The Wachowskis and the Art of AmbitionPosted: June 4, 2014
It was announced yesterday that the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is being delayed until February of next year, and to be honest I was about as heartbroken as I could be about something that doesn’t involve my girlfriend or my family. Like, I-may-have-almost-cried kinds of sad. And that’s not only because Jupiter Ascending was one of my most-anticipated movies of this year, or because I’m a sucker for space operas, or because it just looked so damn good; it’s because I think the Wachowskis are some of the most dynamic and ambitious filmmakers out there, and every movie they make is a true cinematic event, no matter how many people go see it (though obviously it would be great if more people saw their films lately). Their work is some of the most distinctive of their era, and they have yet to take the easy route to success. The Wachowskis are true pop artists of the highest order, they are some of my biggest inspirations, and after the jump I can break down why.
Skipping past their visual sensibilities and their gleefully intellectual geek sensibilities, the most commendable element of the Wachowskis as artists is the way that they always take risks, even with the most straightforward-seeming projects. They push boundaries and challenge definitions of how certain movies should be, and in the process they make truly distinctive (even unique) work… even if that means making movies that most people aren’t ready for. Not that this has always been the case; indeed, it was what got their careers on track in the first place.
All of this really began with Bound, their debut feature as directors. The Wachowskis are far from the first filmmakers to start their careers with a small-scale neo-noir (Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Rian Johnson, Matthew Vaughn, among others), but even compared to their luminous contemporaries they found a way to make something distinctive and ambitious. Their story is still built on archetypes like any good noir (tough ex-con falls for a gangster’s woman, they scheme to steal from him and deal with trusting each other), but by changing the ex-con to a woman they immediately give the film a whole new dynamic and voice. The queer cinema element isn’t just window dressing either, but is used to give the archetypal elements of the plot more definition; their mistrust of each other and frustrations with life are as much a product of their sexuality as they are of their crime.
After coming out of the gate like gangbusters, the Wachowskis took their moonshot with The Matrix. Given the huge impact The Matrix has had on pop culture, it’s sometimes forgotten just how ambitious and crazy a movie it was: a kung-fu movie with cyberpunk style, ‘90s angst and classical philosophy, with groundbreaking special FX and that dude from Bill and Ted? And yet, they pulled it off almost effortlessly, crafting a seamless film experience that is probably one of the best of my lifetime. But of course, the studio thought it was a massive risk and wouldn’t give the Wachowkis much of a budget, so apparently their reaction was to blow the whole production budget on just the opening Trinity sequence, to show how their idea would work. It was as ballsy as the film itself, risking the whole project on that one sequence; the fact they pulled it off just makes the story better.
Now, at this point the Wachowskis did make the one obvious, safe choice: they followed up their breakout hit with sequels. Or at least, their choice SEEMS safe. In actuality The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were hugely risky, doubling down on the most bizarre and hard-to-swallow elements of the first film and delivering exactly NOT what audiences were expecting. They expanded on the philosophical elements and took the story in directions that alienated a lot of fans; I personally have some issues with the narrative structure of the sequels, but I still appreciate a lot of what they accomplished with them. And not only that, but they expanded the whole enterprise into one unified multimedia story with Enter the Matrix and the Animatrix, projects that they were involved in personally- something that few filmmakers make the effort to oversee.
But of course, the Matrix sequels fell prey to diminishing returns, and the Wachowskis needed a comeback movie according to prevailing Hollywood wisdom. Their response? To make Speed Racer, the most colorfully absurd kids movie ever made for over $100 million. Not only was it a huge shift in tone and style from The Matrix, it was also unlike anything else you might see from a “kids movie” as we traditionally expect them. The film has slowly amassed a small army of defenders who appreciate the sheer vibrancy and energy of it all, and I need to revisit it myself. However, while it still might not be my cup of anything, I still respect the go-for-broke attitude, even with such a seemingly straightforward commercial job as this one.
And speaking of going-for-broke, how about Cloud Atlas? After Speed Racer bombed, the Wachowskis decided to make a big-budget indie film of an “unfilmable” novel about the eternal nature of love in the struggle for human freedom. One of my favorite films of 2012, it’s a big, expansive (and long) film that tackles broad emotional concepts with a very lyrical structure… so of course no one wanted to see it. But to see them commit themselves so fully to yet another ambitious project when their last few were so derided was incredibly exciting even before I saw (and loved) the film itself. Not to mention their willingness to collaborate with Tom Tykwer when many other “auteur” filmmakers would attempt to do it all themselves, because that was what the project demanded.
That’s just what they’ve done so far. When you consider the now-delayed Jupiter Ascending– a film that, while theoretically a studio-friendly effects blockbuster, is clearly stuffed with zany and uncommon-for-film genre elements- it’s obvious that the Wachowskis have yet to lose their ambition. And that’s not even taking into account their Netflix series sense8, which they’ve been developing with Babylon 5 creator J Michael Straczynski, which should flex new kinds of storytelling muscles for them while still playing with their preferred themes. All of this continues to show that, above all, the Wachowskis are unafraid to take chances, and never take the safe route or the easy paycheck gig. Apparently “one-for-us, one-for-them” doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary, which is especially exciting to me in this era of fanfiction filmmaking. But besides that, their commitment to original storytelling and risky projects is inspiring and a reminder of what I want to do with my own career, and of the sorts of ambitious and distinctive works I hope to make one day. So bring on February 6, 2015: Jupiter Ascending can’t get here soon enough.