Good or bad, I knew it would be weird. What I couldn't have known was that the Wachowskis' weird could be so boring.
Written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski
With Mila Kunis (Jupiter Jones), Channing Tatum (Caine Wise), Eddie Redmayne (Balem Abrasax), Tuppence Middleton (Kalique Abrasax), and Douglas Booth (Titus Abrasax)
Spoiler alert: mild
I guess I really am what you might call a "Wachowski apologist." Please, relax—I'm not one of those stone-cold nerds whose fingertips drip with endless ruminations about the philosophy of the Matrix and also, probably, their half-dried semen. But: Speed Racer is one of the very best movies made in my lifetime; Cloud Atlas is a tightly-directed SF epic that misses the brass ring of the super-classic by microns; Bound is totally rad; and, you know what, I will defend those Matrix sequels. If you take Reloaded as a film unto itself, and not as one indivisible half of the Reloaded/Revolutions whole, it is a great movie, with one of cinema's single best action scenes and a cliffhanger that threatens to explode everything we thought we knew about the Matrix in a twist so gratifying that I still weep maddened tears at the unforgiveable hash the Wachowskis ultimately made of it.
Of course, soberly evaluating Reloaded as an entity separate from Revolutions—an eighty-hour exercise in the hottest anonymous gray-and-gray action you'll ever see—is something grown-ups gave up on by the wee hours of 28 October, 2003. So, maybe I can't defend them after all. They were pretty bad back then, and they remain pretty bad today. Okay, I did like the final fight with Smith—but, yes, bad.
But just because the latter Matrices were bad doesn't mean for a second that Jupiter Ascending isn't worse. The wailing pity of it is that the Wachowski siblings were on an upswing in quality... and, according to Lana, near the end of their finaciers' patience. (The terrible irony of it is that the pump for good space opera stands as primed as it's ever been since 1983.)
The easiest way to damn Jupiter is that I can barely remember it, less than four days later. That's the unavoidable bummer: Jupiter is less like a rollicking sci-fi actioner than it is a collection of faintly neat ideas, most of them presented practically unadorned and searching for a specific metaphorical resonance they never find. All of these ideas, one suspects, would wear thin even in the context of a short story found in the furthest-back pages of a '50s sci-fi rag.
The film's focal point is Jupiter Jones, just about the most senseless waste of a stupid-awesome science fantasy name you'll ever see. She's our designated protagonist, despite doing close to nothing throughout the picture. The child of illegal Russian immigrants to the United States, Jupiter was born about two hundred miles too far out in the Atlantic Ocean to claim native-born citizenship. Thus is her lot in life predetermined: permanently bound to her family in order to survive in hostile terrain, and making her living scrubbing toilets for the rich fucks of Chicago. Oh, let's be clear: the part where she's trapped with her family is by far the worst of the deal—and, in form following narrative function, Jupiter traps us with them too.
I'm going to take a minute to talk about her horrid clan—fair, I think, since Jupiter spends maybe thirty—and how even if everything else were perfect, their atrocious sub-sitcom antics would come awfully close to wrecking the whole movie regardless. The contrast with the Racer household, though operating in the same tonal register, really could not be more pronounced.
I believe we are supposed to make the intuitive leap that Jupiter loves her family, and they "love" her, solely by the virtue that they have not stooped quite so low as to sexually traffick the Mila Kunis lookalike in their house to degenerate Chitown one-percenters for $2000-a-night girlfriend experiences. Nonetheless, there's still the whiff of slavery in the air of Jupiter, seemingly unintentionally. (By quirk of the script, and by the demand that her name make any sort of Goddamned sense, Jupiter should have a British passport—but I reckon her family has probably stolen it). This impression is compounded and crystallized when her cousin coerces her into selling her eggs to a ferility clinic, with the stated intention of pocketing over half of the proceeds. Despite her English fluency and lack of apparent developmental disorders, Jupiter Jones—our presumptively awesome heroine—is so terrifyingly submissive that she agrees to hand it over. I'm not sure this is the least appropriate scene that you could put into a space opera, but it must be close.
Either way, this absolutely unacceptable passivity sets the baseline for Jupiter's characterization throughout the film. Soon (though not close to soon enough), her very dysfunctional Chosen One narrative awkwardly and audibly creaks into gear. Jupiter—get this—is the genetic reincarnation of the murdered Queen of the Abrasax Corporation (roll with it, don't try to pronounce it). The Abrasax are one of the universe's most powerful families, owner of thousands upon thousands of inhabited worlds.
Now this takes some unpacking: the human species is over a billion years old, originates from space, has mastered a biotechnological bath that permits them eternal youth, and the great corporations of the galaxy seeded countless worlds (including ours) with human genetic material for the purpose of harvesting their crops of free-range stem cells. Amongst these near-infinite variations of the human genome, an exact DNA sequence sometimes finds itself repeated. When this occurs to someone rich, the original bearer tends to finds it interesting; but if they happen to be dead by misadventure or homicide, it's standard to have a clause drawn in their will establishing a trust for their genetic reincarnations.
