MORPHEUS: I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.
Neo can't help but agree.
Let's put ourselves in Neo's shoes for a moment (ah, they've got quite a shine to them). Our computer has been hacked, our mouth has been sealed shut with our own skin, we've been bugged, then it was all a dream, then we were debugged (so it wasn't a dream?) and now we're meeting this deity-like figure named Morpheus who we've only hear rumors about.
It sounds a bit too strange to be real (well it's not technically real, but that's beside the point). But Morpheus isn't done yet. When offering Neo a choice of pills, he again alludes to Alice, saying:
MORPHEUS: take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland. And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carol's most well known book, is about a girl who travels to a…very strange place. There's really no other way to say it, you'll have to read it for yourself because it's quite the trip.
Morpheus is comparing Neo's experience to the experience of Alice because of all the unbelievable things that are happening to him. Earlier Trinity tells Neo to "follow the white rabbit." He ends up spotting a snazzy white rabbit tattoo on the shoulder of a partygoer named Dujour, and, heeding Trinity's spooky instant message, he follows her.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds Wonderland by following the a cute little white bunny (who is running through the "real world" wearing a waistcoat with a watch and worrying about his tardiness. You know, just your typical rabbit) who leads her to the rabbit hole where the adventure begins.
So the white rabbit is more than Dujour's tattoo, it's a metaphor for following one's curiosity to an impossible land. What makes this metaphor especially interesting is that Neo is, in a way, already in Wonderland. He is actually about to emerge from the rabbit hole… and boy is he in for a surprise.
Well, on the bright side, at least he doesn't have to eat from a magical mushroom to change his size—that would have been quite another movie.
Film editors need a way to get from one scene to another and, unlike Star Wars: Episode III, The Matrix doesn't just wipe us from one image to the next. Instead, we have some very meaningful transitions that speak to the nature of what the Matrix is.
We don't have enough space to cover every single time we transition through the use of the old zoom-in (there are so many) but let's take a gander at a few.
First, we have the transition from the opening credits sequence and conversation between Trinity and Cypher to the first scene, in which the policemen arrest Trinity. The camera zooms through the Matrix code at first and then we have a monochrome monitor where we see a phone call being traced. The camera continues to zoom through the phone numbers as they appear and toward a ball of light, which, as it pans away, we see, is the flashlight of a policeman.
Although we may not know it yet, we have already been fundamentally introduced to the Matrix. We have zoomed through a computer containing Matrix code, all the way through a digital space and ended up in a computer-simulated world.
Now let's take a leap forward to Neo's interrogation scene, where the agents have him in captivity. When we first see Neo we are actually looking at a wall of screens in which we see Neo from a security camera angle. The camera zooms in on one of these screens and then goes through the screen to the actual scene where we are looking at Neo.
So we go from a digital image of Neo to the real Neo without that image of Neo even changing. Of course, the Neo we're seeing is still a virtual Neo (even though we don't know it yet).
It's Neo's not being real that the screen transition is hinting at. The fact is that there is no difference between the Neo we see on a screen and the Neo we see in person. Of course, to abstract it another level, we are watching Neo on a screen in a theatre or our homes. So taking into account our screen, the security camera screen, and the Matrix as a virtual representation, and finally the real world, there are four levels for us to zoom through (we know, that just got really deep…).
Oh those Wachowskis, they just can't help stuff their movie full of philosophy. Even simple hollowed out books used to hide digital contraband are meaningful.
When Neo goes to get the goods for Choi and his gang, he opens up a book called Simulacra and Simulation. The book is hollowed out and inside Neo keeps all his illegal goodies. The book itself is a philosophical treatise by Jean Baudrillard. In it, he talks about signs and symbols that humans use in place of reality. This means that, in a sense, they are more real than the real—they are hyperreal.
That probably sounds somewhere between confusing and nonsensical, but it actually makes a lot of sense. These signs can be anything—think of language for instance. Every word we speak or write is a symbol of something that has some type of physical existence, whether it's a noun or verb or adjective. Our word "cow" is not just a few weird squiggles on a screen or piece of paper—it's a few weird squiggles that make us think of a weird mooing beast.
It's probably not hard to see how this applies to the Matrix, but we'll give you a fun example that Baudrillard gives in his book anyway. Pulling from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges who was drawing from a chapter of Lewis Carol's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (wheels within wheels, we know) Baudrillard talks about a map so detailed that it must have a 1:1 scale to the land it represents.
When the Empire that the map represented finally decays, the map is the only thing that remains. Its existence is more real than the land itself. This is what he calls the "desert of the real itself" and Morpheus repeats this phrase as he shows Neo the desolate "real" world and it's stark contrast to the allegorical "map" the Matrix.
The Matrix is all about the conflation of physical reality and virtual reality, but we often forget about a sort of intermediary existence… that of the machines.
Their consciousness appears to be singular, a hive mind-type system (you'll get a better picture of this in the third movie) and while they obviously have a physical reality, their use of software can be compared to the simulations of the Matrix.
We should probably start by mentioning that a lot of the machines look a lot like insects or squids. Their biological appearance reinforces the fact that they are indeed very alive. They operate through a series of electrical signals just like the human brain, so the only difference is that they're not carbon based life forms.
The bug that is put inside Neo by the agents is a symbol of the combining of different types of existence. At first it appears to be a type of metal device the agents will insert. But suddenly it becomes a living bug, squirming its way inside Neo through his belly button.
When Trinity goes to extract it, we see it through her removal contraption as a living organism crawling around inside Neo. And when Trinity zaps it and sucks it out of him, we see its blood splatter in the tube. But when she deposits it in the street, suddenly it is just the device we originally saw it as.
Maybe it's a figment of Neo's imagination, or maybe it's just a trick of the Matrix. Either way, it's a symbol for the duality of kinds of life that exist in the Matrix. It forces us to think outside of the realm of modern day possibilities. Machines are just as much alive as insects—or maybe even more alive, given the implied depth of their consciousness based on the construction of the Matrix.
So, unless you were planning on paying him a visit, you probably didn't pay attention to the number on Neo's door when you first watched the movie. So you'll just have to trust us when we say he lives in Room 101.
Okay, so what? It's just a number, right? Well, yeah, it is, but it's also a lot of other things.
But there's another room number that appears a few times: room 303. It's the room that Trinity is in during the opening scene and it's the room that Tank directs Neo to as he flees from the agents. So it's a convenient entrance and exit from the Matrix, but it's also symbolically important. Trinity—see our Tools of Characterization for more on her name—is all about the tres. The number 303 not only contains 3s but also has three numbers.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When we first meet Neo, he's nodded off on his computer with his headphones on. His room is messy and minimally lit, and on the monitor we see a random jumbling of news articles.
In the seconds it takes for us to take this in we learn exactly who Neo is. He's your typical hermit-type computer nerd who doesn't see enough of the sun…but who also happens to be a hacker who's relentlessly searching for something until he literally can't keep his eyes open.
We doubt ol' Joe Campbell was being literal with the "call to adventure" stage, but that's exactly what Neo gets. After he takes Trinity's bait on the computer and follows the white rabbit to the club, and after he meets Trinity who whispers about the mysterious entity known as Morpheus, he gets a call on a cellphone from the big man himself.
This is it; after years of searching, Neo's time has finally come.
Or has it? As excited as Neo is upon hearing Morpheus' voice, he can't do what Morpheus asks him to do.
He follows instructions closely at first, but when he has to open the window and clamber around the outside of the skyscraper, it's just too much for our scaredy-cat hacker to handle.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the whole movies is Neo's first meeting with Morpheus: the big leather armchairs, the colored pills, the aviator shades and awesome trench coat.
And Morpheus has just as much impact on Neo as he has on the audience. Neo wants to make heads and tails of the Matrix and Morpheus is the man who will guide him toward enlightenment.
But, uhh, it might hurt a little.
Maybe having a hallucinogenic metallic liquid cover your body and rush down your throat isn't the ideal way to start an adventure but, unfortunately for Neo, his journey across the threshold doesn't get any easier when he's in the real world.
Neo wakes up in his body, is detached and discarded by a giant bug robot, and then craned up into a hovercraft where he passes out. But hey, he finally made it.
Neo is taken through a variety of exercises to learn what he's capable of inside a computer program like the Matrix. He spars Morpheus in a dojo, jumps (or fails to jump) between city buildings, and learns about the danger of agents and red dresses.
He also gets to meet the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar and adjust to life in the future…or, present.
But it's only fun and games and downloading jiu jitsu for so long before Neo is confronted with some real trouble.
We're not talking about the agents yet; Neo's approach to the inmost cave is his talk with the Oracle. This is the place where Neo's doubts and fears are manifested.
He's told that he isn't The One and is turned away, having come up short. Of course, seeing the Oracle meant entering the Matrix, and it's in the program that was his old reality where Neo will face his first real (well, simulated) challenge.
The main event of The Matrix comes when Neo decides to head back into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus. Bringing Trinity and a lot of guns with him, he storms Agent Smith's hideout, kills all the guards and grabs Morpheus with a helicopter.
But it's the climax of this battle that matters most. When Neo is finally put head to head with the agents, he discovers that he's able to move just as fast as they are, dodging bullets like no tomorrow.
Unfortunately, Neo doesn't get to seize the sword for very long. Yes, his newfound incredible speed is…incredible, but with Cypher's betrayal, things are about to get a lot worse before Neo can finish his journey.
The road back home is slogged by deceit. Cypher kills Dozer and wounds Tank before he starts unplugging Switch and the rest of the crew. Tank puts an end to it just before Neo is a goner, but then he's stuck alone in the Matrix, fighting Smith with no back up.
After failing to kill Agent Smith in the subway, Neo decides to make a run for it. But the agents are too fast for him and eventually track him down, shooting him dead in an apartment hallway.
But what with Trinity confessing her love to his unconscious body, Neo has a very literal resurrection. He wakes up and is done dodging bullets. He stops them in midair then dives inside of Smith, blowing him to green Smith-ereens.
The elixir that Neo returns with is himself.
He's shown that he is truly The One. He brings with him a hope for finally ending the war with the Machines and unplugging the rest of the helpless humans from the Matrix. The Ordeal and Resurrection haven't just proved Neo a capable fighter, but a savior for mankind.
Oh, and he can fly now.
If we want to get technical about it, this is the only physical setting of The Matrix. Everything else that happens takes place within the minds of the characters. In fact, the entirety of the movie is confined within the Nebuchadnezzar, except when Neo is briefly in a power plant before he is rescued.
While this may be true, there's no getting around the fact that stuff goes down within the Matrix itself. So let's talk about some of the main differences between the Matrix and the Desert of the Real, starting with everyone's favorite hovercraft.
The Nebuchadnezzar is pretty grimy and beat up. It really fits in with the rest of the "real" world aesthetic they have going on: the whole ruinous city and blackened sky thing. The blue lightning really brings it all together.
If we go inside the Nebuchadnezzar we see flickering lights and worn down chairs. The living quarters appear submarine-esque; they seem hard and tight and not particularly comfortable. There are also a lot of wires running around out in the open and the main console with all the computers seems a bit slipshod.
Even though we're about two hundred years in the future, this hovercraft is nothing like the pristinely clean spaceships of other science fiction works, like Star Trek. Of course, they're driving around their ship in the service tunnels and sewers of ancient cities and we're pretty sure they haven't installed any showers. Smith might think the Matrix stinks but he should be glad he's not aboard the Nebuchadnezzar.
If you really think about the Matrix as a setting, there is really only one part of the Matrix that we every see: the metropolis known as Mega City. It's actually unclear whether there are other parts of the Matrix.
This city is portrayed as a very modern, corporate kind of world. It's full of skyscrapers and big, busy streets with lots of people. What's interesting, though, is how clean it appears. Aside from Room 101 where Neo lives, most other scenes have a very minimalist, orderly feel: the office and cubicle Neo works in, the building that Morpheus is taken to, the building where the fight scene occurs with its pretty columns, and even the rooftops. Everything appears neat and tidy… which seems to be the whole point.
There is one play that sticks out like a sore thumb, however: the old hotel where Neo is introduced to Morpheus and where Cypher betrays the group after Neo goes to the Oracle. This building is an intermediary between the two worlds. It's a mix of real world dirty and Matrix clean. It has a classy antique feel—dig that checkered staircase and the large armchairs—and, while it may be dusty it's certainly in better shape than the Nebuchadnezzar.
