses to tell them his dream. If they are not frauds, they should be able to correctly guess his dream, in which case Nebuchadnezzar will believe their interpretation. If they cannot guess his dream, he vows to have them all killed. The wise men complain: "There is not a man on Earth who can meet the king's demand.... None can show [the dream] to the king except the gods" (Daniel 2:10-2:11).

Nebuchadnezzar orders all the wise men killed, including their apprentices, one of whom is Daniel. Daniel prays to God to show him the truth of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, and God does so.  Daniel goes before Nebuchadnezzar and interprets the dream. Nebuchadnezzar is astonished, and exclaims, "Truly, your God is a God of gods, and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries" (2:47). Therefore, the reference to Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix may also refer to the idea that only God can reveal the truth of dreams, which ties into the concept that Neo is a Messianic savior who will show humanity the truth about The Matrix.

The content of Nebuchadnezzar's dream is also relevant. He dreams of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet of clay. A simple stone strikes the statue on its feet, and the whole thing crumbles. Then the stone grows into a great mountain that fills the Earth (2:31-2:35). The dream is a prophecy. Each of the metals represents a kingdom of Earth, but all of these rest on a weak foundation--the feet of clay. They will one day be overthrown and be replaced by the kingdom of God. Laurence Fishburne and Hugo WeavingThus, the name of the hovercraft may also refer to this prophecy. Neo is the stone. He will overthrow the machines and replace them with a new order.

There are non-Christian religious references as well. The most obvious is The Oracle. The sign above her door bears the same advice as the sign over the door at the Oracle at Delphi in The Odyssey: "Know thyself." Like an ancient Greek oracle, The Oracle can see the future clearly and provides insights to those who request her insights. As with an ancient Greek oracle, her meaning is not always clear until the events she predicts come to pass.

In the Oracle's waiting room, there are several children, called "potentials." Each wears the garb of a different cultural and religious tradition. The boy with the spoon, who teaches Neo how to manipulate The Matrix, is dressed like a Buddhist child. The insight he gives Neo, "There is no spoon," becomes Neo's comic mantra. Then, there is Morpheus' name. In Greek mythology, Morpheus was one form of the god of dreams. His job was to fashion the dreams that the gods sent to humans. Morpheus is also represented as a watchman or guardian of dreams. Thus, Morpheus is a reference to the eternal sleep of the humans hardwired to the dream world of The Matrix.

Like Blade Runner and Dark City, The Matrix examines the nature of human consciousness and concludes that it is something more than the sum total of one's memories. Trinity tells Neo, after Neo wonders what it means that all his memories are false, "It means that no one can tell you who you are." As they have acknowledged in interviews, the Wachowskis are strongly informed by the theories of Carl Jung, who posited the existence of a collective unconscious--i.e., our psychic inheritance, our memories as a species, the knowledge we are all born with. We are not aware of it, but it influences all of our experiences and behavior. In The Matrix, Neo knows that something is wrong with the world. As Morpheus says, Neo doesn't know how he knows it, but he knows it. The knowledge is innate.

The fact that humanity is literally collectively unconscious in The Matrix is an indirect reference to the ideas of Jung. Jung believed that the collective unconscious explains why certain symbols, myths, dreams, and fairy tales have parallels across time and cultures. According to Jung, our collective unconscious explains why we create and respond to "archetypes" (he also referred to them as dominants or primordial images). Many archetypes are story characters, several of which appear in The Matrix. For example, there is the hero (Neo), who fights evil, but who is often, to quote the Oracle, "not too bright." There is also the wise old man or mentor (Morpheus). Jung's most important archetype, however, is the self. This archetype represents the ultimate perfection of the personality, wherein every aspect of the personality is in balance. Personifications that represent the self include Christ and Buddha. Jung also believed that perfection of the personality is only truly achieved in death. In The Matrix, this particular archetype is also represented by Neo--the reborn Neo. Neo is The One.

