The Matrix is canon. Its themes, style, vernacular, and visual language lodged so permanently in our brains that they’re still referenced—and ripped off—today. Mostly this is due to the genius of the Wachowskis, who made a sci-fi masterpiece that fans watched again and again. But deeper that that, it’s because they packed so many brainy, fun ideas into one movie that people spent years hashing, and rehashing, them out. Each of those concepts found life in one very particular scene—a moment that crystalized the idea forevermore. Here, we break down our favorite scenes from The Matrix and explain why they mean so much to our lives.
11. Neo’s ‘Bullet Time’ Moves
Truth be told, this is not just one scene—the Wachowskis used the technique that came to be known as “Bullet Time” quite often in The Matrix. The effect, created by placing cameras in a 360-degree circle around the action and then stitching their images together in a way that makes viewers feel like they’re moving around a slow-motion scene, popped up in quite a few fights. It shows up when Trinity kicks a guy in the face, and again when the Agents dodge bullets. But the most remembered, most iconic use of the tactic comes during the rooftop scene where Neo (Keanu Reeves) effortlessly dodges one Agent bullet after another, inspiring Trinity to note “you move like they do” and plant the seed that Neo might truly be The One. The Wachowskis weren’t the first to use it, but nearly every movie or videogame that has borrowed the effect since has tipped their hat to what the directors did—and nearly everyone who has ever seen the movie has wished they could move like that too. —Angela Watercutter
10. Subway Fight
There are few sci-fi sequences as thrilling as Neo’s subway fight against Agent Smith—a one-on-one duel, Old West–style. More than its technical brilliance, what makes the scene such classic fare is how it flirts with allegory. It’s what the Wachowskis were hurtling toward from the moment Neo opts for the red pill: the realization of self. His awakening. It’s also the first true instance in the movie—and what a bummer, because it comes way too late!—that our reluctant hero sheds doubt and fear and chooses instead to embrace his destiny. Eyes open. Full speed ahead. What transpires, with the aid of some stellar special effects wizardry, is perhaps the finest action sequence in the series. The 360, slow-motion, mid-air gun battle. The lightning-quick avalanche of punches Agent Smith rails into Neo’s chest. The physics-defying jump off the train track back onto the platform. This is the moment the movie unlocks. It’s the Wachowskis turning the key, letting us into their coded world of mayhem and imperfect design. “He’s beginning to believe,” Morpheus says to Trinity. So were we. —Jason Parham
9. The True Meaning of Déjà Vu
In more recent years, “Déjà Vu” has come to make me think of the Jay-Z and Beyoncé duet that’s not “Crazy in Love.” But long before that, it always reminded me of skittering black cats and something very, very wrong. As Trinity explains to Neo after he sees the same cat not once but twice, experiencing déjà vu means that the architects of the Matrix have changed something, created a glitch. In the case of the Nebuchadnezzar crew, it meant that agents had locked them in the building where they were hiding out. In real life, that’s not exactly how the phenomenon works—we don’t just see the same thing twice the way Neo does. It’s more a matter of seeing something and having a sense that you’ve seen it before, or even dreamed it. (Just me?) Yet after The Matrix, it’s hard not to experience every instance of precognition and think maybe, just maybe, the designers of our reality decided to tweak it a little bit. —Angela Watercutter
8. Switch’s ‘Not Like This’
It’s the way Switch says the words. Twice. First it’s resigned, her face turned away: “Not like this.” Then she looks up, red-eyed. “Not like this.” Her head shakes, heavy with hopelessness. If you only get a few lines in a movie, look to the example of Belinda McClory. She turns a nothing side character into an unforgettable avatar of butchy cyberpunk cool. When Cypher pulls her plug and she collapses the next second, lifeless as a doll, you grieve the death of someone you barely knew. People remember this scene. Google “not like this” and it’s the first result. Maybe because it’s so real. Your eyes have been opened to the reality of the world. There are so many terrors. You survive. Then you’re betrayed. You can’t fight. The end is here. What do you say, in the face of that? Her honest, helpless, horrible answer echoes and echoes: Not like this. Any other way—just not like this. —Jason Kehe
7. ‘There Is No Spoon’
Throughout most of the movie’s first half, Morpheus, Trinity, and the rest of the resistance fighters who have adopted Neo tease that he will one day be taken to see the Oracle. Like the Supreme Intelligence, the Oracle knows all, and tells—even if she does so somewhat vaguely and cryptically. When Neo finally goes to see her, he must—like anyone going to see a doctor—pause in a waiting room. There he meets a monk-like child with a shaved head bending spoons with their mind. The trick, the kid points out, is to remember one thing: “There is no spoon.” The idea, of course, is that everything in the Matrix is code, that altering reality just means altering the program that creates it (or something). Neo picks up the trick rather easily. In the real world, this doesn’t work. You can’t punch bricks and remain unscathed simply because there is no wall. That said, the lesson remains: Sometimes the easiest way to overcome an obstacle is to alter the world around it to create and easier path. —Angela Watercutter
6. Red Pill, Blue Pill
