Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we ponder the ending of The Matrix.
The Wachowski sisters’ 1999 film The Matrix is an intricate tale about control, technology, and what it means to be human. It questions our reality and if there is such a thing as free will, a horrifying realization that questions our very existence. Full of phenomenally choreographed fight sequences and fascinatingly complex lore, The Matrix at first seems like a surprisingly positive film about saving humanity from the shackles of the system.
The film’s hero is Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), later known as Neo. He leads two lives: one as a talented computer programming and the other as a hacker for hire. However, he discovers that he is the One, the person destined to save humanity from the program known as the Matrix. It is foretold in a prophecy told by the Oracle (Gloria Foster), an all-seeing entity aware of her place in the system. The world that he perceives as real is actually a computer simulation created by autonomous machines that use humans as biologically batteries. The actual real world is a barren wasteland full of fields of humans waiting to be harvested. Neo learns of the prophecy that he will liberate humanity from the machines. But first, he must recognize his potential.
Neo fulfills his destiny at the film’s end as he is able to fight the evil Agents, three suit-wearing “men” (Hugo Weaving, Paul Goddard, and Robert Taylor) that are actually sentient computer programs trying to protect the Matrix. Neo is able to match their superhuman strength and speed, throwing ridiculously fast punches, stopping the trajectory of bullets, and even punching through an Agent’s entire body. These seemingly impossible feats prove that he is in fact the One, the savior of humanity and fighter of machines.
Upon initial viewing, the ending of The Matrix seems overwhelmingly positive. Neo fulfills his destiny and is able to do what no one else could. He is a beacon of hope and he has finally realized that. Humanity may have a chance of survival. However, despite the embracing of his identity, Neo never had any autonomy or his transformation into the One. While much of The Matrix is about revolution and freedom, Neo is in fact stuck in a cycle of control which continues through the following two films.
Neo is offered choices all throughout the film. Will he follow the instructions of the resistance leader Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) to escape the Agents? Will he take the blue or red pill? Will he participate in training and prove what all expect: perfection? These choices give an illusion of control, but really he is being groomed to fit into the mold Morpheus has made for him. Neo is constantly told from the beginning that he is the One, as Morpheus throws his entire life behind Neo’s fate. With that pressure of potentially being a Chosen One, Neo is placed in a position to not only make a choice for himself, but for the fate of the world.
Then there is the prophecy and the mind games of the Oracle, who proves that the future is predetermined and that despite the desire for choice, it is nonexistent. Her series of prophecies lead not only Neo down a predetermined path; Morpheus and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo’s eventual love interest, also become entwined in the prophecy. She is why Morpheus dedicates his entire life to finding Neo. Trinity bases her relationships on the Oracle’s words, as Trinity’s told she will fall in love with the One. Not only is Neo’s role as savior predicted, but his interpersonal and romantic relationships are, as well. These three characters become inextricably linked by a single belief: Neo will save them all.
The best example of the Oracle’s manipulation is when Neo visits her home. She presents herself as a kind old lady who is baking cookies and casually predicting the future. As they talk in her kitchen, the Oracle reveals that Neo is not the One and that he should free himself from those expectations. Yet, she later reveals that she just told Neo what he needed to hear. She alludes to his looming death and resurrection, saying that he’ll perhaps be the One in another life. Neo is shot, killed, and then his consciousness rejects that death. So, he has been born into another life where he can embrace who he is. While she seems to brush off Neo’s destiny, she knows exactly what will happen. He needs to truly believe in himself rather than merely being handed answers.
While Neo does finally accept his fate as the One and seems to relish being the savior of humanity, his place in humanity’s narrative is further revealed in the next two films of the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. He must accept what rests on his shoulders and his inevitable demise. Even in his eventual sacrifice, the cycle of humanity continues, as not all humans are set free. The Matrix still exists as a series of programs that let people live oblivious lives.
Instead of freeing himself, Neo has merely entered another cycle of control in disguise. Yes, he is aware of his subject position within the Matrix and knows the truth about humanity. But it was already predicted. Despite being offered a series of choices, the prophecy foretells who he is and he will inevitably fall into his role. While the end of this first film seems to speak to the power of discovering your true self, it really speaks to the struggle with fate and the weight of existing in a world where everything is predetermined.