Revolution must happen. Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) knows this in the depths of his soul. He knows the world was taken from humanity so he tries to find his own personal Jesus to change the course of history. God, by way of the Oracle, has already told him that “the one” would save Zion from the corruption and decomposition of Earth. Herein lies his faith. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) accepts the responsibility of joining a guerrilla military operation to overthrow the machines he joins the religion of the underclass, and like Christ he has to find his divinity within his own humanity. Choice and belief is paramount towards any religion, idea or decision and for Neo the choice is between a rejection of the truth, and therefore a complicity in the violence of the oppressive class, or the potential hard life of the soldier-activist-god to make both himself and the world a better place. Neo chooses to believe
Lily and Lana Wachowski are filmmakers who choose to believe as well. Their belief, like that of their heroes Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Speed Racer, Corky and Violet, is in the creation of their own destiny or their own meaning in life. When asked about viewer experience during The Matrix in 2012 Lana Wachowski respondedi “Can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist…And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” You have to decide for yourself.
This belief in the power to choose is what drives the Wachowskis’ narratives, and their conviction in the the possibilities of human decision-making also informs their empathy, love and understanding of characters and the world. They trust their audiences to ponder the actions characters take, and whether or not the end-goal is worth the difficulty along the way- this is definitively humanistic. Because The Wachowskis work with hero narratives they create earnest, endearing movies, showcasing the understanding they have in the flawed, bold, decision-making of their heroes,whether they’re making good or bad decisions. This has made them two of the most optimistic authors in the whole of genre cinema. But it is their ability to transcend subgenre after subgenre while navigating these ideas of choice and destiny that truly makes them interesting and worthwhile artists.
In their first film, Bound (1996), The Wachowskis uncork a tightly wound bottle of vintage film noir eroticism. The story of Corky (Gina Gerson) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is in the visual eroticism of touch. Throughout the picture The Wachowskis linger on body parts, as if evoking Claire Denis through a lesbian lens, and while the film never quite reaches the levels of human contact in her pictures it remains a worthy route to examine a same-sex romance powered by lust and held back by societal and personal roadblocks. In Barbara Hammer’s seminal 1974 short film Dyketactics, she practically rewrote the book on female queer sexuality through a cinematic lens. In that short film Hammer focuses on hands as a tool of the orgasm, shot in close-up the stimulated vagina, and used dissolves to gracefully move her camera in and around the female body. For Corky and Violet it’s also all in the hands.
In Bound, the Wachowskis work in this same mode, and while they cannot utilize the daring, open, female nudity of Hammer’s erotic political short due to studio restrictions, they channeled her spirit. With the help of sex consultant Susie Bright, The Wachowskis were able to tell the story of Corky and Violet authentically, and the images of their open sexuality became resonant within queer themes in cinema. The films opening moments play out with a standard femme fatale first impression like Humphrey Bogart meeting Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep, but both in Bound both of these characters are women. Corky with short hair, dark jeans, and a white tank with paint stains all over her clothes is resolutely butch. Violet, in contrast, is introduced wearing a slinky black cardigan, a low-cut dress exposing cleavage, and perfectly applied make-up and styled hair. She’s a trophy wife of mob lackey Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet is perfect, doting, passive, feminine, and always pretty as a picture, but she has secrets she keeps behind closed walls. She’s gay, and she’s going to steal Caeser’s mob-cash while framing him along the way.
All in all, Violet’s plan is a Hell of a way to come out of the closet. She needs a partner though, and what started out as a seduction quickly turned to love for Violet for Corky. Violet needs to untangle herself from a marriage to the mob, but Corky has past demons of her own, including a 5-year prison sentence for robbery. What unspools from this narrative yarn is an exercise in queering the noir while also playing into its tendency for tightly woven stories of bad men and worse women who scream cinema by their sheer presence, a quality that Tilly and Gershon have in spades. Gershon is evoking the world-weary toughness associated with your typical, almost always male, lead. Her sarcastic drawl, stiff upper lip and constant raised eyebrow in the face of adversity are from a woman who has lived through it all so give it your best shot. She’s going to come back fighting. Tilly on the other hand uses the preconceived notions about her intelligence and demeanor to get what she wants. It’s classic stereotyping. She’s a ditzy girl who needs looking after, but that’s only what she wants men to see, because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. She’s smart, with a knack for planning and getting what she wants, because she knows how to use her own power.
