Script Study: “The Matrix” – Part I
Part 1: The “Hero’s Journey” Never Dies
The Wachowski Brothers, Larry and Andy, screenwriter-directors of The Matrix, have taken what could have been a routine exercise in cinematic recycling and turned it into a hyperactive postmodern pastiche of every action, sci-fi, and kung fu film ever made. The result, although referential on every level to other works, manages to somehow seem fresh in its particular mix of genre and image, and is not only narratively satisfying, but playfully entertaining.
From a screenwriter’s perspective, the most important example of the story’s nods to other previous films is through its structural application of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” In fact, its structure in many ways replicates another famous film that uses the Hero’s Journey form, Star Wars IV: A New Hope.
Star Wars Parallels
Neo, like Luke Skywalker, is looking to join a larger cause he only barely understands. Luke and Neo both meet up with mentors, Ben Kenobi and Morpheus, respectively. Both heroes “refuse the call” two-thirds of the way into Act 1, and both, because of irreversible circumstances are forced to join in the fight against a dominating and anti-humanist police-state-like institution. Luke and Ben first make contact with Han Solo in a bar; Neo first meets Trinity, a member of the resistance at a party. Neo, like Luke, must learn to trust his mentor’s teachings and make a leap of faith that will fundamentally alter his beliefs, and thus his abilities to fight the enemy. Darth Vader tortures Princess Leia to reveal the location of the Rebels’ secret base, and Agent Smith tortures Morpheus for the location of Zion, the last human city (seen in the Matrix sequels). Morpheus sacrifices himself for Neo, just as Ben Kenobi sacrifices himself for Luke. Neo and Trinity blast their way into the Agent’s stronghold, just as Luke and Solo rescue Leia from the Death Star after a ferocious gun-battle.
I could go on, as there are further similarities. But my point here is in no way to condemn the Wachowskis for plagiarism, but is rather to note the effectiveness and industry-wide influence of the Hero’s Journey as a structural paradigm. All genre films steal from each other–the point is to steal only from the best, and to do it with finesse. The history of storytelling is about the interpretation and reinterpretation of ideas and themes in new forms, which are then viewed through the lenses of new cultural influences. Thus the Wachowskis are not common idea-thieves, but film junkies who have diligently digested the entire history of their working genres and spat it back out in their own image. Many other filmmakers have tread the same ground yet miserably failed, because they concentrated upon simple regurgitation of genre tropes rather than the smooth execution of a well-told fable as the Wachowskis have done.
For this analysis, I have used the Shooting Script, dated March 29, 1998, which is 126 pages in length. This version is in most ways the same as the final film, but differs in a few significant places, which I shall examine. The terminology I use in my dissection I have previously laid out in the chapters on Act Structure.
Act I: What is the Matrix?
|Initiating Incident (Page 1-2): Trinity speaks to Cypher on the phone. During their conversation (which is about Neo), their call is traced. Suddenly, a heavily armed squadron of cops bursts into the abandoned room from which Trinity calls.|
This event sets the rest of the story in motion. Although the Resistance has been monitoring Neo for some time (which is apparently what Trinity was doing when the cops burst in), this attempt to capture Trinity shows that the Agents are closing in, and that the Resistance is running out of time to recruit Neo to their cause.
This event (and the pages that follow until page 8) also shows that for a story to feel more complete, it is often a good idea to suggest a preexisting history or context for the events of the film. From beginning to page 8, we learn that:
- The battle between the Resistance and the Agents has been going on for some time.
- Both the Resistance members and the Agents have superhuman powers.
- Agent Jones, on page 8, says, “Then the informant was real,” foreshadowing
Cypher’s later traitorous acts.
Plus, these events add up to an action-filled opening sequence that wonderfully fills the first 8 pages. As is oft-repeated in the biz, the first ten pages need to grab both potential readers of your script, as well as eventual audience members for the final film. And for action films, this prescription goes double.
When we first meet Neo, he is asleep in front of his computer when a message appears that reads, “Wake up, Neo.” This visually and verbally states the main theme of the entire film, which is that life is a grand illusion. As Neo tries to restore his screen to normal, the message goes on; “The Matrix has you,” then, “Follow the white rabbit.” There is a knock at the door, a customer named Choi, who buys an illicit disk from Neo. Choi invites Neo out with his small group of friends, and Neo initially refuses. Neo then notices that Choi’s female friend bears a tattoo of a white rabbit, and he changes his mind. The story thus wastes no time in getting into the main action. This scene is also the first nod to one of the main thematic motifs in the film, that of the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass.
