I. Plot and Neo’s Identification Process
II. The Matrix as a Film Noir
II.1. Trinity – A Femme Fatale?
II.2. Themes and their Narrative Patterns
When the movie The Matrix commences, the audience has the impression to have stepped back into the late 1930s or 1940s. With its very conventional beginning of a noir narrative, The Matrix, which was directed by the brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski in 1999, provides the viewer with all the characteristics of a typical film noir: the setting of this first sequence is shot at night; it is dark and gloomy. We see a group of police officers in uniforms storming a building in order to arrest one woman. Not until that very ‘fugitive on the run’ fights back and escapes by implementing some rather incredulous astonishing fighting, we realize that this movie is not going to be in the past but in the future. The Matrix is often referred to as a futuristic, film noir, utopian science-fiction movie – a movie, which is innovative in its design and its special digital techniques.
Containing plenty of characteristics of the classical film noir, which I am going to describe in the course of this seminar paper, the recipients witness in The Matrix a revival of the themes of the classical film noir. For that reason, it will be of interest in which way elements and motifs of film noir have changed to neo film noir, and to what extend we will find old and new noir ish features in The Matrix.
Additionally, I am going to analyze the plot as well as the character development of the main protagonists, their relationship to each other and their meaning for the film’s progress. Not only do I want to examine the film’s plot points in terms of their significance for the movie’s development, but also will I focus on misé-en-scene and the technical devices, which definitely set milestones in the history of film making.
Since The Matrix is rich in symbolism and ambiguity, I want to demonstrate by means of analyzing some scenes in how far the plot and the characters are influenced by that metaphoric tone and how this contributes to significant turns in the course of the movie. It is not my purpose to provide all the religious, philosophical and literary references in The Matrix as well as all the biblical meanings of the names and their original figure’s comparison to the character in the movie, since this would go beyond the scope. For interested readers I highly recommend the books The Matrix and Philosophy by William Irwin, or Taking the Red Pill. Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix by Glenn Yeffeth, both dealing with the aforesaid issues.
In the following chapter, I want to describe Neo, the main character, in terms of his personal growth from unconsciousness towards consciousness, from living in a world of illusions at the beginning towards believing the truth at the end of the film.
I. Plot and Neo’s Identification Process
Since classical film noirs were shot in black and white, it was much easier to present a dark mood than it is now with color movies. To compensate for this, The Matrix has to be composed of deep plot as well as intense character development. Since existentialism is one major subject in The Matrix as it is one of utmost importance in classical film noirs, I am going to analyze Neo’s self - discovery in the first part of my seminar paper. (Hirsch, p.2)
Additionally, as I said in the foreword, I want to focus on the ambiguity of everything the characters say with the help of some select examples because this is of further importance for the development of the story.
Thomas Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves, leads a life in a false dream world, a virtual reality simulacrum of the year 1999, that the machines have created to feed humans with perceptions and blind them from the truth. He is a normal guy with a normal job, who helps his landlady with the garbage. When we meet Thomas Anderson for the first time in the movie, we do not see his alter ego Neo. He is leading two lives. During the day he works at a huge respectable computer company namely Metacortex; at night he slips into his role as an illustrious computer hacker, who is involved in almost every computer crime there is. He does not have any supernatural abilities; his ‘normal’ lifestyle makes him appear not important to anyone. He is absorbed into his world of computers; he is alienated, lonely and there are no hints that he has a family. This isolation from the outside world is a typical characteristic of the male protagonist in classical film noirs. This feeling of seclusion is additionally intensified by the high, swooping camera angle.
Despite being portrayed right from the beginning on as a totally ‘normal’ person, the audience gets the impression that Thomas Anderson holds the potential of a savior of the world. (Jones, www.freeessays.de) At a closer inspection of the ambiguity of the scene in which Neo’s friends drop by to pick up an illegal disc, one can realize the richness of hints to Neo’s fate and of course to the film’s development. Before his friends appear, Neo is sleeping, an indication that he has not realized the truth yet; he wakes up, which foreshadows his so-called ‘awakening’, and he is contacted for the first time by the rebels via computer. On his screen appear the words: “Wake up, Neo…”, followed by “Follow the White Rabbit…” and finally “Kock, knock…” . The viewers are so absorbed into the blinking green sentences, that this mysterious atmosphere is suddenly interrupted by an eerie but very real ‘knock-knock’ on his door. A chill runs down our spine in that very moment. The illicit disc that his friend Choi desires, Neo hides in a false book Simulacra and Simulation, which is a clue foreshadowing the discovery Neo will make about the world being computer-generated and entirely simulated. In Choi’s words “Hallelujah! (…)You’re my savior, (…)” the next messianic sign for Neo’s later role undeniably gets clear. Moreover, Choi notices “it sounds you need to unplug (…)” pointing to the forthcoming liberation from Neo’s pod. At the moment that he sees the ‘white rabbit tattoo’ his journey down the rabbit hole starts. (Clover, p. 31; Yeffeth, p.85)
The early portion of the story is summarized in the interrogation scene by Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, who supplies the viewer with an explanation of Neo’s situation. In this scene, Thomas Anderson cannot yet evaluate the seriousness of his situation. Before this sequel, Neo already had an encounter with Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, who we already knew from her astonishing brawl with the police officers from the beginning of the film. Their short meeting signifies Neo’s leap towards his ‘awakening’. Although not knowing each other, this moment is quite electrifying with Trinity breathing into Neo’s ear almost touching his neck, that she knows everything about him, what he is doing, why he hardly sleeps, why he lives alone and why he sits in front of his computer every night. In this scene the desire for consciousness as well as the consciousness for desire is unmistakable. (Clover, p.11) What follows after this very sexy meeting happens in a very short period of time. Neo is bugged after refusing to support government’s business, he is debugged by Trinity, and he meets Morpheus.
