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  • The Hero’s Journey is an idea originally proposed by famed comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and re-envisioned by Christopher Vogler in his book for authors and filmmakers, The Writer’s Journey. The basic idea of the Hero’s Journey is simple: it is the underlying story structure of every kind of tale imaginable, dating back to myths and legends.

    The traditional Hero’s Journey is divided into segments. I will be using Vogler’s version to analyze one of the great cinematic examples of the genre, the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowski brothers.

    The Matrix is set in a dystopian future ruled by machines that use humans as battery power, while simultaneously keeping them occupied by plugging them into a virtual world known as the Matrix, which is designed to resemble the world in the year the film was made.

    The film’s hero is named Neo, a man also known as “the One,” who is prophesied to bring down the Matrix. At the beginning of the film, during what Vogler terms “Act 1,” Neo seems to be an ordinary guy (Thomas Anderson) with an ordinary job as a software programmer, but at night he’s the computer hacker known as Neo. In The Writer’s Journey terms, this is the “Ordinary World,” the first phase that sets the stage for the Hero’s Journey.

    When Neo receives mysterious computer messages from an unknown entity telling him about the Matrix and instructing him to “follow the white rabbit,” the “Call to Adventure” occurs. A group of Goths (one of whom has a white rabbit tattoo) knocks on his door and asks him to go to a club. After hesitating briefly, on noticing the tattoo Neo agrees to accompany them.

    This leads him to Trinity (whose first appearance was in an action-packed scene at the beginning of the film, before Neo was introduced). He finds out that she is the one who has been sending the messages. She tells him that she knows he is looking for the Matrix and it will find him if he wants it to.

    The next morning, after this dreamlike sequence with Trinity, Neo is late to his job. His boss threatens to fire him and he is tracked down by two mysterious agents with evil intentions. This is the beginning of the “Refusal of the Call.”

    A man known as Morpheus, whom Neo has been seeking, literally calls him by cellphone to tell him how to escape the situation. Morpheus instructs him to go outside and climb down from the high-rise building using a scaffold—a vertiginous act which Neo cannot do. He goes back inside and turns himself in.

    In the next scene, Neo, now in custody, refuses to help the agents capture Morpheus in exchange for erasing his criminal record. The response of the chief agent, “Smith,” is to somehow make Neo’s mouth disappear, rendering him unable to take advantage of his one phone call, at which point the agents insert an electronic “bug” into Neo’s abdomen so that he will lead them to Morpheus anyway. Immediately afterward, Neo wakes up at home in bed, leading the viewer to wonder whether the sequence with the agents was just a dream.

    Soon Neo receives a phone call from Trinity, who tells him to meet her on a rain-drenched street underneath a bridge. When he reaches the location, he waits on the sidewalk for her to arrive. A car pulls up with Trinity and two other people inside.

    When Neo gets in, he finds a gun pointed at his face. He opens the car door to get out, but is stopped by Trinity, who asks him to stay. He is then commanded to remove his shirt and Trinity extracts the bug (which turns out to be real) from Neo using an electrical device.

    Neo is then driven to a building where Morpheus waits inside; this is the famous “Meeting with the Mentor” scene of The Matrix. Morpheus offers Neo a choice: he can take one of two pills. The blue pill will return everything to normal again and effectively erase Neo’s memory of recent events. The red pill will take him deeper into “Wonderland.”

    Neo chooses the red pill, officially “Crossing the First Threshold.” He is then woken up to the real world, finding himself submerged in fluid in a pod where he lies plugged into a machine via numerous wires attached to his head, spine and limbs. Believing Neo is dead, since the red pill has interrupted his “carrier signal,” a robot removes Neo’s wires, violently terminating his dependency on the Matrix.

