In January of this year, shortly before the release of the delayed, bad-buzz attracting Jupiter Ascending, Lana Wachowski candidly recounted she and her brother’s time in Hollywood by stating, “We’ve been lucky. People at studios have been interested in our crazy, strange brand of complexity. And we’ve been allowed to keep making them. Will that continue? Probably not.”
Her prediction was all but confirmed by the disappointing performance of the duo’s most recent high-minded, shoot-the-moon work of genre filmmaking. After Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending successively failed to compete within our win-or-die Hollywood, it seemed certain that the sibling directing team of Lana and Andy Wachowski could no longer enjoy a viable spot in the contemporary studio system. Indeed, despite popularizing the split-film formula that now defines much of serialized Hollywood with the second two Matrix films, the Wachowskis’ recent filmography looks positively alien in a landscape of shared cinematic universes and cyclical reboots.
With each film they’ve directed since 2008 (with their Speed Racer debuting only weeks after Marvel’s first Iron Man), the Wachowskis attempted to expand ‐ if not completely rethink ‐ the DNA of the 21st century American blockbuster, regularly utilizing grand-scale narratives, special effects, and event filmmaking in earnest search of something that hasn’t quite been done or said before, at least not the way they do or say it. The results have been exceedingly uneven, with each film oscillating between near-brilliant moments of invention, fascinating wackadoo, and frustrating ineptitude.
But the Wachowskis have also provided a much-needed alternative to the risk-averse predictability that most big budget studio projects thrive on. As Lana Wachowski’s WSJ interview attests, it’s as amazing that they were able to get away with it for so long as it is dispiriting that they’ll likely be shut out of a grand palette for years to come ‐ a case that demonstrates the much bigger problem of the types of stories Hollywood won’t tell and the types of storytellers Hollywood so quickly loses patience with.
The Wachowskis’ shared earnestness and ambitiousness can engender both the greatest strengths and most debilitating weaknesses of their films, but these characteristics have also thrown into relief what other large-scale filmmaking so often refuses to do. For in recent years, a film by the Wachowskis has meant a looking glass into a bizarro-world Hollywood where standalone features are used to make grand statements through novel, even counterintuitive means.
Adapting the 1960s Japanese animated series Speed Racer was certainly an unlikely follow-up to the Matrix trilogy, but it continued the preceding series’ investment in using special effects as a means for imaginative world building. Rather than use green screen, CGI, and other ubiquitous tools of 21st century Hollywood in order to achieve a plausible manifestation of a synthetic world ‐ to overcome to “uncanny valley” so to speak ‐ Speed Racer embraces the inherent artifice of digital filmmaking full stop.
Where “grittiness” and all its superficial baggage has been the decade-long MO of adapting fantastic properties to the big screen, resulting in studios pursuing a style of verisimilitude for anything from Batman to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Speed Racer performs the inverse by immersing humans into the carnivalesque (il)logic of an animated (or, in this case, anime) landscape, manifesting a world that possesses no referent to our own. When given the option of world-building through all the tools of façade available to studios, the Wachowskis embraced the under-recognized potential of what can be accomplished when one doesn’t concern themselves with the impossible task of making the fake look real.
While the Wachowskis’ next film, Cloud Atlas, was not technically a studio film, this nine-figure indie did attempt to realize an epic vision of what studio-level resources could afford to do when less concerned with, say, destroying a metropolis. A historical epic, a dystopian saga, and a broad British comedy all in one (and that’s only half of its stories), this adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel showcased an all-star cast (it’s easily one of few films to feature High Grant acting) across time and space in order to realize a narrative of cosmic interconnectedness that, despite several forced beats, some unfortunate makeup work, and less-than-convincing accents, refused the type of lazily serendipitous encounters that make up the thematic brunt of mosaic narratives from your Iñárritus and your Haggises.
Instead, the Wachowskis sought to see to screen Mitchell’s intricate tapestry of texts, quotes, and ideas shared across time. Paired with the ambitious device of casting a core troupe of actors across the film’s multiple settings, the film of Cloud Atlas is an almost radical rumination of how the factors that make up one’s identity ‐ language, geography, class, sexuality, employment, gender, race, ethnicity ‐ are as profoundly entrenched in historical moments as they are wildly unstable across time.
A massive undertaking that teamed the Wachowskis up with Tim Tykwer to split the labor of shooting six overlapping narratives, Cloud Atlas is an achievement by its existence alone. That the end result bears a notable distance from these ambitions in certain details (the Wachowskis could really stand to benefit from a directing actors workshop) shows that perhaps the most serious limits to the Wachowskis’ unrestrained filmmaking imagination is, in certain respects, the pragmatic, on-the-ground reality of filmmaking itself.
But none of these films are quite as entertaining as the batshit Jupiter Ascending, a film that presents audiences an ‐ to say the least ‐ unlikely combination of an intergalactic Cinderella story, an action adventure starring a man-wolf hybrid, a minion of walking dinosaurs reminiscent of the Super Mario Bros movie, and Eddie Redmayne’s greatest performance, only to explain how these things make sense later in the movie. It’s as if the Wachowskis posed themselves a challenge of how to make a smorgasbord of seemingly incompatible elements into a relatively cohesive science-fiction epic.
Along the way, the Wachowskis construct what must be the largest indictment of the wealth gap produced by Hollywood. Set within a game of conflicts over real estate, inheritance, and entitlement, Jupiter Ascending manifests literally global stakes in its pseudo-Shakespearean intra-family tiff in which evolution and the very existence of worlds occur at the behest of millennia-old oligarchs with serious cases of affluenza. If studios must insist on continuing to threaten the sudden and certain destruction of the world, this is the way to do it.
Unlike several of today’s seemingly eternal franchises, Jupiter Ascending’s massive world-building (and destroying) actually suggests a narrative built to last more than one standalone entry, and provides the strongest case that the Wachowskis talents could be successfully utilized within the longer timescale of a TV series. Their upcoming Netflix program Sense8 suggests a potential new chapter for a duo whose ambitions have been pushing against the narrative and temporal boundaries of feature films for mass audiences. In what is meant to be a pan, Sam Adams’s summary of early reviews of the series points to Sense8’s “‘full Wachowski’ excess” and “quasi-mystical mess[iness],” showing that the filmmakers haven’t changed their sensibility even as they’ve switched their platform.
But I side with Alex Pappademas in that I also “hope people keep on giving them giant piles of money to burn in foolhardy high-concept ways.” In a Hollywood in which most grand-scale ambitions only create a superficial spectacle en route to a familiar result, we need the uniquely earnest, messy, and inventive Wachowskis’ brazen lack of restraint.