The Matrix is one of my favorite movies, but one part I feel is overshadowed by the incredible themes and worldbuilding is the opening scene.  In my opinion, this scene is one of the best opening scenes in any movie.  There’s so much to learn from it.  In this post, we’re going to analyze it scene for scene and look at each and every brilliant move and decision.

Before we get into the analysis, you can watch the opening scene in the following two clips: here and here.

Prologue

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The look and color of the intro is like nothing we’ve ever seen before, and that aspect of it sets a simple and important tone for what we’re about to see.  But it’s not in-your-face different.  It’s not TRYING to impress us.  If it was, that could turn us off.  We, as the audience, could feel like we’re being manipulated.  Instead, by giving us the simple message “This will be different”, it makes US come to IT, it draws us in, making us curious to see more.

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For just a second, the screen DOES show something strikingly different.  The message is: “This is how different it’s going to be.”  If it had started like this, it would be too much too soon.  It would fall into all the traps mentioned before.  But since we progressed to this point from something less extreme and this segment only lasts for a second, we accept it and are ready to move on– which we quickly do.

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From the screen of strange letters and numbers we move to something that is familiar: a computer screen and a phone call.  This grounds us.  We understand this, we feel at ease, we can follow this.

The phone call itself accomplishes three important effects in short succession:

From the exchange of “You weren’t supposed to relieve me”/“I felt like taking a shift” we are introduced to a strong female character who we like and want to see more of.

From the talk about Neo, Morphius, and The One we get hints of topics we don’t quite understand and want to know more about.  We’re drawn in and curious.

From the exchange of “Did you hear that?” “Hear what?” “Are you sure this line is clean?” we are given a simple and suspenseful conflict that we CAN understand, which carries us into the first scene.

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The strange letters return reminding us once again that this story WILL be different.  This lays vital groundwork for the audience to EXPECT to suspend disbelief.  Without this, the audience would be hard pressed to accept any fantasy elements thrown at them.  With it, since nothing actually supernatural has happened yet, we’re looking for the extraordinary elements that that demand this strong tone of otherworldliness.  We’re ready to suspend disbelief and we’re even anxious to do so.

First Scene

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Once again, from the unfamiliar we return to something we understand: police ready to break down a door.  This grounds us in a familiar conflict once again.

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We see Trinity for the first time and wonder who she is and why she’s dangerous.  With a little deduction, we realize she must be the one we heard on the phone.  (By forcing us to make this inference on our own, the writers allow us engage OURSELVES in the story.)

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With the appearance of the agents, we again are shown something we understand: besuited higher ups arriving in black cars and pushing their authority around.

The exchange of “I think we can handle one little girl”/”Your men are already dead” is our last push towards curiosity, the last hint that we are about to see something unbelievable.

First Fight

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The most significant thing about the first fight is that it LOOKS like something we’ve never seen, but still leaves us wanting more.  Because at the end of that fight, we really HAVEN’T seen anything supernatural yet.  We’re shown that Trinity is this martial arts supergirl, which is awesome, but the only part of the fight we had to suspend disbelief for was the crazy run across the wall.

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Once again, with the Morphius phone call, we’re brought back to something out of our everyday lives.  We don’t completely follow the conversation but we understand what needs to be done: Trinity must escape.

This lays the groundwork going forward for us to be okay with not understanding everything that’s going on as long as it follows this pattern of “we know what our hero must do.”

Having gotten a taste of what Trinity is capable of and having gotten a hint that the agents (another term we had to figure out for ourselves) are also dangerous in some way, we’re ready to see all this displayed in the chase scene.

The Chase

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Step one of the chase scene involves jumping over a gap between two buildings.  Here we see the clear difference between Trinity and the agent on the one hand, who easily make the jump, and the policemen on the other, who stumble clumsily and barely pull it off.  But this difference is a difference of degree.  We still haven’t seen anything that sets Trinity and the agents apart on a qualitative level.

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Step two is the run over the sloping rooftops, where again we see the superiority of Trinity and the agent over the policemen is displayed vividly, though it’s still not qualitative.

By baiting us with these incremental displays of physical prowess, our desire to see what all this has built up to continues to grow and grow.  We know there must be more.  Why were the agents so cautious about this woman?  Why is she so confident against everyone but the agents?

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The jump is everything we’ve been waiting for.  Since we’ve been so anxious to see it, we TOTALLY embrace it, it blows us away.  Whereas without the build up, it would have looked silly to us. We come to understand that what we suspected throughout the buildup is of the level we anticipated, which is rewarding.

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The statement of “That’s impossible” from the policeman confirms and reinforces our awesome feeling of suspension of disbelief.

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BUT the character herself doesn’t revel in it, which brings us back to reality and makes the reality of the movie FEEL more realistic.  After all, this shouldn’t feel special to the character if it’s part of the world.

The Finale

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With the second jump, we’re totally on board.  This is now the norm, though we’re still impressed.  The suspense of the scene is building to a climax.  We see our heroine handling it with finesse and confidence, which we admire.  We make a note that we want to see more of this character and learn more about her.

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The final scene in the phone booth is a reminder that we still don’t understand this world we’re so impressed by.  But now that this initial conflict is over, we ready and anxious to learn more.

—–

The opening scene of this movie accomplishes the two main goals of an introduction:

1. It informs us of the basics we need to know moving forward.

2. It sets up a strong desire to know more.  There are elements of the world we don’t understand, events we’re in the dark about, characters whose names we’ve heard but we haven’t met, and this mysterious badass woman we’re anxious to learn more about.

The two most significant qualities by which this intro excelled were.

1. Balance Between the New/Familiar – The biggest mistake I see fantasy and sci fi stories making nowadays is trying to thrust the audience into a world they don’t understand without giving them anything familiar and comfortable with which to anchor themselves.

The expectation of this naive decision is that an audience will be wowed by everything they don’t understand and want to learn what all of it is.  In reality, most people are content to just change the channel or pick up a new book.

The Matrix balances every element that is different with an element that is familiar.  We know what an agent is, but not this kind of agent.  We know what a police chase is, but we’ve never seen one like this.  We know what a phone is and how they work, but in this story, there’s clearly something more we don’t yet understand.

2. Restraint – In a similar vein, most failures result from stories showing all their cards at once.  This doesn’t hook the audience–on the contrary, instead of building up what’s to come, they set the audience up to be disappointed when there’s nothing left to get excited about.

The Matrix’s intro serves very clearly as a tease, with the audience knowing full well that there’s much more to come, a promise the story more than delivers on.  The scene is kept simple and short so that we never see anything exciting for a long enough time to tire of it.  The world is hinted at so vaguely that we’re urged to piece things together on our own.  We feel like if this little bit is already so interesting, there must be SO much more waiting out there for us experience–and there is.

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A movie as complex as the Matrix is beyond difficult to introduce and this opening scene was perfect in every aspect.  There’s a lot to learn even from these brief five minutes and undoubtedly tons more to analyze in the rest of this amazing story.

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