At around the four-minute mark of my first viewing of the Cloud Atlas trailer, as the M83 track swelled to its bursting point and a hoverbike darted through future Korea, I remember e-mailing and GChatting at least a dozen friends with a link to the preview and my take: "Holy Shit."
Naturally, everyone on the Internet had an opinion on Cloud Atlas. There was concern about how David Mitchell's sprawling and complex novel could ever be adapted for the screen. But this trepidation seemed to be as much about the "who" as it was the "how."
Andy and Lana Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the film adaptation (they wrote the screenplay alongside David Mitchell and co-directed it with Tom Tykwer) have a complex reputation.
Their oeuvre is hard to succinctly classify. As a recent New Yorker profile paints it, the siblings essentially talked their way into making their first film, Bound. Based on the strength of that debut, they churned out the The Matrix, a sci-fi flick with a cultural impact so incredible, there are professional basketball players and dance moves named after it.
Sequels followed and so did Speed Racer, which was such a financial and critical flop that the Wachowskis had trouble securing funding for Cloud Atlas because of it.
So, what can one expect from these filmmakers? In an effort to get a better handle on their mojo, I re-watched all of the siblings' films with one question in mind: What makes a Wachowski movie a Wachowski movie?
Animation: Their movies have a definite feel, and a lot of it comes from animation. The Wachowskis have spoken at length about anime's influence on the Matrix trilogy. They also produced a series of short films that take place in the Matrix universe illustrated by famous Japanese artists (The series is called The Animatrix, which is only a slightly better title than "Here Are Some Cartoon Matrix Movies"). Speed Racer straddles live action and cartoon like few films before it (and, in all likelihood, after it because of the aforementioned box office tankitude).
Even Bound, a drum-tight caper that could fairly be called the most "un-Wachowski" of their movies, at times feels almost as if it is animated. A mobster is gunned down into a pool of white paint, his blood splatters over the suffusing canvas. The camera follows phone cords through brightly wallpapered walls like a Bugs Bunny cartoon panning along the landscape until the hare emerges from his burrow to lament a wrong turn taken at Albuquerque.
Bound's most cartoonish moment, however, isn't really a visual one. During a particularly tense scene, Joe Pantoliano's character, a money launderer, is asked for the keys to a briefcase that is supposed to be full of cash (it's not). His pained face is in frame and, as the background audio track starts to fade and buzz out, there is a comically loud and extended "GULP" that seems both out of place and perfect at the same time. The shot could fill the panel of a comic book — all it needs is a Manga stress bubble.
The text is aware of itself as a text, and all that jazz. These little cartoonish cues work to remind the passive audience that two filmmakers spent a lot of time on this feature, so enjoy it, okay?
Platitudes: All the Wachowski movies are about the individual resisting societal or organizational pressures to break free and transcend their formerly restricted selves. Seriously, even Speed Racer is about this.
I could expand more on this but won't because, Christ, wouldn't that be awful?
Action: The Wachowskis are great action directors. This is a skill often overlooked or considered inelegant, which couldn't be further from the truth. Complexly violent clashes in their films are balletic and often slowed down without losing any intensity. These scenes, while rarely simple, are still very clear.
In sports, this is referred to as "making it look easy." Well, the Wachowskis routinely hit 350-yard drives while hitting fadeaway three-pointers and checkmating supercomputers at the same time.
The Matrix Reloaded features a freeway chase scene that involves dozens of cars, motorcycles, and 18-wheelers and contains within itself multiple mini-narratives and fight sequences. Despite all these moving parts, it resists becoming muddled or tangled — the viewer quite literally goes along for the ride. Compare this with Christopher Nolan — perhaps the most celebrated action director of the moment — who can't film a one-on-one fight scene without leaving me totally and completely confused as to what the hell is going on. (I'm also an idiot with terrible vision, but I don't think I'm alone in my feelings here.)
Technology: This one is obvious. The Matrix may be the seminal film of the past 20 years about technology. It is itself the product of two filmmakers utilizing computers in ingenious and breathtaking ways after a period of movie history when everyone was asking, "What else can be done?"
My noggin has never been so thrillingly detonated in a theater as it was from watching The Matrix's "bullet time" sequences. The staff of McClurg Court Cinemas in Chicago would still be picking my gray matter out of the ceiling had the theater not been closed shortly afterwards due to competition from AMC's new multiplex nearby.
But just as The Matrix is about technology run amok, the Wachowskis themselves allow it to get the better of them. Abandoning sets for Speed Racer was a mistake, and watching the characters float within the computer-generated worlds is not fun or quirky, but distracting. CGI characters in The Matrix sequels look rubbery — re-watch the playground fight scene in Reloaded to see Neo briefly turn into Stretch Armstrong while battling regenerating Agent Smiths.
The most evident thread that runs throughout the Wachowskis' films isn't any of the things mentioned above in those neat little compartmentalized sections. In fact, those divided passages are a good way of demonstrating the types of things the filmmakers never do.
The Wachowskis are devout followers of the basic tenets of storytelling. It is noteworthy that the novel Cloud Atlas is a fragmented series of stories and that the Wachowskis rewrote it to fit the conventions of filmmaking. Their movies are all tightly constructed narratives. They may get fancy with special effects or action, but they refuse to divert from quaint, old-fashioned mythmaking.
Their heroes, be they computer hackers, racecar drivers, or lesbian ex-cons, always behave as heroes. This means plenty of backs-against-the-wall escapes when you least (read: most) expect it and other tropes lots of folks dismiss as hokey or cheesy nowadays. But the Wachowskis are really damn good at it.