TV & Movies

The Ultimate Guide To The Matrix Trilogy

Refresh your memory before watching The Matrix Resurrections.

Originally Published: 
Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves in 'The Matrix.'
Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Nearly 20 years after The Matrix Revolutions hit theaters, marking the end of the Matrix Trilogy, Lana Wachowski and crew are back with a highly anticipated fourth installment. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprise their original roles as Neo and Trinity in The Matrix Resurrections, and fans can’t wait to see them back in action — but as it’s been awhile since the last film, it’s worth giving yourself a quick crash course in the original trilogy and its lore before diving in. Below, an in-depth primer on The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions. Major spoilers for the Matrix Trilogy follow.

The Matrix, co-written and co-directed by sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski, imagines a sort of post-Skynet future — one in which humanity has finally paid the price for its technological hubris, leaving them enslaved by their own creations. Released in 1999, it was somewhat of a latecomer to the cyberpunk film scene. Filmgoers had already been introduced to the genre’s core concepts by a star-studded suite of other films, including Blade Runner (1982), Akira (1988), and Ghost in the Shell (1995), as well as Reeves’ earlier film, Johnny Mnemonic (1995). To that extent, the Wachowskis were covering well-trod territory, and they even went so far as to pay homage to The Matrix’s predecessors in the film itself. (Editor’s note: The article linked in the previous sentence is from 2009 and uses the Wachowski sisters’ deadnames.)

Unlike those previous films, however, The Matrix holds the distinction of being one of the first — if not the first — cyberpunk movies to be based on an original screenplay. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is loosely based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Johnny Mnemonic is an adaptation of a short story by author William Gibson — one that ties into Gibson’s highly influential cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. And Akira and Ghost in the Shell were adaptations of two manga series of the same names, created by Katsuhiro Otomo and Shirow Masamune, respectively.

So here’s to The Matrix, the Wachowskis, and everyone else who made this film franchise what it is today. Below, all you need to know about the original Matrix Trilogy.

What Kicks Off The Events Of The Matrix?

The Matrix is set in a dystopian future where artificially intelligent machines have overpowered their human creators. At the end of the 21st century, fully sentient synthetic lifeforms came online — and eventually, the robot laborers began to protest and petition for their civil rights. This culminated in the establishment of Zero One, an all-Machine nation. Humanity, however, refused to recognize Zero One’s sovereignty and instead bombed its major settlement, Machine City. This led to the First Machine War, which took place in the mid-22nd century.

Humanity’s bid to wipe out the Machines resulted in a series of global catastrophes that ultimately cost them the war. In an attempt to cut off their adversaries’ power source — the Sun — they placed nanite clouds in the atmosphere, plunging the Earth into constant darkness. Most living species died from the lack of sunlight, but the Machines adapted to use another source of power: humans.

The Machines won the war and created the Matrix — a massive simulation of the Earth as it existed at the turn of the 21st century — to keep humanity under their control, and available as a power source. They created a new generation of people, fully integrated into the Matrix and reared in womb-like pods, from whom they could harvest energy.

Outside the Matrix, the last dregs of humanity were forced deep below the surface of the Earth, where they built a massive city called Zion. The city has a defense force composed of hovercrafts, which are often run by people who were born in the Matrix and can re-enter the simulation. Once there, they can convince others to wake up, and free them from their pods in the real world.

Some citizens of Zion believe in the Prophecy of The One — a quasi-religious doctrine that predicts that humanity’s original leader will be reborn inside the Matrix. This chosen one will be capable of reshaping the simulation, freeing the humans enslaved by the Machines, and bringing peace to Earth.

One of these true believers is Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the captain of the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar. Together, he and his first mate, Trinity (Moss), keep tabs on the hacker community inside the Matrix. Through his observations, Morpheus begins to suspect that Thomas Anderson (Reeves), a hacker who calls himself “Neo,” could be The One.

Who Are The Key Characters?

In addition to Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and the other crew members aboard the Nebuchadnezzar — and the many citizens of Zion — there are a few other important characters who feature prominently. These figures are referenced throughout the films, and it’s necessary to understand exactly who they are in order to grasp the trilogy as a whole.