At the party, Neo meets Trinity, a legendary hacker, who gives him tantalizing hints about Morpheus and the Matrix. Neo awakes the next day late for work. At work, he is chewed out by his stiffly corporate boss.
|The Call to Action (Page 16): Morpheus contacts Neo via cellphone at his workplace to warn him about the approaching Agents. Morpheus tries to guide Neo to an escape, but when he tells Neo to step outside of the building and make his way on a narrow ledge to a scaffold, Neo can’t do it.|
The Call to Action does not take place simply during this one scene, but is actually spread out and builds along several scenes from page 9 (“Wake up, Neo.”) to a climax at page 19. This final scene gives us a sense that Morpheus possesses unusual and omnipotent powers, as he seems to be able to “see” both Neo and the agents. This scene fulfills an important step in the standard structure of the Hero’s Journey, which is the Refusal of the Call.
Neo is then arrested by the Agents, and brought into an interrogation room. Agent Smith offers Neo amnesty from his hacking activities if Neo will help them find Morpheus, but Neo is combatively refuses. Agent Smith seems to magically seal up the flesh of Neo’s mouth, and with the help of fellow Agents, inserts a writhing, evil-looking insectoid wire tap into Neo’s navel. Now we really know that something weird is going on, and are tantalized by these events. The bad guys have also laid out their agenda for our benefit. We also see that not only are they not regular, but something far nastier, and they could probably kill Neo with no more than a flick of the wrist. The stakes have been raised.
After a jump in time to Neo’s apartment, he wakes up screaming (waking up is a recurring thematic motif), which suggests the previous surreal scene might have been a dream. The phone rings, and it is Morpheus. He tells Neo to go to the Adams Street bridge. There, Neo is net by a large black car that carries several Resistance members; Trinity, Switch, and Apoc.
To his surprise, once inside the car, Switch aims a gun at him. When Neo complains, Switch tells him, “Listen, coppertop! We don’t have time for twenty questions. Right now there is only one rule. It’s our way or the highway.” (The “coppertop” line is an inside joke about Neo being a battery–a reference we don’t understand until later when we discover humans are being used as a power source.) Neo opens the door to leave in another Refusal of the Call, and Trinity asks him to trust her. He grudgingly relents. Trinity aims a sinister-looking device at Neo’s stomach which sucks out the wire tap, and she tosses it out the window of the moving car.
Finally brought to a decaying hotel, Neo is introduced to Morpheus, who tells him, “I imagine, right now, you must be feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole?” Morpheus goes on:
MORPHEUS Do you believe in fate, Neo? NEO No. MORPHEUS Why not? NEO Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life. MORPHEUS I know exactly what you mean. Again, that smile that could cut glass. MORPHEUS Let me tell you why you are here. You have come because you know something. What you know you can't explain but you feel it. You've felt it your whole life, felt that something is wrong with the world. You don't know what, but it's there like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about? NEO The Matrix?
This scene helps illustrate Neo’s external goal, which is “to find the truth” (truth, in this case, represented by Morpheus and the nature of the Matrix). His internal goal is “to become the One”. As the story progresses, his external goal for truth blends and meshes with his internal goal to become a search for internal truth that allows him to assume the mantle of the One. In fact, until Neo truly understands the great truth that the Matrix is an illusion, he cannot become the One.
|The Commitment to Act (page 30): Exactly on page 30 is the final scene in Act 1, which is textbook timing for such an act break. Morpheus offers Neo two pills, one red, one blue, and tells Neo, “Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.”|
This scene again references Alice, but also relates to another narrative motif, the biblical story of the Fall of Man, when Eve offers Adam a bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The other biblical story referenced in the film is the Coming of the Messiah. Neo swallows the red pill (the biblical apple), and Morpheus leads him into another room. There, the other Resistance members have set up banks of high-tech equipment, to which they hook up Neo with electrodes.
In front of Neo, a mirror begins to heal along a length of cracks, and when he touches it, his fingers disappear into its surface–another Alice reference (in this case Through the Looking Glass). The mirror slithers across his body like a gel, and engulfs Neo as he panics. He screams.
Act II: Neo Awakes
We have now literally crossed a barrier into the world of second act. All of the rules have changed, indeed, Neo’s entire universe is completely different. Neo, as he was urged to do on page 9, finally “wakes up” from his dream of reality into the horrifying real world of the future.
On page 33, Neo awakes inside a kind of artificial womb called an amnion. He thrashes his way out of a thick gelatin that surrounds his body, fighting for air. He emerges, bald, naked, his body plugged into various cables that hook him into the amnion’s life-support machinery. He feels the large coaxial cable plugged into the back of his skull, and cannot remove it. This image of Neo in the artificial womb reinforces the idea that he is a baby being born into the world–which indeed he is.
He looks out of the amnion, and sees the remarkable sight of thousands upon thousands of duplicate pods around him, each filled with other human bodies, in a brilliant “money-shot” that the script describes thusly:
Fanning out in a circle, there are more. All connected to a center core, each capsule like a red, dimly-glowing petal attached to a black metal stem. Above him, level after level, the stem rises seemingly forever. He moves to the foot of the capsule and looks out. The image assaults his mind. Towers of glowing petals spiral up to incomprehensible heights, disappearing down into a dim murk like an underwater abyss.
