Stuck in the Matrix: The Repetitive Filmmaking of the Wachowskis

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

At this very moment, Jupiter Ascending is playing in a theater near you. You could see it, if you’d like. But you probably shouldn’t. There’s the poor reviews (29% on Rotten Tomatoes; a more generous “C” here at FSR), the film’s bump from last July to the movie graveyards of February, or that analysts have predicted the future and they’ve said you’re not seeing it anyway. There’s also Channing Tatum as a sexy space werewolf who fights on anti-gravity rollerblades, but that might count as a plus, not a minus.

However, there’s one reason above all others to skip Jupiter Ascending: chances are, you’ve seen it before. If you’ve seen The Matrix, or any Wachowskis film that’s come after their seminal kung fu Christ allegory techno-thriller, you’ll walk into Jupiter Ascending pre-loaded with all the important details. Story arcs, character beats, and a general sense of when the film’s going to slow down time so a character can land a flying spin kick.

The Wachowskis are stuck in a rut; or, more accurately, stuck in the same Matrix human storage pods for more than 15 years now, submerged in pink jelly and convinced that they’re anywhere but trapped their own computer world. Sadly, that’s exactly where they are. And we will squelch our way through a filmography’s worth of pink Matrix goo, to illustrate just how many times the Wachowskis have rehashed their greatest film, and just how irritating it’s become to step into a movie theater and realize ugh, this is just The Matrix again, for like the sixth time now.

First, some guidelines. Any post-Matrix Wachowski film has the same three defining characteristics.

A Neo: that is, a character destined to be a great hero, chosen by powers beyond his/her control.

A Trinity: A super-badass supporting character dressed entirely in black leather. This character is more powerful than our hero (at least at first), but exists only to provide backup- and usually becomes the hero’s love interest.

A Red Pill: a moment when our hero realizes that the world is not as it seems, and that his/her people are just a resource being farmed by a higher power.

And on top of that are a mess of little samenesses that bind everything together, until you’re halfway through Cloud Atlas and you realize you’ve seen this movie at least three times now (fun fact: the only Wachowski films I’d seen until this week were the Matrix films, and watching the others in sequence was a continual, multi-hour deja vu attack).

Ready? Let’s begin with what’s most pertinent right now.

Jupiter Ascending

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Like I said previously, Jupiter Ascending = The Matrix. It’s got a Neo in Jupiter Jones, an ordinary toilet scrubber predestined for greatness. She’s a 100% genetic match for the richest and most powerful being in the universe, which means Jupiter is a reincarnation of that same being (geneticists, please comment below: is that how genes work? Because it seems really shaky), and is first in line to inherit all that money and power.

Our Trinity is Tatum’s Caine Wise (the Wachowskis tried admirably, but couldn’t beat After Earth’s “Kitai Raige” for Best Tried-Too-Hard-to-Be-Cool-And-Now-It’s-Stupid Sci-Fi Name). Caine, like Trinity, is a gun-toting hardass who’s here to help the hero claim her birthright. And to fall in love with her. And also to rock a leather ensemble- while Tatum may enter the film wearing just one piece of leather garb (a trench coat), towards the end he’ll switch to the full-body space leather seen below:

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

At which point, he’s basically Trinity with elf ears.

Finally, we have our red pill moment, when Jupiter finds out that Earth is nothing more than a large-scale human farm, and when the population reaches its peak, ancient spacefaring humans will harvest us all and convert us into a goo that grants everlasting life. Which is the same general mission statement for the machine armies of The Matrix: harvest humans, collect energy. We’ll have to dock Jupiter Ascending a few points, though, for lacking the courage to show us the goo-making process up close. One second, a person’s being prodded with needles, and the next they’re a travel-size bottle of Wrinkle-B-Gone.

The similarities run deeper- like Neo, Jupiter is a convenient mishmash of everything that was politically relevant while the Wachowskis were behind the camera. Neo’s pre-Matrix personal life was one part Fight Club corporate sameness and one half computer hacker, riding the Internet boom of the late ’90s. In 2015, Jupiter is an immigrant (and not just any immigrant, but a born-on-the-boat international waters anchor baby- take that, subtlety!) who’s donating her eggs to a woman’s health clinic. Quick, tune your TV to the first political talking head available- if that head’s not shouting about either immigration or women’s health, I owe you a Coke.

