Okay, let's assume you've just finished watching The Matrix. You probably think it's about some normal everyday Joe who gets caught up in a crazy mess of things because he is destined… by fate. (Dun dun dunnn).
It's a typical story where the protagonist goes from being a nobody to a somebody, and Keanu is just bland enough to fit into that "everyman" role so it totally makes sense. Does Keanu Reeves only have one facial expression? Seriously?
It's not quite that cut and dried, however. Sure, Neo (a.k.a. Thomas A. Anderson) is in a reality he never knew existed and who has been told it's his destiny to save mankind: he's a little out of his element.
But think back to the original Neo, or maybe we should call him Thomas. Thomas is a world class hacker who, according to Agent Smith, is:
SMITH: guilty of virtually [pun intended?] every computer crime we have a law for.
We even get to see Thomas in action, selling some illegal disk to Choi for two thousand big ones. Not exactly petty crime considering he has a whole stack of these minidisks in his secret book. Thomas has been searching for Morpheus and the answer to the question "What is the Matrix" for years.
He isn't just a nobody who works at a software company; he's a hacker. He is curious and rebellious by nature, and it is these traits that make him a prime candidate for being what Matrix fans call a "redpill".
Yeah, let's talk a little more about Neo's rebellious side. If you were ever randomly detained by scary looking federal agent dudes who you've been warned about, by a mysterious man you've never met, your first reaction probably wouldn't be to say:
NEO: How 'bout I give you the finger [gives him the finger] and you give me my phone call?
Yeah, Thomas doesn't mess around. Even when he's in the car with people he's spent years searching for, when Switch tells him that:
SWITCH: Right now there's only one rule: our way, or the highway.
Thomas actually goes to get out of the car. He would literally rather bail on the completion of a years-long project than be told what to do.
But Trinity pulls him back into the car by appealing again to his curiosity, his natural need to search and his tiredness of the same, mundane life he's been living. She tells him:
TRINITY: You have been down there Neo, you know that road. You know exactly where it ends and I know that's not where you want to be.
Yup—Neo knows the mundane road. He has a boss that lectures him about being on time and informs him that he has a problem with authority. So although Neo is a newbie when it comes to being The One, he's not wet behind the ears when it comes to being Thomas, a rebel with a cause.
When we first meet Neo, he wakes up in a womblike vat of gooey fun with a bunch of umbilical-y machine cords feeding him nutrients Soylent Green style. We dare you to find a more visceral symbol of rebirth.
Right away, Neo's abilities are clear. He "trains" for 10 hours straight, taking in massive amounts of uploaded data (Tank even calls him a machine, lolz). Then he's way faster than normal fighting Morpheus; Mouse comments that his neuro-kinetics are
MOUSE: Way above normal.
But although Neo is way above normal when it comes to absorbing info, he's not getting an A++ when it comes to having faith in himself. Even though he is quite quickly able to outdo Morpheus in combat, he fails the jump program. This harkens back to another time he failed a height-related task— when he tried to make it to the scaffolding before he had swallowed the red pill. We can hear him muttering to himself as he steps out the window:
NEO: Why is this happening to me? What did I do? I'm nobody. I didn't do anything. I'm gonna die.
Buck up, Neo! You're not nobody. You're The One. Jeez.
Neo's lack of faith in himself is mirrored by his disbelief in fate (or destiny or prophecy or whatever you want to call it). Before offering him the choice of pills, Morpheus asks Neo if he believes in fate. Neo responds:
NEO: No… because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
The Oracle also reminds Neo that he doesn't believe in any of this "fate crap."
But then, when the Oracle's prophecy seems to come true and Neo has a choice between his life or Morpheus' Neo acquires a strange new belief. He says:
NEO: I believe in something… I believe I can bring him back.
Neo's faith is faith in himself; faith gained through the Oracle's prophecy.
First, Morpheus is a name. Then he is a voice. Finally, he is a face, albeit one that masked with some extremely '90s shades.