Bound is the only film of its type that The Wachowskis ever made, but some of their directorial tendencies they’d come to be known for are present. One stylish sequence, where the plan Corky and Violet have concocted plays out in real time while they deliver the explanation of said plan in the past tense, recalls the opening race of Speed Racer – it’s a deft means of handling exposition.. In that race, Speed’s backstory is delivered as a young kid watching his deceased brother try to set a track record in a heated race: his brother’s ghost serves as his own personal pace car. In their usage of camera wipes, The Wachowskis clearly define the heroes, villains, and everyone in between by capturing these characters at various points in the lifeplot of the film before leading up to the end of the race. Essentially all the cards are laid out, and every character is given a motivation and an alignment that plays out in the movie. The wipes are used to deftly move through their life with overlapping rhythm, which delivers all the background of the movie in one scene. The Wachowskis, are, after all, moral filmmakers, and believe in the choice to do good. Robbery is not usually something akin to grace, but for the oppressed to rob from the rich, à la Robin Hood, in Bound, it reverses a sin into a blessing. Corky has to make the choice to align with Violet, and does so out of a blossoming love between the two, and Violet has her own decisions to make regarding her coming out. The Wachowskis pay close attention to how these contrasting forces clash, and in the end Corky and Violet, the heroes of their narrative, overthrow Caesar, the mob, and the straight world.
Frequently, Corky and Violet are framed with walls, closets or doors disrupting the onscreen space. After the two of them have sex for the first time a closet door is seen with a sunbeam coming out of the cracks. This is the possibility of the belief in the self that is frequently present in their theology. Corky and Violet remain together in the film, as true loves succeeds (another theme in their work), and The Wachowskis call back to their focus in tactility. In the final moments Corky and Violet clasp their hands in Corky’s brand new pick-up, riding off into the sunset, ready to conquer anything that may come in their path. It recalls and corrects the sisterhood-trumps-all ending of Thelma and Louise, but Corky and Violet aren’t platonic and they didn’t have to die for their freedom, which is a radical message in and of itself for a movie about queer characters.
The Matrix begins in a similar fashion to Bound, but instead of a tracking shot in close detail through a closet, the camera moves through the neon greens of text, code and computerized language in a digital zoom. The introduction of computer altered camera-work is the first noticeable addition to The Wachowskis arsenal, and becomes something of a calling card throughout their career with Hong-Kong influenced martial arts refashioned through an American lens of computerized athleticism and wire-work. The influence of the first action sequence would be copied for years to come in pictures ranging from Charlie’s Angels (2000) to Inception (2010), but the effects of bullet-time, slow-motion martial arts, and wire-work are hardly ever as graceful as they are in the green, dilapidated cage of The Matrix.
In this first sequence, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is ambushed by police officers and agents after her secure line with Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is hacked. With her hands raised behind her head, a police officer approaches in a split-diopter shot, followed by a medium shot of her breaking that same police officer’s arm in a moment of fluid camerawork and coherent action storytelling. The scene becomes legendary when she follows that strike with an aerial kick to the face and the camera follows her in a slow-motion 360 degree pan. The scene concludes with a Jackie Chan homage when Trinity kicks a chair into a police officer’s face, runs up a wall and escapes after dispatching a final police officer. All of this is completed with simple, logical action that gets the viewer from point A to point B, with the added inclusion of reality-bending camerawork to add to the allure of the unreal nature of The Matrix. This scene sets the tone for the entire franchise.
The Matrix is set up immediately as a chase film. Trinity’s escape of the agents in the opening scene is a smaller part of a larger microcosm of the trilogy as a whole. The structure of unseating the power of the Machine City in which the A.I. Lives and controls human existence through the computer programming of The Matrix is always dependent upon the resistance group being in motion. There are certainly moments where the philosophy of The Matrix takes centre stage, but these moments are only brief stages of calm before an oncoming storm hits once more. This is most notable in the second film The Matrix Reloaded where Morpheus, Neo and Trinity attempt to free the key-maker (Randall Duk-Kim) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). The Merovingian portion of the film is a series of interconnected sprawling action sequences intertwined with well-constructed geography set amid an endless highway that treats humans like Frogger and cars like Burnout. Funnily enough before all the guns are drawn the Merovingian utters “It’s only a game. It’s only a game”.
