I. The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix Trilogy presents us with a supposedly linear vision of time that is revealed to be completely static. In the second film, the council member takes Neo beneath the city to show him the machinery that allows Zion to exist. He explains that they have no idea how it works or what the systems might even look like. They look into the heart of the last remaining human civilization and quite literally find a puzzle box.
It is eventually revealed to the characters and the viewer that Zion exists purely because of an excess in the machinery that controls the world. Humans must be given a choice, even if it is a choice that they cannot perceive making, and after having made that choice they can either live happily in the virtual world or unhappily on a ruined Earth. The machines, for the most part, are happy either way. The end of the final film contains this little exchange between the Oracle, a machine that sided with humans in the war, and the Architect, the grand designer of The Matrix itself:
Architect: Just how long do you think this peace is going to last?
Oracle: As long as it can.
Up until this point, the films have been very interested in telling us about the cyclical nature of things. Time does not move in a linear way. Rather, humans accumulate in Zion until they need to be harvested, culled, by the machines, at which point the machines invade and kill most of them before reseeding the city and beginning again.
And this, as many other have said, looks a lot like capitalism itself. Your consumptive choices are always choices even if they don’t appear to be, and your everyday existence is one of carefully ignoring the vast violence that, say, owning an iPad supports. When the contradictions of capitalism come to the surface, or when the violence against people or the environment overcomes the pleasure of the system itself, then you might have a revolutionary moment of fighting back on the part of the people (or an earthquake, or acid rain, or another expression of an anthropogenic chaos in the environment).
And maybe things are better for a while, or at least they don’t get any worse, and the “peace” is attained for a blip in the capitalist timescale. It holds for as long as it can.
II. Speed Racer
Speed Racer is the most literal possible translation of a cartoon into physically-grounded semi-animated reality unmatched outside the recent G.I. Joe films. At the moment I am writing this, it rests at a low 37% critical rating on Metacritic, and there’s nothing surprising there: the movie has John Goodman suplexing ninjas and lots of straight-down-the-camera mugging from race car drivers and children and even some giggly looks from a chimpanzee.
The Wachowskis threw nothing out when it came to adapting Speed Racer from its anime roots into a feature film, but their additions are what make it a “Wachowski film” as opposed to some kind of cash-in adaptation.
The Hunger Games depicts a national game where life’s meaning is derived from the performance of some murderchildren in a heavily-augmented gamespace. And it works–they politically transcend that, power comes back to the people, the revolution comes, you pick the right option.
Speed Racer contains a worldgame in which everyone, from bottom to top, understands themselves in relationship to the spectacle. The most powerful companies in the world support and define themselves by the wax and wane of their racers, their technologies, and the weird capitalism that happens behind the scenes. Speed Racer takes the technoliberationist claim that one day there will be milk and honey for everyone and asks what the hell the shady capitalists will bother doing in that time.
The shady capitalists, like everyone else, will absorb themselves in games. Worse, they will turn their current activities into yet another game. And the races will be awesome.
III. Jupiter Ascending
The two previous films I have mentioned contain a dire nihilism at their heart. Even if things get better for a moment, the wheel will turn again, and things will be bad again. Yet in both The Matrix and Speed Racer there was a desire to try to spin that wheel yourself. Maybe with the right people who are woke to the right ideas you could do something to make the world less horrifying for a moment, even if that meant being eradicated in the process (Neo) or playing the game so that the good guys can win a small victory (Speed Racer).
Try to beat them and you might, but things will collapse again. Play the game, and play the game well, and you can at least be sure that your team wins, even if you can’t shut the game down.
Jupiter Ascending gives up on all of that, and while it is certainly one of the Wachowskis more interesting films, it is also maybe their most deeply nihilistic (even Cloud Atlas, a movie literally foreclosing its future over and over again, has the hint that things can change).
Protagonist Jupiter is the heir to a literal universal fortune, and she gets embroiled in a great many political struggles that take her into the giant rendering factory that we know as the planet Jupiter. She comes face-to-face with a space capitalist who explains the harvesting of resources and the desires of capitalism itself, which demands that its victims and resources be faceless and wiped clean of any mark that would make them nonequivalent.
Jupiter beats the space capitalist to death with a pipe and leaves with her title and fortune intact, and for the long story beat this really only means that she is able to prevent the Earth from being harvested of its human resources by the evil space capitalists. And in the final scene, she flies off in cool space skater boots.
I thought Jupiter Ascending was an excellent film all around, and put into a progression with other Wachowski films, you can see how their politics have shifted. There was always a nihilism, that the future is closed, but in JA we are literally presented with a system of control and calculation so large that it doesn’t even make sense to attempt to address it. A single person, even a person who owns the Earth, can do little to nothing against the monstrous maw that roams the universe and chews humans up.
In The Matrix, a ragtag group might be able to change things. In Speed Racer, a ragtag group can grab the world’s attention for a moment to change things, ultimately falling back into the system. In Cloud Atlas, you can embrace a slight moment of kindness before being utterly absorbed. In Jupiter Ascending, your only shot, even if you’re a space princess, is to kick a capitalist in the crotch, blow up a factory, and call it a day.