The Awesome Action in The Matrix Was More Important Than You Might Realize
Exposition is hard to hide. Rewatching The Matrix might help.
The Matrix has one of the most complicated plots of the 20th and 21st centuries. It's a science fiction and action genre movie that asks a ton of questions that cut to the core of our existence. Even crazier?
It actually delivers some satisfying answers!
When the movie came out everyone wanted to talk about alternate realities, machines, philosophy, and lots of other deep topics.
But what if I told you that... the best gift The Matrix gave audiences was not bullet-time of the Keanu Reeves action hero... it was how well it hid exposition.
Check out the video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay, but after the jump, we'll spell it all out for you so you won't forget the key takeaways and you'll be able to make them part of your process.
How The Matrix Hides Exposition in Action
1. Make the Audience Curious
If you saw The Matrix, chances are you understand what curiosity means. What the movie did so well was position us to ask as many questions as we can in the first act. We're wondering who the agents are, how people disappear within phones, what's going on with the shady people in leather, and how did Morpheus know everything about Neo?
These questions make us want the answers, even if those answers are... all exposition.
Exposition can really kill a stories momentum. It's critical that writers and filmmakers find effective ways to hide it.
It's like when you have to give your dog medicine so you hide the pill inside a treat.
What does this have to do with action?
Well, a lot of these questions in the movie get their answers via Neo DOING something. Via ACTION.
He listens to Morpheus to escape the agents. He follows the white rabbit to get a glimpse at Trinity. And once the leather-clad people suck the bug from his stomach we learn a whole lot more.
Each set piece in act one sets up act two answers. It makes us want the exposition and therefore never bump off the story when it is delivered.
2. You Have to See it Yourself
Here's where the action comes in. The Matrix does a job having such big ideas that you simply have to see them for yourself. That means using visuals to show the audience the answers to the questions we asked in act one. When Morpheus sits in the chair and shows Neo the future, we see what's going on. But after Neo takes the pill, we don't get any dialogue.
All of our expositions comes through action visuals.
A machine takes Neo from a pod and unplugs him, then flushes him.
We are getting our answers about the future from pure action. And once Neo is unplugged, and learning, the rest of our exposition and answers come from fight scenes in The Matrix.
The karate scene allows us to both get answers about how The Matrix works, with downloaded moves and the lack of breathing, while also intercutting with the people watching Neo. That matters because we also have to get exposition about who Neo is within The Matrix.
We need to know he performs above average, that he might be "the one," and that the crew believes he is their savior.
All with a bunch of kung fu interspersed to hide the pages and pages of people talking.
The fight builds tension and excitement.
And delivers us the answers we want.
3. Build on Established Rules
Lastly, The Matrix continues to ask questions and expand on the rules. When we learn about the rules of the world, we know that even though they are clearly defined, they can be bent. This malleability allows you to continue to engage the audience after they have digested the exposition.
That means when we see Neo beat an Agent we know he can subvert the rules. But that still doesn't prepare us to understand that he can also mold the world the way he wants and allows him to stop bullets. Yet it still fits within the rules we get from the exposition.
These questions lead us to seek out the exposition.
That means you can let people talk more, building on what they know because you can subvert or change answers to make the story better.
Think about this like plot twists or the moment in mystery movies where a clue gets recontextualized. It's exposition but it feels like a reveal because it changes what we already know.
What's next? Write your screenplay!
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