The Merovingian is a man/program of class. He has underlings, won’t be seen in anything less than high fashion and even has a trophy wife (Monica Belucci). The class systems of The Wachowskis’ films have always been drawn with relative frankness and easily definable imagery. This is most significant in Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending, but dates back to The Matrix and even Bound on a micro level. They are filmmakers of the underdog and the defeated heroes who fail along the way only to learn their worth and the importance of their morals. Reaching a philosophical high ground has always been important to The Wachowskis and while they’ve never discussed the nature of Christianity or Buddhism in their process it seems to inform their character decision-making.
The Merovingian’s mansion is laboriously programmed with fine marble, exquisite portrait, and crests bearing his initial “M”. Holding the wealth, even in a computerized world is sinful, and his ties to the machines who place the humans inside The Matrix only make him more dastardly, just like Royalton in Speed Racer. The destruction of his mansion then carries the weight of the falling class system, and the nature of justified violence when provoked. The Wachowskis seem to take a lot of joy in the destruction of his statues, utilizing the slow-motion bullet cam technique they popularized in the first picture by showing each piece of his constructed wealth crumble. This informs the narrative of class for the chase at hand and the potential world-saving skills of the key-maker who must escape. For what is freedom and wealth if not gate-keeping? Jupiter Ascending ponders this very notion as well. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a house cleaner from a family of first generation immigrants, but she’s also the heir to a throne on the planet Jupiter. It’s the kind of Young Adult novel plotting that has seen such success with movies like Divergent and The Hunger Games, and like those movies Jupiter Ascending asks questions about power and how we use that power for good or evil. Jupiter finds herself thrust into a world of wealth, power, beauty, and limitless resources. She can have it all at the expense of others and rule her land, but Jupiter is bereft of corruption. When the curtains are pulled back on the House of Abrasax she recoils. Jupiter Jones is gifted her own version of a key by way of her inborn right to power on Jupiter, but like Neo and company she resists and attempts to overthrow a corrupt higher power. With a key you can enter that world and shape it in a radical way.
In the first portion of the Merovingian sequence, Neo fights off a group of the Merovingian’s servants, all of whom are holding sword-based weaponry, in a circular room. The round room works to the Wachowskis favour, because of the circular camerawork and swift pans that they had mastered at this point in their careers. The action resembles the choreography of the great Lau-Kar Leung, and takes obvious inspirations from the pacifist nature in his movies, along with the hero’s journey of finding himself with discipline and hard work. In the first film, Neo learned Jiu-Jitsu and other martial arts techniques almost immediately, but when it came to learning how to jump across a building it meant failing on numerous occasions.
In Lau-Kar Leung’s pictures, the hero has to be humbled before he can find strength, and Neo follows that same path. In The Matrix Reloaded, he is a master of craft and in full belief of his god-like abilities to move inside The Matrix. The Wachowskis achieve the effect of fluid grace among invincibility in the fight with more wire work and attention to weaponry and geography. The structure of the room is displayed through the camera movement as Neo moves up the stairs, down, back up and down again. The symmetry of the room creates a nice cohesion between the movement and the image and when Neo finally lays waste to all of the Merovingian’s henchmen the camera settles for a moment in a long shot to show a perfectly symmetrical shot of Neo standing among the bodies with the room decorated by debris in equal measure.
A quick look of concern from Trinity when Morpheus says “freeway” is enough myth-making to relay the danger of the road they’re about to travel. The minimalist storytelling of that line delivery is carried over into the chase where one highway becomes an endless straight line into hell. The beauty of the sequence is in the juggling of movement between cars and the hero-villain dynamic. Overhead camera shots create a push and pull between the moving vehicles and cars crash when bullets plunge into their metal flesh. The passerby vehicles become aerial at any destruction creating a confetti effect behind the action and eventually tumbling in front. Evasion becomes key to survival and with the added problems of internal fist-fighting in Trinity’s car between Merovingian’s chief twin henchmen and Morpheus the scene becomes almost unbearable with adrenaline. The clear minded camerawork, and lack of gritty, visceral impact moving the camera out of the action create poeticism between the action and movement as they become one. When tensions rise to a boiling point with death inches from our heroes, Neo flies out of the sky like Superman and saves everyone from the reaper’s hand.
