By Michael W. Harris
In 1999 the Wachowskis burst into the cultural zeitgeist with the anime inspired The Matrix—a “heady, post-modern, what is real, how do we know we are alive or just simulations, bullet time fight, genre defying, how the hell did two relative unknowns do THAT” kind of film.
It was kind of popular.
They followed that up with two sequels that doubled down on the philosophy, fight choreography, and green tint aesthetic, yet also failed to connect with audiences in the same way, though still made truckloads of money for Warner Bros. The Wachowskis have yet to have a true hit film since then, but have directed, written, and produced a string of films (and TV) that while all finding a small, niche audience, have failed to match that earlier success for some reason. In this post want to look at a mighty handful of these and hopefully make the case for at least some of them finding a broader audience.
Note: I am leaving Cloud Atlas out for right now as I will be taking a deeper dive into it as part of my hauntology series, however know that I believe Cloud Atlas to be worth your time.
So with all of that out of the way, let us plug back into the world of the Wachowskis, with all of their philosophy, wire-fu fights, and stylization within an inch of their life production design.
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Following up on their loose adaptation of Ghost in the Shell and other anime tropes with The Matrix, the duo wrote a screenplay of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, written in 1988 which was a take on Margaret Thatcher era Britain imagined to its extreme conclusion. The adaptation of V was directed by Matrix assistant director James McTigue, and, of all the Post-Matrix Wachowski films, is probably the most well regarded among a general audience. It should also be, in my opinion, considered among the best comic adaptations ever made. It retains all of the chilling plot details of the comic, updated for what was then the Bush II era geopolitic, and, in all honesty, is even more terrifying in our Trump and Brexit era. It seems ever closer to becoming a reality. It also began the Wachowskis’ practice of reusing actors across films (building their own little company of players like so many directors), though few would stick around for more than a few films and were usually only in supporting roles.
When I say that V is perhaps the best comic adaptation ever made it is not an exaggeration. Yes, some of the nuance and longer digressions of the comic are lost, but none of the political commentary is sacrificed, and the core of the story is still in place with a few kick ass fight sequences to boot. And the rousing ending with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the unmasking of the V costumed crowd—with quick glimpses of the faces of many of the victims of the government seen, meaning that we are all V and we are all living in spirit with those murdered by the oppressive regime—is truly inspiring and makes me want to cheer to this day.
Indeed, “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” Of course, such notions cut both ways depending on who “the people” are.
Still, V for Vendetta is a triumph of filmmaking, bucking the larger trend of comic book adaptation pre-MCU (by the time of V only the first two X-Men and Spider-Man films were any good unless you reach all the way back to the Burton Batman films or Donner’s Superman). And where the MCU loosely adapts from across the entire history of comic characters, V for Vendetta was a straight adaptation of a single storyline. V succeeded where Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchman film failed so badly. It captured the spirit and story of the original while streamlining where necessary. Watchman slavishly adapted the comic and created a slog of a film to sit through. A trend that Snyder would repeat on more than one occasion in the years that followed.
Yes, the Wachowskis did not direct V (though they did do uncredited Second Unit work), but they did write the screenplay, produce, and their fingerprints are all over the film.
A full breakdown and analysis is something that I have do not have time nor space to do in this post, but to give you just a taste of how scary accurate this film is to today, consider the character of Lewis Prothero. Prothero is a Sean Hannity-esque fear monger/talking head/blowhard, and is the so-called “Voice of London,” whose famous catchphrase is “England Prevails” (and played wonderfully by future Speed Racer villain Roger Allam). After Prothero is killed by “Codename V,” the police investigating the terrorist acts list his war record before Prothero turned pseudo-journalist. As recounted by the investigator, Prothero had served in, “Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria (before and after), Sudan.” The first two were, of course, current conflict zones back in 2005, and Sundan was just emerging from a civil war (though had yet to plunge back into it). Syria, however, was in a long period of stability except for the occasional pot shots at Israel and its occupation of Lebanon. Now, though, that list reads like a prediction of the decade that followed. It is a road map to ISIS and one of the worst conflicts outside of the Middle East. The more the world changes, the more it stays the same. Sort of like going from the Bush II era to Trump, or Margaret Thatcher to Brexit.
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The Wachowskis stepped fully back behind the camera with 2008’s Speed Racer, a film that has gone through a bit of a critical reappraisal of late, and one that I first blogged about many years ago. I first watched the movie after picking up Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack album at Borders and was blown away. If V for Vendetta is the best comic book adaptation, then Speed Racer is the best live action anime adaptation. I must admit that I have never seen the original show (or its English dub), but I have watched enough anime to say that Speed Racer feels like what a true live action anime (one that is more comedy than heavy drama, albeit) should feel like: bonkers, madcap, over the top, and hyperreal. The CGI looks more like animation than reality, and purposefully jarring, the races defy both logic and physics in all the best ways, and the villains chew more scenery than Jack Nicholson doing an impression of Jack Nicholson.
