The Matrix vs. Inception

Written by: Evan Wessman – Month Day, 2019 time pst


In 1999 the Wachowski’s changed the landscape of filmmaking with their visually groundbreaking movie The Matrix. 11 years later, Christopher Nolan released Inception, which got a similar critical acclaim and presence in pop culture.

credit: Warner Brothers

credit: Warner Brothers

Since Inception’s release, the two films have often been cited as having similar qualities and science fiction identities. An argument can easily be made that Inception would not exist if The Matrix didn’t exist first. At present, I think it is safe to say that both films are regarded as modern classics of approximately equal renown. The ratings below are about as equal as can be expected, close enough that we can call them equal in the eyes of the general public. Now that they have been around for almost 10 and 21 years respectively, I think it’s time to pit them against each other and determine which one is better. I should mention that Inception is my favorite movie ever, so I am entering this investigation with bias. Despite this, I am going to do my utmost to give both movies a fair shake and acknowledge all their strengths and weaknesses. So plug yourself in, take your red pills, and hang onto your totems because we’re about to go deep into this. BWAAAAHHHHHH!

The Matrix: 8.7 (16th highest rated ever)
Inception: 8.8 (13th highest rated ever)

Rotten Tomatoes
The Matrix: 88%
Inception: 87%

The Matrix: 73
Inception: 74

Worldwide Gross
The Matrix: $ 465,343,787
Inception: $ 829,895,144

Protagonists’ Arcs
Neo follows a pretty classic hero’s journey in The Matrix, going from a lonely if skilled hacker to a potential savior of humanity who believes in himself and his identity as The One. There aren’t any issues with this arc, but I don’t think it is that strong of an arc. Neo is introduced as an everyman, and although his life seems unfulfilling, the main thing he is lacking is knowledge. While this is compelling since the audience has many of the same questions he does, the answers he finds are factual with little character significance. Neo’s arc is about self-identity, an arc that doesn’t truly begin until it is first suggested to him that he is The One. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but the way it is included in the story makes Neo’s doubt more external, and makes the final reveal that he is The One less meaningful on an emotional character level.
Cobb, on the other hand, has a deep emotional wound at the beginning of Inception. He has recently lost his wife Mal and has been forced to live apart from his two children for approximately a year. He largely blames himself for Mal’s death, and this unwillingness to forgive himself plagues him throughout the movie and puts other characters in danger. Cobb repeatedly fails to do what is necessary until he finally finds the courage to let go of his guilt. This arc is much more internal, emotionally rooted, resonant, and well-developed than Neo’s, and is one of the strongest aspects of Inception. So while there is nothing wrong with Neo’s arc, the strength of Cobb’s arc and the story’s commitment to it gives Inception the win for this category.

credit: Warner Brothers

Minor Characters
Where The Matrix succeeds most with its minor characters is that it makes them memorable. Say the names Morpheus, Trinity, the Oracle, or Agent Smith and most people who have seen the movie will remember who the characters are. In terms of plot function, every minor character in The Matrix fills their role. Where it lacks is making its characters feel authentic.

Laurence Fishbourne and Hugo Weaving do not play their characters in a way that makes them feel realistic. Now, that is kind of what makes them cool, and Agent Smith is a computer code, so this is excusable. However, the fact remains that these characters are simplified and even feel cartoonish at times. This isn’t necessarily bad since it isn’t a story that calls for much character nuance, but character is a relatively weak aspect of the story.

Now, I’m not going to say that Inception is a shining example of crafting minor characters, but it makes good creative choices with them. Every character has a very clear purpose in the story and the inception job. Ariadne is pivotal to Cobb’s arc. Mal makes an excellent and unique villain. Fischer is given a lot of respect and depth for a character that is effectively a McGuffin. And Arthur gets two of the most badass fight sequences in film history. They feel like more fully realized people than the Matrix characters do. Most have histories with each other and many have motivations that put them at odds with each other while still working towards the same goal.

