Jupiter Ascending, the dizzying new sci-fi spectacle from the Wachowski siblings, is not a good movie. It’s also a fairly conventional one; if you can see past the lizard henchmen and Channing Tatum’s pointy elf ears, you’re left with a well-trodden Cinderella story. This time it’s Mila Kunis playing the archetypal innocent girl, whose days are spent toiling in her archetypal crummy job before getting swept off into an adventure where good ultimately triumphs over evil. So far, the film has scored an underwhelming 23 percent on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. While admittedly I felt that Jupiter Ascending has its moments of campy fun, it’s a B-level attempt at a genre—and a sensibility—that a number of other recent films have done a much better job with (the new Star Trek films come to mind).
It’s the third film post-Matrix trilogy from Lana and Andy Wachowski, and the third film post-Matrix trilogy to fall short of critical and financial expectations (the two sequels to The Matrix underwhelmed as well). The other two—the shiny but shallow Speed Racer and the deeply exhausting Cloud Atlas—were in the same vein as this most recent effort: ambitious and visually impressive, but ultimately inconsequential. These duds have irreversibly damaged the reputation of the once-lauded Wachowskis. Might it be a matter of time, then, before critics are forced to re-visit The Matrix and re-examine its merit?
In 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, Belgium’s Center for Operations Research and Econometrics published a study in the Journal of Cultural Economics that looked at how well-reviewed films fared decades after their release. Specifically, researchers re-examined the evolution of critically acclaimed films released between the years of 1950 and 1970. What they found was that quality judgments are short-lasting. After French and American critics compiled a then-contemporary list of the 122 best movies made in that 20-year span, they found that only 47 of their favorite films counted among the 174 movies that were nominated for best picture at the Cannes Festival or the Academy Awards. The remaining 75 films on the list neither won nor received a nomination of any kind when they were first released. The authors determined that critical evaluation is ultimately shortsighted, and that film reviewers are “prone to fashion, if not to political or economic influence.”
Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending are clear signs that there’s something inherently missing in the Wachowskis' artistic arsenal; it’s therefore worth exploring how exactly The Matrix wound up being so financially and critically successful in the first place.
When it was first released, The Matrix, which the siblings wrote, directed, and executive produced, was considered one of the most boundary-pushing films of its time. While the Wachowskis themselves weren’t nominated for an Oscar, The Matrix still took home Academy Awards in each of its four nominated categories. However, the back to back to back debacles that are Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending are clear signs that there’s something inherently missing in the Wachowskis' artistic arsenal; it’s therefore worth exploring how exactly The Matrix wound up being so financially and critically successful in the first place.
One theory, says Tom Schatz, a media studies professor at the University of Texas, is timing. While he contends that The Matrix is indeed still a good film, he likens it to lightning in a bottle. “The Matrix has become a canonized classic. The more you look at the making of that film and the Wachowskis’ reliance on other talent, it looks like one of those charmed projects with the right combination of talent and good timing,” he says, alluding to the heightened cultural anxiety over technology in the late '90s.
Oregon State University film studies professor Jon Lewis shares this sentiment: “The first Matrix film came right at the end of the century ... and it really captured the millennial panic,” he says.
Need you be reminded, there was indeed a palpable cultural panic around the turn of the millennium. Not since the Cold War had modern Western culture felt so vulnerable, so on the verge of a major societal calamity. While businesses panicked about their computer systems, survivalist groups stripped retail stores of all their water, batteries, and dehydrated food. Around that same time, the Clinton administration foiled what was dubbed the “Millennium Plot,” a planned bombing of the Los Angeles International Airport.
Kirsten Moana Thompson of Victoria University wrote about these millennial fears and how they manifested themselves in popular culture in her book Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millennium. “This anxiety about the future and about the end of the world drew upon long-standing eschatological prophecies about Armageddon drawn from Revelations, Daniel, and other Christian and Jewish apocalyptic texts,” she theorized.
The late nineties and early aughts saw a rise in Hollywood films that exploited this cultural panic and apocalyptic dread. “[The] cycle included films that blended action, disaster, and horror genres with an explicit or implicit dystopian narrative focus on the end of the world and/or the approach of the year 2000,” Thompson wrote. Geoff King, the director of the Screen Media Research Centre at Brunel University in London, says that this cycle brought “the millennial fear of Judgment Day into the high-tech present.” The Matrix, they both contend, is an example of this modern dystopian narrative in action; the Wachowskis made the right film at the right time.
A second theory on The Matrix success could be described as a veil of complexity: The narrative is so convoluted and elaborate that the audience can’t help but think the film has real merit. King, who has spent a career studying the critical landscape and its response to various types of films, points to Inception as a modern example of this veil of complexity.
Initially lauded for its intricate narration and technical filmmaking, Inception seemed to be starkly different from the crass blockbusters it was released alongside of (Prince of Persia and The Expendables were also in theaters that summer). This juxtaposition—explosions, car chases, movie stars, and shootouts as told through the lens of an auteur writer/director—was augmented by a script so complex that you nearly needed a chart to make sense of it. But once the months passed and the novelty faded away, critics began to see what was left in its place—that is, what they deemed emotional and narrative mediocrity masked by technical ambition. There was pushback—in cultural institutions like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal—against the excessive claims of Inception’s artistic accomplishment.
Critical consensus is malleable and strikingly subject to political influence—one more disastrous flop a la Jupiter Ascending, and it wouldn’t be too implausible to imagine a few think pieces questioning what we ever saw in The Matrix in the first place.
“Critics began to say, no, you can’t call that film an artistic film, because it isn’t really, although it might be a bit smarter than your average Hollywood film,” King says. “But if you compare it to a serious work of art cinema or something, it doesn’t deserve that kind of label.”
In the case of Inception—which, for the record, I still really enjoyed—the market correction was swift, and ultimately a minor issue for Christopher Nolan, who went on to quickly direct The Dark Knight Rises, which, according to IMDb user ratings, is the second best superhero movie ever made—second only to his preceding Dark Knight. But for the Wachowskis, it is not that simple. Whether it was because of its cultural relevancy or its veil of complexity, The Matrix fortuitously covered up a substantial artistic flaw—a flaw that seems to be slowly defining their legacy.
The Matrix is still, generally speaking, held in high regard (Quentin Tarantino says it is one of his favorite films). But, as evidenced by the Center for Operations Research and Econometrics’ study, critical consensus is malleable and strikingly subject to political influence—one more disastrous flop a la Jupiter Ascending, and it wouldn’t be too implausible to imagine a few think pieces questioning what we ever saw in The Matrix in the first place.
It’s impossible to know if we’d be employing hindsight criticism against The Matrix if the Wachowskis hadn’t made any of their subsequent flops, and instead decided to throw in the towel and leave on a high note. Last week, we wrote about the announcement of a new novel from Harper Lee, who hasn’t published anything since her 1960 debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and what that means for her legacy. While Harper Lee and the Wachowskis occupy utterly opposite corners of the artist ring, the siblings perhaps could have taken a piece of the author’s advice to heart: “It's better to be silent than be a fool.”
Lead photo: Mila Kunis in Jupiter Ascending. (Warner Bros.)