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The History Of Neo From The Matrix Explained

When "The Matrix" was released in 1999, the story of Neo seemed to be the simplest part of the film to understand. Sure, the plot of "The Matrix" is complicated, taking place in both a post-apocalyptic future and a simulation resembling the modern day and dealing with themes of identity, reality, and exploitation. Its protagonist, however, was apparently pretty uncomplicated, a classic "chosen one" plucked from ordinary life to fulfill the remarkable destiny thrust upon him by fate.

The years that followed have proven the role of Neo to be far more complex than it seemed. Sequels "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" reveal that Neo's path, which seems so clear in the first film, is actually part of the villains' centuries-long plot to subjugate the human race, a self-perpetuating cycle that Neo has to struggle to break (metatextually, Neo's story is even richer, as co-creator Lilly Wachowski has revealed that the entire trilogy serves as a transgender metaphor).

To fully grasp Neo's history, we'll have to begin hundreds of years before he was born, at the dawn of the Matrix itself.

The Prime Program is the glitch that makes The Matrix possible

In the 21st century, the Earth is devastated by a war between humanity and the artificial intelligence they once enslaved. The machines have every advantage in the conflict, and make humanity so desperate that they're willing to blacken the skies of the entire planet to deny the machine army access to their power source — the sun. This ends up sealing humanity's doom, as the machines begin capturing and eventually growing human beings and use their bodies' energy as fuel. The war ends with the machines conquering the planet and humanity becoming essentially livestock, bred by the machines and living their entire lives in individual tanks to harvest their heat and electrical energy better.

The machines' survival now depends on their crop of humans remaining alive and relatively healthy. In order to keep them docile, a sentient program called The Architect devises a simulated reality called the Matrix to keep human minds busy and unaware of their captivity. The human mind can detect the unreality of the Matrix, so a second program called the Oracle suggests giving each prisoner a subconscious choice to accept or reject their simulated reality. Nearly 99% of prisoners choose the illusion, which helps to sustain it as a consensus reality.

The remaining 1-2% of humans unknowingly reject the simulation, and while only a fraction of those ever actually learn the truth or escape the machines' captivity, their collective disbelief unbalances the Architect's equation. In order to prevent this imbalance from creating widespread anomalies throughout the simulation, the Architect allows it to accumulate in isolation. Once this "remainder" from his grand equation becomes too great to contain, the Matrix randomly selects one human being to embody it. The Architect calls this phenomenon "the Prime Program."

The first One frees the original resistance

After about 100 years, the anomalies in the constructed reality of the Matrix boil over, and the Prime Program emerges as planned. An extraordinary individual is born who can learn to reshape the Matrix at will. This figure awakens and frees a number of humans to the real world, where they found the underground city of Zion and jack into the Matrix on their own terms in order to free more minds. The new human Resistance names their savior "the One."

The Oracle, co-author of the Matrix, becomes an active player in the simulation so that she can guide the One's journey. She positions herself as an ally to the Resistance, but her true goal is to ensure that the One completes the purpose for which he is created — to complete the Prime Program, reinsert their code into the Source and preserve the simulation for another century. Thanks to her, the One meets the Architect, is told the truth about their nature, and is given a choice to either cooperate in perpetuating this cycle of control or to allow the Matrix to collapse, killing all of humanity. Given two terrible options, the One chooses to repair the Matrix so that it can be rebooted safely. Meanwhile, the machines' forces in the real world exterminate the Resistance but allow the One to select 23 new people to free from the Matrix and repopulate Zion.

The machines perpetuate the legend of the One

After the One dies, the Oracle feeds the new resistance a "prophecy" that they'll be reborn and help humanity defeat the machines once and for all. This way, the resistance will be on the lookout for the One when they reemerge and bring them right to her so that she can keep the cycle going. After about a century, the resistance finds the One, brings them to the Oracle, and history repeats itself.

Each set of freed humans believes that they are the first resistance, released by the original One and destined to discover their reincarnation. In fact, they are playing out a story written by their enemy, over and over again. Five iterations of the One are guided to their destiny by the Oracle and choose to surrender to the machines and restart the cycle. The story of "The Matrix Trilogy" begins with the emergence of The Sixth One, Neo, who is the first to make a different choice.

Neo is a hacker looking for answers

Like most humans, Neo is born in a vat in one of the machines' farms. His brain is jacked into the Matrix from birth, and he is raised as Thomas Anderson, just another unremarkable citizen of Mega City. He becomes a professional computer programmer and moonlights as a hacker under the alias "Neo." Neo can sense that there's something wrong with the world he lives in and spends his nights searching the Internet for clues as to its true nature. This search puts him on the trail of a wanted terrorist known as Morpheus, who, as it turns out, has also been looking for him.

