Lilly and Lana Wachowski have made a career from breaking the mould and offering English-language cinema (and TV) new and interesting universes to explore. Their adeptness at building new and interesting worlds combined with their desires to push the boundaries of technology are matched only by their preference to showcase stories that are purposefully inclusive of age, gender, race and sexuality. Despite the brave and positive steps the siblings have taken in the midst of a conservative and problematic Hollywood studio system, the jury is still out on whether or not the quality of their finished work adds up to the sums of their parts. In this article, all 7 of the films they have co-directed will be ranked from worst to best. Where the films stop being bad and become good will be up to you! Why don’t you let us know in the comments?
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” – Morpheus (The Matrix – 1999)
7. The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The Matrix Revolutions was the third and final instalment in the Matrix franchise and it sits at the foot of this list for that exact reason. It’s not that it was necessarily worse than some of the entries ahead, it’s more that it was bad and came with a huge stench of disappointment. How could they end something so good, so poorly?
Revolutions concluded the tale of Mr. Anderson – aka. Neo (Keanu Reeves) – overcoming the vicious technological overlords that had enslaved humanity and placed it in a virtual reality. The story of revolution (hence the title) had followed two solid movies depicting the rise of the chosen one and subsequent demolishing of the walls that bounded the virtual world from the real world, yet to fully understand the plot it was demanded by the screenwriter-directors that Matrix properties were explored outside of the film universe itself, not only making it more difficult and expensive for audiences of the time to fully understand every story thread of the film, but making it nigh impossible for a contemporary audience to follow it to the fullest extent courtesy of outdated video games available exclusively for outdated video game systems and so on. Even with full knowledge, there were plot holes as wide as the Grand Canyon and the CG effects don’t stand up to today’s standards – they probably don’t even stand up to the standards of The Matrix, released four years prior. Overall, this is the sort of sequel that was so poor that it inevitably damaged the original, which is a shame given that particular movie’s great qualities.
6. Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Jupiter Ascending was another Wachowski film that was hard to follow given the filmmakers’ assumption that their brand new universe was free to be explored with little to no explanation. What’s worse is that unlike in their The Matrix series, the siblings offered nothing as substantial in terms of thematic exploration, nor did they manage to capture the time period of its release as accurately as with other projects. Jupiter Ascending instead felt like an attempt to create a studio-driven original universe to rival those of the reemerging Star Wars universe, as well as Star Trek and of course the MCU, coming across as forced cash-grabbing a little more than their other work.
Notable mostly for a performance by then Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne that was received more harshly than it perhaps deserved to be, even the star power of Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis – both the height of their powers – couldn’t stop Ascending from being a very expensive mistake.
5. Speed Racer (2008)
Pairing the Wachowskis with a difficult to film IP with a large following seemed like a gold-mine back in 2008, even with the relative lack of success seen with their sequels to The Matrix. But, in reality, the project never took off in the way the siblings, and studio Warner Bros., would have hoped.
Speed Racer was so full of not-too-authentic looking CG effects that the effects ultimately became distracting from an actually quite okay series of ideas/moments that made the lacklustre story not so hard to stomach. The movie was, in fact, so over-the-top visually that the entire premise of a boy racer (Emile Hirsch) wanting to become the champion of a futuristic version of Nascar seemed like a side thought, and megapower actors like Susan Sarandon were entirely forgettable for their presence. One of the biggest issues to come out of this was that the film was 2 hours and 15 minutes long, which is too long for such an absurdly ridiculous presentation, likely putting off casual audiences who would otherwise have been anxious to see what the fuss was all about. Somewhat inevitably, the over-the-top project was a box office bomb that failed to make its production budget of $120million back, landing the Wachowskis with their first major failure of their career despite it being considerably better than their conclusion to The Matrix franchise (and Jupiter Ascending which followed 7 years later).
4. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix Reloaded was undoubtedly a better movie than The Matrix Revolutions which followed it in the same year, 2003. It was nowhere near as good as the original film, but it wasn’t irredeemable, and therefore left hope for the series’ conclusion that unfortunately for Matrix fans was never fulfilled.
