The Wachowskis & the Curse of the Matrix

Jupiter Ascending, from The Matrix masterminds Lana and Andy Wachowski, is a stew of sci-fi blockbuster cinema clichés drenched in high-tech razzle-dazzle. What happened?

Jupiter Ascending, the latest film from The Matrix masterminds Lana and Andy Wachowski, is the first installment in what Warner Bros. hopes will be a new blockbuster sci-fi franchise. However, when it opens this Friday—after being delayed from its original summer 2014 release date—it may very well be the final big-budget entry in the directors’ canon.

Jupiter Ascending is not only an unsuccessful film; it is a laughably disastrous one. A film whose fey androgynous dandy of a villain (played by The Theory of Everything’s Oscar-nominated star Eddie Redmayne) dresses in robes with giant golden neck-shackles and whispers very quietly until he SCREAMS VERY LOUDLY. A film whose hero (Channing Tatum) is a half-wolf, half-man mercenary with a bleached goatee, pointy ears, and a penchant for biting the rich. A film in which the bad guys employ as their henchmen winged dinosaur-gargoyle monsters in order to capture a toilet-scrubbing Earth maid (Mila Kunis) who’s actually the reincarnation of an aged princess. A film whose equally formulaic and absurd story is the bastard offspring of Cinderella and Soylent Green, with more than a hint of The Phantom Menace thrown into the mix for bad measure.

It is, in short, a fiasco that fails on such an epic scale that it confirms what the directors’ prior track record had already suggested—namely, that the Wachowskis are one-hit wonders.

For all their groundbreaking aesthetic innovation and formal talents, the directors haven’t made a watchable film since 1999’s The Matrix, in large part because they have subscribed to their own hype as “visionaries,” when in fact their strengths lie not in “world-building” (i.e. imagining elaborate far-out domains) or, for that matter, in scripting at all. Rather, their gifts appear to be primarily of a technical nature—and if they hope to recover from what will surely be a severe Jupiter Ascending drubbing come this Friday, they’d be shrewd to quickly recognize it.

The Wachowskis made their initial splash with 1996’s Bound, a neo-noir starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly that gussied up its familiar tale of lust, greed and betrayal with S&M-y lesbian sex and cinematographic gimmickry, as when their camera enters and exits the barrel of a gun. It was a modest genre work notable for its racier components and stylish flair, and it proved a serviceable enough calling card to convince Warner Bros to give them a bigger canvas for The Matrix, which, fifteen years after its release, remains a thrilling superhero fantasy custom-built for modern times.

Following a standard heroic template in which an ordinary man (Keanu Reeves) discovers that he’s the chosen one—and learns about a secret, larger world previously hidden from view—and thus sets out to fulfill his destiny to save the world, it reinvigorated old-hat movie and comic-book tropes via a healthy dose of Big Brother-ish paranoia and groundbreaking “bullet-time” effects for its mesmerizing gunplay and martial-arts action.

The Matrix was enthusiastically hailed as the new Star Wars, a comparison made all the more stark by that year’s release of George Lucas’s deflating The Phantom Menace. Yet when the Wachowskis attempted to expand their hit into a larger mythic trilogy with 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, they promptly floundered. A few inspired moments are sprinkled throughout these two overlong, tedious sequels, but they’re strictly of a spectacle-centric nature: Reloaded’s “burly brawl” battle between a CG Reeves and hordes of digitally created adversaries, as well as its late highway chase sequence; Revolutions’ climactic fight between Reeves and Hugo Weaving.

In terms of plotting, though, they present a drearily monochromatic universe full of ridiculous clothed and dreadlocked characters going on and on and on about convoluted prophesies that sound like they’re being made up on the fly. Incapable of generating any further narrative friction from the conflict between the story’s “genuine” and “Matrix” realities, they’re bloated showcases for the limits of CG wizardry when it isn’t tethered to anything remotely engaging.

2008’s Speed Racer only further proved that point, to almost intolerable ends. The Wachowskis’ adaptation of the 1960s Japanese cartoon is a hyperactive candy-colored assault of whizzing vehicular mayhem that’s akin to being trapped inside the mind of a ten-year-old boy OD’ing on Skittles. Visually, it’s something of an inventive marvel, albeit one that wears out its welcome in approximately ten minutes.

Worse, though, is that it remains faithful to the spirit of its source material—by which I mean, it’s gratingly broad, cutesy, and one-dimensional. That can similarly be said about their misbegotten adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling multi-narrative novel Cloud Atlas, which again found the Wachowskis (here co-directing with Tom Tykwer) indulging in a hodgepodge of different genre modes for a tone-deaf and perpetually ridiculous saga rooted in their favorite preoccupations, including the interconnectivity of all life, the nobility of lone heroes setting out on daunting quests, or the sight of talented actors—in this case, Tom Hanks—sporting silly accents and sillier outfits.

Those elements are also present throughout Jupiter Ascending, in which animal-human hybrids with giant ears and furry faces pop up with increasingly hilarious frequency (a late elephant-faced pilot being the funniest). Piling one enervating moment on top of another, it’s a saga in which expertly handled but drawn-out-to-the-point-of-dullness aerial fights—many involving Tatum’s gallant warrior Caine skating around the sky in hover boots—break up the monotony of lengthy chats about royal lineage, intergalactic economies, and other fairy tale nonsense spoken in throne rooms and corridors that have been art-designed to within an inch of their lives. It’s a stew of sci-fi blockbuster cinema clichés drenched in high-tech razzle-dazzle—a concoction so hackneyed, it’s unsurprising that even its damsel-in-distress heroine, Mila Kunis, seems bored by the incessant sound and fury surrounding her.

The shame of Jupiter Ascending is that it again proves that the Wachowskis know how to cleanly shoot action, and how to stage larger-than-life, effects-heavy set pieces. And like the rest of their post-Matrix work, it suggests that the writing/directing siblings are barely competent storytellers. No matter how much CG glitz and glamor they deliver, their films are so consumed by stock hero-villain and save-the-princess (and the world) scenarios that they feel shopworn, not to mention weighed down by de rigueur monsters and dialogue equally defined by ridiculously fanciful terms and leaden exposition.

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Incapable of self-penning a compelling vehicle for their grand aesthetic ambitions, the Wachowskis have become poster-children for a 21st century blockbuster cinema value system that prizes action pageantry above plotting. Which is another way of saying—someone hire them an outside screenwriter.