Ultimately, Morpheus is an enigma. He is the man who embodies the real world to the minds trapped in the Matrix. It is Morpheus that people turn to when they seek escape from the world of the Matrix; it is Morpheus who is able to give people a rebirth.
Initially it seems as if Neo is looking for Morpheus, but really it's Morpheus who's looking for Neo. Just as God seeks out his lost sheep, Morpheus seeks out the minds that are willing to break free of the bonds of the Matrix.
Okay, you're probably thinking that if anyone is a prophet, it's probably the Oracle. This is true, but Morpheus is also a prophet of sorts. It's his job to acknowledge that Neo is The One, and to prepare others to accept his position as their savior and the savior of all mankind.
We're not going to get too deep into the multitude of religious symbols right here—check out our Tools of Characterization section for more on that. However, it's worth mentioning that Morpheus is, in a way, like John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christ (Neo). Baptism, like waking up in a bathtub of translucent Jell-O that looks like a mechanized salmon egg, is a symbol of rebirth. Morpheus has, in a way, baptized the crew members of the Nebuchadnezzar. He is the ultimate guide, leading people to the proverbial door that they must walk through. As the Oracle says:
ORACLE: Without him, we are lost.
Finally, Morpheus is a believer. The Nebuchadnezzar crew is his disciples, and he in turn is a disciple of the Oracle. In fact, Morpheus has so much faith in what the Oracle has told him (that he would find The One) that she comments to Neo that:
ORACLE: No one, not you, not even me, can convince him otherwise.
Wait a minute: not even the person who prophesied Morpheus' destiny can tell him it's not true? Even when Morpheus himself admits to Neo in the elevator on the way to the Oracle that she is not right or wrong but simply tells people what they need to hear?
Well, maybe that's what true faith is: a belief in something when there is ample evidence to the contrary. Morpheus' belief then seems to transcend the Oracle; it is something deeper.
Whereas Trinity is disappointed that Neo cannot make the jump on his first try, Morpheus never once shows a sign of doubt and is completely willing to sacrifice himself for his faith. It seems like his beliefs have finally been solidified by Neo's success against the agents… but just wait 'til he gets back to Zion in the second movie.
When we first see Trinity, she has just been surrounded by a squad of policemen who are about to arrest her. She's sitting at a computer and is completely unarmed, so it's not looking too good for ol' T.
In the following scene agents show up and scold the lieutenant for acting without them. When the policeman scoffs that he thinks they can "handle one little girl" Agent Smith matter-of-factly informs him that his men are already dead.
And sure enough, in the next scene Trinity is kicking some serious booty. Female empowerment isn't the focus of the Matrix, but that doesn't mean it's not important to the movie. Think about Trinity's first encounter with Neo, when he realizes she is the Trinity; the one who cracked the IRS D-base (did people really call databases D-bases? It was the '90s, so we wouldn't be surprised). Neo is caught off guard because he thought she was a guy, to which she replies:
TRINITY: Most guys do.
Her intellect as a hacker and her proficiency at bending the rules of the Matrix prove that she is a force to be reckoned with. She ain't no damsel in distress. In fact, it is Trinity who helps rescue Neo from the Matrix, Trinity who saves Neo twice in their rooftop fight (once with a well-placed knife and once with a pointblank shot at an agent), and Trinity who helps revive Neo in his final struggle. If you can look past the sexy tight-fitted leather outfit—this is Hollywood after all—we can see Trinity as a symbol of feminine agency and power.
Before there was Hinge and Tinder, there was the Matrix. Well, okay, maybe meeting people in the Matrix isn't much easier than meeting people in the real world. Just ask Neo; it looks like he doesn't get out a whole lot.
But regardless, this is where the first connection between Trinity and Neo takes place. The physical intimacy is very obvious. Sure, the club is loud, but Trinity gets up nice and close so she can talk into Neo's ear. But what is even more interesting is that we learn that Trinity, too, was a hacker. Probably Trinity had been a hacker when she was still trapped by the Matrix; as she says:
TRINITY: That was a long time ago.