Neo is desperately searching for something he does not know yet, but he feels that something is wrong with the world. His restless mind has detected something, something that seems unreal. It is the “splinter” in his mind driving him to find out more. Not only does he want to find out the truth, which means to see “how deep the rabbit hole goes”, but also does he want to liberate his mind from “a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch.”
The Matrix is a film full of choices that are to be made. Already ten minutes after the movie has started, Thomas Anderson is faced with the first decision via his computer “Follow the White Rabbit…”, a decision that will change his life completely, that will reveal a totally new view of the world he has never seen before. At that point, we would assume that the normal thing to do is to go to sleep, but Anderson’s alter ego prevails on him to follow the ‘white rabbit’ into a club. Upon his alter ego, it is the ultimate question that drives him to despair: “What is the Matrix?”. (Jones, www.freeessays.de)
The question of right and wrong, the choice to live or die, and Neo’s quest for the ‘truth’ is slightly foreshadowed in the interrogation scene with Agent Smith. He is the obvious ‘hard-boiled detective’, a Sentient Program, whose task is to find and chase everyone who fights for resistance. After informing Neo about the government’s awareness about his criminal identity, Agent Smith provides Neo again with a choice: “One of these lives has a future; the other does not.” The life Agent Smith wants to destroy is the life that has a future and which will be confronted with several more choices to ‘be’. Shortly after the interrogation, Neo has to face the situation which will change his life and where there is no way back. (Jones, www.freeessays.de)
Here, the very charismatic Morpheus, the god of dreams, is introduced to us. Morpheus embodies an announcer of the coming messiah and a father-role for all the rebels, which is made clear through Trinity’s words: “No, he’s much more important than that. He’s like a father to us.” Morpheus once more gives Neo a choice to discover the truth: “You take the Blue Pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed believe what you want to… You take the Red Pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” (Jones, www.freeessays.de) This proposal is obviously a reference to the literary piece ‘Alice in Wonderland’, which we will come across several times in the movie. Not only to Alice in Wonderland, but also to The Wizard of Oz we find allusions, for instance in Cypher’s words to Neo before being unplugged: “Buckle up, Dorothy, ‘cause Kansas is going bye-bye.” Just like innocent Alice, Neo falls down the rabbit hole, but unlike her and Dorothy, he discovers an unpromising reality whereas the two girls enter a magical dream world. Upon this, the viewer will find even more references to literary works such as for instance Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea (e.g. Morpheus and his ship represent Captain Nemo) or Orwell’s 1984 (it is about a totalitarian authority that spies on the hero while he is in contact with the rebel). (Yeffeth, p.93-94, 244)
Neo has a difficult decision to make on his own; no one can help him in this situation as Morpheus puts it: “I can only show you the door; you have to walk through it.” At that point when Neo makes his decision, the audience does not know yet that Neo exists as a form of a battery to provide the machines with energy. He settles on the red pill and all of a sudden weird and for him highly traumatic experiences follow: The audience is confronted with a horrifying sight into the world as it really is. We watch Neo realizing that he is plugged and living in a pod of pink goo. To either side, he sees other tube-shaped pods filled with red gelatin and pale, motionless human beings floating in there. Like a nightmarish vision, he must spot thousands of more capsules piling up to towers of incomprehensible height all dimly glowing in red. After an inspection by a huge flying insect-like robot, Neo is unplugged, his pod drained, he is flushed down the waste disposal system, where he is finally rescued by a huge crane and brought to the ship of Morpheus’ crew. Neo’s decision for the red pill and his resulting rebirth marks plot point I in the movie, which is about 30 minutes after The Matrix has started.