by Kathie Smith
The pop culture crush on Andy and Lana Wachowski began with Bound (1996), a clever noir that took stylistic and thematic risks to satisfying ends. The full-fledged romance commenced with The Matrix, which tapped a pulsing zeitgeist that provoked a response from cultural studies to video games. Unfortunately, what followed was little more than painful reiterations that the honeymoon was over between the audience and the Wachowkis. Reigniting the fire has proven far more difficult for the directing team than everyone had hoped, despite their adventurous explorations of diverging source material in both Tatsuo Yoshida’s inconsequential Speed Racer and David Mitchell’s expansive Cloud Atlas. Although fans may have long given up on the Wachowskis, Jupiter Ascending signaled a potential return to form with their own original screenplay, a headfirst plunge back into pure science fiction, and the unconventional star power of Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. But like the waning patience of Matrix apostles, the news that Jupiter Ascending delivers little more than random flares of interest will likely only draw apathetic shrugs.
Directors: The Wachowskis
Producers: Grant Hill, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writers: The Wachowskis
Cinematographer: John Toll
Editor: Alexander Berner
Music: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, David Ajala, Bae Doona, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Terry Gilliam
US Theatrical Release: February 6, 2015
US Distributor: Warner Brothers
Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, an undocumented Russian worker slaving over dirty toilet bowls and unmade beds with her mother in Chicago penthouses. Named by her astronomer father who was murdered before her birth, Jupiter lives under the thumb of her oppressive extended family, waking every morning at 4:45am with the words “I hate my life” under her breath. Jupiter’s lineage, however, is not as earthbound as she thinks—her genomes have serendipitously aligned into the improbable makings of interstellar royalty. But dark forces are at work in the outer reaches of our solar system where a trio of siblings in the reigning Abrasax family—Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton)—vie for power and hold the fate of the inhabitants of Earth in their hands. Their individual plans, mostly to cash in on Earth as a commodity, rely on quashing or at least harnessing Jupiter’s newly discovered sovereignty.
Without really knowing why, Jupiter finds herself the target of a small phalanx of bounty hunters—geared-out cyber punks straight out of Ghost in the Shell as well as your classic Martians with spindly bodies and big heads right out of Roswell, New Mexico. Among the former group is Caine (Tatum), a mutant military beefcake sent by Titus Abrasax to kidnap Jupiter in exchange for a diplomatic pardon. However, once he finds out about Jupiter’s true identity, Caine enlists his ex-military friend Stinger (Sean Bean) to help him safely escort Jupiter to the galactic capital in order to claim her title as queen.
Much of this plays out like a Star Trek episode with phrases like “Shields are failing! Get us out of here!” tossed out like we’ve never heard them before. Effective moments only come in quick and often incongruous bursts. The Wachowskis sew together a compelling action sequence early on when Caine, using boots that allow him to hover and fly through the air like a skateboarder with no skateboard, engages in an extended open-air chase through Chicago’s skyline and streets with evildoers after Jupiter. Despite the cartoonish hover boots and strobe-like special effects, the high-speed cat and mouse raises the pulse a few notches. But if you were to drop into Jupiter Ascending a half hour later, while in an all-out homage to Brazil (including the appearance of Terry Gilliam), you would think you were seeing a different movie with the same cast. (As long as they were appropriating, I personally think the Wachowskis missed an opportunity to drop reluctant revolutionary Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry into the story.)
Most of the movie’s best ambience is centered on the Abrasax brothers—Titus a greedy playboy and Balem an egomaniacal autocrat. Titus tricks Jupiter into agreeing to marry him in order to save life on Earth and the resulting ceremonial trimming for here-comes-the-bride puts Katy Perry’s Superbowl flying platform to shame. But it’s Balem who is the central villain, living on Jupiter, which is blanketed in a thick layer of storms, with a huge industrial refinery buried beneath (although it’s not oil they are processing). The planet and Balem are twin components, visually and dramatically realized with a certain amount of elan that is missing in other settings and characters. Redmayne does wonders with Balem, clearly enjoying some over-the-top Shakespearian dramaturgy with a sci-fi riff. The script gives him operatic soliloquies—spoken in an eerie hoarse whisper—that would not work in other hands, giving life to what is little more than a caricature of evil.
There is a glimmer of The Matrix in Jupiter Ascending with its desire to revolt against and demolish tyranny, but the narrative fails to have the same kind of engaging subtext and merely coasts on superficial appeal and an interspecies love story. (Caine is a “splice,” a humanoid genetically modified for military purposes and apparently not suited for a queen.) Although Jupiter Ascending makes good use of pyrotechnics in an ending that lays waste to Balem’s empire, the movie settles for a finale that finds Jupiter loving her loathsome life on Earth and delivering the surprising news to her family that she has a date—surprising apparently because toilet-bowl-cleaning Jupiter has trouble finding a date, and said date is with none other than alien Magic Mike. In retrospect, The Matrix franchise perhaps took itself a little too seriously and eventually drove its themes far into the ground. For what it's worth, Jupiter Ascending tries a different tactic with similar material, but if it’s relevance that you want with your entertainment, you best look elsewhere.