    Having been flushed out of his pod and rescued by Morpheus and his crew aboard their futuristic hovercract, the Nebuchadnezzar, Neo’s atrophied muscles (he has been asleep his entire life) are restored and the next stage, “Tests, Allies, Enemies,” aka the beginning of “Act 2,” begins. Neo meets the rest of Morpheus’s crew, which includes not only Trinity but also a less-than-likeable character known as Cypher, who admits he wishes he had “taken the blue pill” and could go back to his dream life in the Matrix.

    Next, Morpheus shows Neo the crew’s virtual “loading dock,” the Construct, which they can use to upload anything they need when in the Matrix. In this sequence Morpheus shows Neo the stormy, post-apocalyptic world outside the ship: the “desert of the real.” It does not at all resemble the world of 1999. Morpheus explains to Neo that the Matrix is a dream world designed to enslave humanity. Neo unplugs from the Construct and, overwhelmed, throws up and faints.

    The next day, after he has recovered from his shock, Neo is taught Kung Fu and many other martial arts by having them uploaded into his brain in the Construct. Morpheus challenges him to a sparring contest in a virtual dojo and at first defeats him by slamming his student into a wood pillar which shatters on impact. But in round two, Neo, getting the hang of virtual reality, wins, saying, “I know what you’re trying to do,” to which Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind.”

    For the next test, Morpheus tells Neo to jump from one tall building to another. Where Morpheus easily succeeds by way of demonstration, Neo falls to the ground, which bounces him back up like a trampoline relatively unscathed.

    Neo then has a conversation with Cypher, who he starts to believe may be untrustworthy. There follows another test Morpheus sets up for Neo, in which they enter a virtual world identical to the Matrix, without Morpheus telling Neo that it isn’t actually the Matrix.

    As they stroll through the program, Morpheus tells Neo that anyone still plugged into the Matrix is potentially an agent, or gatekeeper/enforcer for the Matrix program. This is because anyone plugged into the Matrix can transform into an agent.

    Here begins the next state of the Hero’s Journey, “Approach to the Inmost Cave,” in which the team goes to visit the Oracle (a “divinatory” program living inside the Matrix), who has agreed to give Neo guidance.

    It should be noted that in Greek culture, oracles often lived in caves. We also might recall Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which is dedicated (not unlike The Matrix) to exploring the difference between fiction and reality.

    While Neo is waiting to see the Oracle with a group of other “Potentials” who can do seemingly impossible things such as levitate objects, he meets a young boy engaged in bending a spoon with his mind. The boy tells Neo to realize that there is no spoon and it is only, in actuality, oneself that bends. With this knowledge, Neo takes the spoon and is able to bend it.

    Next, Neo meets the Oracle, who appears as an elderly housewife in the process of baking cookies when he enters her kitchen (the “Cave”). She tells him he’s not the One (even though he turns out to be just that). She appears to say this as a test that requires him to dig deep into his own psyche to bring forth the inner One, or Hero, that exists at this stage merely in potentia.

    Then the Oracle does what oracles do: she foretells the future by telling Neo that he will have to make a choice between saving himself and saving Morpheus, who will sacrifice himself to save his student.

    This begins the “Ordeal,” which spans several sections of the Hero’s Journey, presented somewhat out of order. Back at the team’s stronghold, Neo sees a black cat (usually a sign of bad luck) walk past, and then another identical to the first.

    Trinity explains that déjà vu typically occurs in the Matrix when the virtual world has been changed in some way. In this case, it turns out that the Matrix has been altered so that Neo and his companions are now trapped inside the building. Although they don’t yet realize it, they’ve been betrayed by Cypher.

    In a seriously action-packed set of related scenes, Mouse is killed, the agents find them, there is a lot of shooting, Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith, and Cypher openly turns on the group, killing three lesser characters.

    He does this for one reason: he has made a deal with Agent Smith that if he helps capture Morpheus, his memory will be erased and he will again live a “normal” life in the Matrix. Just before Neo is “unplugged” and destroyed, however, Tank, the hovercraft’s operator, kills Cypher and saves him.