You don’t need to have seen The Matrix to know what the movie’s most influential scene is. You just need to have been on the internet. After Morpheus rescues Neo from a slime pod, he sits Neo down to tell him he’s in an undetectable mind prison called the Matrix and offers him a choice: a red pill and knowledge of the world’s harsh truths, or a blue pill and a return to comfortable slavery. Neo’s decision is the movie’s fulcrum, and a meme that’s been spreading since the film’s release. Sure, the notion of being “red pilled” has been co-opted by a wide variety of bigots who confuse prejudice for truth. But let’s not blame the Wachowskis for cooking up a metaphor so potent even trolls (kinda) get it. Morpheus’ pills have subtly changed the way people discuss politics and morality, especially online, so it’s hard to imagine how a scene from a movie about cyber-revolt could be more successful. —Emma Grey Ellis
5. ‘I Know Kung Fu’
Of the many “whoa”-tastic moments that Keanu Reeves has in The Matrix, none may be better than this line: “I know kung fu.” He’s just learned what the Matrix is, how he can be placed in it, and—most importantly—that information can be downloaded right into his brain. Case in point: martial arts. After Tank uploads all manner of special skills into his head, he has a moment of clarity and says, yes, “I know kung fu.” Morpheus’ response—”Show me”—leads to an epic face-off, which is cool, but it’s this idea that skills could be magically placed in one’s head that sticks with you long after the movie is over. What if you, too, could know kung fu? —Angela Watercutter
4. The Final Showdown
We can just start after the kiss, right? Let’s start after the kiss, because true love reversing death—or igniting prophecy, or however you want to think about it—remains, 20 years later, the most infuriating deus lip smackina moment of the entire movie. So let’s start there. Neo gets to his feet, and the agents shoot. Rather than ducking the bullets like he did on the rooftop, though, our hero leans into stillness. “No,” he breathes, the slugs slowing to a stop. Watching on their terminals aboard the ship, his cohort see what they’ve always seen: the construct hidden in the code. For Neo, the construct itself has become code. Data streams along every surface. Agents turn to glyph. He fends off Smith’s frenzied attack with bemused detachment. He flexes, and the walls breathe. He is center, he is no-self. He was Siddartha; now, he is Buddha. When he steps into Smith, when he rends and renders his nemesis back into constituent code, the other agents heed what the swelling score tells them: motherfuckers better run. —Peter Rubin
3. Agent Smith’s Unbearable Hatred of Being
When Cypher sabotages the post-Oracle extrication and delivers Morpheus to the agents, The Matrix dedicates nearly 30 minutes to the rescue mission. Between the pyrotechnic lobby shootout and the helicopter escape lurks what might be the tensest moment of the entire movie. With Morpheus nearly broken and the Zion mainframe codes poised to spill, Agent Smith moves in for the killing blow: an increasingly desperate soliloquy against the indignity of the flesh. “I hate this place,” he seethes. “It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel … saturated by it.” His glasses and earpiece gone, he’s bare to the contagion of the world—and in response, Hugo Weaving’s diction becomes somehow even more chokingly constrained, snapping through each morpheme with enraged precision. “I can taste your stink,” he sneers, wiping the sweat from Morpheus’ scalp, shoving his fingers under the man’s nose. He may be code, but in this terrified moment, he has also become that thing he most despises: vulnerable. That’s to say, human. —Peter Rubin
2. Visiting the Oracle
After the sickly green filter over the movie’s first hour, what a relief to enter the Oracle’s verdant, floral kitchen. The tiles. The wallpaper. The art on the refrigerator. Her dress. Everything else in the construct is simulacrum; here, life thrives. Something else is at play as well. The Oracle’s gentle auntie sass (“You’re cuter than I thought; I can see why she likes you”), her homespun homilies (“What’s really going bake your noodle later on … “), her surrogate mothership of the other potentials, and her fresh-baked cookies all add up to a different realization: This black woman might be omniscient, but she’s also caregiver to the universe. It’s at once subversive and discomfiting. Only later in the trilogy, when her true power and nature become clear, can you reconcile the two, but in the moment, it’s hard not to feel like you’re the one being toyed with—and that, so much subtler than the whoa-man revelations of the Matrix itself, might be the greatest mindfuck of all. —Peter Rubin
1. Meeting Trinity
A blank computer screen. A blinking cursor. A phone call between two unseen voices.
Is everything in place?
You weren’t supposed to relieve me.
I know, but I felt like taking a shift.
Knowing everything you know now, the opening image of The Matrix makes perfect sense, but sitting in that darkened theater 20 years ago, it very much did not. Moments later, when police officers broke through a door to arrest a woman clad in black vinyl, you realized that confusion was fine, because you’d never seen anything like what you were seeing right now. The woman spinning, breaking a cop’s arm, then his nose. The woman hanging now, suspended in midair, angular and knowing like a mantis—and with a foot to his sternum, breaking the spell. (Also his sternum.) Running up and across two walls. You didn’t know who she was, or why she needed to get to the phone at Wells and Lake. You didn’t know who these Secret Service-looking guys were. You only knew that this woman could jump across a street and then outdo even that with what can only be called a 1977 Superman with a half-twist through a goddamned window, landing guns drawn at the bottom of a flight of stairs. “Get up, Trinity,” you heard her say to herself. While you still didn’t have much to go on, you had no doubt that she would do just that. —Peter Rubin
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