Following up Cloud Atlas, an extraordinary omnibus film helmed with co-director Tom Tykwer, would have been a confronting task for the Wachowski siblings.1 Though the last fifteen years have seen every film they make exist under the shadow of The Matrix and its widely derided sequels, Cloud Atlas was something of a step away. The Wachowskis eschewed their box office failure in Speed Racer by venturing into the world of independent film financing, eventually breaking even on what is still the most expensive independent feature ever made. Jupiter Ascending is their return to studio cinema and has been plagued by issues. Forced to do reshoots in January and April 2014 after studio executives asked for greater clarity in plot, the film was pulled from its July release and moved to February of this year. Those involved attempted to assuage fears by citing the studio delay on worldwide smash Gravity. For the Wachowskis’ space opera, though, it seems crystal clear that the delay was a mistake and that studio interference is likely at the heart of many narrative problems. The film looks on track to be a financial and critical disaster, but the Wachowskis do not deserve that fate once more. The imagination and joy of filmmaking on show manages to break through handholding exposition and a clumsy edit, their sense of world-building and action is as assured as it was decades ago; in spite of so many issues, every now and then, Jupiter Ascending manages to soar.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the daughter of a Russian widow, and her life routine is centred around cleaning the houses and apartments of the wealthy. Yearning for love and a change of scenery, she’s suddenly whisked away by genetic-hybrid military tracker Caine (Channing Tatum) into a world of intergalactic and interfamilial power struggle when it’s revealed she may be the reincarnation of the matriarch of one of the universe’s richest dynasties. Though it has science fiction elements, space travel and spacecrafts – the obvious tells, Jupiter Ascending is a fantasy film at heart, obsessed with royals in power battles and divine rights, a singular and self-contained storybook adventure with no designs on franchises or world expansion. What’s unfortunate in the telling of this story, though, is that its epic logline is never realised in the fashion intended, with plot points artificially aligned in a rushed manner. Jupiter Ascending ends feeling either half an hour too long or two hours too short.2
The film’s screenplay tends to jump wildly from incomprehensible to overly predictable, an early mistaken identity subplot is never explained, and later much of the film’s plotting is simply Jupiter being transported to and then broken out from a sequence of spacecrafts and planets. Also, being a fantasy film, its basis in medieval history and the battle between royals ends up placing far too much emphasis on the idea of estate law, whilst never properly explaining the legal jurisdiction of the Aegis (space police) in the planets of royalty.3 Another muddled element is the attack on capitalism and the financial elite. The royals, commonly referred to as The Entitled, are harvesting humans for a liquid that grants them something close to immortality, which is a very on-the-nose representation of the cannibalisation of the poor by the rich in a capitalist society, following a somewhat similar train of thought to the recent Snowpiercer (sorry, had to).
Luckily, Jupiter Ascending doesn’t seem to take much of its plot too seriously. Unlike the other recent space spectacular Interstellar, in this film there’s no science-driven exposition explaining emotional content. At one point when Tatum starts to explain the science behind his gravity boots, Jupiter responds with, “Yeah, I just heard gravity… and surf.” There’s a recurring sense of self-satire, not Marvel Wisecracking™ per se, but rather a need to remind the viewer of the fantastical nature of being thrown into a new world. It’s fighting the unknown with humour, but delivered with a goofiness rather than a pop culture-packed wink. This sort of thing is exemplified in a scene in which the very important estate law battles that drive the film are reduced to a Terry Gilliam-starring Brazil homage that feels lifted straight from a zanier segment in Cloud Atlas.
Where the film really succeeds, though, is in its action and spectacle, the Wachowskis still able to craft thrilling fight scenes. Much of the film seems both dated and thoroughly modern with the intersection of ’80s action settings (dark alleyways, crop fields) and some fantastic CGI and sci-fi inventions (hover boots etc), not to mention finally having a shootout with editing that allows you to follow who shoots who. Cinematographer John Toll, who previously shot Iron Man 3, also plays off of the orange and blue divide of all action films, taking it to the extreme in space battles but leaving it out entirely on Earth. The space battle through Chicago, which starts as a Superman homage whereby Caine catches Jupiter at the last possible second, then morphs into an extended chase sequence through the city, is a fantastic microcosm of the Wachowskis action chops, with a clear sense of rhythm and pace, aided by Michael Giacchino’s engaging and thrilling score, and feeling like its own self-contained short film.4 After the battle, the Wachowskis borrow from the Men in Black playbook in revealing how humans have no idea of the mass alien destruction occasionally wreaked on their planet, the playful explanation coming as yet another tongue-in-cheek delight.
Performance-wise, the film is a mixed bag. Kunis seems unsure to play for laughs or emotion, the hesitation rendering many emotional beats empty, though this is mostly as a result of the way her character is written – a seemingly typical damsel in distress until her sense of morality turns her into a fighter by the film’s end. The best performance in the film, arguably, is that of Eddie Redmayne, who seems to be the one most viewers lambast for being completely over-the-top. In actuality, Redmayne’s performance, as the cunning heir to the Abraxas fortune, is perfectly camp, capturing the tone of the film completely.5 The only other actor who commits in this manner, and in a completely different way, is Channing Tatum. Written as a Silver Surfer clone with dollops of Superman and a cardboard military cutout, he plays his role as straight as possible, a world away from the smarmy wit of superhero characters.6 Between this, Foxcatcher, and 22 Jump St, Tatum is proving himself adept at jumping through genres and excelling in all of them.
The Wachowskis fight back against conventional norms in casting too. Whilst all of the primary actors are white (though the royals being all English is essentially the point), the film features women and people of colour in roles of power throughout. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays the leader of the Aegis squadron we follow, David Ajala and now-Wachowski regular Bae Doona play clever bounty hunters, Belle‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw also appears as what seems to be a chief-of-staff role to the royalty. There are also a wide range of non-gendered characters that exist on various planets and a fantastic moment in which Jupiter’s line (“You’re lucky this was a woman’s car.”) ends up having a completely different and refreshing reveal than expected.
Jupiter Ascending doesn’t look like it will be the cult classic that many Wachowski films have gone on to become, it lacks a sense of all-encompassing messiness that defines their other work, though it definitely warrants a viewing and appreciation, the grappling of intensely creative filmmakers and the confines of a studio system.7 Amidst many problems, though, Jupiter Ascending manages to be a thrilling and amusing journey, a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape packed with blockbuster continuties and tangled fan service.
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