Did the Wachowskis peak with 'The Matrix'?

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This summer’s Jupiter Ascending was supposed to mark the return of Andy and Lana Wachowski to blockbuster science-fiction, a genre they briefly defined in 1999 with The Matrix before a decade that saw the successful-yet-disappointing Matrix sequels and the somewhat calamitous Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. On Tuesday, everything changed. Below, two EW writers with profound opinions debate what this means for the siblings. Warning: Certain infamous megaflops will be flagrantly defended.

Jeff Labrecque: Warner Bros. announced Tuesday that Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ science-fiction action movie with Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis, was bumped from July — the heart of summer blockbuster season — to February 2015, a.k.a. the box-office dumping grounds. Note that they didn’t push it to November or December, which would’ve given the Wachowskis several months to fine-tune and fix the bugs, while still soaking up holiday dollars. No, a February release sends signals that Warner Bros. has little confidence in the movie, which was only weeks from release. So… after several other high-priced underwhelming projects, is it fair now to say that the first Matrix was the exception for the Wachowskis and not the rule?

Darren Franich: That would be the case, Jeff, except for one simple fact: Speed Racer is awesome. Not “underrated” or “overlooked” or “worth a second look,” although it is all those things; it is awesome. Yes, the 2008 cartoon adaptation is generally credited with removing what little mojo the Wachowskis had left after the Matrix sequels, but it is a stunner: a movie that completely replaces even the fragile physics of The Matrix with a practically abstract array of high-speed colors. The problem, of course, is that it was also a $120 million movie, and there’s a reason people don’t make a lot of semi-abstract $120 million movies.

Cloud Atlas was another hugely expensive bizarro-odyssey (multiple time periods, everyone playing every ethnicity) that flopped. And Jupiter Ascending looks like another curio: a hugely expensive and totally original fantasy sci-fi odyssey. Like, the Wachowskis don’t make successful movies, but they do make INTERESTING movies with huge budgets. (You don’t see them signing up for Thor 2.) Isn’t that worth something?

Jeff Labrecque: Wow. I mean… wow. Let me work backwards, starting with Jupiter, which is, we should point out, a film neither of us has seen and theoretically could turn out be a spectacular combination of Titanic and Star Wars. (Or it could simply be The Fifth Element.) You laud the Wachowskis for producing “original fantasy sci-fi odysseys” but that’s an awfully low bar, even in this day and age. Do I really need to pat them on the back for not making Thor 2 if Jupiter Ascending is a stinker? The real measure is if their films are any good. You seem to think so. In fact, I’d rush back to watch Speed Racer after reading your eloquent praise, but I didn’t bring my seizure medication to work today.

Darren Franich: What you say is true. Something “original” isn’t fundamentally better. I guess we should really define our terms here: Are you saying that the first Matrix was the exception because it was successful or because it was good? To my eyes, a lot of what made people love that first movie is what made a lot of people not-love the later Matrixes: Ponderous demi-existential dialogue, overstylized action scenes, characters with names that start with “The,” the constant assertion that in the future clothes will only be made out of hippie hemp. I loved The Matrix when I was in high school, and like everyone else was pretty disappointed by the sequels. Which is maybe why — when I finally saw Speed Racer after years of bad press — I got such a kick out of it. Bright colors! Cars going fast! Christina Ricci accurately cast as a cartoon character! I can understand why Matrix-heads didn’t like it, and I can also understand why they ran away from Cloud Atlas. But should the Wachowskis be punished for making willfully weird experimental movies that cost a billion times more than they make? Don’t tell me you didn’t tear up just a LITTLE at Cloud Atlas.

Jeff Labrecque: I think it has something to do with excess, not unlike the common reaction to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. There was something magically balanced and fresh about the first film, and then once Disney/Depp/Verbinski isolated what they thought we wanted, they just kept pushing the button until they made us lose the taste for it. Another comparison is M. Night Shyamalan, who had a similar coronation with The Sixth Sense. Take away that movie, however, and you’re left with some average to mediocre movies.

I fear the Wachowskis are on the cusp of falling into a similar place perceptionwise, with the first Matrix being that iconic, truly great movie experience and everything after a pale imitation. As far as all the stylistic habits that mark all their films, I don’t think that’s necessarily good or bad. It all comes back to character, doesn’t it? Keanu Reeves’ Neo was a great cinematic character, and his arc in the first film was just perfect, even if it was as old as time. Did we care about Speed Racer in the same way? Or the multitude of characters in Cloud Atlas? I didn’t.

Darren Franich: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. Neo had a real personality: It’s funny to remember this, but Keanu Reeves actually made a pretty solid everyman-way-out-of-depth. In the sequels, he’s basically a god, which is hard to play if you’re not Laurence Olivier or Morgan Freeman. I guess, really, the “personality” in their movies is all Wachowski, and their weird techno-spiritual semi-messianic anti-corporate message. (Speed Racer is an anti-corporate movie made by a huge corporation, which either makes it really smart or endearingly stupid.) And you make a good point: They’re in that class of directors like Verbinski or Shyamalan, or Sam Raimi or even Zack Snyder, who had really great, stylish early films and then just got swallowed up with big budgets. Like, wouldn’t it be great if the Wachowskis did another Bound, a scuzzy little thriller that would let them do their thing without dealing with blockbuster release dates? Dammit, Jeff, why am I arguing your side of this? Speed Racer is great!

Jeff Labrecque: Okay, you’re going to make me say it? Speed Racer was not great. It was a giant masturbatory nostalgia trip, set in a world that makes TRON look like The Straight Story. But since you mention the Wachowskis’ gift for wrapping anti-corporate messages in $200 million studio movies, let me present my favorite Wachowski movie of the past decade: V for Vendetta. They ended up writing it, producing it, and likely stepping behind the camera here and there for director James McTeigue. As you know, it’s based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel about a fascist English state and the heroic terrorist who blows up Parliament. It came out in 2005, at the height of the Bush administration’s war on terror and secret detention centers, and the action movie was a giant middle-finger to the government’s increasingly intrusive policies.

It was daring, it was exciting, and it had characters I cared about, from Natalie Portman’s girl in the wrong place at the right time, to Stephen Rea’s wavering detective, to the Guy Fawkes Mask-wearing V, played by The Matrix‘s Hugo Weaving. Vendetta also wasn’t a huge hit, so I’m open to embracing box-office disappointments. But Vendetta was rich in character and story. It wasn’t subtle, but it was effective and entertaining. I’ll take that and keep hoping that Jupiter ascends to such heights.

Darren Franich: Speed Racer was a giant masturbatory nostalgia trip that also looked completely different from any other movie ever made. It was a live-action cartoon in every sense, an all-sugar concoction that pretty much scotched the idea that Emile Hirsch could show any emotion. But even if you think it was a miss, you gotta admit that it was a big swing. Like, this fight scene looks totally silly, but at least it’s got some kind of style — this in a decade where even really good action movies generally defaulted to handheld Bourne-ification:

But watching that scene, it strikes me just how far the Wachowski sibs went down into their own curious rabbit hole. They became famous with The Matrix, a movie that literally raged against the machine, with a protagonist escaping a digital world. Speed Racer is a movie that fully embraces the machine, set in a digital world that doesn’t even try to look real. Whereas V for Vendetta might have actually aged better than any of their directorial efforts: The Guy Fawkes imagery has been embraced by actual groups like Anonymous, and the Bush-era allegory fits right into Recession-era government distrust. Like you, I hope Jupiter taps into that same spirit. But I feel like I’m coming out of this conversation more worried about the Wachowskis than I was before. Did they get beaten by the Matrix? Or did they become the Matrix?


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