By: Daniel Reynolds
With so many new TV shows, movies, books and music coming out these days, sometimes staying culturally literate can be exhausting. To help sift through it all, we here at the Same Page will periodically take a look at some new bit of culture and ask the most important question: Is It Good?
What Is It?
For a movie that begins with a couple of Russian nobodies, Jupiter Ascending certainly covers a lot of ground. Said lovely couple, Maximilian and Aleksa, meet cute around his telescope in Soviet Russia and fall in love. Before we know it they’ve given birth to a girl named Jupiter (eventually Mila Kunis), he’s been killed by Russian goons (what a country), and she’s relocated to America with the baby. So we’ve traversed half the globe already, and that’s just the first ten minutes.
Fast forward a couple decades and now Jupiter is a maid who, along with her mother and aunt, lives a terrifyingly repetitive existence in Chicago that involves a lot of toilet scrubbing, garbage removal and vacuuming. Jupiter sighs, “I hate my life,” and we know the struggle is real.
Through some overly complicated machinations that involve Jupiter selling her embryos for money, fake name confusion and a wealthy friend (employer?) who is never heard from again, alien creatures attempt to kill Jupiter for significant reasons to be explained later. Before that deathblow can be delivered, she is rescued by Caine Wise (real name), a half-wolf albino ex-soldier (played by Channing Tatum). There’s also a trio of assassins on their tail, and cuts to glittering space ships coasting around Jupiter (the planet), but that’s neither here nor there. Intergalactic intrigue is afoot – and now we’ve got spectral ground to cover.
In the grand tradition of films like Men in Black and Dune, the universe of Jupiter Ascending is filled with vast empires of species, including humans, warring over various planets and resources. In the film, the prime target is Earth and the warring tribes are actually three siblings from the House Abrasax (real name), Balem, Titus and Kalique. Turns out their ageless mother has died, Earth and its valuable resources are up for grabs and, wouldn’t you know it, Jupiter (the woman) is central to this entire plot development. It’s a long way away from cleaning toilets, in any case.
Why Should You Care?
If we’re being honest, a lot of what I’ve just described in Jupiter Ascending sounds patently ridiculous. I haven’t even touched on Sean Bean‘s character named Stinger who lives in a house full of bees, the winged lizard soldiers, and Caine Wise’s sky-surfing rollerblades. You may be wondering how, in 2015, a film such as Jupiter Ascending, with no obvious ties to pre-existing intellectual properties, got released at all. One look at the main credits reveals the answer: the film was written, directed and produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski, the minds behind The Matrix trilogy.
Real success in Hollywood usually allows you the freedom to punch your own ticket. When Christopher Nolan started making hundreds of millions with Batman, studios were much more receptive to his dream diver and wormhole film ideas. Make a successful Harry Potter film and maybe someone will let you launch George Clooney into space. For the Wachowskis, making one of the definitive films of an era (and make no mistake, for all the fallout from parts two and three, The Matrix still holds up as an undeniable classic) gives you a lot of creative leg room.
So now it’s been almost 12 years since 2003’s twin release of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. In that time, the siblings have written three movies and directed two prior to Jupiter Ascending. And JA excepted, the returns have gradually diminished since Reloaded’s $281 million peak. Still, that initial culture-altering cachet the Wachowski’s earned with The Matrix in 1999 has undoubtedly allowed them to explore and experiment. They prepared the film adaptations of two seemingly unfilmable books (2005’s V for Vendetta and 2012’s Cloud Atlas), they unironically directed an adaptation of Speed Racer in 2008. In each of these cases, while the projects were not wholly their own, the passion the siblings had for the subject matter was clear. They love these stories and they love the movies they are making, even if audiences have slowly backed away.
The questions now are: how many more risky movie ventures does that initial Matrix-fuelled success buy? What happens if Jupiter Ascending is a failure? And, most significantly, what does it mean for the next grand original (and out there) idea if even the Wachowskis can’t maintain an audience?
Is It Good?
Before Jupiter Ascending had even hit the screens, signs of trouble were there. It was originally supposed to be released in July 2014 but got held out until February, the lost month of the film calendar. To its credit, Jupiter Ascending is the Wachowski’s first original concept film since The Matrix trilogy. And like those films, JA is actually a powerful pastiche of influences. I’ve mentioned MiB and Dune, but there’s also touches of Star Wars (both good and bad), Star Trek (both good and bad), and other flights of fantasy (mostly bad). There’s even a Brazil-like bureaucratic sequence where our heroes are shuttled from one intergalactic office to another. It’s one of the few times the film begins to feel fun. (And the Terry Gilliam cameo within is an inspired touch.)
Unlike The Matrix however, Jupiter Ascending does not feel nearly as cohesive as a narrative, nor nearly as singular and inventive as an imagined universe. The plot of the film, for all its expository heft, seems to bang together abruptly at times – characters come and go with little thought as to their meaning, significant plot points lumber into view from miles away. You get the feeling the Wachowski’s do have a whole universe planned out in the margins, but not enough time to do it justice. (Of course, whether or not it’s worth more time remains up for debate; my vote leans towards no.)
To bring this kind of wacky space opera to life you’d need actors game to prop up the absurdity; here again, JA fails to deliver. For his part, Bean knows he’s in a flailing film, and he’s been there before. Meanwhile, poor Tatum as the half-wolf soldier looks lost. He growls and flexes for the camera, but mostly seems sheepish. How was he to know that by February 2015 he’d be a hit comedic actor and fringe award candidate? Likewise Eddie Redmayne as Balem Abrasax, the worst of the evil siblings; he probably wishes this film wasn’t coming out right as he was waging war against Michael Keaton for Best Actor. It’s a bad look.
And finally, Mila Kunis. The best I can say about her is, well, she’s really trying. I’m sure few had her in the pool for “Most successful post-That 70’s Show career.” (I’d probably have gone with Topher Grace.) Kunis has easily out done them all, despite playing the show’s most annoying and one note character. Still, her “big” acting screams of TV. She’s shown she can be sexy and strong (or at least flinty), but she lacks the weight to sell the action, and spends most of JA bouncing around one colourful CGI field or another. One wonders what happens here if, say, Jennifer Lawrence or, hell, even Shailene Woodley had been cast instead. This is a film crying out for a strong centre of gravity.
Final Verdict: Look, God speed to the Wachowskis. To their never-ending credit, they are unabashedly going for it. They’ve spent the last 20 years making the films they want to make in the ways they want to make them. At the scale they’ve chosen to work in, and the Hollywood environment they find themselves in, that’s almost an impossible achievement. For that alone we should be happy Jupiter Ascending was gifted its huge $176 million budget.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we have to blindly approve of the finished product. For all the obvious love and effort the Wachowskis have put into it, JA‘s sense of wonder is misplaced. Most audiences won’t be left slack-jawed in amazement; they’ll be found stumbling out of the theatre, scratching their heads, wondering how – with the real world stakes considerably higher than those of the movie – this was the film we ended up with.