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‘The Matrix’ Changed Everything, but the Little Details Made It Even Greater

Beyond blue pill or red pill and bullet time, here are the smaller elements of the 1999 sci-fi action movie that helped make it an enduring classic

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Editor’s note, Dec. 20, 2021: Ahead of the release of The Matrix Resurrections, revisit this March 2019 article about what made the original great.

These are some of the stories that come up when you search for articles about The Matrix on the internet: How The Matrix Changed Movies Forever; The Matrix Is the Movie That Changed Everything; How The Matrix Changed the Rules for Action Movies; Neo’s Stunt Guy Chad Stahelski on How The Matrix Changed Movie Action Forever; Six Ways The Matrix Changed Hollywood. There are more, of course, but the point is clear: The Matrix, a philosophy movie disguised as an action movie about a computer programmer who learns that machines run the world and everyone is asleep inside of a digital simulation, changed movie things irrevocably.

Let’s do here what we did with Good Will Hunting: Rather than go through and reiterate all of the big things that The Matrix was able to accomplish (making action movies feel like they could be smart; the creation of bullet time; formalizing what the internet would look like in cinema; turning wire-work fight scenes into pieces of art; etc.), let’s mill around a bit in the (slightly) smaller details and pieces of the movie.

“The orders were for your protection.” That line has always been interesting to me. It’s what Agent Smith tells the police lieutenant at the beginning of the movie after Smith arrives at a building to find that the lieutenant has already sent two units up to apprehend Trinity. (The lieutenant was supposed to wait for Smith and the two other agents to get there before he did anything.) It’s interesting because it implies that Smith cares at least a tiny amount for the humans—otherwise he wouldn’t try to protect them. The idea that Smith is slightly taken with the humans is fun to think about (and it kind of makes sense, given that Smith’s whole goal in The Matrix is to get himself unplugged from the machines so he can become an actual human). Of course, another reading of the situation is that Smith just made up the thing about wanting to protect the police and that really what he wanted was for the police to wait for him because he knew that the police’s attempt to capture Trinity would get in the way of the agents’ attempt to capture Trinity.

When Trinity breaks that one cop’s arm, then smashes his nose up into his brain, then karate kicks him across the room. This is such a great “BUCKLE THE FUCK UP” moment. It establishes immediately how serious the stakes are and how real everything is. And then right when you think you have a grasp on things, she runs up a wall and then jumps across a 50-foot building gap and then Superman-flies her way through a window in a different building, and you realize that you don’t have a grasp on one good goddamn thing.

When Trinity answers the call in the phone booth and then gets smashed by the truck that the agent crashes into it. The six-minute stretch that opens the movie is incredible. (I still remember watching The Matrix at the theater with my high school girlfriend and seeing this part and turning to the girlfriend and making some joke like, “Man, she really likes talking on the phone.”)

Rewatching it after you know that Cypher is a bad guy. They basically beat you over the head with clues that Cypher is a bad guy in the opening six minutes of the movie and you don’t even register it because of all of the other shit that’s going on. There’s the part in the very beginning before we see any actual people when Trinity and Cypher are talking on the phone and she points out that it sounds like someone is listening in and asks him if he’s sure the line is clean and he says, “Yeah, of course I’m sure.” And there’s the part where Trinity talks to Morpheus and she says, “The line was traced. I don’t know how.” And there’s the part where, after one of the agents drives the truck into the phone booth as Trinity disappears back into the Matrix, the agents all gather together and one of them says that it doesn’t matter that she escaped because they know that the person who fed them the information about where she was going to be was actually telling the truth.

The score. It’s brilliant all the way across, but especially in moments when it has to do the heavy lifting, the most obvious example being that stretch from the time that Neo answers the phone at his desk at work up until he accidentally drops it off the side of the building as Morpheus tries to help him escape from the agents. I was having a conversation with Sean Fennessey several months ago about movies and he mentioned how sometimes a location can serve as a character in a movie, like how New York is a character in The Warriors. It’s the same way here, except the score is a character in the movie.

The way Neo gives the middle finger to Agent Smith. I hope there was a moment when everyone was sitting around on the Nebuchadnezzar and someone was explaining to Neo how deadly Agent Smith is, and Neo was like, “Oh shit. That guy is who’s been killing everyone? I gave him the finger when he pulled me in for questioning,” and then everyone started laughing.

The way that Agent Smith talks. I love it. I love the way his words just sort of ooze out of his mouth. He stretches them and twists them and shapes them into full-on Broadway plays.