The Oracle

Not all the figures who appear in the Matrix simulation are plugged-in humans. Many are programs, who are designed to carry out specific functions. One of the most prominent of these is the Oracle, played by Gloria Foster in The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, and — following Foster’s death — by Mary Alice in The Matrix Revolutions.

As the Architect (more on him later) reveals to Neo at the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Oracle helped design the most current iteration of the Matrix, which prevents people from rejecting the Machines’ attempts to keep them pacified. There were five previous versions of the Matrix, each of which was rejected by humanity for one reason or another. It was the Oracle who discovered the solution. The Machines needed to allow each person to choose whether or not to believe in the Matrix for themselves — “even if they were only aware of the choice at a near-unconscious level.” Virtually every individual would acquiesce, willingly accepting the simulation. And so the current Matrix model was born.

After fulfilling her purpose in this way, the Oracle became an Exile — a program that no longer has a function in the Matrix, but remains undeleted. Because her initial job was to compile in-depth psychological profiles on humans, the Oracle now works as a soothsayer who predicts the futures of humans who’ve escaped the Matrix. However, as Morpheus explains to Neo, the Oracle often tells people what they need to hear, rather than what is true.

The Oracle is also inextricably linked to the Prophecy of The One. She helps to raise “Potentials” — children who show promise of fulfilling the Prophecy, thanks to their talents for bending the rules of the Matrix. Her real work, however, lies in giving humans like Morpheus the nudge they need to help bring about the return of The One.

Agent Smith

Another program, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is the Matrix series’ primary antagonist. As an Agent — essentially a sentient security program — Smith is responsible for keeping Zionites out of the Matrix. To that end, he can take over the body of any human who still resides inside a pod, which means that anyone in the Matrix could become the Zionites’ deadliest enemy in the blink of an eye.

Smith’s ambition makes him much more dangerous to the human resistance — and indeed, to the structural integrity of the Matrix — than any other Agent. As he tells Morpheus in The Matrix, he has no desire to continue living inside the simulation. Instead, Agent Smith wants to hack into the Zion mainframe so that he can live outside of the Matrix.

Believe it or not, the series’ big bad gets his wish. After he’s seemingly defeated at the end of The Matrix, Agent Smith appears at the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded with a gift for Neo: his earpiece, and the message that Neo has “set him free.” He’s later seen talking to a duplicate of himself — something that no Agent had done before.

As it turns out, Smith’s final encounter with Neo in The Matrix corrupted his code, converting him into a virus. In the sequels, Agent Smith can self-replicate and take over anyone inside the Matrix, including Zionites.

The Merovingian

One of the Matrix trilogy’s most mysterious figures, the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) is an old and powerful Exile from a previous version of the Matrix. He has the ability to write new programs himself, and is protected by a small cabal of fiercely loyal Exiles (who just so happen to be the source of humanity’s apparently inexplicable encounters with paranormal entities, such as werewolves, vampires, and ghosts).

The Architect

Last but certainly not least, there’s the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the program that built every iteration of the Matrix, from the original, utopian version — which humanity soundly rejected — to the one that Neo was born into.

The Architect resides in a strange room full of screens, situated between two doors — one to the Matrix, the other to the Source (the mainframe of the Matrix itself). The One is fated to open the door to the Source, but at a cost. In The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect lays out Neo’s impossible choice.

What Happens In The Matrix?

The film begins with the Nebuchadnezzar crew’s efforts to unplug Neo from the Matrix — and the Agents’ attempts to prevent this. This culminates in an iconic scene, wherein Morpheus gives Neo the choice between two pills: “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

After Neo takes the red pill, he wakes up inside his pod in the real world, and the Nebuchadnezzar picks him up. He spends time onboard recuperating, training, and getting to know the crew: the Matrix-born Apoc (Julian Arahanga), Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), Mouse (Matt Doran), and Switch (Belinda McClory), as well as the Zion-born brothers Tank (Marcus Chong) and Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker).