And in both films, our introduction to the science fiction side of things is our introduction to the Trinity character. Life on Earth seems perfectly normal… until a woman freezes time to kick down some dudes, then warps through a telephone. Or when a manwolf whips out his anti-gravity boots to fight a few aliens in an otherwise normal back alley.

Tonally, Jupiter Ascending may not be anything like The Matrix, but it’ll take more than a light wash of space opera and a few jokes (The Matrix had “action movie banter” at best; Jupiter Ascending has Tatumwolf field dress a wound with a Maxi-Pad) to hide all that bright green computer code in the background.

Cloud Atlas

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Technically, Cloud Atlas is six separate movies with six separate protagonists. Ignore that for now, and focus on just one- Sonmi-451, a clone waitress enslaved in a chain restaurant in 22nd century Korea. As the film’s told us in other timelines, Sonmi will eventually be the foundation of a new religion (The Matrix had Christ allegory, but Sonmi is blatantly just Asian Lady Jesus). She’s rescued from fast food hell by Hae-Joo Chang, a revolutionary who can outshoot any trained soldier and wears all black, all the time. And why does Hae-Joo rescue her? Because Sonmi’s people aren’t just mistreated- when they’ve outlived their usefulness, the clones are euthanized and mulched down into a cheap protein source to feed new clones. Amid all this, the two fall in love, because nothing kindles the fires of romance like realizing you’re digesting the corpses of your friends and coworkers right at this very moment.

Pretty standard Matrix copy there. But Cloud Atlas isn’t an original work- the Wachowskis adapted the film from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name. Which means at some point, one or both Wachowskis read “Cloud Atlas,” realized hey, isn’t this one chapter exactly like that movie we made in 1999? and then decided that it was the perfect material for their next project. Also, Somni’s tale differs between book and movie in one major way. At the end of Mitchell’s story, it’s revealed that Sonmi’s entire experience- escape, enlightenment, revolution- was arranged by the government, so they could use her as a propaganda tool. Those clones sure are scary- and one of them broke free and joined an underground terrorist cell! We should absolutely keep them in servitude for our own safety. That kind of thing.

The Wachowskis cut that little reveal out of their Cloud Atlas, and without it the story loses that nifty second level of predeterminism. But it’s also far less depressing (sort of- Sonmi dies either way) and allows the character a greater sense of agency.

Alright, moving on to everything else in Cloud Atlas. There are six interlocking stories in here, and each one’s got it’s own miniature version of the hero swallowing Morpheus’s red pill. Not every character realizes that he/she’s destined to be ground up into a cheap yet nutritious chow, but all six heroes realize there’s an unseen force pulling the strings all around them.

  • Adam Ewing believes he’s dying of parasites, but is really being poisoned by his doctor.
  • Robert Frobisher believes he’s the apprentice of a great composer, but said composer is actually blackmailing him to take credit for Robert’s work.
  • Luisa Rey believes the nuclear plant she’s investigating is on the up-and-up, but really it’s run by an oil company and being rigged to malfunction to drive up the price of fossil fuels.
  • Timothy Cavendish believes he’s hiding out in a swanky hotel, but it’s really a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style retirement home, and he’s trapped inside as a patient.
  • Sonmi 451 has that whole “I’ve been eating humans” thing to deal with.
  • Zachry believes that Sonmi is an actual god, but she’s really just a clone from the previous story. Also, the Earth is poisoned and humanity needs to evacuate, but Zachry’s basically a caveman and that’s a shade or two beyond his level of understanding.

Oh, and one final Cloud Atlas tidbit. The film frequently refers to the various reincarnations as “recurrences,” while in the book, the act of a clone becoming self-aware is called “ascension.” Meanwhile, Jupiter Ascending (“ascending?”) calls its own genetic rebirth a “recurrence.” Because nothing is sacred and apparently neither Wachowski owns a thesaurus.

Speed Racer

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

You wouldn’t think it’d be possible to cram The Matrix into something like Speed Racer. Who could stare at a bunch of cheaply animated race cars and a cartoon chimp and think yes, this is the perfect framework for a cyberpunk Christ allegory? Yet the Wachowskis pulled it off. Through sheer force of will, they’ve massaged the edges of Speed Racer to become distinctly Neo-shaped.