Reloaded is perhaps best remembered in contemporary culture for two reasons: one good and one bad. The bad reason is the Playstation 2 level graphics that seemed to render a particularly notorious fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith. The scene, which featured countless Agent Smiths versus Neo in what should have been a battle for the ages, was so awful that it has become the centre of many criticisms regarding the picture in the years that have followed. Never, at any point, did The Matrix (released 4 years prior) look so unconvincing, so why did this have to? The answer is one we are likely never to learn. As far as the good goes, Reloaded had an all-time great chase sequence. Filmed across 4 miles of highway used exclusively for the film, the sequence was largely done in reality by stunt doubles, stunt drivers, and so on, contrasting the CG-driven scene that has been so heavily criticised. The sequence, which is again in the midst of an Agent Smith and Neo battle, is nothing short of phenomenal and stands up against anything in the contemporary market, with Captain America: Civil War emulating its style for its chase scene between Black Panther, the Winter Soldier and Captain America in 2016.
Reloaded brought into play more universe building story strands that didn’t seem to gain the interest many of the original’s strands had received, perhaps indicating an overload in terms of concepts required to fully appreciate the film’s overarching story – a lesson the directorial pair failed to learn in advance of Jupiter Ascending.
3. Bound (1996)
Bound is by far the least well known of the Wachowski movies. It was their first co-directed feature-film, released 3 years prior to their mega-success The Matrix. The picture, which told the tale of two female criminals attempting to steal millions of dollars worth of mob money, was indicative of what was to come from the duo in the decades that followed in terms of its representation and overall demeanour. Right out of the blocks, the Wachowskis were the Wachowskis. There was no substitute.
Starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, Bound was a small independent release that failed to make a splash at the box office but received critical praise across the board for its effective story-telling and its female-centric presentation, the latter of which made it somewhat iconic in lesbian cinema. It may not have been the cultural phenomenon that some of the other releases on this last have been, and it may not have been made for quite so many dollars, but it was a very good movie nonetheless, landing it at number 3 on this list.
2. Cloud Atlas (2012)
The Wachowskis can’t take all the credit for the release of Cloud Atlas as the film was actually directed in conjunction with Lola Rennt aka Run Lola Run (1998) director Tom Tykwer. They can, however, be given the credit they deserve for being involved at all in a film so remarkable as is this one.
Featuring a cast for the ages including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, as well as less famous character actors like Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw and Jim Sturgess, Cloud Atlas used the familiarity of their cast as a tool through which to tell a story that spanned centuries and ultimately looked to explore the very reason for our existence.
The novel “Cloud Atlas”, was initially deemed “unfilmable”, but it was pulled off so effectively by the Wachowskis and Tykwer that the film managed to produce a similarly as profound feeling as the novel did; it was a true tour-de-force of emotion. The movie, like the novel, was an existential piece on the nature of love and was altogether encouraging of inclusion and tolerance, juxtaposing tough and difficult humanity with love and acceptance through centuries of stories all delicately intertwined. The movie is not beyond criticism of course, but the effectiveness of the storytelling and the values it portrays are huge positives for the film and the careers of the Wachowskis as a whole, sitting way ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of overall quality, yet being beaten to the top of the pile by the gem in the Wachowski oeuvre, The Matrix…
1. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix is the quintessential Wachowski sibling film. It’s technologically advanced for its time, it questions the very existence of ourselves and our collective humanity, and it’s a brand new universe for us to explore (and buy into). The movie itself is an oft-forgotten classic of 90s cinema, mostly because of how closely tied to the culture of the time the movie seems to be. Focusing on a rebel group of humans fighting against a technological matrix put together by a race of machines looking to harvest humans as crops, Neo discovers he’s the chosen one to bring an end to the whole thing and thus shoots, kicks and bullet-dodges his way through the Matrix in an attempt to undermine and ultimately overcome its creators.
This film was a cyberpunk’s wet-dream back in 1999. The internet was taking off, anti-establishment was all the rage in music and culture as a whole, and the slicked back hair and long leather coat look was actually pretty cool. The story of one man (in conjunction with a group of technological wizards) overcoming the system by tapping into said system and destroying it from the inside was the most cyberpunk ideal of them all, and perhaps still is. The Matrix was more than just a counter culture tool however, it was also outstanding in terms of its CG effects and stunt work. The effect “bullet time” was named after the most iconic Matrix moment where Neo first dodges the bullets of the agents attempting to kill him, solidifying the sequence as an all-timer in terms of how memorable it was. Imagine being present in a cinema/theatre at the time and witnessing that as it happens, free of all of the references that have been made to it across culture since and have thus watered down. It would have been awe inspiring.
Sure, with retrospect, The Matrix isn’t a perfect movie, not least because of how much the sequels botched their role in the whole process, but to deny it as anything other than a noteworthy 90s film and a classic of the genre would be doing the film a disservice. Not only this, but the film is also the most Wachowski of them all. When you think of the siblings, it’s hard to associate them with anything else, even so long after its release. Number 1… The Matrix.