I know that many of the things I have just listed are the exact reasons why many did not take the film. They couldn’t decide how to read it, and the complete breaking of verisimilitude, indeed no even pretense to “realism” (and since the film was live action people seem to want at least the veneer of reality), but Speed Racer was having none of that. Throw in its jarring time slips and you have the makings of one of the trippiest cinematic experiences of the past twenty years all wrapped inside what was ostensibly sold as a kids’ movie and was pitted against Iron Man at the box office.
It isn’t any wonder that the film got buried and forgotten. But it is worth a second look, especially if you are a fan of anime, good CGI (car) fight choreography, or just a fan of fascinating cinematic experiments. For my part, I have adored Speed Racer since I first saw it and it is on a very short list of movies I will go back and rewatch on semi-regular basis. For the curious, also on that list are: The Hunt for Red October, Spy Game, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, and Hot Tub Time Machine. These are films that I enjoy for various reasons, and know that I can just sit back and relax.
I know that Speed Racer is not as approachable as V for Vendetta, it is too much like anime for most people, but that is also what makes it such a great adaptation. Instead of trying to hide or bury its source material, it fully embraces it and makes no apologies for it. If only the next film in this retrospective had had such solid roots.
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Ninja Assassin (McTigue, 2009) is a bloody movie. Just too bad that it isn’t a bloody good movie. It wants to be Kill Bill or a similar anime inspired, western made film, but it suffers from a convoluted story, a confused protagonist/villain, and a plot that really does not come into focus until about forty plus minutes in…and the film is only ninety minutes long. In so many ways, the film feels like advanced scouting work for later movies directed or produced by the Wachowskis (or even the Netflix series Sense8), but really the script is just a mess, and it even has J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 and later Sense8) as co-writer.
I could say more, but unless you are really into ninjas, then there is truly no compelling reasons to watch Ninja Assassin. Its stylized violence is certainly interesting, and draws much from the Tarentino School, but there are better films with more coherent plots and better acting out there. Moving on…
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Clearly inspired by the grand tradition of opulent, baroque space adventures of old, Jupiter was an expensive and ultimately underperforming film, one of which I enjoyed…but considering that I also enjoyed such similar films as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Chronicles of Riddick that not be saying much.
The sets are grand and ornate, the story a pointed critique on the exploitation of lower economic classes by the rich, but as a post-financial crash film, its message could not be more clear. It is also a rather bitter and cynical take on these topics, one whose view of humans as raw materials has at least some precedence in the Wachowskis’ work, along with the theme of recurrence (see: The Matrix and Cloud Atlas).
It is a stunning film visually, and the title character of Jupiter is interesting. In so many ways she is but a pawn in the machinations of the others, but she is also one who does stand up for herself on more than one occasion. I have also seen it argued that Jupiter is even an “empowered” female character. Not sure I fully agree, but there is an argument to be made.
So why did it fail? Well, by 2015, any major effects picture based on a not already established IP was already a tough sell. Throw in the shifting release dates, and the Wachowshis’ shaky track record and you had all the makings of a box office dud.
I must admit that I was also a bit cooler on the film my second time around when watching it for this post, but I still found it to be an enjoyable, if a bit more “tame” than I remember from my first time. That being said, I think it is still a fun movie, and hey, Sean Bean is in it and I think he actually survives to the end! (I think…don’t quote me on that.)
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I want to close this out with a few words on the Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8, and finally mention the elephant in the room of the former Wachowski Brothers. Yes, they have come out as transgender and that topic has become more pronounced in their work, most overtly in Sense8, but you could also sense it in the tackling of homophobia in V for Vendetta (though that specific line was present in the comics), and even in Cloud Atlas (though again, also present in the source material).
Sense8 is a beautiful, affirming show for people of all types and lifestyles. Its international cast and setting, core story of family is what we choose it to be, and celebration of diversity in all of its forms makes it a series to celebrate and one that I am glad has had a proper conclusion (which was released the day before I posted this, but I have yet to be able to watch. I will update accordingly with some thoughts once I view it). And as a series co-created with J. Michael Straczynski it also represents his best work since Babylon 5 (and yes, I am including his comics work in that). Additionally, it has episodes directed by not only Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Twyker, but also James McTigue. Its set locations revisit many locations previously viewed in Wachowski films, and many actors used in older films as well. In so many ways, it feels like a culmination of their life’s work.
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So here is the bottom line. If you enjoyed The Matrix, if you like anime or sci-fi, you should really give more of the Wachowskis’ post-Matrix work a chance. It may not be for everyone, but you will never knew until you try, and you might even find a few new favorites among them. At the very least, V for Vendetta and Speed Racer should be on your radar. And if you looking for something to binge on Netflix, then give Sense8 a whirl.
The Wachowskis are among the most diverse, original, and creative voices working in entertainment right now, and their films and TV deserve to be recognized as such and viewed by more people who might find it enjoyable, uplifting, empowering, or life affirming. And, in the end, isn’t that what all good entertainment should do?
UPDATE 6/10/18: The Sense8 finale is amazing and lovely and moving and awesome. It is a great ending to the series and perfectly encapsulates all of the themes of the series. It is a beautiful ending and with a proper ending there is no reason not to watch this series.