In the Matrix films, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is known as the prophesied One, but he was paradoxically not the first person to hold that title. After taking the red pill and escaping the Matrix, Neo receives training in manipulating the system by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), which affords him greater physical abilities than the average person when inside the artificial world. Neo”s exceptional powers in the later films, however, come from his discovery he is the mythical savior known as The One.
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According to Morpheus, The One is tasked with leading humanity and defeating the Machines, but this is only part of the story. The only people who know about the prophecy of The One are the small number of people who rejected the Matrix, referred to by the Architect as “anomalies,” and this group is of particular interest to the Machines. While this small, discontented percentage of the population was unavoidable, the Machines need the Matrix to reach a 100 percent acceptance rate in order for it to be fully sustainable. This inspires their interest in the inhabitants of Zion and their savior, Neo.
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As the Architect reveals in The Matrix Reloaded, there have been seven separate incarnations of the Matrix prior to the version featured in the films, but a manifestation of The One appeared in only five. The first two of these incarnations were beta versions that reportedly failed because the Machines had made them so perfect and idyllic that humanity couldn”t palette them. Upon consulting with the Oracle, the Machines devised a system of releasing a few malcontents to Zion and inspiring them with the prophecy of The One, all the while leaving them unaware that The One”s journey would end with a reset of the Matrix and a restart of the cycle. This equilibrium lasted for five cycles before Neo, the sixth One, disrupted it.
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The stories of the previous Ones have never been explored in any media, so not much is known about them. However, because of the continued existence of the Matrix during the films, we do know something about their choices. The One, in their role as messiah, was meant to be not only an abstract symbol of hope, but also a sort of representative through their connection to all of the anomalies. Therefore, when The One inevitably chooses to reboot the Matrix rather than destroy it, humanity as a whole will be embracing the program by proxy, giving it the 100 percent acceptance rate that the Machines desired and allowing it to continue operating. Because of this, we know that the five previous Ones chose the orthodox path to preserving the human race. Neo”s path diverged, both because of his encounter with the rogue program, Agent Smith, and because his love for Trinity drove him to resist the pattern, freeing humankind instead.
Avoiding the five pre-film Ones, even in the sweeping scope of expansion material like The Animatrix, was probably a conscious decision, making it unlikely that they will be touched upon in the forthcoming Matrix 4. And while the flexibility in the kind of stories that could be told about them is appealing, their absence does ultimately benefit the stories that the Wachowskis have chosen to tell.
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It would be difficult to introduce stakes and spontaneity into a narrative that is merely the latest entry in a recursive pattern, not to mention one with prophecies involved. To remedy this, the backlog of relatively unexceptional Ones serves as a precedent that makes Neo”s choices more groundbreaking, finally allowing for the novel iteration of the Matrix that appears at the end of The Matrix Revolutions. In the end, Neo sacrifices his life for the good of humanity, and his predecessors sacrifice their significance for the good of the story.
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