The Wachowskis originally were comic book writers before they began writing film scripts. They were offered an opportunity to write and direct a feature film, which became 1996’s Bound. That film received good critical reviews and showcased the Wachowskis as an innovative directing team. Their next film was The Matrix, which became a critical and commercial hit in 1999. That success lead to two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both released in 2003. Next, they took their love for comic books and graphic novels and wrote V For Vendetta (2006), which became another commercial and critical hit. Although they did not direct this film, it featured many of their trademarks since they were heavily involved in its production. Their next film was based on a Japanese manga cartoon, 2008’s Speed Racer. Unlike their previous films, this one was a critical and commercial failure. Cloud Atlas (2012) was their next film, and it was well received by critics but didn’t perform as expected at the box office, despite making a profit. Their latest film was 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, which made a profit but didn’t receive much critical appraisal.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Wachowski film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of the trademarks of this team as director, in no particular order:
Innovative Special Effects
The Wachowskis grew up reading comics and they are avid video gamers. Those two past times have influenced their filmmaking significantly. In specific, they enjoy creating memorable action moments. To help them in this regard, they rely significantly on computer generated imagery. Along with Star Wars Episode I, it was The Matrix which started the trend of more special effects-driven action in movies. They mixed real-life captured on film with digital effects to create something that not only looked real, but made us reconsider what action films could be. The Wachowskis simply put a lot of emphasis on HOW their films look, and for the most part, it pays off. Even today, The Matrix still looks great. Do I need to even mention how big of a game-changer the bullet-dodging scene was? They use their special effects to enhance the action and frenetic pacing in their films. In Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, they took the impressive special effects from the first film and went bigger, literally. First there’s the sequence in Matrix Reloaded where Neo fights the rapidly replicating Agent Smiths, and then in Revolutions the final climactic battle is against a GIANT Agent Smith. Speed Racer creates not only amazing action sequences with its special effects, but an entire candy-colored psychedelic future world in which the characters inhabit. Cloud Atlas blends the Wachowskis’ knack for costumes and makeup with their CGI imagery to use the same actors over and over again but make them different as they tell various stories during different time periods. Jupiter Ascending is their latest film to utilize realistic and creative special effects to entertain the audience.
In addition to using special effects for action sequences, the Wachowskis use special effects to enhance the structure of their films. They do this by utilizing creative transitions and interludes between scenes. The opening sequence of The Matrix is an excellent example. The very first few seconds of the movie shows the title while first introducing the audience to “the code” before passing through it to transit to the opening scene in the film. Speed Racer also features special effects enhanced transitions. The Wachowskis used the original cartoon as inspiration for the spinning head and brightly colored backgrounds used for some of the transitions and flashbacks. Cloud Atlas has a more subtle, yet still creative method to its transitions. Since Cloud Atlas has multiple stories to tell, it puts a lot of consideration into the way that it moves between them. Each scene seems to have an element that links it to the next scene. Either a common scenery, theme, image, or the music. It is not necessarily a visual transition as it is a link with enough of a thematic connection that the audience does not become lost among the various story threads.
Anime comics are a big source of inspiration for the Wachowskis. As such, their films tend to include some aspect of martial arts action. The Matrix was one of the first films to blend traditional western and eastern action tendencies. Combined with new, more realistic computer generated effects, the Wachowskis films’ raised the bar as far as what action movies could be. Martial arts was presented in a new, exciting way. They continued this trend in The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions. Speed Racer pays homage to the Wachowskis’ love of martial arts through its inclusion of ninja assassins. Cloud Atlas features some martial arts fighting, and Jupiter Ascending has many moments where hand-to-hand combat influenced by martial arts is used in lieu of traditional shoot-em-up gunfights.
Male/Female Dynamic Duo
In all but one of the Wachowski’s films, the two main characters are a woman and a man. More often than not, they are romantically connected or fall in love during the course of the film. While having a male and female lead is nothing special, the highlight is on how the teamwork between these two ends up achieving things that they each could not have done alone. In The Matrix trilogy, the duo is Neo and Trinity. In the first film, it is Trinity who has to save Neo. In the second film, the motivation in the story is Neo trying to save Trinity from her death that he sees in his dreams. In Speed Racer it is Speed and Trixie who form the dynamic duo. Trixie is Speed’s girlfriend and confidant, and she helps him win. Cloud Atlas is interesting because although it takes place in intervals over a wide time span, the male/female dynamic duo remains at the center throughout. In the 1970’s storyline it is the physicist Sixsmith who confides in journalist Rey a report that proves that a nuclear reactor is unsafe, which costs him his life. In the future Seoul story, the female slave worked is saved by a rebel commander who convinces her to tell her story publicly in order to support their cause. In Jupiter Ascending Jupiter and Caine are the duo. Jupiter is saved by Caine multiple times, and she “saves” him from his mark of shame by giving him back his wings. They also end up romantically involved. The dynamic duo is also present in V For Vendetta, relying heavily on each other, but these characters do not end up romantically linked as in the other films. Bound is the only film where the main duo isn’t male/female (the two main characters are female), but they follow the trend anyway including teaming up to accomplish complicated tasks and becoming romantically involved.
Along with their martial arts action sequences and spellbinding special effects, the Wachowskis make use of slow motion. Again, the goal is creating memorable action moments almost like a frame from a comic book coming to life. Slow motion has long been a technique in film, but the Wachowskis made it an action-sequence staple that the next decade of blockbusters endlessly copied. Perhaps no movie is as famous for its slow motion sequences than The Matrix. Both the quintessential bullet dodging scene and the climactic hotel lobby shootout have forever been burned into our minds thanks to their memorable use of slow motion. V For Vendetta has a similar slow motion gunfight at the end as the film’s climax. The Wachowskis proved that by slowing things down at key moments they could not only emphasize the action and allowed further clarification of what was happening, but it added a certain emotional impact. In Speed Racer there are several slow-mo sequences to highlight a particularly impressive driving feat during the races. Cloud Atlas uses slow motion in important sequences such as the 70’s car crash as well as in the action. In Jupiter Ascending the film slows down several times during the action scenes but also it has moments where the background slows down to emphasize a character in a certain environment or the motion of a spaceship.
Check out the last installment in the series: