Andy and Lana Wachowski—the Wachowski siblings, as I’ll refer to them throughout the article—are unique entities. They are essentially popcorn filmmakers, yet their projects always possess a strange and totally discernable voice, something denoting depth and character in an otherwise shallow action schlock. The idea of a Matrix, a world within a world that we are ignorant to, was not novel in 1999, let alone in today’s derivative cinematic climate. Yet “The Matrix” is put together exceedingly well. It feels, looks, and functions differently than most movies do. This is what the Wachowski Siblings lend to their work: individuality and vision. They refuse to compromise themselves, to simplify things or untangle them in a way that explains rather than presents. In an era where it has become all too easy to sell out and pump out lifeless, generic products for mass consumption, such individuality is refreshing.
The duo began in the comic book industry, writing for several Clive Barker publications. Their career as filmmakers began, not in the realm of high-stakes action, but in the genre that has introduced us to the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and countless others: crime. The 1996 “Bound” stars Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, and Joe Pantoliano and follows the plot of two lesbian lovers, Corky and Violet, to rip-off the Mafia and frame Caesar, Violet’s boyfriend. An oft-overlooked entry in the crime/seduction registry, “Bound” serves as a call back to the steamy noir thrillers like Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” and Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat.” The Wachowski’s walk a fine line, using a homosexual relationship to add intrigue and mystery, to make it stand out in a clutter of subpar, low-level films, yet keeping the focus on the plot rather than the fact that its two main characters are gay.
Despite finding its way onto Siskel & Ebert’s Top Movies of 1996, “Bound” grossed less than four million dollars and faded after making its way around the festival circuit. It was, however, enough of a success to secure its budding creators financing for their next film, the story of a young man embroiled in a conflict between two worlds, one real, one imaginary. For better or worse, “The Matrix” changed the game in terms of action, how it was thereafter envisioned, composed, and shot. The film’s opening scene features Trinity jump, suspend in midair, the camera rotating around her even as the scene is frozen, ending with her resuming action, punching and kicking, all in one breathtaking shot. What separates “The Matrix” from being just another action movie is, of course, what makes the Wachowski’s such capable and intriguing directors. The movie makes several references from an eclectic mix of sources, from The Bible to “Alice in Wonderland.” The movie’s philosophical structure adds a certain amount of intelligence and depth, a dimension that other action movies fail to explore and develop, resulting in empty consequences and unmotivated viewers. What we watch and experience with most action/adventure films is typically surface-level; the plot moves from point A to point B to point C etc. resulting in a basic three-act structure in which little of importance is gleaned. Luckily, the Wachowski’s are a step or two above the average filmmaker. In this way, they are auteurs of B-cinema.
The effects of “The Matrix,” released in 1999 to glowing reviews, top box office numbers, and even a few Oscars, have yet to diminish. Last year’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for instance, features a scene in which Walter must choose which car to drive: red or blue; an homage to the red and blue pills Neo is presented with by Morpheus. Had the Wachowski’s never made another film, had they abstained from future outputs or taken a sabbatical, we’d likely talk of them in hushed tones, revering them as geniuses, lamenting the loss of however many great films they chose not to make. That is, unfortunately, not reality. Unfortunately, we must consider the post-Matrix filmography cautiously and with the understanding that no one is perfect.
The Internet has changed the way we approach criticism and expectation. It’s easier than ever to read and reread plot synopses, comb meticulously over theories and Easter eggs, and spit venom over casting choices we disagree with. Some films receive a second life, while others are made the pariah of disappointed fans. “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” are two such movies. They are subpar compared to the original that spawned them, with worse acting and, somehow, worse special effects (Neo’s fight against one hundred manifestations of Agent Smith springs to mind as looking painfully amateur). As satisfying as “The Matrix” was in terms of complexity, its sequels overthink themselves, overstep the boundaries of layered significance and become pretentious. For all their faults, however, they are decent showcases for the action most viewers were hoping to see. It was a lackluster follow-up to a revolutionary piece, and at certain points “Reloaded” achieves the heights it aspires to, but it’s clear that the Wachowski’s outsmarted both the audience and themselves.
“Speed Racer” had multiple runs as a cartoon on television, first for fifty-two episodes from 1967-1968, and again for thirty-four episodes from January-September 1997. When the Wachowski’s announced that a film adaptation of the anime would be their next directorial feature, one could see how it would be a relative success. It fits the pair’s flair for flashy action, and without taking itself too seriously, the film could be a fun watch. What we got is certainly a mixed bag. The cheesiness of the cartoon translates rather poorly to film. The Wachowski’s writing is muddled for what should be a fairly straightforward narrative. At times the colors are so vibrant, and the action so quick and sloppily shot, that one becomes dizzy just trying to keep up, to discern where the car starts and where it ends. The movie flopped badly, audiences responding poorly to a movie based on a cartoon that few remembered or cared for it at all. “Speed Racer” appealed to such a narrow audience in the first place that it was a poor choice to alienate such a large amount of theatergoers.
I have a high opinion of the Wachowski Siblings relative to my low opinion of their projects. It’s been proven that more often than not they aim high but fall just short. But there’s something to be said for the ambition of their projects, the size and scope of the stories they take on. “Cloud Atlas” is far from flawless, yet I would call it a great movie. It’s the type of story that cannot be told without issue or blemish. They refuse to settle, and that will often result in failure. I can only hope that “Jupiter Ascending” is as tight and well made as “The Matrix” is, and that we think fondly of it rather than cringe in our seats while watching. With Andy and Lana Wachowski, it could go either way. That’s the price of originality, I guess.
The Wachowski’s “Jupiter Ascending” hits theaters this Friday, February 6th. Check back then for my review.
Article by Lucas Dispoto