The Wachowskis and the Mutability of Man

Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving
February 9, 2015

You can always suss out the villain in a film by the Wachowskis: He’ll be the guy blathering on about the fact that the world has order, you have a place in it, and deviating from said place risks upending said order.

In The Matrix: Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) telling Mr. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) that his life as a nine-to-five drone has a future while being an underground hacker named Neo does not. In Cloud Atlas: slaver Haskell Moore (Weaving, again) and Neo-Seoul official Boardman Mephi (Weaving, yet again) informing the audience that there is a natural order and slavery is a part of it. In Jupiter Ascending: Balem Abrasax (not Hugo Weaving, somehow*) pronouncing that society is a pyramid, and that those on the bottom should feel privileged to support those on the top.

Similarly, you can tell who is enlightened and good in the Wachowski moral universe by seeing who rejects the social order. This is clearest in their ** opus, Cloud Atlas, a film that intercuts six stories (set in 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and a post-apocalyptic age "106 winters after The Fall") featuring the same actors playing different iterations of the same reincarnated souls.

"All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended," a love-struck symphonist/swindler in Cloud Atlas writes his dearest as he contemplates the meaning of life, moments away from ending his own. "One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so."

Sometimes, transcending conventions leads to a horrifying place. Lana and Andy Wachowski seem fascinated by the idea of humans as harvest materials, the reduction of men to meat. Who can forget The Matrix’s vast fields of human babies born in pods and cared for by spider-like robots using their bodies for heat and energy? Or the revelation in Cloud Atlas that the fabricants—enslaved clones—of Neo-Seoul are slaughtered like cattle and fed to their brethren, little more than a "cheap source of protein." And then there’s Jupiter Ascending, in which we learn that Earth is simply a farm of human beings who are raised to be made into a product that extends the lives of the wealthy.

Other times, however, the mutability of man takes on a more spiritual dimension. Reincarnation and recurrence are also Wachowski tropes: The One in The Matrix; the intergalactic queen reborn as a toilet-scrubbing maid in Jupiter Ascending.

It is in Cloud Atlas where this theme is most fully and most cleverly explored. *** The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer settled upon an interesting way to demonstrate the idea that we are little more than spirits adrift on the tides of time, washing up hither and yon after the death of one body and the birth of another. By using the same actor to play different characters in each of the film’s time periods, we are given a visual clue as to the progress of the individual spirit—and a reminder that the filmmakers consider the meat sacks holding those spirits to be of little importance.

That’s why, throughout the film, actors swap race and gender willy-nilly. But it is also in this very swapping that the idea that all boundaries are mere conventions is shown to be a rather silly lie. The effect is occasionally innocuous, as when Halle Berry plays a white Jewish woman spurned by a Nazi composer—Hugo Weaving again, naturally.

More frequently, however, the inescapable, unchangeable physicality of the actors oscillates between humorous and horrifying. On the lighter end of the spectrum is Weaving’s turn as a monstrous and mountainous female nurse running roughshod over a group of senile Brits. Weaving looks like a man playing a woman; gender is not quite as fluid as some would have us believe, and our eyes cannot be fooled. Worse are the efforts to race-swap white and Asian actors. Weaving and Hugh Grant’s skin takes on a mottled look during the Neo-Seoul section, their eyes unnaturally stretched. More troubling still is the effort to transmute the beautiful Korean actress Doona Bae into a 19th century white American; she looks like a terrifying porcelain doll designed to give children nightmares.

There are limits, it seems, to the boundaries we can transcend. The mutability of man is not quite as total as the Wachowskis would have us believe.

*Eddie Redmayne, if you must know.

**Tom Tykwer co-wrote and co-directed.

***Cloud Atlas is alternately visionary and cloying, and one can be forgiven for not loving it. However, it’s undeniably a rather remarkable piece of filmmaking, a triumph of editing and adaptation. The seamless melding of six different stories told in six different genres over a span of 500-some years is no mean feat.