Unbeknownst to the rest, the cynical Cypher — who laments to Neo: “Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?” — has cut a deal with Agent Smith. In exchange for rejoining Matrix with no memories of his time among the Zionites, Cypher agrees to hand over the one man who can help the Agents bring Zion down: Morpheus.

He doesn’t have to wait long for his chance. When Morpheus decides to take Neo to meet the Oracle, Cypher and Agent Smith lay a trap for the crew.

On the way to the Oracle, Morpheus shares what the program predicted for his life — “That I would find The One” — with Neo, but Trinity refuses to reveal what she was told. Once they reach the Oracle, she tells Neo that he isn’t The One — but that Morpheus is so convinced he is The One that he’s going to die to protect Neo: “One of you is going to die. Which one will be up to you.”

Having met with the Oracle, the Nebuchadnezzar crew prepares to leave the Matrix, but they don’t get far. Thanks to Cypher’s sabotage, they’re bombarded by a SWAT team and a group of Agents, who prevent them from exiting. In the Matrix, Mouse is killed and Morpheus is captured. Back on the ship, Cypher electrocutes Dozer and unplugs Apoc and Switch, killing them both in real life and in the simulation.

Trinity and Neo narrowly pull off a dangerous mission to rescue Morpheus from the Agents. Neo goes toe-to-toe with Agent Jones (Robert Taylor) for the first time, proving himself to be capable of moving in “bullet time,” just as the Agents do — and revealing himself to possibly be The One.

Morpheus and Trinity manage to leave the Matrix, but Neo’s exit is delayed, forcing him into a final confrontation with Agent Smith. It’s a meaningful battle, as Smith needs to defeat Neo in order to escape the Matrix, and Neo needs to defeat Smith in order to prove to himself that he’s The One.

Meanwhile, aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, the crew face a threat of their own: an attack of deadly Sentinels. In order to defeat the Machines, they need to turn off their own electronics and emit an EMP — but they can’t do this while Neo is still plugged into the Matrix.

All appears to be lost when Agent Smith shoots Neo multiple times in the chest. As the Sentinels begin to tear the hovercraft apart, Trinity and Morpheus watch Neo’s vitals flatline. Under these circumstances, Trinity finally reveals what the Oracle told her:

“Neo, I’m not afraid anymore. The Oracle told me that I would fall in love, and that that man, the man that I loved, would be The One. So you see, you can’t be dead. You can’t be, because I love you. You hear me? I love you.”

Trinity’s kiss revives Neo. He stops the Agents’ bullets in midair, and we learn that, not only is he The One — thank you, Morpheus — but he’s also now able to see the code that makes up the Matrix while he’s inside it. Now capable of almost anything, Neo jumps inside Smith’s body, causing the Agent explode.

Neo exits the Matrix, and the Nebuchadnezzar’s emergency EMP goes off, killing the Sentinels. The film ends with a voice message from Neo to the Machines:

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

What Happens In The Matrix Reloaded?

Six months after the events of The Matrix, the Zionites learn that the Machines are planning an assault on the city. A quarter of a million Sentinels — or, as Morpheus points out, “[one] for every man, woman, and child in Zion” — will attack. With only three days to prepare for the battle, Commander Jason “Deadbolt” Lock (Harry J. Lennix) calls all Zionite hovercraft teams home. Morpheus, however, insists on consulting the Oracle before returning to Zion.

The Nebuchadnezzar’s new operator, Link (Harold Perrineau), brings the hovercraft into Zion — and a group of men immediately escort Morpheus to a meeting with Commander Lock. Trinity explains that Morpheus’ ex-lover and fellow hovercraft captain, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), is now in a romantic relationship with Lock, hence the tension between the two. They also have another conflict: While Morpheus believes fervently in the Prophecy of The One, Lock doubts it.

Later that day, Morpheus channels his faith into an impassioned speech before all of Zion, in which he warns humanity of the coming attack. Following his address, the city’s gathering swiftly turns into a massive dance party-slash-orgy, which affords Neo and Trinity some much-needed alone time. As their encounter ends, however, Neo has a vision of Trinity falling to her death. He keeps this to himself.

