I dream for a living.
       - Steven Spielberg

Three-Act Structure in The Matrix

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3-act structure in THE MATRIX

Act I

Right from the get-go, the story hooks us through confusion or extreme originality – a risky device that might discourage closed-minded viewers. The questions are one too many: what is this kung-fu fighting girl that can kick the butt of a half a dozen policemen? How can they jump over the street from a rooftop to another? Who is that well-dressed agent driving a garbage truck? And where the hell did the kung-fu chick go after answering the phone and being crushed by the garbage truck?

The next scenes, up until Act 2, follow a similar path. The Matrix (1999) is a different movie with a different type of beginning. Original is a better word. In most movies, Act 1 is burdened with the task to introduce the basic plot elements: whose story is it? Where and when does it take place? What is the driving action?

However, in order to make sense, The Matrix required a different approach. Note that all throughout Act 1, there's no evidence whatsoever that the year of the story is close to 2199. In fact, except for a few subtle hints, it doesn't even feel like a science-fiction that much. To a sense, Act 1 functions more like a lengthy prologue before the movie can truly start. But there's one storytelling norm that is honored – the hero's POV. The plot revolves around Neo, and everything is told from his perspective. His confusions and struggles are shared by the audience, who roots for him. During the inciting incident, Neo is contacted by Morpheus, but neither get what they want, and Agent Smith takes Neo under custody.

The next sequence starts when Trinity and her gang pick Neo up in a rainy night. When Trinity extracts the robotic worm that had been implanted in Neo's body by Agent Smith, an important piece of information is conveyed: Neo was not dreaming, establishing that indeed there's something going on. Something unexplainable... Trinity takes Neo to see Morpheus. Morpheus attempts to explain what the Matrix is, and the conversation ends with Neo taking the red pill. The red pill is Neo's choice – a true plot point that changes the dynamics of the movie and Neo's life.

Remember that one of definitions of a plot point is: a major twist that drastically changes the main character's life. In The Matrix, that small red pill provokes a chain reaction that culminates in this twist. What could be more drastic than waking up in an amnion of think gelattin among million other humans? And then a robot ten times your size holds you in headlock and unscrews a metallic needle that was deep into your brain.

Red pill from The Matrix

Act II

From the red pill to Neo's awakening in the real world, the second act starts as a complete new movie; definitely a sci-fi. Now, the writers face the challenge of explaining all the universe they so boldly created. And they do.

The confusion Neo suffers is shared by the viewers. Thus when Morpheus lectures him, he also lectures us – a great explanatory device. Morpheus tours us through his ship and crew. We accompany Neo as he learns what the Matrix is, what Zion is, who the Agents are and why they should be feared, the sentinels ditto... Plus, Morpheus also reveals about theOracle's prophecy – another storyline that becomes relevant later on.

Much is introduced during the first half of Act 2, including three major foreshadowings. In chronological order, they are: First, learning skills for Morpheus and his crew is accomplished simply by the click of a button, like when Neo learns ju-jitsu. This becomes vitally important when, in the Matrix, Trinity needs to learn how to pilot a helicopter. All she has to do is ask Tank to load the program. Second, we learn that “the body cannot live without the mind”; if they die in the Matrix, they die in reality. This heightens the tensions and ups the stakes for all the scenes that happen inside the Matrix. If they didn't impart this information, there would be no drama whenever they were inside the Matrix fighting agents. The third foreshadowing concerns Cypher and his mischievous deal with Agent Smith. This is a hint of Cypher's double-cross later in the story. A smaller foreshadowing is Trinity's attraction toward Neo, which is a subplot. One could even argue that this foreshadowing starts in the first scene of the movie when Cypher says to Trinity, “You like watching him, don't you?”

Morpheus holding battery in the Matrix

After those elements are introduced, the story can properly begin. Around the midpoint, Morpheus takes Neo back to the Matrix to see the Oracle.“Know thyself” and “There's no spoon” are two memorable lines that draw connections to philosophy. Although the Oracle announces that Neo is not the One, Morpheus's belief remains unchanged.

In the subsequent sequence, all hell breaks loose. All prior scenes were planting hints that culminate here. Cypher's betrayal becomes evident when he shoots Tank and Dozer and unplugs Apoc and Switch. Right then, one of the major thematic questions of the film is shed light on: Which life is better, living joyfully in a made-up world of delusion, or living miserably in the real world? Cypher fails to accept the real world; he wants to live in the Matrix, regardless of what it is.

With Morpheus in Agent Smith's custody, Neo is left with a dilemma: Does he stand back and watch him die? Or does he venture into the Matrix in a suicide mission to bring Morpheus back? Neo's choice of going in the Matrix is based on what the Oracle told him. Even though the Oracle apparently didn’t believe Neo was the One, she could have lied. As Morpheus reasons later: “She told you exactly what you needed to hear.” A possible implication is that maybe the Oracle manipulated Neo in order to make sure he would save Morpheus.

It's interesting to notice that in both the first and second acts, Neo is left to make a choice that ultimately escalates to the plot point. In the end of Act 1, Neo chooses the red pill. In the end of Act 2, Neo decides to save Morpheus.


Act III

As Agent Smith tries to discover the codes to Zion's mainframe, he becomes a formidable villain, who even allows his emotions take over – which may be described as either awkward or ingenious since he's a computer program. He gives a plausible philosophical argument as he defends his theory that humans behave more like viruses than mammals.

Neo and Trinity the Matrix

When Neo rescues Morpheus, Agent Smith tracks them at the subway. This scene is the first part of the mandatory scene of confrontation between the opposing forces, hero and villain. This battle is set up in Act 1 even before Neo is unplugged from the Matrix. Neo wins this fight, and Agent Smith dies, but this is not enough since he readily reproduces himself. Neo runs.

The tension heightens as sentinels threaten to destroy Morpheus' ship in the real world. This effective device, known as intercutting, transitions back and forth from Neo fighting in the Matrix, and Morpheus ship's being plastered by the sentinels.

After being shot dead by Agent Smith, Trinity, in the real world, has a fundamental task in helping Neo believe that he is the One. She whispers to him that the Oracle told her that she would fall in love for the One, and that she's in love with Neo. This is the payoff of a foreshadowing made more obvious in Act 2, but introduced early in Act 1.

Neo rebirths as the One, and the second part of the mandatory scene takes place. He fights Agent Smith for the last time and now he absolutely defeats him. He answers the phone and is transported to the real world. A moment of resolution ensues as Neo and Trinity finally kiss.

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