    Neo, Trinity and Tank are forced to leave Morpheus as he is taken to a military stronghold. Here Agent Smith, injecting Morpheus with drugs, begins the process of “hacking” his mind to access the codes for the mainframe of Zion, the last human city that lies near the earth’s core. The stakes are extremely high, as these codes would allow the machines to destroy human civilization forever.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, the crew is about to kill Morpheus by unplugging him so the agents won’t gain access to Zion’s mainframe codes. Neo stops this from happening at the last second, saying he believes he can save Morpheus.

    In a move that is so courageous it borders on foolhardiness (Tank calls it “loco”), the main hero, Neo, and the “catalyst hero,” Trinity, enter the Construct and upload lots of guns and equipment before heading back into the Matrix to retrieve Morpheus.

    The “Reward” is but one part of the Hero’s “Ordeal” in The Matrix. It begins when Neo and Trinity enter the lobby of the building where Morpheus is held captive. The scene turns into a shooting match between the two heroes and the security guards. In the end, Neo and Trinity win out, climb on top of the deactivated elevator, and cause it to ascend by exploding a bomb—a radically dangerous strategy that Neo executes with the whispered words, “There is no spoon.”

    Once on the roof, an agent appears and exchanges gunshots with Neo, who—displaying superhuman quickness similar to that of the agents themselves—is able to dodge all the bullets fired his way except one, which merely grazes his leg.

    At this point the heroes’ objective in climbing to the roof becomes apparent: a military helicopter awaits their appropriation. Trinity flies it after Tank uploads its pilot program into her brain. With Neo manning the copter’s gatling gun, they rescue Morpheus when he jumps from the building with a shot-up knee and Neo, secured to the helicopter via a cable, jumps out and catches him in mid-air.

    In the next sequence, Neo, becoming more adept at miraculous feats, manages to save Trinity when the helicopter she is flying is shot down. The “Reward” comes when Morpheus, amazed, states what the audience must be thinking as well: “He is the One.”

    The “Road Back,” the start of “Act 3,” is the third-to-last stage of the Hero’s Journey, in which Morpheus and Trinity exit the Matrix via a phone booth in a subway station, but Neo is trapped because the telephone they used as their exit is destroyed by a bullet from Agent Smith.

    This initiates one of the film’s most famous fight scenes, Neo vs. Agent Smith, in which the Wachowskis’ signature “bullet time” and “wire fu” techniques are fully on display. The effect on the viewer (especially upon the movie’s release in 1999) marries intensity with no small dose of surrealism. Neo manages to defeat Smith, only to have the latter reappear with the next train.

    The “Road Back” continues with a frenetic chase scene in which Neo, still in the Matrix, runs for an exit point, only to be shot at repeatedly by agents. Meanwhile, in the real world, killing machines known as “Sentinels” target the Nebuchadnezzar, threatening not only its crew but also Neo still plugged into the Matrix.

    Finally, just as he enters the room where his exit line is, Neo is surprised by Agent Smith, who shoots him several times in the chest and kills him. Even as this occurs, the Sentinels break into the hovercraft. It appears Morpheus will have no choice but to deactivate them with an EMP pulse, the firing of an electromagnetic weapon that will also sever Neo’s connection and kill him.

    Undeterred, Trinity resurrects Neo by kissing him and finally telling his apparently dead body what the Oracle told her: that she would fall in love with the One. Neo immediately wakes up, stops the bullets the Agents are shooting at him, and appears to destroy Agent Smith. The other agents are too frightened to confront the One and run away.

    At the close of the film, Neo finds himself once again back in the Matrix as he enacts what Vogler, following Campbell’s lead, would call “Return with the Elixir.” The elixir is Neo’s new ability to alter or perhaps even end the Matrix in order to wake people up and “free their minds.”

    Neo makes a phone call in which he states that the end of the Matrix as it has existed is inevitable. Then he hangs up and takes off flying into the sky—a truly superhuman act that definitively proves, as a way of wrapping up his Hero’s Journey, that he is the One.
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