A quiet scene from The Matrix demonstrates how to make exposition compelling

A quiet scene from The Matrix demonstrates how to make exposition compelling

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Here’s a shameful confession: I enjoy exposition. Let me qualify that right away, though. Bad exposition, in which characters tell other characters things they already know for the benefit of the audience, is uniquely painful. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never been able to embrace, for example, Brian De Palma’s Mission To Mars, which kicks off with frustrated astronaut Gary Sinise being briefed on the trajectory of his entire life so far. (My favorite such line, from an obscure Australian movie called Blame: “Of course you’re upset. I mean, she was my best friend, but she was your sister!” Okay, got it, thanks.) When the recipient of the info dump genuinely needs the lowdown as much as we do, however, and the information itself is suitably compelling, it’s a different story. I’m probably one of a tiny minority of people who wished there’d been more of Ian Malcolm explaining chaos theory in Jurassic Park (as there is in the book), or who felt a little disappointed when Looper’s older Joe growled that he wasn’t gonna discuss the mechanics of time travel. “Show, don’t tell” is a valid guideline, generally best adhered to, but there can be riveting exceptions.

One solution to the problem is to make the exposition so mysterious that it doesn’t actually reveal much of anything. Tell vaguely, then show. That’s what the Wachowskis memorably did in The Matrix, when it came time for Neo (and the audience) to learn what the movie’s title means. Most of the first half-hour amounts to a lengthy tease, with hints of something bizarre constantly erupting and then subsiding; the most outré moment—Agent Smith implanting an insectile bug in Neo’s navel—initially gets passed off as a nightmare. We hear a whole lot about somebody named Morpheus (“the most dangerous man alive”), who wants to tell Neo about the Matrix; the Wachowskis expertly tweak our curiosity, letting it build and build until we’re just on the brink of being fed up with their game of keep-away. And then they play it for just a few more minutes after Neo and Morpheus finally come face to face. Take a look again at the quiet crescendo:

Right off the bat, let’s just call bullshit on this whole “nobody can be told” business. Of course they can be told. I can do it in two sentences: “Everything you think you experience, this entire world, is actually a computer program. In real life, it’s around 2199, and you’re lying in a vat with a dozen tubes sticking out of you, being used as a living battery by sentient computers, as you have been since the day you were born.” What Morpheus means is that nobody would believe it without being shown the evidence. More to the point, the Wachowskis know perfectly well that it’s much more exciting for the audience to share Neo’s intense bewilderment when he suddenly awakens inside his vat, bald and naked and with plugs sticking out of him. At the same time, though, Morpheus can’t just say, “Hey, wanna know what the Matrix is? Take this pill.” Neo might actually go for it—he seems beyond the point of no return before he even enters the room—but it’d be a damp squib from a dramatic standpoint. Hence the circuitous rigmarole, as Morpheus proceeds to describe the Matrix in detail (“when you pay your taxes”?!) without really saying anything at all.

There’s another element as well, though—one that has a significant bearing on the plot: At its heart, The Matrix is a movie about free will, which is to say, about choice. That’s best symbolized when Morpheus offers Neo a choice between the red pill and the blue pill, with red representing truth and freedom, and blue signifying illusion and denial. However, as the traitorous Cypher will later point out, this isn’t really an informed choice, because Morpheus doesn’t provide sufficient information. Odds are, Neo would still opt for the harsh conditions of the real world rather than knowingly remain within an imaginary construct, but some people, like Cypher, surely would prefer fake comparative luxury to a machine-ruled dystopia. So while it’s distressing when Cypher starts selling out and murdering his friends, it’s also comprehensible. In essence, he was deliberately misled, even though Morpheus told him nothing that wasn’t true (assuming this scene depicts his standard conversion spiel). Power always entails a certain amount of manipulation.

To his credit, Laurence Fishburne registers that sense of power throughout the scene, even as he ostensibly humbles himself before The One. Physically, he dominates, standing ramrod straight at the outset and then relaxing comfortably in his chair while Keanu Reeves leans anxiously forward on the edge of his. Fishburne overenunciates, which mirrors to some degree the bizarre speech pattern of Agent Smith, albeit smooth instead of jagged. (I waffled for a while about whether to write about this scene or the interrogation scene, in part because I really wanted to marvel at the way Hugo Weaving smacks the terminal “t” when he says “irrelevant.”) And somehow I’d never paid close attention to Morpheus’ smile after Neo gulps down the red pill. It’s not the warm, pleasant smile of someone made happy, but the satisfied grin of someone who’s successfully bent another to his will. Juxtaposed against Reeves’ passivity here (this is one of his best performances in large part because he doesn’t try too hard, kung fu stances excepted), it keeps us wondering for a while longer whether Morpheus will turn out to be the story’s guru or its villain.

And then there’s the way the Wachowskis shoot this brief but pivotal conversation. Visually, it’s perhaps the simplest scene in an extremely busy and complex picture—basically a standard series of alternating dirty singles (focus on one actor with a small portion of another actor visible) and medium close-ups. At the beginning, however, after Neo sits down but Morpheus remains standing, the actors are blocked in a way that bisects the screen: Shots of Neo at frame right see Morpheus’ black-clad body swallowing up the left side (you can deduce spatially that it’s him, but it might as well be a wall), while the reverse shots of Morpheus at frame left have the large chair that Neo’s sitting in dwarfing the right side. This configuration subtly suggests a degree of distrust, which is lifted as Morpheus sits down and begins to pretend to explain the Matrix, at which point the Wachowskis switch to conventional close-ups. But then Morpheus offers the two pills (reflected in his mirrored shades—a touch that’s perhaps a bit too self-consciously cool, at least for my taste). As Neo considers his decision, the Wachowskis suddenly switch back to the bisected setups for a moment, as if the movie itself is urging Neo to think carefully about what he’s doing. 

“Remember, all I’m offering is the truth,” Morpheus himself says, just as Neo reaches for the red pill. “Nothing more.” And that’s literally true. He didn’t say much of anything. (Anyone who’s seen The Vanishing—the original version, not the dire American remake—should consider that theoretically The Matrix could have had the same kind of ending, if not for the fact that 30 minutes is much too short for a feature. Neo wakes up, sees the terrible truth, gets robo-flushed, the end.) Call it pseudo-exposition. It’s arguably the very best kind.

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