The way that Agent Smith smirks when Neo freaks out because his mouth has begun to close in on itself. DO AGENTS LAUGH? BECAUSE THAT OPENS UP A WHOLE NEW STRING OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS THAT WE HAVE YET TO CONSIDER.

The way the thunder thunders in the background right after Morpheus tells Neo that he’s “the one.” It’s one of those things where you don’t notice until you notice it, and then it becomes the only thing you can focus on.

Morpheus’s floating glasses.

“Show me.” That’s how Morpheus responds when Neo wakes up from a 10-hour training session and says, “I know kung fu.” Morpheus is, out and out, the best character in the movie. He’s the one who gives The Matrix its weight. You need an anchor like Laurence Fishburne’s performance to make everything as fantastical as what we watch happen in The Matrix feel real and legitimate. You watch the gravity with which Fishburne as Morpheus explains the mechanics of the Matrix and you just feel like it’s all absolutely true, and making everything feel like that is the only way a movie like The Matrix works.

That shot of Neo and Morpheus right before they start fighting during the sparring session.

The little pre-fight Bruce Lee gesture that Neo does where he rubs his nose with his thumb during the sparring session. It’s such a smart, neat little thing. When we did a live episode of The Rewatchables about The Matrix at SXSW, Jason Concepcion brought up a great point about this moment. He said that the move would be exactly what someone who has just instantly learned kung fu (like Neo has) would do.

The fancy footwork that Morpheus does as he gets in fighting position during the sparring session. If you see a guy do something like this before y’all start to fight, please know that you’re about to get your ass handed to you.

The look that Morpheus gives after he asks Neo, “You think that’s air you’re breathing?” He’s so proud of himself right then. It’s perfect.

The look that Morpheus gives after he dodges one of Neo’s punches when Neo starts getting fast and Morpheus realizes that he might be in a little trouble. He’s so panicked right then. It’s perfect. (This seems like a good time to point out that Laurence Fishburne was nominated for Best Actor for What’s Love Got to Do With It at the 1994 Academy Awards. He’s a top-level acting talent.)

The names of everyone in the gang. There’s Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Cypher, Tank, Dozer, Mouse, Apoc, and Switch. And what we know is that Neo’s name inside the Matrix is Thomas Anderson. And what we also know is that Tank and Dozer are the only two people in the gang who were born outside the Matrix. That means that Morpheus, Trinity, Cypher, Mouse, Apoc, and Switch were all pulled out of the Matrix. And if they were pulled out of the Matrix, that means that they had Matrix names like Neo had Thomas. And it’s really funny for me to think about Morpheus giving all of his very heavy speeches, except his name is Tony or Eric or something like that. Or if when he does the “Most of my crew you already know” introduction thing, he doesn’t say, “This is Apoc, Switch, and Cypher,” but instead says, “This is Frank, Carol, and Ronnie.”*

*When Cypher is at dinner with Agent Smith, Agent Smith refers to him as “Mr. Reagan.” Cypher definitely seems like the kind of guy who’d accidentally have the name of someone more famous than he is.

The scene where Neo and Morpheus are walking through the streets in what turns out to be a simulation and Neo gets distracted by the woman in the red dress. I don’t know how true or fake this is, but there’s a note on the trivia section of the IMDb page for The Matrix that says the directors hired a bunch of twins for this scene so it’d look like a computer program repeating itself. I hope that’s true. I’m certainly going to treat it like it’s true.

“I want to be rich. And someone important. Like an actor.” That’s what Cypher says he wants from Agent Smith in exchange for selling out Morpheus and Trinity and Neo and every other human that is directly or indirectly fighting the war against the machines. And that seems like a good exchange, I figure, given that New Cypher is never even going to know that he’s done anything duplicitous. But I’ve seen enough movies to know that asking for things in a vague way like this never ends up that great for the person asking. (There’s a movie called Bedazzled that’s basically about this exact phenomenon. Brendan Fraser keeps asking the devil to grant wishes for him and the devil, played by Elizabeth Hurley, keeps purposely giving him screwed-up versions of what he’s asking for.) Even if Agent Smith did hold up his end of the arrangement, I don’t figure it’d work out so well for Cypher.

The digital pimp. Mouse has only about 15 lines in the whole movie, and he uses a third of them to try to talk Neo into sleeping with a computer program that he created.