So: in summary, evolution is a lie, capitalism has invaded outer space, and the heir to the Earth is this gal.
Inevitably, this leads to her being targeted by the Queen's galactically-savvy progeny. So enters Caine Wise, a dog-person bounty hunter with a violent past and a heart of—you know what? I'm suddenly very, very tired of explaining things.
Still, so far, on paper it probably still scans as a pretty cool Dune riff. In practice, it is a single sequence, repeated three times: Jupiter meets one of her genetic predecessor's three children, talks with them in what amounts to pretty drably-designed rooms, and right before she can make any irrevocable dramatic choices (usually signing on the line that is dotted), Caine shows up after an absence to smash some shit and save her. So: does it sound boring yet?
To repeat, Jupiter is visually never too exciting: it takes basically good design elements and turns them into desaturated, monochromatic CGI-assisted sets. I didn't mention this in Cloud Atlas—which has the the post-apocalyptic sequence to speak on its behalf, after all—but the Wachowskis' replacement of their veteran production designer Owen Paterson with his art director/understudy Hugh Bateup has not, overall, been a win for the siblings.
I don't even want to talk about the "warhammer" sequence, the most visually unappealing action sequence I've seen since Cloverfield (although in its defense there are at least 40k of them). Some of the other action set-pieces have their moments—usually a few hundred too many of them—and only one, a speed-ramped kung-fu affair wherein Caine fights a winged lizard-man, remotely comes close to being a thrill. It's the definition of "too little, too late."
Yet there are some fine images, sadly ruined by the nullity of the narrative. There is one alone that really transcends it: the visualization of the Great Red Spot of Jupiter (that is, the planet). It stands alongside Tuppence Middleton's buttocks and the low-impact PG-13 depravity of Titus Abrasax' zero-gravity sex parlor as the only images that will stick with me. (Another design decision will stick with me for its lack of imagination: amongst the human/animal hybrids is a literal elephant man, manifesting as the single most uninteresting realization of this intriguing idea you could think of—namely, a guy in a well-made Halloween mask.)
You'd think, if nothing else, the sheer campiness of Jupiter Ascending's material would be the selling point. Instead, the film is so busy exploring the inner reaches of its own colon that it doesn't even seem to intend to be any fun. Occasionally, by accident, it's too dumb not to be; but unfortunately, this is all. The pretense that the mythology is interesting enough that its explication in the form of an endless video essay is an approach to space opera that has yielded positive results approximately never. Dune and the Star Wars prequels suffer acutely from it, the outcome being four stultifyingly bad movies. The Matrix sequels present much the same malady, not coincidentally. So it happens again here: I saw Channing Tatum's comic chops get wasted in Jupiter; meanwhile, a potentially glorious incestuous subplot gets crushed beneath the Wachowskis' boots within mere minutes of starting. Because we're supposed to take this crap at face value, we of course begin wondering what self-respecting Galactic Court is ever going to enforce an Astro-Contract obtained through Space Duress and without Cosmic Consideration—not to mention one negotiated in the very moment that the (almost entirely-offscreen) interstellar government is waging a hot war with the Abrasax Corporation in order to rescue its party of the second part.
Of course, when the film's misshapen sense of playful irony does rear its ugly head, in the space bureaucracy sequence, you'll wish to Zarquon it hadn't.
But! Alone in the wilderness is Eddie Redmayne, whom I hope to God gets his Oscar—in 2016, because he is heroic here, coming very, very close to accomplishing the herculean task of saving this film from itself. Oscillating perfectly between creepy whispers and crazed shrieks, if Jupiter were forty minutes shorter, his sublime performance as the worst of the Abrasax siblings would have succeeded in being this film's salvation. As it stands, it's merely the only performance in the film that has any impact at all. (Certainly this cannot be said of Mila Kunis. She is visibly just as bored as I was, perpetually wearing a frustrated expression that says "This is all I get to do in my own stupid star vehicle?" It makes it even harder to enjoy a lousy film when your sympathies flow toward the actor herself so much more readily than they ever do her character.)
When we finally made it home, I showed my lady fair Flash Gordon, that master class in space opera done in every detail right. This is, I expect, exactly how Jupiter wound up so thoroughly eradicated from my memory. Everything Gordon does, Jupiter doesn't, and my brain couldn't help itself. Above all, what Gordon does is task itself in every moment to entertain, by any means necessary. Jupiter doesn't even seem eager to try, like a movie made under work-to-rule.
She agreed Flash Gordon was a good movie. She did not agree it was The Greatest Movie of All Time. Should I worry about our future?
In the end, Jupiter is nothing but valueless ephemera that cost 175 million dollars. I'm honestly depressed that the only thing this money ultimately represents is naught but a costly nail—the very last nail in the coffin of the Wachowskis' blockbuster ambitions. Leave me alone. I'm in mourning.