Seeing as this building acts as a kind of portal which Morph and the crew use to enter and exit the Matrix, its aesthetic makes sense.
What with all the craziness of The Matrix conceptually (not to mention all the philosophy and theology thrown in the mix) the narrative structure itself is necessarily simple. Just imagine if Neo's journey out of the Matrix was a series of flashbacks that occur as he's on his way to save Morpheus. Not only does that sound way more confusing, but it also ruins the big reveal: that the world we think is real, our world, is a virtual reality.
Because this reveal is the huge point of the film, the narrative takes place alongside Neo's discovery. When Neo is shocked, we are shocked. Our emotional journey mirrors Neo's disbelief. Morpheus tells Neo that he has:
MORPHEUS: ...the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.
Let's start with the basics, shall we? The Matrix is an action movie, pure and simple. We spend so much time talking about themes and symbolism in this guide that it's surprisingly easy to forget what's actually happening in the movie: lots of action.
And while there's nothing unique about a gunfight or a kung fu showdown, no movie has combined the two in such a way before The Matrix. Of course, if you really want to see what's capable in terms of maximum action, you'll need to see The Matrix: Reloaded, but we're sticking with the original for now.
Next on our plate is the science fiction genre. Again, this one is pretty straightforward. Sure, it doesn't have warp drives and sexily clad female aliens that (for some reason) always seem to be strangely humanoid aside from their skin color, but it's pretty science-y (jacking into a virtual world complex enough to replicate the real world…and hovercrafts for good measure) and it's pretty freakin' fictitious.
Finally, let's touch on the post-apocalyptic. The real world in The Matrix is a mess. Everyone lives in a single underground city fearing annihilation from a machine army (without Netflix—the horror!). People are scared for their lives and travel through underground service tunnels and sewers. The sky is black. And why? Because the robot overlords—those squid-like machines with their technological know-how—took over. Jerks.
You want to know why The Matrix is called The Matrix? Well, it's because the movie centers around a computer simulated virtual world known as the Matrix in which humans are mentally trapped and placated so that they can be kept alive and produce energy.
Okay, maybe there's a bit more to it. What does "matrix" mean in the first place? If you just Googled it like we did, you probably found a bunch of definitions that don't really make sense within the context of the movie: "the thickened epithelium at the base of a fingernail or toenail from which new nail substance develops." Thanks Merriam Webster, but for some reason we don't think the movie has much to do with nail growth.
Ah, but wait. What about: "set of numbers arranged in rows and columns to form a rectangular array." Now we're getting somewhere. "Matrix" seems to refer to the structure and complexity of the system, whose underpinnings can be seen in the cascading green code of the operator computers and even more accurately when Neo is resurrected and begins to see the matrix itself in its true state.
It's one of those cyclical things. You know, like the hydrologic cycle... or like a cat chasing its own tail.
In the first scene we start with Trinity and Cypher talking while the camera zooms inside of a monochrome monitor and into the Matrix. At the end, we hear Neo talking as we again zoom into the Matrix, this time to look at Neo talking to…whoever he's talking to, it's not really clear. The machines? The agents?
At any rate, Neo's telling it like it is. He's going to show the minds trapped in the Matrix the truth, or at least the lack of truth. Again, very unclear exactly what he's planning on doing.
He then hangs up the phone and steps out of the phone booth like a bona fide superman. He even flies like superman with his fists outstretched above his head like he's riding a motorcycle that is way too big for him. But maybe that's just how one flies: who knows (not us, unfortunately)? The point is, Neo's the man now, and things are about to get revolutionary.
So, to answer the question: what's up with the ending? Neo is. He's up, up and away.
The R rating here is all about the violence. It's not the extreme Tarantino pull-your-eyeballs-out kind of violence, but there's a lot of shooting people and punching people and burning people with electrical weaponry, so there's no shortage of death and injury.
There's also a bit of language, but not a whole lot of drug use (aside from that one pill Neo takes; that's quite the trip). There's also not a whole lot of sex or nudity, although Mouse does make some interesting suggestions about computer-simulated copulation.