Script Study: “The Matrix” – Part II

Part II: The Second Coming

So far we have seen how much of the first half of The Matrix script has layered the necessary information for us, the audience and/or script reader, to get oriented in its strange new universe. It has done this via the character of Neo–a name which etymologically means “new,” and relates to the word “neophyte.” As Neo learns, so do we. This is a common narrative device to excuse and disguise exposition in stories which require a fair amount of explanation for us to understand a story’s “rules.”

Yet, during this “learning” and character development phase, The Matrix intermittently bombards us with scenes of either extreme action, surrealism, or science-fiction. This is an excellent structure for a well-told story, and also for solid entertainment. This rhythm can be thought of as a pendulum that swings back and forth between movement and reflection, or between plot and subplot, or between story and character.

Stories, like music, are about the building and releasing of tension. Not all elements always build or release at the same time, yet the different threads do tend to coincide at a high or low point at moments like act transitions. It is always important to remember that drama is about the interplay of opposites, and that elements are reinforced by their opposite. Think of an action scene, like a car chase, and you will see the tension in such a scene is greatly reinforced if it is preceded by a scene that is calm, slow, or introspective. The worst action films are very often bad precisely because they are ironically all action. One of the best action films ever made is certainly Raiders of the Lost Ark, because its structure carefully weaves action and character development in an exquisitely paced back-and-forth rhythm. Almost every action sequence in Raiders is followed by a scene of character development. This makes its characters more dimensional, thus we care about them more–and our feelings for them thus make the action sequences even more tense! This lesson was lost on the writers of the Raiders sequel, Temple of Doom, because the story’s action is relentless, and there is little character development to counterpoint the action. Too much action undermines the power of the action sequences.

Exposition is Maya: First Subact, 2nd Half of Act II (pp. 64-76)

On page 64, where this analysis left off, an important but small moment takes place. Cypher drops a cell phone into a garbage can right at the building where the Resistance team enters the Matrix. This is the next step in Cypher’s betrayal, and a setup that pays off later. This tiny moment is also a great bit of foreshadowing, and an excellent way to build some tension in what is otherwise a fairly slow segment in the film.

Right before Neo meets the Oracle, there is a scene in this draft that was cut from the final film–and rightly so. In it, Neo hesitates to enter the door to the Oracle’s apartment. Neo and Morpheus debate, and Morpheus launches into a long-winded and wholly unnecessary explanation of faith, trust, and Neo’s destiny. This scene lasts almost three pages (pages 67-69). Fortunately, the filmmaker’s instincts took over, and the bloated passage was excised. The story at this point approaches a critical juncture, and it is far past the time for explanations. While exposition is often a necessary evil, if it can be avoided, it should be. I’ve often said that if screenwriters approach their scripts as if they were written transcriptions of silent films, the resulting stories will be much more cinematic.

Neo’s meeting with the Oracle is yet another test. She tells him he is not the One, and he is both let down and relieved. In a very real sense she’s right, in that Neo is not the One, because he has not yet decided to assume that mantle. However, her role is not to discourage Neo, but like a Zen master, to paradoxically allow him to attain what he seeks by diverting him away from it. Zen Buddhism is replete with anecdotes about wise sensei and their naive young acolytes who constantly pester them for answers about enlightenment. The Zen masters typically responded with a riddle, or even a whack upon the acolyte’s head with their walking stick. The entire point was that to reach enlightenment, you needed to cease both trying and wanting, which were both concerns of a human mind trapped in a material world.

The Matrix is replete with Zen ideas, including the extremely Buddhist notion that the world is maya, or illusion. The veil of maya hangs before our eyes, hiding from us the Truth of existence. Neo, like an acolyte, must learn to see past the curtain by removing earthly desire from his heart, and must learn to simply be and act, not think.

The Oracle tells Neo one more thing–that Morpheus will sacrifice himself to save Neo. She says that Neo is the only one who decides which one of them lives and which dies, but that one of them will die. This, again, proves to be a kind of Zen puzzle spoken by the Oracle that does not prove to be really true. Its purpose is to spur Neo on at a critical moment.