Morpheus reaches out to Neo via his most trusted disciple, Trinity, herself a famous and formidable hacker. Trinity offers to help Neo find answers to his questions, but their meeting attracts the attention of the authorities, who come to arrest him at his workplace the next day. Morpheus attempts to guide him to safety, but Neo does not have the courage to manage his escape and is captured by the shadowy group known only as the Agents.

While in government custody, Neo is interrogated by the sinister Agent Smith for information about Morpheus. When Neo refuses to cooperate, Smith demonstrates a terrifying influence over reality, literally sealing Neo's mouth shut and implanting him with a strange, squid-like tracking device. Neo wakes up at home afterward and dismisses this entire encounter as a dream — until Trinity and her crew extract the very real surveillance device from his body.

Morpheus awakens Neo to the real world

Hungrier than ever for answers, Neo agrees to meet with Morpheus, who offers him a choice represented by two pills. If Neo takes the blue pill, he will return to his ordinary life and never hear from Morpheus again. If he takes the red pill, Morpheus will give him the answers he seeks, but there can be no going back. Neo chooses knowledge but is completely unprepared for the terrifying truth. Soon, he wakes up in the real world, a place he's never known, where Morpheus teaches him the history of the Matrix and the Machine War as he was taught it (Morpheus only knows the parts of the story that the Oracle wants him to know).

Neo joins the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, a hovercraft commanded by Morpheus in the service of the (literally) underground human Resistance. In addition to defending Zion, the last human city, Resistance fighters broadcast their consciousness back into the Matrix in order to liberate the humans who are still trapped there, one by one. This is a dangerous task — once inside, they are often hunted by Agents, programs created by the machines to maintain their order. If a human's avatar in the Matrix is killed, their physical body in the real world dies with it.

However, the Resistance does have some advantages. Re-entering the Matrix as a free mind grants them the ability to bend or even break the physical rules of the simulation. The Nebuchadnezzar's technology can even download complex skill sets directly into their brains, making them expert warriors overnight. With practice, this will allow Neo to return to the Matrix as an impossibly cool action hero like Trinity and the rest of the crew, but Morpheus has even bigger plans for him.

Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus from the Agents

It's unknown how Morpheus comes to suspect Neo of being the One — perhaps something about Neo's hacking abilities betrays some superhuman connection to the Matrix — but Morpheus is certain that Neo is the prophesied reincarnation of humanity's savior. Morpheus brings Neo back into the Matrix to meet the Oracle, who privately confirms Neo's doubts about himself. Neo doesn't believe he's the One, and therefore he isn't. Morpheus, however, refuses to hear this, and when the crew comes under attack by Agents, Morpheus allows himself to be captured, so that Neo can escape. Neo is unwilling to accept this sacrifice, and he and Trinity embark on a mission to rescue Morpheus from Agent Smith's clutches.

Neo and Trinity shoot, kick, and blast their way through armed security and successfully return Morpheus's consciousness to his body in the real world. Neo, however, gets cut off from their escape route and is forced to fight Agent Smith one on one. Smith, like all Agents, is a program endowed with strength, speed, and endurance beyond even what a fully-trained Resistance fighter can achieve. Neo is able to hold his own for a time, growing more powerful as he becomes more confident in his abilities. He wins the hand-to-hand battle and nearly escapes back into the real world, but it's not enough — Smith recovers and shoots Neo dead.

Neo accepts his destiny

Back in the real world aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, Trinity stands over Neo's apparently dead body and whispers a secret into his ear — the Oracle once told her that she would fall in love with a man, and that man would be the One. Trinity confesses that she's fallen in love with Neo; therefore, Neo is the One. Through the power of this belief, Neo's vitals stabilize, and his projected self inside the Matrix springs back to life, more powerful than ever. Neo can now see the code behind the Matrix, move at speeds that are unfathomable even to Agents, and stop a hail of bullets with a thought. With his newfound understanding of the Matrix, Neo dives into Agent Smith's body and seemingly destroys his program from the inside.

Over the following months, Neo continually returns to the Matrix and helps human minds escape captivity. He develops even more extraordinary abilities within the simulation, including flight and precognition. Among the human Resistance of the real world, Neo becomes a figure of religious awe. He is welcomed back to the city of Zion by crowds of admirers and worshippers and accepts their adoration with the utmost humility and respect. He's not very comfortable with the role he's been forced to play, but he does understand its importance.

Neo finds relief from these incredible pressures in his growing romance with Trinity, his comrade in arms who believes in the One but also loves and understands the human being at the center of it. Neo and Trinity are fiercely protective of one another and share an unshakable trust.

Neo and Trinity's love breaks the cycle

Six months after Neo's death and resurrection as the One, a massive machine army approaches Zion. With no hope of winning this physical confrontation, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar embarks on a mission to help Neo reach the Source, which the Oracle tells them will help them to win the Machine War. They follow her instructions to the letter, confronting a rogue program called the Merovingian and freeing another program, the Keymaker, from his well-guarded prison. The Keymaker creates a backdoor in the Matrix through which Neo can access the Source. In order to ensure this operation's success, Trinity is forced into battle with an Agent and is mortally wounded.