The slow-motion shot of Neo walking down the stairs the first time he goes into the Matrix. Keanu is exceptional right here. It’s this really quick scene where the team is walking out of a building and we see everyone else go down the stairs just like a normal person would go down the stairs, but then Neo does it and everything slows down a little and you can see him looking at the ground and the sky and the stairs and the buildings and processing the fact that none of it is real. It’s one of those things you don’t even notice until you’ve watched The Matrix enough times that you start looking past all the big-ticket stuff and start zooming in on all of the smaller bits of brilliance that the Wachowskis put in there.

The kid who tells Morpheus that there is no spoon. Two things: (1) One of my favorite movie tropes is the thing where whenever someone wants to make a young white boy seem special or bizarre, the adults in his life just shave his head. (2) When Neo walks in, there’s a shelf thing hanging on the wall that holds 40 or 50 decorative spoons. I don’t know what it means (or if it even means anything at all), but it’s an interesting little tidbit.

“Not too bright, though.” That’s what the Oracle says to Neo when she says that she can tell why Trinity likes him but he doesn’t know that she’s talking about Trinity.

The refrigerator magnets in the Oracle’s apartment. When Neo meets the Oracle, she’s in an apartment kitchen baking cookies. There’s a refrigerator in the background. It has some of those plastic alphabet letters with the magnets in them that are on so many refrigerator doors in America. If you pause the movie, you can see that the letters, which appear to be sporadically thrown up there, are actually arranged in a very deliberate way. Right in the center of the cluster, the words “THE ONE” are spelled out. It’s a slick little Easter egg.

The way all the boards and tiles break when Morpheus and Neo and everyone fall down as they try to make their between-the-walls escape. It’s really satisfying for some reason.

The overhead shot of Morpheus getting attacked by the police. There are three very cool shots I always look forward to anytime I watch The Matrix. There’s the overhead shot of Morpheus getting attacked by the police in the bathroom; there’s the up-from-under shot where we see all of the bullets falling from the helicopter during the scene where Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus; and there’s the sideways shot of everyone crawling through the walls in the building. There are (obviously) tons more very cool shots, but those three for some reason really get in my bones.

The way Cypher says “dead” when he’s talking about killing Neo. “How can he be the one … if he’s DEAD.”

“Guns. Lots of guns.” That’s what Neo says when Tank asks him what he and Neo are going to need to rescue Morpheus. It’s a cool line, but I mention it here because there’s a nice bit of circularity to point out: Chad Stahelski was Keanu’s stunt double for The Matrix. He’s also, among other things, the director for John Wick 3, which will come out in a couple of weeks. There’s a quick part in there where a guy asks John Wick what he needs and Wick replies, “Guns. Lots of guns.” I have to believe that was an intentional hat tip. (It’s very neat to see how differently Young Keanu approaches that line than Old Keanu.)

The guy that Trinity kicks to death during the big shootout scene in the building foyer. There are 60 million bullets fired during that scene and still there’s a guy who ends up dying because Trinity kicks him in the neck. How embarrassing. Probably the only guy who dies a worse death is the guy who was holding his shotgun trying to figure out who to shoot when Trinity sneaks up behind him, kicks the shotgun out of his hands, catches it, then shotgun blasts him in the back, which has to be the henchman equivalent of throwing an interception at the 1-yard line.

The way Neo flexes so hard that he knocks the dust out of his sleeves. It’s the best part of the whole subway fight scene. It’s like if you listen closely enough, you can hear his muscles saying, “Fuck you, Agent Smith.” (The second-best part of the subway fight scene, by the way, is the part where Agent Smith catches one of Neo’s punches right before it hits his face and Neo uses his fingers to flick Agent Smith in the throat. I smile every time.)

The last 20 minutes of the movie. This certainly does not count as a “little thing,” but I just very quickly wanted to run through it. We get: the subway fight scene, the machines attacking Morpheus’s ship, Neo racing to find a phone so he can get back to the ship, Agent Smith finally getting the jump on Neo and shooting him in the chest nearly a dozen times, Neo dying, Trinity resurrecting Neo, Neo stopping the bullets with his brain, Neo fighting Agent Smith with one hand, Neo jumping inside of Agent Smith and exploding, Neo flexing so hard this time that the walls of the hallway literally wobble, and then Neo flying away to end the movie. What a fucking run. It’s the only stretch of The Matrix that tops its first six minutes.

The lie. The thing about the alphabet magnets on the refrigerator from earlier is a lie. It’s not even close to true. There are alphabet magnets on the refrigerator, yes, but the rest is a lie. But the fact that people so readily believe things like that about The Matrix speaks to how wonderful and engrossing of a movie is. They spent so much time on so many little details. It’s all great. It’s all so very great.