The fact that Neo is The One raises the question of whether Neo is in control of his own life, or are all of his actions predetermined? "Do you believe in fate, Neo?" asks Morpheus. Repeatedly, Neo is offered two options and told to make an irrevocable decision between the two. Neo's boss at the software company admonishes, "The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson. Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forth, or you choose to find yourself another job." Later, Agent Smith comments that Neo has "two lives" and remarks, "One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not." (Ironically, it's the life of a computer hacker that turns out to have a future for Neo--not the life Agent Smith meant.) When Morpheus offers Neo the colored pills, he says, "This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." Finally, the Oracle says to Neo, "You will have to make a choice. In the one hand, you will have Morpheus' life. In the other, you will have your own."

Neo tells Morpheus that he does not believe in fate, and all these choices create the illusion that Neo has free will. He does not. Neo's coming has been foretold. The Oracle correctly predicts everything that happens to him. Neo is navigating a predetermined course; all of his choices lead to the fulfillment of his prophesied fate.

Intermixed with the riveting action and the religious subtext are a bevy of one-liners and a multitude of images borrowed from other movies. John Woo's influence is strong. The Matrix has heroes who shoot guns with both hands (a Woo trademark), beautifully choreographed action, and effective use of slow motion. The shot of Neo & Trinity embracing each other as they hold onto a cable in an elevator shaft is suggestive of Star Wars (where Luke and Leia strike a similar pose), as is the mentor/apprentice relationship between Morpheus and Neo. At one point, Morpheus gives Neo Yoda-like advice: "Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" Agent Smith and his cronies are dressed almost exactly like the agents in Men in Black. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick in The Terminator movies, they are virtually indestructible, and they just keep coming and coming. The idea of a world ruled by machines also echoes The Terminator. Agent Smith's emotional breakdown in front of Morpheus is reminiscent of the emotional display by Rutger Hauer's replicant in Blade Runner. The standoff between Neo and Agent Smith in the subway station, just before they draw their guns, is taken directly from High Noon. In North by Northwest, there is a scene of a truck running over a telephone booth, just like in The Matrix. The kiss that brings Neo back to life is like the scene at the end of Sleeping Beauty. In the final shot, Neo flies into the air with his black coat billowing behind him, like Batman.

The actors play their roles with enthusiasm and relish. Reeves has mostly eliminated his surfer-dude accent, but he does indulge himself in one trademark "Whoa!" at just the perfect time. Who but Reeves could make the line "I know kung fu" funny? Even his goofy kung fu poses make sense when you consider that Reeves is playing a computer geek whose martial arts skills were suddenly uploaded into his brain. Fishburne, who devoted all those months to training in spite of the fact that he was probably the most "in-demand" of the four leads, and who also starred in Event Horizon, must genuinely enjoy the science-fiction genre. He is always a powerful screen presence. Carrie-Anne Moss makes a lasting impression with her tough-but-feminine performance and her tight leather outfits.Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith

Weaving, unrecognizable from his drag queen character in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, revels in his bad-guy role. Yet he also gives Agent Smith emotions that are obviously not part of his programming and confuse his colleagues. Smith is an artificial intelligence program, by definition sentient and able to grow and learn from his environment. He is learning to experience emotions from the very humans he loathes. The more he absorbs and learns, the more he resents being stuck in The Matrix. Smith has become self-aware. In one of the film's greatest ironies, Agent Smith is as trapped by The Matrix as everybody else.


Frequently Asked Questions About the Premise and Plot of The Matrix

Q: How the heck can human beings be used as a power supply?

The machines are using human beings like batteries, which is why Switch calls Neo "coppertop" early in the film. Morpheus explains the concept as follows:

Throughout human history we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU's of body heat. Combined with a new form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.

Morpheus further explains that humans are an easily renewable and completely recyclable energy source, "the dead liquefied and fed intravenously to the living."

Q: How can the machines' agents take over people's bodies in The Matrix?