Is it a coincidence then, that both Trinity and Neo were hackers who were freed by Morpheus from the Matrix? Maybe, but maybe it is something about the nature of those people who are hackers that make them more prone to seeking out the question of the Matrix.
This spirit of rebellion and curiosity is as much a part of Trinity's identity as it is a part of Neo's, linking the two even before they physically meet in the real world. Of course, there intimacy extends way beyond their virtual criminality. It is Trinity's love of Neo that compels Neo to rise from the brink of death and defeat the agents.
It's unclear exactly why Trinity loves Neo. It almost seems as though her love for him is based on the Oracle's prophecy that she would love The One, just like Morpheus' belief in Neo being The One was dependent on the fact that he knew he would find The One. Phew. It's tricky in a chicken-and-egg sort of way.
But either way, Trinity and Neo experience something so real that it manifests itself as a reaction within the Matrix, and Trinity's love provides Neo with the impetus he needs to "get up."
Cypher seems like a nice person. Sure, he likes to tease Trinity about having a thing for Neo… but maybe Cypher is just a little immature. And he seems to genuinely care about Neo; he empathizes with him about the craziness about being The One and even offers him some pretty sage advice about running from the agents. He doesn't sound so bad after all.
But Cypher is incredibly selfish, and incredibly disloyal. In order to keep Morpheus alive so that he can be hacked, Cypher must kill the entire crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. And if you think that's bad, he's actually giving up the codes to Zion's mainframe, essentially selling the lives of every single free human being. He really is a Judas of sorts, betraying The One for his own benefit.
Let's take a step back, though. Cypher is a bad dude: that's a given. But just because he's incredibly evil doesn't mean he's… wrong.
Let's think about his dinner with Smith, where he talks about the steak. He knows that the steak isn't real, that it's a simulation of the Matrix. But, as he says, ignorance is bliss. Even knowing the steak isn't "real" it tastes "juicy and delicious." When someone is ignorant of the fact they're in the Matrix, then the steak is exactly like "real" steak. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… it's probably a succulent t-bone.
Cypher's problem, of course, is that there is no steak in the real world. Instead, he is stuck eating goop that maybe tastes like runny eggs if you close your eyes. Cypher seems to be the only character to truly realize that one's experience in the Matrix cannot be defined as unreal. It is not an opposition to the physical world; it is simply alternative, and an alternate that Cypher prefers with good reason—there are steaks in the Matrix.
Cypher adds a depth to the film that would otherwise be absent. The Matrix could simply be another of the films binaries: the "real" world is real (therefore good) and the Matrix is false (and therefore bad).
But chew on this: if the world, our world right now, were actually a Matrix, would you suddenly consider all your experiences (and, in consequence, your very identity) to be unreal? That is an incredibly tricky question.
We hope you wouldn't be willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of people to live a better life, but Cypher certainly makes us question the nature of what makes a thing real, as well as the inherent value of a physical reality. Who knows, in a hundred years people who value the physical world just might end up sounding like your grandpa complaining about how nobody talks face-to-face anymore.
As a side note, Cypher also makes us think of other "realities", not just our own world, as matrixes. In the scene where he talks to Smith at the restaurant, Cypher describes the person he wants to be in the Matrix when he's reinserted. He says he wants to be rich and important, "like an actor."
But uh, he is an actor. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus: they're all actors. It's a sly joke that seems perfectly sensible within the confines of the movie. But it also makes us think about movies themselves as a kind of Matrix: a virtual reality that we can escape into. Surely, it's not a stretch to think of video games and even books in the same way.
So thanks, Cypher! Not only do you inject some drama-rama into this film, you also make our brains hurt from rigorous philosophizing: we feel the burn, and it is sweet.
Agent Smith's last name is Smith. In fact, his only name is Smith. Besides having one of the most common names in the Western world, he's basically as devoid of personality as you can get. He has a very distinctly monotone way of speaking. He wears the classic suit and tie combo with shades and a pretty phenomenally average haircut.
