The Matrix is replete with allusions to classic philosophical ideas. The plot references Plato’s Cave and the world of forms, Descartes’ First Meditation and the evil demon, and Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat” scenario – all ruminations on the nature of reality and the possibility that we only perceive an illusion. The film also considers the tension between free will and determinism, mostly conveying its stance on this fundamental philosophical issue not through long-winded discussion, but through an essential tenet of Romanticism: the plot hinges on the genuine choices made by its characters.
Romantic Realism is a school of aesthetics that champions the idea that men and women exercise free will, and that their choices have real consequences. In the case of a film, this means that the characters and their actions drive the plot. The reality we observe in a film with a Romantic Realist perspective is a reality where characters are beset with significant choices, and the choices they make inform all aspects of the film’s subject: character, plot, and theme. As we will see, these features make The Matrix an exemplary expression of Romantic Realism.
First, we’ll consider how the choices of three ancillary characters set the plot in motion and represent its key turning points. Then, we’ll delve into the myriad choices given to the main character Neo and how each establishes a key aspect of his character and the plot-theme. This dependence on choice ultimately conveys a staunch support for the importance of free will.
Three major plot points are direct results of decisions made by supporting characters. Morpheus chooses to rescue Neo from the Matrix despite his age, and then later sacrifices himself to allow Neo to escape. These choices signify Morpheus’s determination and faith in Neo, and that he will go to great lengths to help Neo realize his potential as The One.
Cypher’s major choice is the opposite. He chooses to betray the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar for his own personal gain: a return to The Matrix. His choice is also important to the plot, first by guaranteeing that Morpheus is caught (which will become important later), and second by offering a hint that Neo is The One by mocking Trinity – only to be killed by Tank.
Trinity’s choice confirms Neo’s true identity as The One and allows him to realize his full potential, but it is significantly delayed for the sake of each character’s dramatic arc. Trinity was told by the Oracle that the man she would fall in love with would become The One. For much of the film, Trinity deals with these feelings but is afraid of what they mean. So she hides them, denying Neo the context with which to make his choices. Eventually her revelation is coupled with Neo’s realization of the most profound choice he makes, allowing him to blossom into his newfound sovereignty over The Matrix.
These choices support the plot, but Neo’s choices drive it. Beat after beat, Neo is confronted with a choice, and time after time his decision propels the plot forward, culminating in his emergence as The One. Along the way, the Wachowskis’ science fiction storytelling is top-notch, amazing the spectator with new mind-bending revelations after Neo’s choices.
It begins with Neo’s computer compelling him to “Follow the White Rabbit”. After delivering a disc to some hackers, Neo notices a white rabbit tattoo on one of them. Here, he has a binary choice, either-or: follow his curiosity, or turn in for the night. His choice to go to the club characterizes Neo as a man who must know, whatever the cost.
The next morning, that cost is realized, and Neo’s boss explicitly tells him, “The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson.” Ostensibly, this is about Neo’s tardiness, but in actuality it foreshadows the next thing that happens: Neo gets a phone in the mail and Morpheus is on the line. Morpheus means to help Neo escape the Agents, and Neo chooses to go along . . . until a point. This time, we get a direct either-or statement from Morpheus: “There are only two ways out of this building. One is that scaffold. The other is in their custody. You take a chance either way. I leave it to you.” Neo’s curiosity is strong, but his self-preservation is stronger.
In the custody of Agent Smith, Neo is again offered a choice: help them find Morpheus (and expunge his own criminal record), or bad things will happen. Neo stands firm, but in this case “bad things” means that his mouth will melt shut and a weird monster machine will climb in his belly button. This is Neo’s defiance, and another pitch-perfect melding of character, plot development, and bizarre science fiction nonsense that the spectator can’t hope to understand yet.
Upon waking up in his home, Neo is offered a simple choice, this time by the hackers: do everything we say, or hit the road. Trinity waxes philosophical about Neo already knowing everything about that road, playing to his sense of curiosity. It works, Neo chooses to stay, and the monster machine is sucked out of his stomach.
Then, the most iconic and obvious choice is placed before Neo: the blue pill or the red pill. The blue pill is mundanity, normalcy, and doldrum; take this pill and “the story ends”, says Morpheus. The red pill is the call-to-action, the adventure, the discovery; it’s a representation of, “how deep the rabbit hole goes”. We’ve had sufficient characterization of Neo to know what he will choose, but the importance lay in the very fact that he is given this choice. The visual storytelling is perfection: Neo’s reflection is seen in each lens of Morpheus’s glasses, as is one hand with a blue pill and one with a red pill. This is a crucial suggestion to the spectator – choices matter.
The next explicit choice Neo is given is more of an intellectual one, but it is still an either-or choice, and it still significantly affects the plot-theme. He is confronted by the prophecy of the Oracle that he is not The One and that Morpheus will sacrifice himself. The Oracle herself explains that he is free to not believe her, and even reminds him that he doesn’t believe in “all this fate crap” and that he’s “in charge of [his] own life”.
But then, the things she prophesied come true. Morpheus does sacrifice himself, and the either-or she placed before Neo seems to be right there on the table. Neo can save Morpheus by trading his own life, something he’s willing to do because he knows that he isn’t The One. So he and Trinity go back into The Matrix, kick ass, and everyone escapes but Neo.
As Agent Smith approaches Neo, there’s another obvious moment of choice: he can run or he can stay and fight. Emboldened by his recent success, Neo stays, fights, and wins. It is a rousing climax to his story, a gorgeous fight sequence, and yet another example of The Matrix going out of its way to visually show that Neo could run, but that he chooses not to. Dialogue between Morpheus and Trinity draws further attention to the existence of the choice, and the reason Neo has made it: “he’s beginning to believe”.
The only choice left in the film for Neo is the realization of one he’s already made. The Oracle said he would have to choose to give up his life in exchange for Morpheus’s. Ultimately, that is the dramatic necessity of Neo’s death – it makes his previous choice real, of consequence. Trinity’s choice to reveal her love for Neo brings her full importance to bear, and as all of the Oracle’s tumblers fall into place, Neo is reborn as a being of absolute agency, with free will and sovereignty over all of creation.
Volition is paramount for Romantic Realism. The tenets of the school insist that characters have choices, and that those choices matter. Random events without connection to the story don’t coincidentally push the characters forward. Rather, each step forward is the realization of a character’s own arc, governed primarily by his or her own choices in response to obstacles placed before them in accordance with the plot.
The best examples of Romantic Realism apply these techniques religiously, dispensing with happenstance, randomness, or convenience in favor of a plot driven by the principled actions of characters capable of choosing between true alternatives. Through a continuous insistence that Neo make critical choices, and the importance that the consequences of those choices play in the plot-theme, The Matrix deserves recognition as a champion of Romantic Realism.