Hollywood's portrait of the ideal screen hero has always had the ability to adapt itself to cinematic currents and contemporary ideology. It is then appropriate that in the representative late 90's science fiction film The Matrix, its hero is a fluctuating character who nevertheless appeals to the audience while journeying through the film's apocalyptic landscape. The world of The Matrix first demands an anti-hero; then, as the film progresses, the anti-hero evolves into the more traditional hero, one appropriate for his fallen world. Keanu Reeves's Thomas Anderson begins as a reluctant anti-hero quite at home in his initial setting. By the end of the film, Thomas Anderson becomes Neo, an undoubted hero and the new leader in a world that is beginning to change.
When the film opens, its references to the film noir genre produces an expectation for an anti-hero: and Thomas Anderson satisfies this expectation. The artificial world within the Matrix is steeped in perpetual darkness, and in the rare scenes that take place during the day, the sunlight seems subdued, unnatural. All the characters wear black or dull gray, the inept policemen's faces are grim masks, and the villains lurk mysteriously behind their sunglasses. The scenes take place in the dark and grimy rooms of deserted apartments buildings, and the streets are wet and lit by only dim streetlights. It is within this setting that the audience first meets Thomas Anderson, an anti-hero with an appropriately pedestrian name, and in his first appearance he is sleeping instead of performing heroic deeds. The film quickly establishes Anderson as an anti-hero by implying that he is involved in illegal software dealings. In addition, during the first half of the film, Anderson spends most of his time reacting to events rather than taking initiative. Examples include when Anderson goes on a wild goose chase after receiving a message on his computer screen and when Morpheus directs his every action via cellular phone. Thomas Anderson is moreover cowardly--he surrenders to the Agents--and he does not yet believe in his own abilities.
As the film progresses, however, events demand a hero, a savior, and Anderson rises admirably to the occasion by gradually metamorphosing into Neo. This transformation is convincing because the film nurtures the audience's belief--as it does Neo's, Morpheus's and Trinity's--throughout as series of tests and confirmations of faith for Neo. One by one, the Oracle's predictions prove true; little by little, Neo sees for himself what he is capable of. Towards the end of the film, Neo has acquired the superhuman--and even Christ-like--traits associated with the more traditional hero. Just as Christ was the savior of mankind, Neo fulfills the prophecy by becoming "The One" who will lead his people to a new world. He becomes invincible, and the transformation culminates in Neo rising from a death-like state and defeating Agent Smith as dazzling bursts of light emanate from his body. This is indeed a Christ's Resurrection and Ascension for the post-apocalyptic age. Neo can now defy the very laws of physics. In the film's last scene--bathed in bright sunlight--the film evokes one of cinema's iconic heroes: Neo raises his fist and flies toward the sky, his black "cape" flapping in the blue sky.
Because the programmed Matrix occupies a space between reality and fiction, because the film's release came at the near-intersection of late 90's cynicism and twenty-first century optimism, it is appropriate that its protagonist must undergo a parallel transition from anti-hero to hero. Neo has the impossible abilities required of a modern science fiction hero, yet the audience still identifies with this heroism because Neo had once been Thomas Anderson, a mere human battery just like everyone else. In this sense, Neo is indeed the new cinematic hero for the new millennium.