The Wachowskis remain a creative duo to be reckoned with, but their latest is a haphazard, tone deaf space opera of absurdly gargantuan proportions.
The Wachowski siblings are true cinematic visionaries, constantly challenging the conventions of blockbuster filmmaking with each new feature, and fearlessly defying audience expectations at nearly every turn. Their seemingly reckless ambition knows no bounds. The Matrix put them on the map and secured their place in cinematic history. For this reviewer however, it was their Cloud Atlas (co-directed alongside German filmmaker Tom Tykwer) that transcended all preconceived notions of the hows and whys of filmmaking and traditional storytelling and morphed into something indescribable, an almost religious movie-going experience. That isn’t a sentiment shared by every critic. Many others claim that the Wachowskis’ ambition is their downfall, and they are often accused of putting heady ideas and optical grandeur above narrative coherence, writing thinly drawn sketches for characters, and giving into their every whim which often leads to giggle-worthy visual absurdity. Both sets of critical opinion are probably true, which helps explain their cult fan base.
Lana and Andy Wachowski’s latest mind-bending, big-budget, science fiction extravaganza, Jupiter Ascending, is an entirely original property filled with gorgeous images and their typically bizarre, yet captivating world-building. The “big ideas” are here as well, though many are just variations on themes already present in their other work, especially the spiritual subject of reincarnation. And then of course there are the wild, expertly executed action sequences supported by carefully constructed photography and inventively detailed production design. All of the Wachowski hallmarks are in place to create something truly wonderful, but unfortunately it’s all in service of a poor script executed with questionable acting and loads of self-indulgent silliness. It’s painful to report that Jupiter Ascending is a creative failure on a level so massive that it could only come from the minds of truly talented cinematic mavericks.
Jupiter Ascending‘s plot follows the well-worn genre path of the “chosen one” protagonist. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a Russian immigrant living illegally in Chicago while loathing her mundane life as a housekeeper. Before long her very existence is turned upside down when an intergalactic genetically-engineered ex-military hunter named Caine (Channing Tatum) rescues Jupiter from a group of bounty hunters sent to kill her. Shortly after, Jupiter learns that she is the reincarnation of the former matriarch of the House of Abrasax, an alien dynasty that rules the galaxy and happens to own Earth and all its inhabitants. The matriarch’s children Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth) are now in a war of inheritance, which Jupiter dangerously finds herself in the middle of, all the while destined to save the human race. This space opera is an eclectic mix of the Wachowskis’ own Matrix trilogy and Dune, with a little Brazil, Star Wars, and Japanese anime thrown in for good measure. It’s unabashedly nerdy and gets more eccentric and strange the longer it goes on. Talking dinosaurs with wings and men mixed with wolves and bees will test even the most forgiving audience’s patience and goodwill. It’s difficult to keep a straight face while recalling these elements for this review.
Perhaps this level of foolishness could have been sold by a committed ensemble, but the acting in Jupiter Ascending is weirdly uneven, with many of the performances seemingly belonging to entirely different films. Mila Kunis is completely lost in this fantastical green-screen world and comes off as wooden at best, totally inept at worst. It doesn’t help that she is given more than one howler of a line to deliver, while falling off of at least a dozen buildings (the “I’ve always loved dogs” line reading featured in the trailer is only a brief glimpse of how bad it gets). Channing Tatum certainly has beefcake appeal and is pretty believable in an action setting, but he has zero chemistry with Kunis and their forced love plot will have you continuously rolling your eyes whenever they appear on screen together. Eddie Redmayne gives a truly committed, psychotic, drag queen-sized performance, either throatily whispering his lines with plenty of side-eye glare or screaming them like a gangly petulant toddler. It’s unclear exactly what Redmayne is trying to accomplish here, but it’s undeniably entertaining in the campiest way possible. His on-screen siblings Middelton and Booth play immortal royals like they are the pretty boy/girl vampire Cullen clan from Twilight. Doona Bae (who was the best thing about Cloud Atlas) is wasted with a small, almost mute role as a bounty hunter. Only Sean Bean, who’s character is also criminally underwritten, comes off looking remotely okay, as even at his worst he is incapable of uttering a false line — even one as silly as “bees are genetically pre-disposed to recognize royalty.”
It’s been a bit too easy for critics to gleefully rip Jupiter Ascending to pieces, and that is a shame, because beneath all the preposterousness is some beautiful, inspired crafts work and uniquely thrilling action sequences. The “magic hour” chase through Chicago (shot over a period of six months and running nearly six minutes in length) is an adrenaline-fueled master class in action staging and easily their best crack at such a scene since The Matrix. There are breathtaking images, including a starlit shot of a ship breaking through a planet’s ice ring, a 1000 flame-strong candlelit funeral shrine, and a royal white wedding resembling a Lady Gaga music video. John Toll’s cinematography is crisp and stylish, mixing effortlessly with production designer Hugh Bateup’s extravagantly detailed sets, Kym Bryant’s otherworldly costuming efforts, and the convincing visual effects. Michael Giacchino’s score is suitably operatic and unafraid to crank it up to 11 when the film is at its most ludicrous.
The Wachowskis should be commended for their ambition, and for having the audacity to create such a unique science fiction world that isn’t based on any comic book or franchise sequel. Unfortunately not every idea is a good one, and no matter how intriguing the world, it all amounts to a hill of beans when your core plot is this tired and formulaic. Perhaps Jupiter Ascending would have worked best as a television miniseries or even a videogame. Both are more forgiving mediums when it comes to plot mechanics, and it would have allowed them the time to really be able to dig deep and develop this trippy world without conforming to a standard 2-hour runtime. But as it stands, Jupiter Ascending is a mess of a film with no clear tone or focus of vision. I do hope studios continue to support the Wachowskis in their endeavors. In an era where tired superhero movies and sequels rule the box office, we need more original voices like theirs to keep shooting for the moon. They may not always get there, but it should give us hope to see them try.