Some of this comes down to performance, and while we may not see any of the cast at their absolute best in Inception, they all bring their A-game. Inception is not a super character-driven story, but it respects its characters to the point that they feel like believable human beings and are not just there to push the plot where it needs to go.

credit: Warner Brothers

World Building and Plot Holes

The world of The Matrix is perhaps the most memorable aspect of it. Since its release, the idea that we are living in a computer simulation has become increasingly popular, something Inception wasn’t as effective at despite how similarly it plays with the concept of reality. The fact that The Matrix uses this premise isn’t so impressive in itself, but the simple elegance it is constructed with is masterful. Also, the rules of the Matrix as they are in the first movie are consistent. So all of those are extreme pros that I want to acknowledge.

However, things start to fall off when one looks deeper. Most of it holds up, but things like the actions of the agents are not totally consistent, and Neo being resurrected by Trinity kissing him kind of breaks the rules of the Matrix. It’s done for emotional effect, but it cannot be explained within the established rules and degenerates into a rather clichéd moment. I would also argue that there isn’t much to mine from taking a closer look at the world of the Matrix. To its credit, the rules are clear upon first viewing and satisfying answers are provided for the questions that are presented about the Matrix, but there is a definite limit to how much meaning can be gained upon repeat viewings and closer examinations.

credit: Warner Brothers

This is where Inception really excels. The world of shared dreaming isn’t as elegantly presented as the Matrix, but there’s much more that can be mined from it. Deeper meanings and connections can be found in things that seem to have little significance at first or even fifth glance. The rules of the dream world are airtight and are followed at every point, although new ones are revealed very late in the movie. All of the rules are also necessary and learning them makes the experience of watching the movie more engaging, something that can’t be said for many other movies. The criticism that they are not very consistent with the way that dreams work in “real life” is valid. However, these dreams are very deliberately constructed by people who have extensive experience in shared dreaming.

Both films are very impressive in the way that their sci-fi worlds are constructed. However, Inception holds a slight advantage because of a greater commitment to the rules of its world and resulting lack of plot holes.

credit: Warner Brothers

This is a section that I must say The Matrix wins. The most cited and most valid critique of Inception is that it is too confusing, and which is mostly a result of the way the rules of the dream world are exposed. Given the depth and detail that Nolan went into, I think he did the best he could under the circumstances. The Matrix, on the other hand, does an excellent job of delivering the exposition of the relationship between the Matrix and the real world in a way that is visual and efficient. While Morpheus explains the history of the past couple centuries to Neo and tells him how the Matrix works in relation to that, the audience is shown “the desert of the real,” the pods that run the Matrix, and the other computer simulations that can be used in a similar way. The real world is also shown to be so stark in comparison to the world of the Matrix that the audience is never confused as to which is which.

credit: Warner Brothers

Inception does what it can in terms of exposition. There are a few scenes early in the movie that lay out clear, visually established rules for the world of shared dreaming. The scene where Cobb brings Ariadne into a dream and has her moldit to her will is the best example of this. However, most of the rules of the dream world need to be explained through dialogue, and with so many rules, things get confusing quickly. To its credit, all rules that are needed to understand the movie are there. The viewer may be left with a lot of questions, but there are answers embedded in the text of the movie if they care to look deeper.

credit: Warner Brothers

I consider these movies’ action equally impressive. However, I will give the win to The Matrix because it is significantly older, and I think it’s safe to say that its action was more revolutionary by 1999 standards than Inception’s was by 2010 standards. The unique style of action is used throughout the entirety of The Matrix, whereas Inception limits its unique action scenes to the opening scene and the hallway fights in the second level of the dream during the Fischer job. Still, both movies gave us some of the best and most innovative action scenes of all time.

credit: Warner Brothers

The visual effects in The Matrix look a little dated by today’s standards, but the camera movement for the bullet time sequences are still awesome, as is the stellar choreography and editing of the lobby shootout. Inception uses almost exclusively practical effects, so it holds up better visually, but again is a bit less ambitious than The Matrix.

