Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

Agnostic about Gnostics

Eddie Redmayne as Balem Abrasax (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In certain ways, the Wachowski siblings — formerly the Wachowski brothers, before the elder’s sex-change operation — resemble George Lucas and Peter Jackson, in the sense of being creators who were responsible for a signal work of pop fantasy, but whose subsequent filmmaking seems designed to poison our enjoyment of the thing that made them famous in the first place. With The Matrix, now more than 15 years old, the then-frères created an unsettling techno-gnostic fable encased in an action-movie shell, used their actors and special-effect innovations perfectly (and no, I’m not sure which category Keanu fell into), and deserved all the praise and box office that came pouring in. Since then, like Jackson with the never-ending Hobbit trilogy and Lucas with the Star Wars prequels and the Indiana Jones Sequel That Must Not Be Named, they’ve made a succession of bloated, self-indulgent epics that don’t even come within hailing distance of the standard they set.

And the Wachowskis, unlike Jackson and Lucas, have — while torching their own legacy — also been losing almost-unimaginable amounts of money. Their two Matrix sequels at least justified the investment, however artistically disappointing the results, but since then they have lost tens of millions of dollars, first on Speed Racer and then on Cloud Atlas — and now, depending on overseas grosses and promotion costs, they could lose the magic hundred million on the critically savaged Jupiter Ascending.

But I come to praise, a little, rather than to just bury the siblings’ strange one-hit career. (I’ll leave the official last rites to the accountants at Warner Brothers.)  No, Jupiter isn’t secretly a good movie; no sane moviegoer would call any of the Wachowskis’ recent films “good.” But neither is it just an empty spectacle or a franchise spinoff or a Hobbit-style milking of an exhausted cash cow. The siblings stopped making sequels a decade ago, and they’re clearly determined, amid all the spectacle, to remain filmmakers of ideas.

And it must be said that the big ideas themselves, as in the original Matrix (a blockbuster that launched a thousand philosophy papers), are actually moderately interesting. The first is the aforementioned gnosticism: The Wachowskis are fascinated with the idea of malign sub-deities creating invisible prisons, whether it’s the machines who built and preside over the Matrix, the South Korean cloners who feature in one of the intertwining stories in Cloud Atlas, or now the starfaring elites of Jupiter Ascending, who treat entire planets as their factory farms, harvesting the population’s precious genetic material in order to keep themselves forever young.

The second idea is what Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon, in an essay on the Wachowskis, calls their obsession with “the mutability of man.” In Cloud Atlas, they depicted the transmigration of souls by having the same actors play different parts (often to absurd effect) across lines of time and race and gender. In The Matrix, they gave us a vision of reincarnation and recurrence, of digital life as a space where adepts can transcend the limits of the flesh. The interplanetary world of Jupiter is filled with clones and hybrids and experiments — human-wolf hybrids, talking lizards, a girl with what look like giant mouse ears — and its plot is set in motion by another transmigration or a recurrence: Our heroine, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), is an illegal-immigrant housecleaner in Chicago who turns out to be genetically identical to a galactic royal from House Abrasax, which means (among other things) that she literally owns Planet Earth.

As a story, Jupiter can be enjoyed only if you tune out everything involving Kunis and her love interest, a soldier played limply by the usually more charismatic Channing Tatum (the canine makeup he’s been caked with doesn’t help), let your eyes glaze over during the action sequences, and just focus on the bad guys from Clan Abrasax: Balem (Eddie Redmayne, elsewhere Oscar-nominated for playing Stephen Hawking), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth), all of them conniving against one another, plotting against their newly discovered relative, and masticating scenery that’s best described as high interstellar baroque.

That focus will deliver you a silly space-opera experience that falls somewhere below The Fifth Element and above The Chronicles of Riddick on the spectrum of sci-fi you might enjoy reliving while channel-surfing on a lazy Saturday. It will also, knowing what we know about the Wachowskis, give you an interesting sense of the tensions in their transhumanist vision.

Balem and Co. are obviously gnostic villains (Abrasax = Abraxas, an archon from the gnostic pantheon), sneering down at hapless earthlings from their garish space yachts and, like other Wachowski bad guys, lecturing the proles about the importance of pyramidal hierarchies. But they’re also the fulfillment of precisely the process of liberation-without-end that the Wachowski vision tends to celebrate and embrace: They’re true escapees from the bonds of flesh, human beings living beyond all limits, creatures re-creating themselves whenever they see fit. They’re the Matrix’s Agent Smith, yes — but they’re also Neo, at the end of his flesh-transcending journey, and not necessarily transformed for the better.

It’s clear from all their films (and from their very lives) that the Wachowskis are eager pilgrims on that journey. But, in the face and fate of Balem Abrasax, you’ll see a hint that they’re not entirely sure they’ll like what’s waiting at the end.

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