Who could have predicted that the screenwriters of “Assassins” — a 1995 Sylvester Stallone–Antonio Banderas thriller now best-remembered as the source of a popular meme — would turn out to be two of the most exciting filmmakers of their generation? Lana and Lilly Wachowski went on to great acclaim with their debut feature, blockbuster success and multiple Oscar wins for the original “The Matrix,” and more than two decades of ambitious, but not always successful, sci-fi follow-ups. With “The Matrix Resurrections” finally arriving in theaters, let’s look back at their career of feature-length films so far.
Honorable Mention: “Sense8”: “Happy F*cking New Year” (2016): Lana and Lilly Wachowski and “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski teamed up for one of the most ambitious sci-fi stories of the 21st century, a sprawling ensemble drama about eight people living across the world from each other, connected by a single spirit. Able to share thoughts, experiences, skills, and even each other’s bodies, this short-lived series was one of the television highlights of the past decade. The two-hour Christmas TV movie, airing between Seasons 1 and 2, doesn’t stand on its own, but it’s a potent two-hour dive into the storyline, with thoughtful explorations of how celebrity queerness is treated in the media, along with excellent character work throughout.
Honorable Mention: “Sense8”: “Amor Vincit Omnia” (2018): Unceremoniously canceled after two seasons, the unfinished storylines of “Sense8” were crammed into a single motion picture that wraps up the entire series with ambition and style. With that many plates to spin, though, there was no way to prevent “Amor Vincit Omnia” from feeling rushed. Directed solely by Lana Wachowski (as was “Happy F*cking New Year”), it’s nothing less than remarkable how well the final “Sense8” movie comes together, with satisfying conclusions to each storyline and hope for a globalist future that feels just as refreshing and powerful today as it did upon its release.
8. “The Matrix Revolutions” (2013): The conclusion to the original “Matrix” trilogy has bold ideas about free will and exciting ticking-clock action sequences, as the machines assault the last human city, and Neo and Trinity struggle to find a way out of the never-ending cycle of life and death in which the machines have trapped humanity. Less time than ever is spent in the actual Matrix, which means if you don’t love the poorly developed new “real” human characters and their poorly developed world — which you probably don’t, since they’re poorly developed — it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm about their plight. But the Wachowskis are still taking big thematic swings, and the action-packed high points keep “Revolutions” from being a complete disappointment.
7. “Cloud Atlas” (2012): The Wachowskis’ most ambitious motion picture since “The Matrix” tells the story of the same souls throughout hundreds of years, as they are reborn repeatedly into new people and circumstances, and the ripple effect of individuals throughout history cascade into gigantic consequences no one could ever have predicted. Co-directed by Tom Tykwer, “Cloud Atlas” works in fits and starts, but its concept of unifying the human experience is completely undermined by the creative decision to illustrate that theme through the use of make-up effects that are undeniably loaded with generations of racist connotations. The themes of interconnectivity and the film’s many complex editing tricks would later be used to significantly more powerful effect in their Netflix series “Sense8.”
6. “The Matrix Resurrections” (2021): Lana Wachowski returns to “The Matrix” after years of making new and distinctive motion pictures, only to make a film that’s almost entirely about how Lana Wachowski didn’t want to return to “The Matrix.” Reeves is back as Thomas Anderson, who created a video game called “The Matrix” and is forced to concoct a sequel by Warner Bros., and after multiple monotonous corporate meetings, the lines between reality and fiction blur. An intriguing premise, and sometimes a genuinely inventive bit of moviemaking, but the film abandons its playful tone halfway through in favor of sci-fi literalism, giving fans a decent “Matrix” follow-up with some exciting new characters and a few arresting action sequences. But the point Wachowski seems to be making is well taken: This story didn’t need to be told, even if it is kind of a decent story.
5. “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003): The second “Matrix” movie spends so much time world-building that it’s a little difficult to actually enjoy the world. Neo, Trinity, and the rest of the gang are (mostly) back, and we finally get to see the last human city in the world. Unfortunately it’s not a very interesting city, and it’s full of characters who get short shrift and make little impression. It takes too long to get Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus back into the actual Matrix, but once they do, and the plot kicks into high gear, “Reloaded” is a staggeringly exciting action spectacular, with gigantic action set-pieces that put most modern action blockbusters to shame, with heavy sci-fi concepts that are still exciting as hell.
4. “Jupiter Ascending” (2015): Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter, an impoverished woman who discovers she’s inherited the entire planet Earth in the Wachowskis’ inventive and outlandish sci-fi epic, which plays a lot like “The Princess Diaries” if Julie Andrews was Baron Harkonnen from “Dune” and Hector Elizondo was a sexy wolfman. The Wachowskis thoroughly explode the concept of wish-fulfillment fantasies by forcing Jupiter to confront the horrifyingly exploitative realities of billionaire lifestyles and business practices, and realize that the dream of the 1% is a horrible nightmare. Strange, funny, sexy, with creative action and a legendarily gigantic villain performance from Eddie Redmayne, “Jupiter Ascending” is one of the Wachowskis’ best.
3. “Speed Racer” (2008): The Wachowskis adapted the beloved anime series “Speed Racer” into a live-action/CGI phantasmagoria, too exaggerated to feel like real, yet too distinctive and controlled to reject as pure nonsense. The title character tries to hang on to his principles in an industry entirely built on selling out, challenging the status quo and producing thrilling, candy-colored results. Kinda like The Wachowskis, come to think of it. “Speed Racer” struggles with some of its story elements, and although all the characters are broadly drawn on purpose, it’s still sometimes done so to a fault. But it’s one of the most dynamic action movies of the 21st century, and one of the prettiest CGI-laden films ever.
2. “The Matrix” (1999): Released with modest expectations and landing with nuclear force, the original “The Matrix” remains one of the most thrilling action spectacles ever produced. The heady sci-fi material, though cobbled together from obvious influences, asks resonant questions about human identity, the need to question our reality, the importance of rebellion, and the dangers of conformity. Meanwhile it’s a stylish, leather-clad shoot-‘em-up, with some of the finest martial-arts action sequences ever to come out of a Hollywood studio. Innovative visual effects, unforgettable imagery and characters — who cares if it gets a little bogged down with exposition in the middle? It’s a wonder, always has been, and always will be.
1. “Bound” (1996)” The Wachwoskis’ first time behind the camera may not have had the massive impact of their sophomore blockbuster, but “Bound” remains their most powerful film, unfolding a sensual love story between gangster’s wife Jennifer Tilly and recent parolee Gina Gershon, who decide to rob the mob in an impossibly deft and masterful scheme. Tilly and Gershon are absolutely electric, the story is impeccably crafted and suspenseful as hell, and at the end, it emerges as the Wachowskis’ most grounded, human, and focused work of art. It’s practically perfect.