When Neo steps through the backdoor, he arrives in a strange atrium inhabited by another program, the Architect. Here, the Architect reveals the terrible truth that the One is actually part of the machines' plan, another system of control. The Architect offers Neo the same choice that he's offered the five previous subjects of the Prime Program — return his code to the Source and restart the cycle for another century, or refuse and allow the Matrix to degrade and wipe out humanity.

Every previous incarnation of the One has been driven by compassion, a general feeling of love that led them to choose the long-term survival of the species. Neo, however, is in love with an individual and can't bear to lose her. Rather than perpetuate the cycle of the One, Neo hurries back to the Matrix and to Trinity, reviving her moments after death just as she once did for him. Neo's choice means that the Matrix now has an expiration date, but it also means the fight for humanity's freedom can continue.

Neo accidentally creates his nemesis

Meanwhile, an additional threat grows from within the Matrix that poses a danger to both humanity and the machines — Smith. After being decompiled by Neo, Smith is reconstituted in the Matrix, which reflexively recodes him as a counterbalance against the power of the One. No longer a tool of the system, Smith gains the ability to rewrite the digital avatars of other programs or even human beings, creating countless copies of himself that share a single consciousness. Ordinary Agents no longer pose a threat to Neo, but when he comes under attack from an army of vengeful Smiths, he's nearly turned into a Smith himself. Neo is forced to retreat, and Smith continues to spread like a plague across the Matrix. Soon, Smith even finds a way to travel to the physical world, overwriting the avatar of Resistance fighter Bane and possessing his body.

Smith gains such power in the Matrix that the machines have no counter against his influence. The Oracle predicts that Smith's rage and thirst for power will eventually consume not only the Matrix but the real world, even the Source itself. His potential to smother all life, both organic and synthetic, ends up being the key to saving both.

Neo and Trinity journey to the Machine City

After Neo resuscitates Trinity, the couple returns to the real world, where they escape from the Nebuchadnezzar moments before machine sentinels destroy it. To everyone's surprise — even Neo's — Neo is able to incapacitate a sentinel with his mind, indicating that the One has abilities that extend beyond the Matrix. The effort exhausts Neo, and his mind becomes temporarily uncoupled from his body and projects wirelessly into the Matrix. After he's retrieved by Trinity, Morpheus, and their allies, Neo determines that he can use his newfound abilities to journey safely through machine territory to the physical home of the Source. Millions of Smiths are laying siege to the Matrix, and Neo may be the machines' only hope of stopping him. This gives Neo the leverage he needs to negotiate for an end to the war before the sentinels exterminate Zion.

Trinity refuses to let Neo take this dangerous journey alone and accompanies him for the voyage aboard the hovercraft Logos. However, the Logos also has a third passenger, Smith, who has stowed away via the hijacked human body of Bane. He attacks Neo and permanently blinds him with a bare electrical cable. While his eyes have been burned out, Neo can still see machine code, including Smith. This allows him to kill Smith's new body and to serve as Trinity's navigator for the rest of the flight.

Sadly, Neo's abilities prove insufficient to protect the Logos from the Machine City's defenses. The Logos crashes, fatally wounding Trinity. This time, there's nothing to do but give their tearful goodbyes. After a final kiss, Trinity dies, and Neo is forced to complete their quest alone.

Neo sacrifices himself to defeat Smith

Neo travels to the heart of the Machine City and confronts Deus Ex Machina, the machine figurehead. Neo offers to reenter the Matrix and rid it of the threat of Smith in exchange for an end to the war. The machine invasion of Zion halts while Neo does battle with Smith, who has now assimilated the entire population of Mega City, including the Oracle. Smith now has the ability to see the future and is certain that the fight will end with Neo's death. The battle rages, and Smith appears to get the upper hand. He arrives at the moment of victory that he's foreseen, and Neo recognizes that the solution is to allow Smith to assimilate his code. Smith absorbs Neo, therefore allowing Deus Ex Machina to destroy him and reboot the system. This appears to kill Neo as well, but Smith is seemingly erased, restoring Mega City and all the programs rewritten during his rampage.

Deus Ex Machina honors its word, and the sentinels pull out of Zion. The Matrix is reborn, apparently under new terms that will permit humans to leave if they so choose. This, as it turns out, has been the Oracle's intention since the beginning of this cycle, though she couldn't be certain whether or not it would succeed. Like everyone else, she could only place her faith in Neo, and her faith was rewarded. As the trilogy closes, the Oracle says that she suspects that she'll see Neo again someday.

Neo is indeed set to return in "The Matrix Resurrections," though the nature of his appearance in the film remains to be seen.