When film critics talk about the films of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, they often praise their visual inventiveness and distinctive style, and rightly so. Their debut film Bound features remarkably innovative camera trickery and framing for a low budget thriller, and they are of course credited with introducing bullet-time in The Matrix. But something that often goes unappreciated is the complexity of the themes within their films. For example, not only has the philosophy of The Matrix has been discussed extensively, the coding of race in the film has been looked at and it’s been written about as a transgender metaphor, amongst many other things. One of the most persistent themes, yet one which has not been discussed as much, is the anti-capitalism present throughout their entire filmography.
These anti-capitalist themes stretch from the the subtle (minor points such as Morpheus telling Neo “these people are part of the system we are fighting” while the camera is focusing on a police officer) to the obvious (Vladie in Jupiter Ascending saying “That’s capitalism baby! Shit rolls downhill, profits flow up” to justify taking a higher cut of money). One minor point which might seem trivial is that the protagonists in Wachowskis films are almost all working class. In other words, they belong to the proletariat, not the bourgeoisie. The only protagonist who could be argued to belong to the bourgeoisie is Adam Ewing in Cloud Atlas, but instead of embracing this life he rejects it, burning a slave contract and moving away to work with abolitionists rather than remaining with his slave owning father-in-law. Other characters also refuse riches and privilege; Jupiter in Jupiter Ascending discovers that she owns the Earth and possesses a vast fortune, and yet at the end of the film moves back to live with her family and returns to her job as a cleaner, even retorting “maybe that’s your problem” when one of the villains mentions that he’s never cleaned a toilet in his life. In Speed Racer, Speed is offered incredible wealth and access to the best facilities in the world by Royalton Industries, but again he rejects this, sticking with his family instead of working for an oligarchical and corrupt corporation. In Bound, Corky states that the reason she went to prison was for “redistribution of wealth”, and when she obtains millions stolen from the mob only uses it to buy a new truck and start a new life with her girlfriend. Even this money was only stolen to help her lover Violet escape from her husband, a mob boss. No protagonists seek wealth for the sake of wealth, or power for the sake of power.
Almost completely contrary to the class of the protagonists, the villains in Wachowskis films tend to be rich, bourgeois capitalists, intent on nothing other than accumulating as much wealth and power as they possibly can. In one storyline in Cloud Atlas, Luisa Rey has hitmen sent after her for attempting to expose corruption in the oil industry, and the most obvious example of this is Arnold Royalton in Speed Racer, who almost comes across as a left-wing parody of rich businessmen (in one scene he literally refers to money as his religion). He invites himself into Speed’s family’s house and offers to buy his mother’s pancake recipe, seeing the potential for profit in everything and making a note to draw up a contract for it even though she offers it to him freely. Royalton initially pretends to be passionate about racing in an effort to sign Speed to his company, but upon realising that Speed is going to reject his offer drops the act, threatening to sue Speed’s family with countless frivolous lawsuits and revealing that the entire racing industry is a scam, with the major racing companies deciding in advance who will win each race and orchestrating the Grand Prix in order to boost their share prices. The CEOs who control these companies hire people to drug Speed the night before a race and promise millions of dollars to other drivers if they are able to take his car out in order to prevent him from winning the race, showing the lengths they’re willing to go to protect their shares.
Speed Racer is the most child-oriented film that the Wachowski sisters have made, and so while the anti-capitalist messages are still there, they are mostly focused on big business being corrupt and family being more valuable than money. Other films contain more explicit and graphic images of what late-stage capitalism looks like: The Matrix, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending all depict dystopian societies where humans have become a product, a source of energy, or a type of capital. In The Matrix (and its sequels) the machines use the humans as batteries. They are born, live, and die in pods, never knowing the true world, with the machines extracting energy from them to power themselves, and going so far that they liquefy the dead humans to feed them to those still alive. In fact, you can interpret the red pill as a metaphor for class consciousness: it awakens you to your own oppression, reveals your exploitation, and shows you that you can fight back against your oppressors. Morpheus even says to Neo that the Matrix is the world that’s been pulled over his eyes to make him a slave, and that while the Matrix exists humanity will never be free. The Matrix is quite literally a false consciousness- a lie fed to humans to hide their exploitation, thus preventing their rebellion. When a class gains consciousness it is able to see through state propaganda, and when Neo takes the red pill he becomes truly aware of his situation — he understands that “there is no spoon”.
Cloud Atlas features a relatively similar future society to the one shown in The Matrix, one where clones are grown, enslaved throughout their lives, and then after 12 years are executed and fed to living clones. Unlike The Matrix, these clones are aware of their oppression, albeit only to a certain extent. They know that they live as slaves, as each day is the same for them: wake up, work as a server in a restaurant, sleep. The first rule of their lives is “Honour thy customer”, and they’re killed if they don’t obey this rule. However, they are led to believe that after they have worked like this for 12 years they will be granted ‘exultation’ and no longer be forced to live like this, when instead they are killed as they are no longer deemed profitable. The futures in both The Matrix and Cloud Atlas show two classes that have been created: in The Matrix the machines represent the bourgeoisie and the humans the proletariat, and in Cloud Atlas the clones are referred to as “fabricants” and humans as “purebloods”, again a class conflict of oppressed vs oppressors.
Jupiter Ascending takes this idea of humans as a product even further, with one character even saying that humans are just “waiting to be converted into capital”. Where it differs from Cloud Atlas is that these humans are not the same kind of slaves as we see in that film — they are not being used to work, and they are not even aware of their status. Instead, in this universe a way to reverse aging by harvesting humans (i.e. killing them and extracting resources from their bodies) has been discovered, and so the rich artificially populate planets, wait a few thousand years until the population has reached a high enough level, and then kill the entire planet to create their de-aging serum. The main family of antagonists are effectively the imperialists of this universe: unable to independently create enough resources to sustain themselves, they must instead travel to far-away planets to extract capital from them, in this case by killing the inhabitants, similarly to how countries such as the USA have extracted resources like oil from the global south. The villains refer to humans (in this case specifically the humans who live on Earth) as simple and uncivilized, and state that they ‘feel no pain’ when they are harvested, not unlike how Western imperialists advocate for military intervention in other countries by arguing that they know better, or have their citizens’ best interests at heart. Ultimately, Jupiter is able to stop another harvest from happening, but not before billions have already been killed to allow the rich to live for longer.
While these films depict dystopian and depressing visions of the future, positive ideas are also present throughout the work of the Wachowski sisters. Family mattering more than power is a key theme in Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending, love is more important than money in Bound, and the main message of Cloud Atlas is that small acts of kindness ripple throughout history and have the power to change the world. Their films are unafraid to show the ugliness of the world and its oppressive political systems, but still contain hope in people and humanity, and seem to believe that a better world is not only possible but inevitable. Perhaps the ideas present throughout the Wachowski’s films of what humanity can do and where it can go is best summed up by what Neo envisions the future could hold in The Matrix: “A world without rules or controls, borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”