Wachowskis Movies Revisited

Lana and Lilly Wachowski have always been bold, innovative, and constantly surprising. They’re best known for their Matrix blockbusters, of course, while their audacious box office flops Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending confounded expectations and helped create a profoundly idiosyncratic body of work that many struggled to pigeonhole. But the last few years have reframed their filmography in exciting ways.

Sense8, now complete on Netflix, brings together themes that have permeated the Wachowskis’ work for decades, and their coming-out as trans women puts their entire oeuvre into a new context. Suddenly, all these big-budget effects spectacles click into thematic sync. It all stems from the relationship between the body, the mind, and the soul – the self the world sees, versus the self inside.

A Prison for Your Mind

No Wachowski creation is as visible or popular as The Matrix. Their breakout sophomore directing effort sets up a hell of a dystopian future: the human race is kept unconscious in captivity, used as energy sources for a race of machines, their minds kept occupied with a simulated reality known as the Matrix. Real-world existence is miserable, but in the virtual world, people live an approximation of late 20th century life – or, if freed from the Matrix, fight back with spectacular abilities.

Mind and body are separate in The Matrix, but they’re not equal. Would-be prophet Morpheus states unequivocally that “the body cannot exist without the mind,” and the rest of the film absolutely privileges the mind over the body – the body is a limitation, if anything. Freed minds in the Matrix are its most powerful entities, bending virtual physics and manipulating reality itself. Moreover, characters’ appearances within the Matrix are defined by what Morpheus refers to as “residual self-image.”

This is a big deal. It’s barely touched on, mostly used to clothe Neo and friends in fancy duds, but residual self-image is one of the film’s best ideas. Switch, portrayed by Belinda McCrory, was originally written as male in the real world and female in the Matrix, suggesting that people could project an inner identity wholly distinct from their physical self. Warner Bros mandated that Switch maintain her gender between worlds, but the directors’ intentions remain in the character’s androgynous appearance. It’s a shame this wasn’t developed; it’s an intriguing twist on online anonymity, and an early demonstration of the Wachowskis’ queer leanings.

the matrix reboot

The Future is Our Time

The flip side of The Matrix‘s post-corporeality can be seen in the Agents, programs that can invade the digital projections of anyone still hardwired to the Matrix. For the Agents, human beings are just vessels for their own use, their consciousnesses disposable and interchangeable. But it’s the Matrix sequels that truly dive into the culture of the programs that built and inhabit the digital dream. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions grant programs sentience, agency, and even independent hopes and dreams. In this new paradigm, the Agents are mere computer cops, working unquestioningly for the digital Man, policing other programs as much as they do renegade humans.

Programs don’t have bodies, of course – they exist only in software – but the Matrix sequels treat digital characters like the Oracle, the Keymaker, and young Sati with as much care as they do humans. That speaks to the series’ separation of the mental and physical self, reframing the Matrix into a digital ecosystem inhabited by unique life forms. Only Agent Smith seeks to brute-force his way into the real world; his commandeering of a human body is presented as the height of arrogance and psychopathy. The body cannot exist without the mind, but the Matrix sequels present a world in which minds can exist without bodies.

Cloud Atlas

Our Lives Are Not Our Own

2012’s mega-ambitious Cloud Atlas evolved the Wachowskis’ ideas in a direction that would ultimately lead to Sense8. Based on David Mitchell’s quasi-anthology novel, Cloud Atlas tells six stories simultaneously, each with its own protagonist, across time periods ranging from the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic future. These characters may be genetically unrelated, but they are spiritually connected, as indicated by a comet-shaped birthmark, a thirst for truth and justice, and a matching series of narrative beats.

Through this connection, Cloud Atlas implies that all human lives are intrinsically linked in ways we may not understand. One constant spirit exists in all these protagonists, the film posits, just as they’re locked in parallel struggles that repeat across the eons. “From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present,” proselytises Doona Bae’s Sonmi-451, “and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” And so it is. The archetypes, events, and conflicts cycling throughout history reinforce Sonmi’s mantra that “our lives are not our own.”

Further supporting this idea is the film’s casting, which sees the same troupe of actors populating the roles in every time period. Each protagonist is played by a different performer, but nearly every cast member pops up again and again, sometimes even in differing gender roles. Archetypes and faces recur across time, losing individuality but gaining mythic significance. This blurring of the sense of self, both in appearance and across time and space, would become even more central in the Wachowskis’ work to come.

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