Watch: Why 'The Matrix' is a Perfect Example of How to Start a Movie
Grab your audience by the brain and never let 'em go.
The Matrix may have been so revolutionary that it ushered in a whole spawn of "bullet time" action sci-fi movies (so popular in the early aughts that Warner Brothers actually had the term copyrighted) but how did The Matrix usher in The Matrix? As Patrick (H) Willems answers in his latest video essay below, the Wachowskis started off the trilogy's opener with a brilliant, tantalizing sequence that would go on to generate enough hype to get an audience invested in an entire franchise.
There are a thousand different ways to start a movie, but The Matrix starts off with what Willems likes to call "The Mission Statement Opening." This is a short sequence, about five minutes long, that grabs the audience and sets the tone for what the movie is going to be. Now, it's common in science-fiction to see an opening that explicitly serves to set up the world that the director is trying to build. George Lucas famously did this in Star Wars where the circumstances of the struggle between The Rebel Alliance and The Empire are introduced in scrolling text so that the audience will understand what exactly they're getting into.
The Wachowskis, however, didn't make it so easy. In fact, they went quite the opposite direction of many sci-fi auteurs before them. Although The Matrix's tone is revealed in its opening sequence, the movie doesn’t disclose any of its mythology from the get go; rather, the world is revealed slowly throughout the movie’s first half. They wanted their audience to question just what exactly it is that they're seeing and, in that sense, this first scene certainly provides first-time viewers with a puzzle to unpack.
What's more, for any audience member so confident to assume they understand what's going on, the Wachowskis would throw in tropes easily identifiable from many different genres of film, only to flip their conventions in an attempt to mislead. The audience's associations with those tropes are reconfigured and redesigned to tell a brand new story. This leads to a ton of questions, which are set up ingeniously for Neo to ask along with the audience members, immediately in the next scene.
When you delve into a few of those tropes, you'll also discover that the entire look or visual style of the film is established from the very beginning. As stated previously, The Matrix employs many different styles and genres, but perhaps most noticeably classic noir with Chiaroscuro lighting, straight vertical lines, and exaggerated shadows.
So in the end, the beginning gives a taste of the style and tone, while raising questions and showcasing insane action that—at that point in film history—the world had never seen the likes of before. On top of everything else, the sequence is an entirely self-contained story. Trinity is introduced, Trinity is chased, Trinity gets away. Each of these elements (aside from perhaps the insane, revolutionary action) is important to keep in mind when you're writing the opening to your own narrative.