Human Resources

The Wachowskis’ most recent feature, Jupiter Ascending, plays with an inversion of their usual themes. In amongst the anti-gravity roller blades, space-dragons, and royal bowels, there’s a surprisingly dark science fiction story at play. To the spacefaring humans of this universe, DNA has an almost spiritual significance, to the point that recurrence of the same genes is considered equivalent to reincarnation. Mila Kunis’ Jupiter is, according to this set of beliefs, the reincarnation of a legendary galactic queen – all by virtue of a genetic sequence with which she feels little affinity. In this sense, the film flips Cloud Atlas’ spirituality on its head, but it doesn’t stop there.

Jupiter Ascending reveals a dark side to the Wachowskis’ more transcendental recurring themes. Its evil corporation Abrasax represents a galaxy-spanning industry that seeds planets with human life, then harvests their genetic material, killing entire populations. Those wealthy enough to afford it can use the resultant fluid to de-age themselves, extending their lives for millennia. For all its talk of reincarnation and life extension, the wealthy society of Jupiter Ascending sees human lives as expendable. “Some lives will always matter more than others,” explains Tuppence Middleton’s Kalique. The Abrasax family’s eternally supple bodies are all cosmetics; their souls rot within.

Human bodies are used again and again as commodities in the Wachowskis’ filmography. The Matrix, most famously, sees the whole of humanity turned into a power source for the machines that rule the planet. Cloud Atlas depicts exploitation across the ages, from 19th-century slavery to a futuristic society that clones humans as “fabricant” servants – and feeds them with their recycled dead. And in Jupiter Ascending, people serve as raw materials for a precious medical treatment, millions dying so that the rich and powerful might live forever.

This is a perfect mirror image to the themes of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas. If the body is just a vessel for the mind, it follows that it can also serve, bluntly, as a biological resource. The problem lies in the fact that harvesting those bodies tends to kill the person inside them. Only The Matrix’s machines manage a balance: while humanity is still technically enslaved, their minds exist contentedly enough while their bodies supply energy for their mechanical overlords. Not the best life, but it’s better than being turned into Space Botox.

sense8 finale trailer

I am Also a We

All of this brings us to Sense8: a longform Netflix experiment and a culmination of the Wachowskis’ screen obsessions. Just as ambitious and striking as Cloud Atlas or The Matrix, Sense8 follows eight “sensates” who find themselves linked to one another, through a kind of full-spectrum telepathy. The show is remarkable for its juggling of storylines, cast, and budget-blowing locations alone, but it’s the unique relationship between the sensates that conjure true magic.

Sense8‘s core conceit sees its eight main characters joined as one, experiencing each other’s worlds, sensations, and emotions as if they were their own. Their bond goes beyond mere communication; their sense of self detaches and expands to include others, redefining the bounds of empathy. That these characters are all wildly different is vitally important: if these people can learn to understand one another, then perhaps we can learn to understand the people with which we share our world.

That understanding goes hand-in-hand with another key theme. Queerness had always sat at the sidelines of the Wachowskis’ films – in Bound’s lesbian affair, V For Vendetta’s executed prisoner Valerie Page, Cloud Atlas’ gay composer Robert Frobisher, and even the more hedonistic bits of Jupiter Ascending – but Sense8 foregrounds it. One sensate is a trans woman in a longterm relationship; another, a polyamorous gay man; another, a woman implied to have had relationships with both men and women at various points. A major sequence is set at a Pride parade. The series even culminates in a fireworks-laden same-sex wedding on the Eiffel Tower, followed by one of the hottest and most emotional orgy sequences in a series that can boast a few.

Since Lana and Lilly came out as trans women, their work has demanded re-evalutation. Whether literally, via Sense8’s trans woman Nomi Marks; visually, in Cloud Atlas’ gender-bent casting; or metaphorically, in The Matrix’s core conceit, it sports a consistent thread of separating identity from physicality. Queerness and transhumanism go hand in hand, in this respect: they represent a critical approach to social norms, and to the bodies we’re given. That the Wachowskis’ stories often deal with revolution and rebellion feels like no accident either – the directors’ assertion of their identities is itself an act of rebellion in a world that doesn’t yet fully understand or accept them.

The person inside is more real than the one outside, state these films: a trite message from any other director, but a profound one coming from the Wachowskis.

Sense8 canceled

Whoa

As far as unifying theses go, this one’s got gaps. Speed Racer, for example, is a vastly underrated, anime-fueled confection, but its automotive-industry parable sticks out thematically from the rest the sisters’ filmography. Ditto V For Vendetta, which the Wachowskis wrote and produced: though its title character is less a man than an idea, it’s a fairly straightforward tale of revolution. And early neo-noir Bound may centre on a queer love affair, but it lacks the fantastical elements of later work. Still, though, the Wachowskis’ 20-plus year filmography has plenty of throughlines.

Transhumanism isn’t a new idea in science fiction, but the Wachowskis bring life to the subgenre that few others have. Rather than treating the concept as a coldly intellectual exercise, the Wachowskis use transhumanism as a truly personal form of expression. Cloud Atlas and Sense8, especially, are achingly emotional works, baring their creators’ hearts in a disarmingly intimate way.

Looking back, the ideas in The Matrix are more subversive than anyone gave them credit for at the time. The Wachowskis’ favourite themes – rebellion, empathy, queerness, camaraderie, and expanding the mind – all click together now. These filmmakers are trailblazers not just in terms of LGBT visibility, but in their use of popular genre entertainment to express it. In the futures envisioned by the Wachowskis, humanity is capable of terrible things, as always – but it’s also capable of transcending its physical limitations to become something greater.

We should treasure these women’s optimism, their inventiveness, and their will to speak to the inner goodness of their audience. Long may they continue to work.

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