Think back to 1999. All around are readying their Darth Maul facepaint and double-ended lightsabres for a trip to a galaxy far far away, unaware that they’re about to catch a severe case of Midi-chlorians. It was to be descending text of a different kind that would define cinema that year; Don Davis’ score of impending doom accompanying the green hieroglyphic cascade of characters that would form the words, The Matrix.
It was a world creating, genre changing phenomenon, one that grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide and introduced the mainstream to the Wachowski siblings, hitherto known for the sexually charged crime classic, Bound.
The world, their world, was at their feet, but from the moment Neo left his and leapt into the sky at the end of The Matrix, the duo have found success hard to come by, and judging by the delayed release and limited exposure for their latest Sci-Fi blockbuster, Jupiter Ascending, it seems that audience and studio confidence in brand Wachowski is at an all time low.
Things immediately began to go wrong with the Matrix sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions; essentially hokum hung from trailer baiting sequences of true spectacle. They’ve been endlessly ridiculed, whether it’s the 90’s warehouse vibe and the stilted sex scene during the Zion Party, or the moment the franchise vanished up its own Matrix with the appearance of the nonsensical Architect. It was obtuse ambition of the highest order, from a filmmaking duo granted carte blanche to manifest their imaginations to the tune of $300m.
However, for every moment of bendy spoon exposition, there were scenes when Keanu’s signature “whoa” wasn’t nearly enough to express how groundbreaking the visuals were. That freeway chase, which might seem like a Sunday afternoon drive when compared to the building jumping ridiculousness of the Fast franchise, sowed the seeds for every big screen car chase to follow in its tyre tracks.
Many point to the release date failings of the CGI during the final battle between Neo and Agent Smith, smothered in darkness and indistinguishable action, as a series low-point, but the film also offers up the Burly Brawl, a strikingly choreographed sequence that is refreshing in its clarity of combat.
Balletic action was a term coined by, and has never been more applicable, to this series of films; cars, bikes, bodies, all bullet-timing through the air to a techno-fused soundtrack. Derivation has tempered the effect of watching it now, but pushing the boundaries, often to their detriment, has become the sibling’s calling card.
This was none-more evident than in their first post-Matrix foray, sticking with their Japanese influences to adapt 1960’s cult cartoon Mach GoGoGo, otherwise known as Speed Racer. It bombed spectacularly.
A beautiful, hallucinogenic headache of a movie, with an inaccessible hook for the casual movie goer, Speed Racer was a marketing department’s nightmare. Too niche for the masses, aimed squarely at the kids, but with a concept that made an episode of Spongebob Squarepants feel linear and drab by comparison.
An optical assault on the senses, the plot is little more than fluffy fun and a hyperactive chimpanzee, it’s the bodywork that impresses most; the Car-Fu sequences are like The Phantom Menace podrace on acid, with the central Casa Crista showdown a twenty minute retinal workout.
Don’t for one minute think it’s like tediously watching your mates play Playstation without allowing you a turn though, because they shake it up like a kaleidoscopic fit, with a comedic ninja showdown and a mountain top fight sequence that’s as close to live action Looney Toons as you’ll get. Kinetic doesn’t even come close. Sure it’s indulgent, but it’s spectacular fun.
It’s fair to say that for all of their post-Matrix output, accusations of style over content are justified. Neo had his existential crisis, and then turned into a bit of an aloof dick, and Emile Hirsch as Player 1 in Speed Racer had less depth than the 2-D animation that inspired him. The Wachowski’s found the beating heart beneath the spectacle with their most divisive art installation yet, this scribe’s favourite film of 2013, Cloud Atlas.
A multi-stranded, multi-collaborative, multi-funded opus, adapted from the acclaimed book by David Mitchell, if you fully invest, it is a joy to behold. Unconstrained by an adherence to genre, construct, or a studio system, and working alongside Run Lola Run director, Tom Tykwer, the film is an ode to love, life, and death, that will infuriate some, confuse a few, and enlighten others.
Streamlining narratives that jump time and space into a coherent plot, punctuating character strands with beautifully assembled montages akin to a “previously on Cloud Atlas” technique, the entire film has a hypnotic flow to it.
With such an epic scope on display, there is a lot to admire; the Somni 451 thread is the best neon drenched dystopian future since Bladerunner, laid out in the classic class system, high-rise jungle, so common in Sci-Fi lore. In contrast, the Frobisher’s Cambridge sequences offer up a tranquil, steadier world, proving that there’s more to the directors than sizzle reel spectacle. And if the world creation doesn’t get to you, then Tykwer’s score is essential listening.
Detractors will point towards a three hour run time, Hugh Grant as a Cannibal on horseback, and Tom Hanks speaking in some strange Caribbean Patwa, but these oddities are exactly why Cloud Atlas is so worthy of praise. It’s quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, in its ambition, vision, and execution, and you can accuse them of a lot of things, but baulking at a challenge is not something Andy and Lana Wachowski do.
Recommending it is a business riskier than a major studio financing their post-Jupiter Ascending projects, my last attempt was met with the following vitriolic retort – “pissed I spent three hours of my life watching it?! W…T…F?!?! I hated it. I haven’t hated a film that much for a long time” – How’s that for balance?
Originality is at a premium in Hollywood, yet when someone offers up a vision as unique as this and it struggles to earn $130m worldwide, subsequently ambition is stunted, and so we end up with another Platinum Dunes re-boot of a long-dormant 80’s horror franchise. As long as directors like the Wachowskis are around, we won’t want plugging back into our Matrix womb tanks anytime soon.
Our review of Jupiter Ascending is here.