Now this is an act transition! This scene is an excellent payoff to the events in Act 1, and fulfills every requirement of a great act transition in terms of visuals, narrative, and character.
Neo has opened the doorway into the new world of the second act, and now finds himself in hell. Conflict, drama, and a new twist on his goals are all brought into sharp relief.
This is a major lesson in your pursuit to become a Hollywood-style screenwriter:
- Crisp, powerful act transitions are essential to creating structural tension, story momentum, and raising the stakes for the main character.
This scene is so mind-blowing, that a lesser screenplay might rest on the strength of such a scene alone, and not worry about hitting the reader with another such shocker for another 30 pages–which would be a mistake. While it is also essential to give your audience time to recover from such high-stimulus scenes, it is just as important to put them back on the roller-coaster within roughly ten pages (sometimes referred to as the “ten-page rule”). The Matrix script almost religiously follows this rule. These ten page sections act like mini-acts, or subacts of the larger acts within the script.
Once Neo is rescued from the sewer, his body is regenerated, and we see the inside of the resistance hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar. This completes the first subact of the second half-hour of the screenplay, and ends when Neo is plugged into the Construct on page 38. Note that again, this is almost ten pages.
The next five pages are pure exposition. Morpheus, fulfilling his role as the mentor figure in the Hero’s Journey, lays out the entire history of the struggle between the machines and humanity, and then explains to Neo (and the audience) further details of the Matrix. Indeed, the entire half of the second act is mostly devoted to teaching Neo, and the audience, the rules and dangers of this new world, as well as giving Neo the skills to survive in it, which also fulfills the “tests and trials” component of the Hero’s Journey. After sitting through the exposition we are rewarded with an action sequence, as Neo is programmed to know martial arts, then spars with Morpheus in a whiz-bang kung fu scene.
The ten pages after this neatly break down into its own rising miniature three-subact structure as follows :
- [3 pages] Neo is tested with the “jump” program, which he fails, and thus finds out that he can be injured or killed while in the Matrix.
- [3 pages] Neo is taught by Morpheus the lesson about the Agents with the woman in the red dress (that the Agents can become anyone in the Matrix), and learns that if he lives up to his potential, he might become superhuman.
- [3 pages] The Nebuchadnezzar has a close call with a Sentinel, a killing machine, and we learn about the ship’s EMP weapon.
There is also a moment during which we see that Trinity harbors feelings for Neo, as she brings him dinner in his room, but finds him fast asleep. If this script has a weakness, I believe it to be the addition of this thinly fleshed-out, poorly justified love-story subplot.
Finally, the Act 2 midpoint transition is demarcated by three small scenes. In the first, Cypher shows Neo some of his bitterness and cynicism, when he tells him, “Why the fuck didn’t I take that blue pill!?” This foreshadows Cypher’s betrayal, and acts as a counter-philosophy to the teachings of Morpheus, in order to add to Neo’s mental dilemma.
An important scene was added to the film at this point that was missing from earlier drafts: It is the secret meeting between Cypher and Agent Smith during which Cypher agrees to betray the Resistance in exchange for fame and fortune in the artificial world of the Matrix. This added scene is an essential explanation of Cypher’s actions, goes a long way toward fleshing out his motivation, and also creates a feeling of suspense as we wait for the betrayal to happen. It also gives the antagonist, Smith, a strong moment of action, and as we have not seen him since Act 1, it is very important to bring him back to remind us that he is still a force to be reckoned with. This completes the transition, on page 63 of this draft, and the next section of the script begins as Morpheus takes Neo to see the Oracle.
The next scene shows the crew eating breakfast, a sludgy gruel of single-cell protein, and Morpheus announces that he is taking Neo to see the Oracle. This gives us the new story direction for the Act 2 midpoint (which relates to Neo’s inner goal).
The only problem with this transitional point is that these scenes are not initiated by Neo, but by others. Such a lack of proactivity on the part of the main character makes this section somewhat “squishy,” instead of the tight moment of narrative force that such a transition should be. Neo is often a passive main character led around by the Resistance members, which in this story almost seems of necessity as he has no idea what he’s up against, but he finally comes through with appropriate proactivity when the chips are down–particularly in the third act. Midsections are often dominated by action on the part of the antagonist, which The Matrix does with Cypher and Smith. This kind of antagonist-driven transition is the midpoint of our other Hero’s Journey film, Star Wars, and occurs when the Millenium Falcon is sucked into the Death Star by a tractor beam.
In the next part of this article, I’ll examine how the last half of The Matrix script builds to a wild and satisfying climax, and how Neo faces the tasks and inner growth required by structure of The Hero’s Journey.
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