When it comes to the 21st Century action movie, few creators can be said to have been as influential as Lana and Lily Wachowski, collectively known as the Wachowski Sisters since their transitions in the 2010s. Thanks to their break-out megahit The Matrix (1999), early-to-mid 2000s cinemas (and video store bargain bins) were full of leather-clad, bullet-dodging heroes fighting to topple futuristic dystopias. With wild set-pieces and themes of ‘found family’ and rebellion, their influence still shines today in the Mission Impossible and Fast and Furious franchises.
As with every blockbusting career, the Wachowskis started small. Their first feature script was Assassins (1995), which they sold on spec for $1M – but the director’s decision to have the script given a page 1 rewrite disappointed them, leading them into directing for themselves. Their next project, lesbian neo-noir thriller Bound (1996) put them on Hollywood’s radar and gave them the influence to make The Matrix despite its hugely expensive premise.
With its cyberpunk influences proudly on display, The Matrix had a huge impact, not just on cinema but in pop culture. Everyone knew about this strange sci-fi film where life is a simulation and laws of physics can be manipulated at will. The bullet-dodging scene was parodied and homage and cribbed to death. ‘Take the red pill’ entered the lexicon and took on a life of its own on the internet. And plenty of films like Equilibrium (2002), Underworld (2003), and Aeon Flux (2005) tried to catch that same lightning in a bottle, with varying degrees of success. Proving it’s not easy to repeatedly serve up mind-melting concepts in a way that captures mainstream appeal.
The sequels to The Matrix were met with diminishing returns in terms of commercial and critical success, but the Wachowskis weren’t discouraged. They were now able to make whatever they wanted, and their ambitions became loftier still. V for Vendetta (2005) examined the impact of cultural and literal revolution. This became another film that left a deep impact on the public consciousness as the Guy Fawkes mask is now synonymous with hacktivist movement Anonymous. Speed Racer (2008) was about family but had an anti-capitalist streak, and Cloud Atlas (2010) had an all-star cast portraying re-incarnated souls across several generations. Sadly, the script for their magnificent camp space opera Jupiter Ascending (2015) isn’t freely available, which is unsurprising as it was reportedly 300 pages long and served as an all-encompassing story bible as well as a screenplay.
Seemingly having exhausted the scope of cinema, the Wachowskis turned to television. The small screen had been growing in scale thanks to the likes of Game of Thrones (2011-2019), and the time was ripe for Sense8 (2015-2018), which they co-created with J Michael Straczynski. This was a bold exercise in a multi-protagonist narrative, with a diverse cast of characters from around the world sharing the experiences and sensations of each other as they become one network.
Though the budgets climbed higher throughout their career, the Wachowskis never lost sight of the stories they want to tell. Identity, family, responsibility, the discovery of your true self: these are the threads that wind throughout their stories, between the explosive set-pieces, and are the reason that we keep coming back for more.
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(A final note: the majority of the scripts are credited to their deadnames, the names they used before transitioning)
Assassins | 1995
Professional hit-man Robert Rath wants to fulfill a few more contracts before retiring but unscrupulous ambitious newcomer hit-man Miguel Bain keeps killing Rath’s targets.
Bound | 1996
Tough ex-con Corky and her lover Violet concoct a scheme to steal millions of stashed mob money and pin the blame on Violet’s crooked boyfriend Caesar.
The Matrix | 1999
A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.
The Matrix Reloaded | 2003
Neo and his allies race against time before the machines discover the city of Zion and destroy it. While seeking the truth about the Matrix, Neo must save Trinity from a dark fate within his dreams.
The Matrix Revolutions | 2003
The human city of Zion defends itself against the massive invasion of the machines as Neo fights to end the war at another front while also opposing the rogue Agent Smith.
V for Vendetta | 2005
In a future British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by the alias of “V”, plots to overthrow it with the help of a young woman.
Speed Racer | 2008
A young driver, Speed Racer, aspires to be champion of the racing world with the help of his family and his high-tech Mach 5 automobile.
Cloud Atlas | 2012
An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present, and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
Article by Sam Kurd
Sam Kurd is a professional film festival programmer and an experienced and passionate writer. Equally comfortable working with screenplays or prose, fiction, or non-fiction Sam writes because he must and because he believes there’s no greater accomplishment in life than making a reader or audience experience new emotions.