You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it since the early 2000’s, that there's something wrong with the cinema world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
I’m talking about the fact that the Wachowskis haven’t made a good film since The Matrix.
For many people who were on the cusp of adulthood in the late 90’s, this is an uncomfortable realization. The Matrix is, after all, one of the most important movies of the past twenty years. If, like me, you hold a special, eternal place in your heart for that film, you’ve probably also spent the past fifteen years convincing yourself that Lana and Andy Wachowski are good filmmakers. They revitalized the cyberpunk aesthetic, revolutionized special effects photography, and introduced Hugo Weaving to a wider audience. For this they deserve praise.
But after Jupiter Ascending, I think we need to finally wake up from the dream and accept a simple fact: The Matrix was more than fifteen years ago, and as directors, the Wachowskis have never been able to match it. The only other decent film with which they’ve been involved is 2006’s V for Vendetta, but there they can only take credit for adapting Alan Moore’s graphic novel for the screen, because the film was directed by James McTeigue (though perhaps the Wachowskis can claim some kudos for having mentored McTeigue, who got his start as an assistant director on their Matrix films).
It may finally be time to place The Wachowskis in the same bargain bin category as M. Night Shyamalan (although to his credit, Shyamalan at least made three decent movies before he began churning out crap like a Gatling gun loaded full of awful films), forever trying- and failing- to live up to past successes.
Now, all of this having been said, let me be clear: Jupiter Ascending is not a bad film. It’s competently shot, ambitious in the scope of its storytelling, and features at least a couple decent performances. But I still walked out of the theatre more satisfied with my half-eaten bag of slightly stale, slightly soggy popcorn. Because unlike the Wachowskis, Becel-flavoured grease has always been mediocre.
Jupiter Ascending tells the incredibly convoluted story of Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who lives an unglamorous life cleaning houses with her mother and aunt and sharing a cramped home in a dilapidated Chicago neighbourhood with pretty much the entirety of her extended family (Russian stereotypes, all). Basically, she’s Cinderella (no, seriously, in case you didn’t get it, the Wachowskis throw in a few ham-fisted references just to make sure you know she’s a Cinderella parallel). This much we can be certain of from the film’s early minutes. After that it gets hazy. Some things are going on in space. Very serious things. So serious, in fact, that someone from space appears to want to murder Jupiter! Before you can ask what any of this has to do with anything, our pseudo-Cinderella is swept off her feet by handsome space wolf-man Caine (Tatum), whose unimaginative name tells you all you need to know about his character: laconic, chiseled ex-military. John Rambo with wolf-like ears. And magic space rollerblades (don’t even ask; Caine’s impossibly silly boots are only the tip of the “technology can do absolutely anything!” iceberg). So Space Rambo #1 takes Cinderella to meet Space Rambo #2 (Sean Bean) for help, and then bees somehow reveal that Jupiter is a space princess. That’s right folks: a bunch of bees give us a more concrete grasp of just what the hell is going on in this story than the first forty-five minutes of the film.
Except Jupiter isn’t really a space princess; rather, she is- by complete and utter random coincidence- an exact genetic duplicate of the deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, a group of aristocrats (dubbed “entitled”) who ostensibly live forever by seeding planets with human life and then harvesting them to manufacture a super-advanced anti-aging cream… From space, or something (honestly, the fact that things are space-things and not just things is really important in this movie). The rest of the film involves many things happening and many feelings being experienced by Jupiter, with the end result being a tangled mess of plot punctuated by many complex visuals and a couple obligatory “bullet-time” shots.
Jupiter Ascending’s story is (to put it mildly) ambitious, but still (to put it very very mildly) flawed. From the beginning of its development, the Wachowskis were treating this as a new franchise, and it shows: they attempt to cram several films’ worth of world-building into the first half of one, and the lack of subtlety makes the whole thing feel rather insulting to the viewer. Lana Wachowski has been quoted saying that one of the primary inspirations for the film was Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. And this is perhaps where Jupiter Ascending fares comparatively worst: in Carroll's works, the characters who drift in and out of the narrative in small snippets are compelling enough to leave an indelible mark on the reader. In Jupiter Ascending, characters drift in and out of the narrative and are immediately forgotten as slipshod stereotypes pulled from better science fiction stories in an attempt to force a cohesive franchise out of thin air.
And to top it off, it’s very unclear what a franchise would even look like. The story of this one film barely felt worth telling, so I shudder to think what meaningless bit of lore would be unnecessarily expanded in order to make more. The human-harvesting? Jupiter pretty solidly put her foot down on being against that, so the most unique and interesting part of this whole universe is already out the window. Maybe the boring, arch-typical space cops (unimaginatively named “The Aegis”) who have animal-human spliced-gene hybrids among them? Sorry guys, someone already came up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in space twenty years ago, and it’s called Bucky O’Hare.
Even more disappointing than the poor writing are the extremely poor pacing decisions, the Wachowskis waste an excruciating amount of time on action set pieces that are much longer than they should be. Perhaps the most boring point of the film is the sequence where fighter craft chase Caine around downtown Chicago for a full ten minutes (or perhaps even more, I stopped paying attention eventually), with the only dialogue being Jupiter’s occasional scream. The climax of the film, set in an ever-more-explode-y refinery (though what exactly it refines is never made clear), drags on so long that I honestly hoped Kunis would fall into a pit of molten space metal, if only so that it would end. The Wachowskis’ over-reliance on complex, stylish visuals is no longer as charming as it was fifteen years ago, and most viewers will spend the majority of the film yelling “get on with it!” at the screen.
The performances on display in Jupiter Ascending are largely forgettable. Kunis plays to her strengths: a down-to-earth, fish-out-of-water cluelessness coupled with a fierce independent streak. Tatum may as well be played by a cardboard cutout of himself, since his only real purpose here is to showcase a strong yet vulnerable look in his smoldering eyes while saying little. Space Rambo indeed. Bean is typically Bean-y, doing nothing particularly new or challenging to him. Eddie Redmayne is somewhat interesting as Balem Abrasax, but his off-putting method amounts to “most of the time I whisper, so when I sometimes yell, then you know I’m acting really hard!”
In spite of all its flaws, there is at least a sincerity to Jupiter Ascending that almost convinced me to give the Wachowskis the benefit of the doubt. But in the end, the film is just too much of a jumbled mess. It feels very much like the siblings staked their hopes on this movie being their next Matrix, and that’s something you can’t force. Is it a bad film? No. Is it worth thirteen dollars and two hours you could otherwise spend doing laundry or maybe a crossword? As much as fond memories of The Matrix make me wish I could say otherwise, the answer is no.