Betrayal: Second Subact, 2nd Half of Act II (pp. 76-85)

That cell phone in the garbage can on page 63 is now about to pay off. We are now on page 76, and the Resistance team has returned to the drop-point after the visit to the Oracle. Neo sees a black cat, and a second later, sees another that moves exactly the same way. He says aloud, “Whoa. Deja vu,” and the other team members freeze. Trinity tells him that, “A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.” Moments later, they hear a helicopter, and realize that they are in a trap. Chaos erupts.

Pages 76 through 90 (almost 14 pages) is begins a long, rapid action sequence that bridges two subacts, and intercuts between the world of the Matrix and the interior of the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar. By leaving the cell phone, Cypher has given away the Resistance members’ location to the Agents. Swarms of cops and several Agents appear. The “hard line,” their only means of escape via a hardwired telephone, is cut, and they are trapped.

Team member Mouse discovers interior windows have been bricked over–the “changes” indicated by the black cat. He is killed by the police troops as he tries to fight back. Using a map of the building, Tank, directing the operation from the hovercraft via cell phone, leads the group to an interior wall, into which the Resistance members shoot a hole in order to escape.

As the group tries to quietly creep down through the claustrophobic space inside the walls, they are discovered. The police begin to shoot at them through the drywall. Suddenly, Agent Smith thrusts his arms through the plaster and grabs Neo. Fearing that Neo will be captured, Morpheus leaps through the wall and attacks Agent Smith. Morpheus fights Smith, but it is futile, and he is captured.

Cypher calls Tank, who directs him to a hard line, a phone in an abandoned appliance store. Cypher answers the ringing phone, and awakes inside the hovercraft.

Darkness Closes In: Third Subact, 2nd half of Act II (pp. 86-98)

The second part of Cypher’s betrayal begins (page 86), as he attacks first Tank, then Dozer, blasting each of them with a massive electrical discharge from a huge gun. Neo, Trinity, Apoc, and Switch reach the ringing phone in the appliance store but the line is dead when they answer. Trinity calls Cypher on a cell phone, and he begins to taunt her, admitting that he killed Tank and Dozer, and betrayed them all.

At this point, the end of Act 2, our hero, and his friends, seem truly doomed. To put your characters in maximum jeopardy at this point is a standard plot device in mainstream screenplay structure, which I call:

The Moment of Truth: Morpheus has been captured by the Agents. On the hovercraft, Cypher begins to pull the plugs of the resistance team members one by one, while in the Matrix, the team can only watch as their comrades each in turn die.

The characters’ success is now in doubt. It seems as if they will be killed, and their entire struggle will have been in vain.

Compare these two films:

  • The Matrix: The Moment is preceded by the capture of Morpheus (The Mentor), and the Resistance team must fight to escape the police and agents.
  • Star Wars: the Moment of Truth is preceded by the death of Ben Kenobi (The Mentor, who still lives on in spirit form), and the Millennium Falcon must battle its way through a squadron of TIE fighters.

There follows a hilariously self-referential moment to the process of screenwriting and storytelling, when Cypher is about to pull Neo’s plug. He mocks Trinity: “If he is the One, then in the next few seconds, there has to be some kind of miracle to stop me. Right?” Shortly thereafter, Tank, who has indeed survived, thanks to a “miracle” provided by godlike screenwriters, pops up with a gun in hand. Cypher blurts out, “I don’t believe it!” as he is also amazed at this astonishingly convenient turn of events. Tank blasts Cypher with the lightning gun, finishing him.

Of the original team, only Neo, Trinity, and Tank are left. This situation is a perfect place to put these characters. They are now painted into a corner, and have few options. Pushed to the edge, they must act, lash out like cornered animals.

We are now on Page 91 with Agent Smith tormenting Morpheus. Smith mocks him, and goes on a long, entertaining tirade that explains the perspective of the intelligent machines that now control the world.

We switch back and forth between this “torture” scene, and the interior of the hovercraft, where Neo and Trinity debate about what to do next. This is a necessary reflection period that often precedes act transitions, during which the main character must decide to dive into the third act. This involves a re-orientation and redefinition of the main character’s goal:

A New Tactic: Neo decides to save Morpheus from the Agents.