Naturally, though, this means the Matrix details come across with a little more subtlety. Is Speed the chosen one? Kinda. The film makes a huge point of hammering home Speed’s destiny as a future race car driver. Whenever we visit young Speed via flashback, it’s to develop his childhood love of racing. Or for other characters to encourage/bemoan/prattle on endlessly about his childhood love of racing. Back in the present, the phrase “Racing’s in his/your/our blood gets thrown around on the regular. Also, there’s that scene in the final race where Speed coaxes the Mach 6 back to life after a devastating crash… by sensing the car’s mental state. Surely, that’s the closest anyone’s gotten to a “Neo sees the Matrix” moment in a racing movie.

To create a Trinity-type character, the Wachowskis had to cut a few corners. Racer X is definitely Speed Racer’s resident badass, and his one job is to prop up Speed and help his little brother win from behind the scenes. Any kind of love story is out, though, probably because multiple scenes of graphic incest would lose Speed Racer its PG rating. Racer X will, however, get to dress in nothing but black leather. See below his progression from cartoon to Wachowski-vision:

Trans Lux/Warner Bros.

Also, Speed Racer completely nails its red pill moment. Speed’s whole life revolves around racing, especially the Grand Prix. And Speed’s worldview is shattered when he finds out that the Grand Prix- and competitive racing as a whole- is one giant sham. The winners are picked out in advance and used to bolster the stock prices of the corporations handing out racing sponsorships. Cue Speed’s soul-rending existential crisis.

Sure, repackaging the same movie into different forms for more than a decade is probably not something we’d want to applaud. But you’ve got to commend the effort it took to fit Speed Racer so snugly into the Wachowski oeuvre. Equally so for giving Speed Racer a legitimate amount of moral and philosophical depth.

V for Vendetta

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Does V for Vendetta really count as a Wachowski film? It exists in some odd grey area, written and produced by the pair (as well as some uncredited second-unit directing work), but still absent from the credits when “Directed by James McTeigue” comes up.

So it would make total sense that V for Vendetta is only slightly Matrix-ish. It lacks the same continuity of characters, none of whom are Chosen Ones or predestined for any great deeds. Also, though the film’s protagonist is Evey, she’s not really in command of the film at any point. V’s the one driving the story forward and she’s playing loyal sidekick, meaning that any kind of even Neo/Trinity character split falls apart instantly.

At least the film still lingers on that same Wachowski theme- that humanity is not in control of its own destiny. Evey has no idea that the St. Mary’s Virus, the mass plague that kicked off UK’s current fascist rule, was actually introduced by the early workings of that same government. Granted, the difference between “ruled by a fascist government” and “ruled by a fascist government that committed a horrific war crime against it’s people” isn’t nearly so drastic as it is between “life is good, feelin’ fine” and “I am a human battery harvested by the machine overlords.” But the effect on the story is similar- mobilizing the hero (and the people) to fight back. Also, you could throw in that other little “mind = blown” moment when Evey’s captor is revealed to be V, if you so chose.

And that takes us right back to where we started- The Matrix. Although I did skip the two Matrix sequels, but it should come as no shock to anyone, ever, that there are similarities between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded.

All this Matrix-copying has not done wonders for the Wachowskis’ careers. They’ve maintained a strong relationship with Hollywood to keep chugging along through the years (and strong enough to secure $175M for Jupiter Ascending), but it’s arguable that they’ve never had a legitimate success since Neo’s debut. The best they’ve managed are two massively polarizing films- Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer attracted about equal parts critical adoration and rotten fruit hurled by angry, confused filmgoers.

The Matrix train isn’t stopping anytime soon- the Wachowski’s next project, the Netflix series Sense8, is described as “a gripping global tale of minds linked and souls hunted.” Yup. No new ideas there, it seems. Instead, here’s what I recommend. Dig around online until you find an old, unproduced Wachowskis screenplay titled Carnivore. It shouldn’t take long. And it also shouldn’t feature anything even slightly similar to computer hackers, Chosen Ones, or everything being the same shade of pea green. Just an average Joe, his lady love and a giant pot of demonic stew. Seriously.

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