The action between vehicles in The Matrix Reloaded was a good test run for The Wachowskis Crayola-anime dream Speed Racer. Lily and Lana have always owed a real life debt to anime for directly inspiring the work they created with The Matrix. The Matrix, after all, looks like it came directly from the same world as Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell with its rainy dystopia of green-gray-black imagery peppered with philosophical leanings and questions of the body. Considering their love of anime and East Asian filmmakers The Wachowskis should have known better than to adapt Speed Racer with an all white cast standing in for this Japanese story. It’s a blackmark on what is otherwise, their most formally daring work to date. One can’t look at Speed Racer without commenting on this issue and grappling with it to some degree. It dampens their thematic interest in narratives of the people and righteousness, and in time will look poorly upon them as we advance as a culture into a more progressive age. As is, Speed Racer is one of their best films, but it cannot reach the upper echelons of their finest works, Bound and The Matrix for this reason. It fits comfortably in their filmography, but not without bringing up this fault in their creative process, which they clumsily made once again in their worst film, Cloud Atlas.
In Speed Racer, The Wachowskis wanted to make a real life anime, and they did this by using high-definition video cameras and placing the foreground and background in focus to replicate the animation style. To this day no other film looks quite like Speed Racer due to this effect. The jarring adventurous use of camera wipes to replicate the turning of the page in Japanese manga and kaleidoscope editing tactics unfold with images layered on top of each other in successive fashion to create a colouring book of supercharged rainbows, peach-amethyst sunsets, and dizzying races that previously only existed in animation and video games.
The Wachowskis use all of these techniques to deliver a narrative that is not unlike that of Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. Like Neo, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is faced with a decision about where he allies himself in a war for preservation of the world. Speed has to either race for the Royalton corporation or choose his humble trappings as a family owned driver on the big circuit, and by refusing Royalton Speed would be risking his career, because they own Racing. Speed’s father (John Goodman) is completely distrusting of Royalton Owner E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). Speed chooses his family and sets about to unearth the corrupt business practices infecting the racing sport he loves so much. For Speed racing is his religion and this task is his own Zion, and Royalton with all his cronies is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the machines that rule the world.
For Speed to save the world, he needs to win The Crucible, a Wacky Racers meets Death Race 2,000 (1975), underground race that cost his brother his life when he was blackballed from racing professionally by companies like Royalton. Speed Racer picks up where The Matrix Reloaded leaves off, but instead of including practical effects, Speed Racer opts for digital craftsmanship and technical perfection in the movement of vehicles. In the various tracks of The Crucible, cars fly as much as they drive, and driver skill is built as much upon belief in their vehicles as ability. When Speed eventually wins The Crucible with help from Racer X (Matthew Fox) and finds his way into the Grand Prix, he has his chance to change the world. It’s a beautifully sculpted sequence of neon hot wheels gliding in high speed. Paint swirls and colours bleed into one another, and the only constant image is Speed’s determined face. Meanwhile, using the wipe editing, Speed’s backstory is relayed once more, showing us the stakes of Speed’s mission. Racing is his life and he believes in the power of doing what you love, and believing in what you love. Winning the race means saving his loved one, and he drives his heart out drifting and crashing, flying and spinning in mid air, and ultimately finding a way to burst through the walls of racing’s blackened history and into a checkered whirlpool like an inverse of the spiral image of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.
Speed’s relationship with racing is built upon an earnest, sincere love, and his destiny to make his family proud. Neo had to believe in himself to become a god and save the world, but more importantly he wanted to save Trinity whom he loved with all his heart. He brought her back to life once, but he couldn’t do it a second time in The Matrix Revolutions, but in her final moments she got to see the Sun, and she remarked it was so beautiful. The Wachowskis make their movies on these larger emotional moments. These moments of pure cinematic magic where their admiration for character and earnest want of love come through whether it be platonic or romantic. They traverse subgenres of action cinema like Anime, Noir, Young Adult and Cyberpunk, but their heart remains the same and they’ve always been filmmakers of sincerity, even when the world gets cynical. We all need something to believe in and The Wachowskis give us that through their movies, which believe above all else we can define our destinies and become heroes of our own story.