Back inside the Matrix, Bane, a member of another hovercraft an unfortunate run-in with Agent Smith. Smith proceeds to exit the Matrix in Bane’s body, and the ship returns to Zion with Agent Smith-as-Bane.

The Nebuchadnezzar departs, and Neo returns to the Matrix to meet with the Oracle, who reveals more about the nature of the simulation. “A program [facing deletion] can either choose to hide here,” she tells him, “or return to the Source.” The Source, she says, happens to be “Where the path of The One ends.” It’s where Neo foresaw Trinity dying, and it’s where he must go if he wants to fulfill his destiny and save Zion. In order to reach the Source, however, Neo needs the help of the Keymaker, who has been imprisoned by the Merovingian.

Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity head to their meeting with the Merovingian, who turns out to be just as powerful as the Oracle described him. He also doesn’t happen to be particularly sympathetic to their plight, and for a moment, it seems that the trip has been for naught — but the Merovingian’s jealous wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci), surprises the trio by offering to lead them to the Keymaker.

They find the Keymaker easily enough, but are confronted by the Merovingian’s personal bodyguards on the way out. A spectacular action sequence ensues, and by the time it’s over, the good guys have won.

While the Machines begin their attack on Zion, the a group of hovercraft crews hatch a plan with the Keymaker to get inside the Source. Neo asks Trinity to stay out of the Matrix until he’s accomplished his mission.

Unfortunately, a Machine destroys one of the ships, leaving Trinity with no choice but to enter the Matrix. As she works to give Neo a chance to enter the Source, he, Morpheus, and the Keymaker are stalled by the Agents Smith. They manage to fight their way through, but the Keymaker is killed in the process.

When Neo steps through the door, he’s greeted by the Architect. “Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the Matrix,” the Architect tells him. “You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which, despite my sincerest efforts, I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision.”

Surrounded by hundreds of screens, each displaying a different version of Neo reacting to these revelations, the Architect goes on to explain that the Neo we know is not the first version of The One, any more than the Matrix is the first version of itself. He also reveals that this isn’t the first time the Machines have attacked Zion: “Rest assured,” the Architect says, “this will be the sixth time we have destroyed it.”

The Architect then presents Neo with a nearly impossible choice: either restart the Matrix and choose a new group of humans with whom to rebuild Zion, or allow the Matrix system to crash, taking with it every human stuck in the simulation. “Coupled with the extermination of Zion,” he explains, this choice “would ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.” To complicate the issue further, the Architect shows Neo that Trinity has entered the Matrix and is currently fighting Agent Thompson (Matt McColm) — and she’s quickly approaching the death Neo had foreseen.

This knowledge pushes Neo to open the door to the Matrix, bypassing the Source. He catches Trinity just before she hits the pavement, but not before she’s fatally wounded by an Agent’s bullet. In what appear to be Trinity’s final moments, Neo reaches inside her body — into the code of her Matrix avatar — to remove the bullet and restart her heart.

Aboard the Nebuchadnezzar again, Neo must explain to Morpheus, Trinity, and Link that the Prophecy was not accurate. Zion is still in grave danger. And, with the Machines at their door, so is the Nebuchadnezzar. The crew escape just before the hovercraft is destroyed, but are forced to make their way on foot. Just as they begin to run, Neo realizes he can sense and control the machines, just as he can do with the Agents and other programs inside the Matrix. He stops the Machines in their tracks, but falls comatose from the effort.

The Nebuchadnezzar crew are picked up by another hovercraft, whose captain explains that their search-and-rescue efforts had turned up only one survivor, someone the Machines were trying very hard to find: Bane.

What Happens In The Matrix Revolutions?

The Matrix Revolutions picks up immediately following the events of the previous film. With less than 24 hours to save Zion, the hovercraft crew looks for Niobe and her ship. Morpheus also asks the crew to search the Matrix repeatedly for any sign of Neo, whose body still lies comatose — but whose brain activity reads as if he’s plugged into the Matrix.

