Had they only made three movies - Bound, The Matrix, and the upcoming Speed Racer, the writing/ directing team of brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski would be considered cinematic gods. They’d hold a place right next to Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher as outright geek gladiators who took mainstream cinema by the throat and throttled it until it cried “uncle”. Through their unique visual style, overripe expression of film’s formative language, and pure joy in the art of the image, they’ve been both incredibly blessed and unduly cursed. They have made some remarkable movies. Yet it appears that the two intriguing sequels to their virtual reality hit were more harmful to their reputation than once thought. The spectacular Speed Racer probably won’t change that, and it’s a shame. It should.
Like eye candy forged out of Olympus’ own ambrosia, their adaptation of the classic ‘60s cartoon series (itself an Americanized recasting of the Japanese anime) is breathtaking in what it accomplishes, as well as what it avoids. While clichés abound, the brothers have managed to literally reinvent them, bringing back the sense of wholesome fun and larger than life feats symbolic of the animation genre. And they do it in live action. There will be critics who cast this aside as nothing more than candy floss fluff, flummoxed to find a purpose or a passion, but that would be a doomed voice of post-modern irony-laced cynicism speaking. If you don’t like this movie (it opens this Friday, 9 May - full review then), you’re clearly locked in a downward spiral of self-important aesthetic impotence.
The brothers have often been accused of having an imagination on Viagra, and their last few films have born this out. The Matrix Trilogy in particular is an unfairly marginalized masterwork that requires a lot of Tabula Rosa perspective to really work. The Wachowskis were doomed by two things going into their sequels - anticipation and expectations. The first film, while a semi-success at the box office, made DVD the format that it is today (something Racer may do to Blu-ray come time of home theater release), and revitalized an already flat-lining sci-fi genre. With their inventive F/X and philosophically deep narrative, The Matrix made many into believers of the brothers - perhaps, too many. By the time The Animatrix had explored the prequel dynamic, the converts needed the new films to be brilliant.
Instead, they were dense and disturbing, offering questions while unconcerned with providing answers, utilizing themes that harkened back to the days of amphitheaters and emperors. In this critic’s opinion, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are amazing achievements, stories of sacrifice and struggle that may provide a wrong turn here or there (who greenlit the PC populated cave rave, huh?) but still play completely within the rules the Wachowskis set up. Still, it’s easy to see why audiences dismissed them. The main heroes die. Zion is not the vast wonderland Morpheus made it out to be. There is a great deal of hubris and heartache involved in the last chapters, and everyone tends to get swept up in waves of CGI inspired stunt work. While remaining highly influential, it will be a good decade or two before these films are finally treated with the reverence and respect they deserve.
As a result, it seems like the Wachowskis have been unfairly dismissed along with their movies. It’s as if Reloaded and Revolutions literally wiped up everything else they’ve done. Even now, a few days before Racer opens, early reviews are taking the duo to task with column space devoted to how crappy the Matrix movies were. It’s like arguing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a nominal commercial hit 40 years ago that took eons to gain its revered status) made every film the director created afterwards a lesser experience (and that would include A Clockwork Orange and The Shining). Racer will eventually find those willing to forgive the guys, but it seems strange that so much contempt could be created out of, what are essentially, the myths of the superman.
Neo - for all intents and purporses - is a Messianic figure offered three clear temptations by the unseen powers behind his computerized world. The first is power. The second is import. The third is love. In each case, he conquers and then is corrupted by said enticements. When flying around like a superhero, he is stripped of his grace as a program infiltrator. When blind and battling an onslaught of machine sentries before making it to their city, he’s the last hope of mankind cast as a reluctant warrior. His final fight with Agent Smith isn’t about superiority or skill - it’s about pride, the very sin that cast him out of the first film’s garden and into a series of iniquitous dens. And then it all turns back on the villains themselves.
Defending the Matrix movies is not easy - especially since online consensus seems to rule all serious discussions - and the brothers have made matters worse by playing the elusive auteur game. They don’t like to “discuss” their work, instead letting the product speak for itself. Of course, this doesn’t stop the fanbase from foaming, or keep the rumor mills from recycling stories about Larry’s supposed sex-change (denied outright, and eventually proven false). Nor does it delight those who see Racer (or V for Vendetta, which they only produced) as another attempt by the pair to substitute pretty pictures for characterization or sophistication. And let’s not even discuss how Bound gets blown apart in these arraignments, reduced to a “good little thriller” since it doesn’t comport to the optical wow of their recent efforts.
It’s a lot like the grief Peter Jackson received for making King Kong after the stellar Lord of the Rings. Given a chance to do anything he wanted, the New Zealand genius went back to his roots to reinvent the classic giant monkey movie. He took a drubbing as a result, though that film was equally adept and quite stellar. And naturally everyone forgot about his first few films, wonderfully gory delights like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, and small storied dramas like Heavenly Creatures. It seems that, once you deliver an over the top, overly hyped homage to everything the blockbuster stands for, you get your reputation handed back to you - along with your ass.
One assumes the Wachowskis can whether the storm. Only George Lucas has suffered such a post-movie backlash, and while his horrid Star Wars prequels definitely deserved the attack, too many dedicated fans of the franchise have kept the flames from fanning too high. There is no similar amount of communal love for the Matrix movies. The first remains solidly supported. None but a few fly a flag for the follow-ups. It’s a shame that Speed Racer may end up consumed in the wake of such out of place hate. If allowed, it will find that audience antsy for something new and wholly original, production design and execution pushed to the very limits of the medium. If it does succeed, there is still one thing that’s guaranteed - The Wachowskis will still be locked in the critical crosshairs. It’s about time they stopped being a target. Their amazing movies speak for themselves.