The Agents are sentient programs that can "take over any software hardwired to the mainframe," according to Morpheus. Human beings wired into The Matrix are like pieces of software. The Agents can commandeer them and alter their output (their physical form in The Matrix) as they wish. Trinity and Morpheus are hacking into The Matrix from outside. The Agents cannot take them over because they aren't plugged into the system.

Q: If the Agents can just take people over, why don't they take over Neo before he is separated from The Matrix?

This is a more difficult question, and there is no clear answer. Switch and Trinity certainly seem worried about this possibility when they are taking Neo to meet Morpheus. It's possible that the Agents don't take him over because they have "bugged" him and plan to use him to locate Morpheus before they take him over. But the "bug" is removed, and the Agents seem to be unable to take over somebody unless they know his exact location--most of the time, anyway.Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves

Q: The machine that releases Neo from his the pod is not Morpheus's hovercraft (which picks Neo up later, in the sewers). What is it, and why does it release him?

This is not explained, but one can easily surmise that whenever there is a malfunction in the power plant caused by a human dying or waking up from The Matrix unexpectedly, he is automatically disconnected by a maintenance machine and flushed down the tubes to a recycling tank in the sewers. The sewer Neo winds up in doesn't look like a recycling tank, but it might be.

Q: How does Cypher get out of the Matrix after he meets with Agent Smith? When you hack into The Matrix, don't you need an operator to create an exit?

A: The lack of an answer to this question is a glaring omission. However, it is not necessarily a plot hole. There are several possible explanations, the most plausible of which is that, before going into The Matrix, Cypher could have programmed the computer system to create automatically an exit at a preset time and place.

Q: How can the Oracle live permanently in The Matrix without being discovered? Why does she live there instead of Zion?

A: These are also questions to which the Wachowskis provide no answer. However, in the original script, which was later altered, Morpheus explains that the Oracle's dwelling is part of Zion's mainframe, hacked and hidden inside the Matrix. As for the second question...who knows? Perhaps the Oracle must live in The Matrix in order to sense future events there.

Q: If the Oracle never lies and the Oracle is always right, how can Neo be The One when the Oracle tells him he's not?

If you watch the scene again, you will notice two things:

1) The Oracle never actually tells Neo that he is not The One. Instead, she allows Neo to draw this conclusion for himself. As Morpheus later explains, she allows him to think he is not The One so that Neo will be willing to risk his life to rescue Morpheus. Had Neo not attempted the rescue, he would not have discovered the true extent of his abilities and Morpheus would be dead.

2) Strictly speaking, when Neo meets the Oracle, he is not really The One. Not yet. The Oracle explains that in order to be The One, you must know that you are--you must feel it instinctively. The Oracle says, "Sorry, kid. You've got the gift, but it looks like you're waiting for something." "What?" asks Neo. "Who knows? Your next life maybe," the Oracle responds. The Oracle leaves open the possibility that Neo will be The One in his "next life," and she also predicts that Neo will die if he attempts to save Morpheus. Neo does die, or at least his heart stops beating, for a few moments. When he revives, he has become The One. He can see The Matrix for what it is--the output of complex computer programs run in a huge mainframe. In a way, Neo is now a powerful hacking program. He can alter anything he wants.

Q: How can Neo die and come back to life?

Does Neo die? Neo is shot repeatedly by Agent Smith at point blank range, but that is not really Neo, of course. That is a digital representation of the real Neo (a simulacra, if you will--note the title of the fake book inside which Neo keeps his money, at the beginning of the film). If somebody is killed in The Matrix, they die in the real world because "their mind makes it real," as Morpheus explains, and "the body cannot live without the mind." But Neo is The One. He has the ability to see The Matrix for what it is. His mind doesn't make it real. Neo goes into momentary cardiac arrest, which is technically "death," but brain activity continues for several minutes after the heart stops beating--enough time for Neo's mind to reject the reality of The Matrix, perhaps. Or maybe it's just a miracle.

Thanks to Glenda Glamazon for her invaluable assistance in researching and editing this piece.

Analysis © May 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 by Warner Bros.

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