And he is, sort of. His mind is trapped inside the Mobil Ave train station, a pocket of liminal space that connects the Matrix with the real world. There, he meets Sati (Tanveer K. Atwal), a childlike program who knows who he is. Sati explains that the train leads to the Matrix, but that Neo will not be able to board it, because the Trainman (Bruce Spence) does not want him to. Essentially, he’s stuck.

Meanwhile, Morpheus is summoned to meet with the Oracle (now portrayed by Mary Alice), who explains Neo’s predicament, as well as the purpose of Mobil Ave — “to smuggle programs in and out of the Matrix.” Additionally, the Oracle reveals that the Trainman works for the Merovingian, who has bounties out on Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity.

Back in the station, Neo sees a familiar face: Rama-Kandra (Bernard White), a program he met at his first meeting with the Merovingian. Rama-Kandra may be a program, but he’s also Sati’s father, for all intents and purposes. He’s waiting for the train to take him, his wife Kamala (Tharini Mudaliar), and their daughter to the Matrix. Rama-Kandra and his wife have made a deal with the Merovingian to protect Sati, a program who would be deleted if she did not flee, because she does not have a purpose.

As Sati predicted, the Trainman prevents Neo from leaving Mobil Ave with her and her family. Instead, Neo’s friends must convince the Merovingian to allow Neo to return to the Matrix. It isn’t easy, but they make it happen, and Neo boards the train to the Matrix.

Shortly thereafter, Neo insists on seeing the Oracle. She calms Neo’s fears by explaining that the Architect is unable to see what might happen when one choice is made over another. Therefore, his predictions about the destruction of the Matrix and Zion were not accurate at all, and now, Neo can only find the answers he seeks by going to the Source — not to the room past the Architect’s, but to the real Source, in Machine City. But he doesn’t have all the time in the world to act: Agent Smith will soon be able to destroy the Matrix, Neo will need to act quickly to stop him.

Back in the real world, the hovercraft crew manages to track down Niobe. Luckily for Neo, Niobe’s ship is serviceable enough to get him to Machine City, and she’s willing to give it to him. Trinity insists on accompanying him. The other hovercraft crews travel back to Zion, just in time for the Machine assault. What they discover only after leaving is that Bane — still possessed by Agent Smith — has awoken, and murdered one of their own.

Aboard the ship they’ve borrowed from Niobe, Neo and Trinity discover that Agent Smith-as-Bane has snuck aboard. He takes Trinity hostage and reveals his true identity to Neo. A fight ensues, and Neo comes out victorious — but not before Smith blinds him. Regardless, Neo and Trinity continue on to Machine City.

As Zion is swarmed by thousands of Machines, Neo and Trinity are attacked themselves, and their ship crashes. A badly wounded Trinity dies soon after the impact, leaving Neo to proceed to the Source alone. There, he meets the Deus Ex Machina, the Machine that controls the entire city. Neo bargains with it, promising to destroy Smith — thereby saving the Matrix, which has begun to deteriorate under the weight of the Agent’s duplicates — if the Deus Ex Machina will agree to a peace accord with Zion.

Neo enters the Matrix once more, bent on destroying Smith. There, he finds the streets lined with Agents Smith. A lengthy battle ensues, only ending once Neo lets Smith turn him into a duplicate. As Smith begins to overtake Neo, the Deus Ex Machina floods Neo’s body with electricity, causing Smith to explode. One after another, the duplicate Agents explode as well, signaling Smith’s final defeat.

After Neo completes his half of the bargain, the Machines make good on theirs. They halt their attack on Zion and retreat back to the Machine City, where Neo’s apparently lifeless body is carried toward the city’s center.

Back inside the Matrix, the damage caused by Neo and Smith’s last battle is repaired. On the banks of a river, the Architect approaches the Oracle and assures her that all the humans who wished to be freed from the Matrix will be freed.

At the conclusion of the film, the Oracle is asked if she knew how things would turn out. “Oh no,” she says. “But I believed.”

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