With six weeks to go before the film was set to open, with TV spots and trailers already out in the world, Warner Bros. made the bold move earlier this week to yank their summer sci-fi blockbuster “Jupiter Ascending” from their slate, and reschedule it for the far less glamorous slot of February 6, 2015. It was definitely a surprise, and it’s not often that any studio punts their big seasonal tentpole so soon before it’s set to hit theaters. And while the reasons for this move have yet to be made official (though many have posited reshoots could be in the works, given the timeframe) it has made us wonder around the Playlist watercooler if the Wachowskis‘ luck has finally run out.
But first let’s rewind to 1999, when a largely unknown sibling duo, whose only film to date had been lean, sexy thriller “Bound,” dropped “The Matrix” into multiplexes. Expectations were modest, but the movie turned out to be a monster. The dystopian, sci-fi action flick was a melange of all their genre influences, but it connected with mainstream audiences to the tune of over $460 million worldwide, plus it was huge on DVD, becoming the first movie to sell more than three million copies on disc. Warner Bros. smelled a franchise and they went gunning for it.
The next four years saw The Wachowskis not only writing and directing two sequels—”The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions“—but also overseeing a series of related animated shorts, and directing more material for the videogame “Enter The Matrix,” which would tie into the narrative of ‘Reloaded.’ And initially, audiences were ready to come on board. Released in the spring of 2003, “The Matrix Reloaded” was a big hit tallying $742 million worldwide. The problem? It wasn’t very good and it muddled the clear mythology of the first film with a lot of… stuff. And so, when “The Matrix Revolutions” arrived in the fall in the same year, audiences had considerably cooled, with the movie actually earning less domestically and internationally than the first “The Matrix.” But hey, at the end of the day, WB had three movies worth over $1.6 billion in ticket sales, and all kinds of ancillary revenue coming to them too. As far as they were concerned, The Wachowskis were golden.
The studio produced the Wachowski-penned “V For Vendetta,” which became another hit and earned a strong following. So for their next directorial effort, the Wachowskis were tasked with bringing WB property “Speed Racer” to the big screen, and while the results weren’t quite disastrous, they were certainly disappointing. Critics didn’t take to the $120 million dollar movie, and audiences were lukewarm, with the entire effort only earning a bit over $90 million worldwide. (Though here too, there is a small cult who adore this film).
Okay, so it was bound the Wachowskis would stumble eventually, but it is telling that for their next film, the sprawling, ambitious “Cloud Atlas,” WB didn’t finance the flick. Instead, utilizing mostly European and Asian funding, the siblings put together over $100 million, rounded up an all star cast, but again, audiences didn’t follow. Warner Bros. distributed the movie stateside where it earned a paltry $27 million, though overseas it took in over $100 million, likely netting the movie perhaps a small, but insignificant profit (you don’t round up stars like Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant to barely make your money back). In short, that was two costly flops in a row for the Wachowskis.
Which brings us to “Jupiter Ascending.” WB was clearly hoping that a return to sci-fi would excite audiences once again, as they put $150 million up for the movie. And certainly, one can’t fault the Wachowskis for lack of ambition as the marketing so far has shown they’ve put their entire imagination into the effort. But indeed, something has gone wrong. It would appear where WB had previously given the siblings all kinds of leeway to execute their vision, somewhere along the way with this one, problems arose. Again, with weeks to go before a movie is due in theaters, and a campaign in full swing, you don’t yank it unless there is a serious issue. The move perhaps suggests that whatever is “broken,” the studio and filmmakers tried to fix but simply couldn’t in time despite best efforts.
This does make one wonder how much longer the Wachowskis will get this kind of money and freedom from major studios (well, WB), particularly if “Jupiter Ascending” underperforms (and a February release date suggests that WB isn’t confident about its prospects). However, perhaps they are already preparing for the worst. You might recall that earlier this year, rumors swirled that the pair were preparing a new “The Matrix” trilogy, that would act as prequels to the current movies. And while it’s yet to be seen if that’s true, if there’s any way to get back in WB’s good books, it would be helping them find a way to reinvigorate a billion dollar franchise.
But we’ll end all of this on a note of caution. While it might be easy to ring the death knell for the Wachowskis, all one has to do is look at last summer’s “World War Z.” There was a film with a troubled production, highly publicized reshoots and more, and the final result? A pretty good movie, that is also Brad Pitt‘s biggest hit of his career, with a sequel now in the works. Perhaps the same fate could await “Jupiter Ascending,” where careful tinkering could bring the movie where it needs to be. But this is never a path studios like to go down if they can avoid (it’s costly, and yes, the publicity doesn’t help) and time will tell if “The Matrix” will continue to be the peak of the Wachowskis career. But the directors aren’t putting all their eggs in the studio basket—the duo are currently at work on the Netflix series “Sense8” and perhaps the expanded, more adventurous storytelling realm of television will better suit the next steps of their career.