I still remember going to see The Matrix Reloaded. My friends and I had bought tickets for a prime-time Friday showing, but Thursday night I couldn’t contain myself. I knew there were going to be midnight showings at the theater right down the street, so I went to see the movie BY MYSELF. I have never had a more pathetic and sad moviegoing experience in my life. Not only was I by myself in a theater packed with people, but I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was watching. What had happened to The Matrix!!?? Where was all the fun? Why were there endless passages of nothing happening? Why were Neo and Trinity the most annoying couple in the world? Why was there more dialogue than a Woody Allen film? What was the plot of the movie?? To be honest, this was the easiest movie yet to find ten “screenwriting mistakes to avoid” from. They melted off the screen like butter. But it’s still so sad. Matrix Reloaded was one of the most anticipated films in the history of Hollywood. And it failed on just about every level.
1) JESUS CHRIST! STOP USING SO MUCH DIALOGUE – The Matrix Reloaded sunk under all its dialogue. Certain dialogue scenes (with Agent Smith, with the Oracle, with the Merovingian, with the Governor of Zion, and let’s face it – with just about everyone) went on for 5-10 minutes! I don’t care HOW good your dialogue is. Unless it is ripe with conflict, unless there is some impending doom, unless it is thick with dramatic irony or shocking revelations, it will start to bore us to pieces after the first couple of minutes. The Matrix Reloaded made one of the most obvious mistakes in screenwriting – the writers wrote dialogue for dialogue’s sake. Always remember that the average scene is 2 minutes long (so 2 pages). If you’re going to go over that, make sure it is absolutely necessary.
2) Know what kind of movie you’re writing – Know what movie you’re writing, and make sure you’re giving your audience that kind of movie. So if you’re writing an action sci-fi script, don’t drown your script in dialogue. If you’re writing a comedy, don’t write a lot of dramatic scenes. If you’re writing a thriller, don’t have your characters sitting around a lot. Audiences have a certain expectation when they go to a movie. If you stray too far from that expectation, they will turn on you.
3) Make your fights matter – One of the reasons why the first Matrix was so good was that every fight mattered, every battle had stakes attached to it. We knew that if our characters lost, something terrible would happen to them (or worse – to the world). Here, we have fights just to have fights. Take the first fight in the movie, where the “new” agents crash the Morpheus’s meeting with all the other ship captains. Neo fights the three agents and we don’t get ANY sense that there’s any danger at all. Neo is going to win. And even if he doesn’t, there’s nothing these three agents could do to 40 highly trained “freed” humans. So it’s boring. Always make sure there are stakes attached to your battles!
4) Simplicity almost always trumps excess – We see it time and time again. A small first film, and after its success, a huge no-expenses-spared sequel. Yet even though the story is more grandiose, the effects are better, and the set pieces are bigger, the movie’s not nearly as good. This is because, usually, when you try to do too much – when you have no limitations – you get lost. Most of the best stories have simple through-lines that are easy to follow. So just beware of trying to make this big sprawling epic-like sci-fi film. You’re probably best going with something simpler and easier to follow.
5) Beware of “dilly-dally” scenes – As I’ve always told you, you want to jump into your story right away. And technically, Matrix Reloaded does just that. They establish within the first ten minutes that the “machines” are charging towards Zion and they need to act. However then we get a pointless fight scene with Neo and the new agents, Neo and Trinity talking about nothing, Morpheus and Dreadlocks Dude chatting about belief or something, an 8 freaking minute landing scene, our characters walking through Zion, numerous characters having pointless conversations in Zion, etc. These are all dilly-dally scenes. No story is really being advanced, so they kill the story’s momentum. Cut out the dilly-dallying and get to the scenes that actually move the story forward, dammit!
6) Comic-relief characters must be organic to the story – There’s nothing I hate more than a character who shows up telling the world, “I’M THE COMIC RELIEF CHARACTER IN THE MOVIE!” As was the case with “Kid,” the character who barrels up to Neo and Trinity when they arrive in Zion, begging Neo to let him take his bags in a comically eager manner. As with any character you write, they should emerge from the story organically, instead of being decided upon as “that kind of character,” then forced into the movie like a square peg in a round hole. This was one of the big reasons “Jar Jar Binks” was so disliked in the Star Wars prequels. He screamed “Here I am! The comic relief guy!” as opposed to coming upon the story in a natural way. Look at C3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars. Their comic relief comes very specifically from the story, as R2 is determined to deliver his message, and C3PO is wary if all the fuss is worth it.
7) Use an intriguing mystery to get us through your setup – No matter which way you spin it, the first act requires you to set up characters and plot, which can be tough to keep entertaining. By providing the audience with an intriguing mystery, it makes this setup move along a lot faster, as we’re eager to find out the answer to this mystery. That’s why The Matrix was so awesome. We had to know, “What is the Matrix??” One of the reasons Matrix Reloaded is so boring is because there is no mystery in that first act. It’s pure setup (and poorly written setup at that). We get bored quickly. And if a reader is bored within the first act, you have little chance of getting them back.
8) Addition By Subtraction – Matrix Reloaded is a classic case of having way too many characters. When you have too many characters, the audience’s focus is spread too thin. They begin to have trouble remembering what each character is after, which can be a script killer if that happens with the main character. And guess what? That’s exactly what happens in Matrix Reloaded. Because we have to keep track of so many people, we forget what Neo’s doing, which makes most of Matrix Reloaded confusing.
9) Break into Act 2 should happen on page 25 – The moment where your hero officially sets off on his journey should happen on or very near page 25. I don’t usually use ultra-specific page references when breaking down structure, but I believe in this one because whenever I see it broken (as it is here – our characters don’t actually go out into the world and start doing things until page 40) I start to get antsy. We come into a story wanting to see a hero go after something. The longer that’s delayed, the more bored we get. Of course, this rule can be broken if there are lots of intriguing mysteries in that first act, lots of conflict, or lots of strong scenes. Unfortunately, The Matrix Reloaded has none of that.
10) Plot points over action scenes – When writers feel their script is slowing down, they often insert an action or set-piece scene to “pick things up.” The thing is, these scenes always feel empty, because you’re inserting them into the story for the wrong reason. That’s why the infamous “Burly Brawl” scene, where Neo fights 200 Agent Smiths is so boring, because we don’t know what the point of it is. It literally feels like someone said, “We need an action scene here.” Instead, if you feel like your script is slowing down, insert a plot point, something that changes the story and throws it in a slightly different direction. For example, in the original Matrix, Cipher (a member of the good guys) secretly teams up with the bad guys. This is often a more exciting way to engage the audience.
BONUS TIP – Combine a plot point WITH a set-piece – Who says you can’t do two in one? Since the studio folks love big set-piece scenes, you might feel the pressure of adding them inorganically, despite the advice I just gave. Well, why not combine your set-piece scene with a plot point? For example, in the original Matrix, a plot point that occurs when they go see the Oracle is that, surprise, the Agents are waiting for them. A battle/chase (set-piece) ensues. This way you end up killing two birds with one stone.