How many chances can two Hollywood directors get? In the case of Andy and Lana Wachowski, at least one more. The pair who made their name with The Matrix Trilogy are now poised to drop another sci-fi bombshell in July called Jupiter Ascending. And like their last few films, nobody knows if it might end up exploding in their faces.
The slightly weird directorial saga of Andy and Lana began in 1996 with a small film named Bound. A film-noir with an attention-getting lesbian twist, the film was written, produced, and directed by the two siblings and gained immediate attention as critics raved about their unusually sure-handed debut. It also gained them Hollywood credibility. Produced by a minor studio and distributed by company that ceased to exist in 2002, the film fell short of its $4.5 million dollar budget but still impressed enough people at Warner Bros. to let them make another.
By the time their second film, The Matrix, left theaters it had amassed almost $500 million dollars and made the two directors household names, at least among the people who follow the entertainment business. The film was a true phenomenon, a story that tapped into fears of society’s increasing reliance on computers and set in a science-fiction future with a look and feel nobody had ever experienced. A number of special effects created for the film were considered revolutionary as the Wachowskis introduced a new technique called “bullet time” which allowed the camera to move in real time around actors who appeared to move in slow motion. Others would borrow and improve upon the technique but nothing matched the kinetic feeling audiences had seeing it for the first time.
Two films into their career, the Wachowskis had proven they could make critically successful films, handle a complicated production and, most important, make Warner Bros. lots of money. There was no question of sequels and the studio wrote a check for $300 million dollars to get The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions into production as fast as possible.
By the end of 2003, after the final film of The Matrix saga had been released, Andy and Lana found themselves in a strange place. Reloaded and Revolutions brought in over $1.1 billion dollars but critical and audience reaction was mixed. In some ways they had set themselves up for failure; the first Matrix was going to be too hard to top. The final two films came off as confusing and bloated, unsatisfying second and third acts after a brilliant first. Even though the Wachowskis were still a hugely successful cinematic duo, their career had lost a little luster.
Their next film drove them into a wall. Speed Racer, the somewhat-beloved cartoon import from Japan, was made into a big $120 million dollar live-action special effect bonanza. The PG rated film was pitched to families and their kids, the ones being raised on video games and anime cartoons who could handle the fast editing and rainbow-bright aesthetics. Unfortunately, nobody at Warner Bros. knew how to sell the film and it tanked, making back less than a $100 million- a major failure considering added marketing costs. Suddenly the Wachowskis had become a risky bet.
Inexplicably, four years later they had talked Warner Bros. into handing over another $100 million. This time they had taken on a book people in the industry thought unfilmable: David Mitchell’s narrative puzzle Cloud Atlas. The novel had six stories set in completely different eras with distinct yet intersecting characters, all told out of order. In a true feat of writing and editing magic the filmmakers deftly skipped around the book’s plot with top actors Tom Hanks and Halley Berry playing multiple roles. Topping all expectations, Cloud Atlas came together and critics were impressed. Audiences, unfortunately, were not and the film barely made it’s money back. The Wachowskis were again making big films, but they seemed to have forgotten how to make them successful.
Another two years and, presumably, another $100 million dollars of Warner Bros.’s money later, Jupiter Ascending is now ready to climb into theaters. Starring the stunning Mila Kunis and male stripper-turned respectable actor Channing Tatum, the plot revolves around a girl who doesn’t think she’s important, the boy who has to protect her, and the CGI war that’s about to descend on Earth, or possibly go ascending up to Jupiter.
It’s the usual high concept science-fiction the Wachowskis used to financially knock out of the park and if Jupiter Rising can’t make Warner Bros. any money it’s worth wondering if the studio will turn off the spigot. They remain visionary filmmakers, rare in an industry that does anything to minimize risks. But the risks these filmmakers keep making might finally outweigh the rewards and it’s anybody’s guess what the Wachowskis would do with themselves if they can no longer go big.
Opinion by Andrew Elfenbein
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyelf