Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes
Periodically Scott and I review a classic movie that we feel embodies the Hero’s Journey and is a great viewing experience. Ths week we’re looking at The Matrix, the 1999 movie from the Wachowskis that put Bullet Time on the map.
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
Greg, after rewatching The Matrix this week, I’m struck by how beautifully it was filmed and choreographed. It was truly ahead of its time. And you’re right, the hero story is chock full of many classic elements that unfortunately most filmmakers today simply ignore.
We start off with a story prologue. This is something I warn my writers against. So often prologues are just a lot of backstory and are homework for the reader. In movies this usually comes in the form of a voice-over explaining where the hero comes from. This is a bad sign – it means that the screenwriter lacked the imagination to trickle the backstory into the body of the script. Happily, we don’t see that here.
In The Matrix, the prologue introduces the Special World by starting with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) on a mission. The police are sent up to capture her. But that is a big mistake because she has unusual abilities to fight and defy the laws of physics. She can run faster and jump farther than her counterparts. This is a great peek into where the hero will go and is a contrast to his Ordinary World. But it comes before we first meet our hero and starts with action, drawing us into the world of the Matrix.
The universe in which The Matrix is set is revealed to us slowly, and as viewers we’re immediately drawn to our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) upon first meeting him. We relate to Neo’s good nature and genuine confusion about the nature of reality, and we soon learn from Neo’s mentor, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), that Neo is The Chosen One who is fated to save the world.
The Matrix taps into several timeless mythological patterns: We have an oracle that sets in motion a great hero story and yet speaks in riddles. We have a man born not knowing his true identity and yet fated to be The One. This hero possesses hidden, untapped powers and has many people around him, friends and foes alike, who doubt his worthiness. Our hero’s own choices ultimately awaken his special powers and trigger his prophesized transformation.
We meet Neo at his desk. He’s a computer hacker and goes to a party where he meets Trinity who tells him that she knows what he’s been searching for – the truth about the Matrix. She can take him to Morpheus the man who can reveal the truth to him. Neo follows and Morpheus offers him a choice – take a blue pill and stay in his ordinary world, or take the red pill have the truth revealed. Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in a submarine with new friends: Trinity, Morpheus, Tank, Dozer, and others.
Scott, the movie follows the classic mythical Hero’s Journey. The hero experiences the “call to adventure” and “crossing the threshold” from the ordinary world into a special world. Neo learns that everything he knows is false. The world he has been living in is a dream and the real world is occupied by AI – Artificial Intelligence. Morpheus believes Neo is The One who can control the Matrix and fight the evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). But like any good hero, Neo doesn’t believe he is the chosen one and will need convincing. It’s up to his mentor, Morpheus, to teach him the rules of the special world.
Greg, I’m struck by how the filmmakers didn’t miss a beat in creating a character who is destined to be transformed in ways he cannot imagine. The key elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero are all in place. As you mention, there is the call to adventure, a mentor, a love interest in Trinity, characters who assist Neo, supernatural assistance from the oracle woman, and a compelling villain in Agent Smith.
Interestingly, I got the sense that Morpheus also plays a father figure to Neo. The relationship between Morpheus and Neo is crucially important, as Morpheus believes in Neo when Neo does not, and we are witness to them each being somewhat over-protective toward each other. The film also succeeds because we’re never quite sure ourselves, as viewers, whether Neo is the chosen one and how, if at all, he’ll transform himself.
You’re absolutely right. They held the revelation of Neo being The One until the very end. It was an effective reveal. We watch Neo go from being completely skeptical to gradually understanding what his limits and powers are in the Matrix. And we grow with him. This is the mark of a great story – the viewer becomes the hero and feels the successes and failures of the hero.
So, everyone in the audience has had the feeling of not belonging and can identify with Neo. And we’ve all had the experience of starting out weak as children and gradually growing into our adult strengths. Neo’s growth is a great allegory to the coming-of-age story.
Well said, Greg. We recently reviewed a current film, Oblivion, that was just as beautifully filmed as The Matrix but featured a hero character who was essentially an unchanging piece of cardboard. The makers of The Matrix first and foremost cared about their hero story and made the hero’s remarkable journey the centerpiece of the screenplay.
The Matrix’s astounding CGI fight scenes still dazzle to this day, and the staying power of this movie is so strong that even 14 years after its release General Electric is now running a new commercial featuring Agent Smith. The Matrix earns 5 Reels out of 5. The character of Neo and his unforgettable journey earn The Matrix‘s hero story 5 Heroes out of 5.
The Wachowskis forced their actors to train hard and perform a lot of their own stunts to give the film as much reality as possible. You will rarely get the kind of realism from a film as you find in The Matrix.
The movie gets 5 Reels for outstanding acting, stunts, choreography, filming and even sound. And we have a classic mythic tale replete with archetypal mentors, helpers, shapeshifters, and shadows. I award 5 Heroes for an uncommon hero’s journey.