If you recall part one of this analysis, you may remember that Neo’s external goal is to find the truth, and his internal goal is to become the One. Neo now believes he knows the truth, which is the real nature of the Matrix (although he still has one important lesson left to learn). Although his decision to rescue his mentor seems like its own motivation, it is still tied to his internal goal of becoming the One, because part of achieving that state requires that he decide to take the final step of this goal by risking his life.

On page 94, Trinity and Tank have decided to kill Morpheus so that he cannot reveal the location of Zion to the Agents. As Tank grabs Morpheus’ plug, Neo finally takes charge of his destiny:


They both look at him.


      Goddamnit! I don't believe this
      is happening!

      Neo, this has to be done!

      Does it? I don't know. This
      can't be just coincidence. It
      can't be! Can it?

      What are you talking about?

      The Oracle. She told me this
      would happen. She told me...

Neo stops, his stare fixed on Morpheus.

      That I would have to make a

      What choice?

He makes his choice. Turning, he walks to his chair.

      What are you doing?

      I'm going in after him.

At last, Neo stakes his life on what he has learned, the essential learning curve of the Hero’s Journey. Act 3 now begins.

Note that all of the above subacts are each roughly ten pages long (and although the first subact is longer in this draft, is shorter in the film).

Do or Die: Act III and its Subacts

Neo is ready to face down both the bad guys and his own internal demons of self-doubt. Even though he now believes that he is not the One, he does believe is his new skills.

Meanwhile, as Neo as Trinity lock and load for combat (page 98), Agent Smith sits down alone beside Morpheus and reveals his personal goal:

                 AGENT SMITH
      I hate this place. This zoo.
      This prison. This reality,
      whatever you want to call it, I
      can't stand it any longer. It's
      the smell, if there is such a
      thing. I feel saturated by it.
      I can taste your stink and every
      time I do, I fear that I've somehow
      been infected by it.

He wipes sweat from Morpheus' forehead, coating the tips
of his fingers, holding them to Morpheus' nose.

                 AGENT SMITH
      Repulsive, isn't it?

He lifts Morpheus' head, holding it tightly with both

                 AGENT SMITH
      I must get out of here, I must get
      free. In this mind is the key.
      My key.

Morpheus sneers through the pain.

                 AGENT SMITH
      Once Zion is destroyed, there is
      no need for me to be here. Do you
      understand? I need the codes. I
      have to get inside Zion. You have to
      tell me how.

He begins squeezing, his fingers gouging into his flesh.

                 AGENT SMITH
      You are going to tell me or you
      are going to die.

This piece of dialogue tells us several things:

  • That Smith’s goal is to stop the Resistance (which we have known from the beginning without Smith ever uttering a word, because he is a motivated bad guy), manifested here as a need to get the Zion codes from Morpheus.
  • That Smith’s superobjective is to leave the Matrix.
  • Reminds us that Smith’s function is to manifest the desires of the intelligent machines via a character that renders their goals in a personal form.
  • That there is a time limit to rescue Morpheus, because Smith will kill him.

Although it is Smith’s machinelike demeanor that makes him a memorable villain, here that veneer cracks, and ironically reveals him to have passionate feelings–in this case, hate. This dimensionalizes him beyond his calm facade.

Neo and Trinity arrive at the Government Building, and hell breaks loose. It is important to note that the memorable sequence in the lobby–when Neo and Trinity run up the sides of the room while spraying automatic weapons fire that blasts its granite walls into chunks of flying rubble–is not described in this draft of the script! I am fairly sure that this element came out during the pre-production art design of the film. This reiterates the idea that a script can be an important departure point for a bright director working with a team of designers. A lobby fight is mentioned, but it is very brief on paper (pages 100-101).

After various scenes of explosive chaos and combat, Neo confronts Agent Jones on the building’s roof. Neo shoots at him, and Jones dodges the bullets. Jones fires back, and Neo amazingly manages to dodge many, but not all of the rounds. Trinity (temporarily) dispatches Jones with a bullet to the head, and is astonished at Neo’s newfound speed.