Essentially, he isn't anyone (well, of course he isn't anyone, he's a program, but that's not the point). If the Matrix is "control," as Morpheus says, then the agents are the controllers. They are the "they," the "them," and Agent Smith is "The Man"—the Matrix, the system.
The Matrix is a very complex program and sometimes things go wrong or hackers like Morpheus and crew muck it up. The agents were created by machines to right those wrongs and keep the Matrix stable. And that's exactly what Smith does… through violence, of course.
So, then we have the question: if that's all there is to it, why are we still talking about Smith? We really like the way he calls Neo Mr. Anderson, but does his character go any deeper?
For most of the movie he is simply an antagonist, but then we get the scene with Smith and Brown and Jones trying to hack into Morpheus' mind. Smith, like any good antagonist on the brink of victory, begins to monologue. First he talks about the Matrix itself.
While we won't truly learn about its ancestry until the Architect in Reloaded, Smith talks about the first Matrix which tried and failed to simulate a perfect human world. While some people think machines lack the programing language to simulate a perfect world, Smith believes that it was rejected because:
SMITH: Human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.
And then it starts to get good. Smith orders the other agents to leave him (which they do reluctantly) and he gives Morpheus and us insight onto why he needs the codes to Zion's mainframe.
As viewers, we've assumed he was working on behalf of the machines. The machines want to destroy Zion and Smith is simply helping him; they are the ones that programmed him after all. But no, that's not the case. Smith is acting on his own behalf, trying to destroy Zion so that he wouldn't need to be in the Matrix anymore.
We really see the man behind the mask when he takes of his shades and sits down next to Morpheus, distraught by the stench of humans. We now see Smith not as an archetypal villain, an arm of the machines, but a program with a will of his own.
When the machines became conscious, they were no longer working for humans. And now that a program is conscious, he no longer works for machines. It's a crucial theme of the Matrix and you should be ready for it in the sequels.
The Oracle sure is talked about a lot, even though she doesn't get a lot of screen time. At first, like Morpheus, she is an enigma: a name that sounds awfully important but that we don't quite understand.
And then we finally meet her she turns out to be an old lady who enjoys baking things like cookies and noodles. Not exactly what Neo (or we) were expecting. Her lobby is a strange mix between a kindergarten room and a Buddhist temple and her kitchen is, well, a kitchen.
She gives him a regular check-up and then tells him he's not The One… or does she? Go back and watch that scene again: Neo says that Neo isn't The One. All the Oracle says is:
ORACLE: You already know what I'm going to say.
Then Neo supplies the rest. Then she gives him a real prophecy: one that doesn't even end up being true.
So how, exactly is she an Oracle?
Perhaps she's meant to be nothing more than a grandmotherly lady who makes us question the nature of fate and free will. In some sense, the most serious question of the movie is whether Neo "would have broken the vase if she hadn't said anything." Check out our Themes section for more on the juicy topic of Fate and Free Will.
There are a lot of other crew members aboard the Nebuchadnezzar that we should devote a little time and space to.
There's Mouse, the young, energetic one who's full of questions and theories and seems to relish creating things (mainly virtual women). He is the one who makes us question experiences in the Matrix as accurate due to their subjective nature. How can they really know what Tasty Wheat tastes like? What things in the physical world were simulated incorrectly? Mouse is the first to die and his youth makes his death all the more painful.
Then there's Dozer. He doesn't say much except to rain on Mouse's parade about the Tasty Wheat. He screams as he charges at Cypher and then he is electrocuted to death: sizzle.
His brother, Tank, plays a little larger role. Tank is a follower of Morpheus and is used to juxtapose the suspicious Cypher. He is very excited and hopeful about Neo being The One, and is also our main source for the little information we get about Zion, the final human city. He ends up surviving Cypher's attack and saving Neo and Trinity.
Next up is Apoc. He doesn't do a whole lot. He drives things and is usually partnered with Switch.
Speaking of Switch, she is the only real-world female in the film besides Trinity. She has a few one-liners and orders Neo around when they pick him up in the car. She is killed alongside Apoc when Cypher unplugs them both while they're trapped in the Matrix.