Still, the collapsing dream worlds are super intense and the hotel scenes with the rotating hallways and zero gravity are spectacular and have yet to be improved upon ten years later.

credit: Warner Brothers

Themes and Symbolism

As I mentioned, The Matrix does an excellent job of making its viewers question their reality. This isn’t developed as a theme so much as a technology-based concept, but it dips into the realm of philosophy. It also develops the theme of potential very well through Neo’s journey. Morpheus continually shows Neo how much more he can be and do throughout the movie, and helps him believe that he really might be The One. The movie takes its exploration of this theme a step further by highlighting the possibility that he might not be The One.

Neo has natural abilities unlike any that have been seen before, but he fails his first jump, discovers that he isn’t the first prospect that Morpheus has recruited, and is told by the Oracle, point blank, that he is not The One. This allows the theme of potential to be woven throughout the movie in a very interesting way. It also does a good job of taking its altered/heightened reality and bringing it to a personal level. How the Matrix works is only important in terms of how each individual relates to it, exemplified by the line “there is no spoon.” Though the world of the Matrix is tech-based, the way it is used makes Neo’s mastery of it at the end reminiscent of being one with nature or using the Force. It feels much more philosophical than scientific.

credit: Warner Brothers

Inception’s themes aren’t as empowering, but they are perhaps more personal than those of The Matrix. There are strong themes of grief, guilt, insecurity, and self-destruction developed through Cobb’s journey of struggling with the death of his wife. The movie does not shy away from his pain or the self-destructive nature of his grief. The dream world is used very effectively to make Cobb his own worst enemy, as his inability to deal with his demons puts everyone in danger and nearly kills both Robert Fischer and Saito. Like The Matrix, Inception plays with the nature of reality, but does so differently. The ending of the movie poses the question of whether Cobb’s reality is real at all, whereas The Matrix makes it very clear that the world that most of humanity perceives is definitively not real.

credit: Warner Brothers

Neither one is better than the other, but the way that Inception uses its ambiguous ending is not the cop-out that it might seem to be at first glance. There’s plenty of evidence to support both theories of Cobb being in reality and him being in a dream at the end. What I find brilliant about the ending is that, regardless of which theory you choose to believe, Cobb’s choice to spin the top without seeing if it falls shows that he no longer cares. This ambiguity points to a larger truth: that Cobb is accepting the reality he is in and has found the peace he is searching for.

However, the strongest theme of the movie is actually in the title: that of planting an idea in someone’s mind. There are several parallels between the filmmaking process and the way the characters plan their inception on Robert Fischer, making the movie resonant on a meta level. However, the way that the movie examines the nature of psychology, finding catharsis, and changing someone’s beliefs in an organic way is nothing short of masterful. Inception uses its premise to explore human nature in a way that tells us more about ourselves and how true change must ultimately come from within. I wanted to save this point for last because I think this is what sets Inception apart from not just The Matrix, but all other stories.


Both of these are masterpieces. However, I would boldly state that Inception is the stronger of the two and will continue to hold up better than The Matrix. There isn’t much The Matrix does wrong, and it’s easier to grasp than Inception. However, Inception goes the extra mile by making its story as compelling, complex, and fleshed out as possible in every aspect. It respects its characters and commits to its themes in ways that The Matrix does not, and for those reasons, I stand by my decision. Again, to give credit where credit is due, Inception might have never existed if The Matrix didn’t exist first.

Feel free to disagree with everything I’ve said and use whichever film you prefer to help you dream bigger, but I will stand by what I have said here. Thanks for reading.

About The Author:

Evan Wessman is a screenwriting and playwriting major at Drexel University and the creator of the screenplay analysis podcast “Interior Analysis.”

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