Neo and Trinity commandeer a helicopter, and blast open the room when Morpheus is held with machine-gun fire. Morpheus dives out the shattered window, and Neo leaps from the ‘copter, attached to a rope, and grabs Morpheus in midair.

From page 100 to this scene is 8 pages — the first subact of Act 3. The tension is raised another notch.

  • Subact 2 (pages 108-114): Morpheus tells Neo that the Oracle “told you exactly what you needed to hear.” Tank, via cell phone directs the three to an “exit,” a hardwired phone. The cell call allows the Agents to trace the location of the Nebuchadnezzar. Now in a subway station, Morpheus “exits” via a payphone. A train rumbles in the distance. Trinity begins to tell Neo that the Oracle said that she’d fall in love with a man. The phone rings, and Trinity sees Agent Smith appear right as she “exits.” The bullet shatters the earpiece, so Neo is trapped. Neo decides to fight Smith. They shoot at each other, both dodging each other’s shots until they are empty. They fight a stupendously fast kung-fu battle, and Smith pins Neo in front of an oncoming train. Neo manages to reverse their positions, and Smith is hit by the subway as Neo leaps free.

Again, rising tension. We see that Neo had a chance to beat the enemy, but that it was partially luck that he escaped.

Messiah’s Arrival: Subact 3 (pp. 115-126; The End)

Tank sees on the radar that the Sentinels are coming for the hovercraft. Yet they cannot use the EMP weapon against the Sentinels until Neo is out, as all of the hovercraft’s systems must be turned off. Neo grabs a cell phone from a pedestrian, and calls Tank, who refers him to a phone in a hotel. Five pages of pursuit ensue (pp. 117-121) as Tank directs Neo down streets and alleys.Neo rushes down a hotel hallway, seeking the right room. He yanks open the door, and is faced with Agent Smith, who blows him away with his .45. The Sentinels attack the hovercraft, and begin to laser-burn through its hull (p. 121). Neo drops to the ground, seemingly dead.

The imminent arrival of the Sentinels is a third-act device often referred to as “the ticking bomb.” It specifies a finite, short time limit for the main character to reach their goal–or all is lost.

  • Neo has now been “killed.” Onboard the hovercraft, his monitors flatline. Trinity tells Neo that the Oracle said she’d fall in love with the man who would be the One. Neo “resurrects,” and faces the Agents. They fire at Neo, but he stops the bullets midair. At that moment, Neo sees the Matrix as it really is–rushing streams of computer code.

Neo’s inner and outer goals have merged at the climax as he simultaneously fulfills them both; he knows the final Truth (that the Matrix is illusory–thus the bullets aren’t real and he wasn’t really killed), which allows him to become the One. And now:

  • Neo easily defeats Agent Smith by disappearing into his body and exploding it from the inside out. Neo dives for the ringing phone, his “exit,” and answers it just before Morpheus hits the EMP, defeating the Sentinels. Trinity kisses Neo. Final scene: Neo makes a phone call, knowing the machines are listening. His final words are, “I’ve decided to make a few changes.”

Enlightened ones, like Zen monks, were reputed to levitate. According to Biblical tradition, Jesus performed miracles. Neo also symbolically becomes an “enlightened one,” in the script written thusly: “After a moment, Neo BLASTS BY us, his long black coat billowing like a black leather cape as he flies faster than a speeding bullet. FADE OUT.”

The script of The Matrix provides many valuable lessons in style and structure. It is also provides excellent examples for ways in which exposition can be integrated into a story in a fashion that is also entertaining. Its story builds on many different models from film and mythology, yet it seamlessly integrates the best elements of these other works into its own unique vision.

The narrative also communicates a strong sense of protagonist versus antagonist, rising tension, and strong act climaxes. Its story spine is as tight and direct as a good action film needs, and it reinvents enough genre tropes to keep us guessing. Most importantly, it is a wild, visually stimulating ride that grows from a solid piece of screenwriting.

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