Me and the roomie started watching The Matrix this morning, and man has it been a long time since I’ve seen this film. I only got to watch part of it before leaving for work, but I’ll go ahead and post my literary-related notes from this morning with regards to the movie. (NOTE: There might be spoilers in this review – fair warning. This movie came out over ten years ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably aren’t going to.)
– The Matrix starts out in media res – for those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s Latin for “in the middle”, and frankly, it’s the perfect literary technique for our spastic ADD generation, many of whom have the attention span of a ferret on crack. In media res is a quick way to hook your readers in with a quickly laid sense of setting and an introductory shot of suspense and/or conflict before they’ve had a chance to bond with the main character (or lose interest).
– Trinity is, from the get-go, a strong female character, which I really like. Some writers have the tendency to cast their main characters as strong, self-confident men and their secondary female characters as weak or dependent. (If you want a good example of this obnoxious phenomenon, see Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom or any of several different police and medical dramas on cable.)
– The movie starts out at a high octane pace and keeps it up. Action is very important in fiction, even if it’s not physical action. From the very first line and the very first scene, conflict should be high – if there is no physical action, the character’s mind should be taking great bounds on the page.
– Introduce your villains quickly, and build them up from the beginning. Lots of writers suffer from the syndrome of having a hero that has been lovingly built up and an underwritten villain. Let the protagonist and antagonist grow and develop alongside each other in a narrative, so that your villain feels like just as much of a real person as your hero does. Otherwise, you are damaging your suspension of disbelief. To have bigger-than-life characters, you must maintain suspension of disbelief.
– Disorientation: Neo as the main character is jerked very abruptly out of his normal world. With regard to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, this would be considered The Ordinary World/Hero at Home act of a classic literary quest. Even after several frightening encounters with the alternative world of the Matrix and the Agents who guard it, Neo is very resistant to the idea that he is a messiah, which correlates well with the next phase of the Hero’s Journey, Refusal of the Call.
– Neo is very defiant towards authority. Personally, that’s a trait I love in heroes, and it’s a good one to have, as it brings with it an inherent amount of conflict right from the start.
– I would almost consider The Matrix to be a Lovecraftian techno-thriller. Why?
a) Its obsession with semi-gelatinous textures as a horror trope.
b) Neo is a detached and intelligent hero.
c) Helplessness. The entire situation that humanity faces in the premise of The Matrix is fairly hopeless – the battle against artificial intelligence is all but lost, and remaining humanity is down to relying on prophecy for their salvation. However, in fiction this kind of hopeless situation is useful, because it locks in your main character. After leaving the Matrix, Neo has no choice but to come to terms with the “world behind the world”…
d) Mystery – Neo spends the entire first part of this movie just trying to figure out what’s going on – his unanswered questions are a steady driving force within the story. The knowledge he gains is also forbidden knowledge, which is even more interesting to the audience, as is the suggestion that “some people just aren’t ready to be unplugged” and the implication that they would go insane if they were stripped from the Matrix improperly.
– In relation to d) of the previous note, somebody knows what’s going on. This is nice – it is a promise to the audience that they will get this information soon. They look forward to hearing more about the Matrix. This is the suspense people.
– Intense secondary characters: Your main character needs a foil; secondary characters are great for providing humor (in the form of banter), conflict (in the form of arguments), information exchanged in dialogue, and physical/emotional support to the beleaguered hero. Everyone needs a sidekick or two.
Verdict: Five out of five salt shakes, I’m not going to even pretend impartiality on this one – definitely one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years.