Every now and then a movie can make you break inside, your capacity for rational thought collapsing beneath the weight of the inane, the confusing, the spectacularly boring. These are the moments that lead sensible people to just say fuck it, pick up their Red Vines and soda, and head for the nearest exit. Life’s too short, they say. If I really want to finish this, it’ll be on Netflix, they say. I didn’t spend $20 and drive here to make my life demonstrably worse, they say.
If only I could have done that same thing during Jupiter Ascending.
Perhaps I should have been better prepared for the latest film from the Wachowskis, which opens today. Jupiter Ascending has been troubled for some time; the initial trailers didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and that was before the movie’s release got moved from last summer to the dumping ground of February. And while The Matrix was a watershed moment in both visual effects and mainstream sci-fi that continues to engender goodwill, it was also 16 years ago. Since then, the filmmaking duo have proven their ability to create brilliant, kaleidoscopic visuals (Speed Racer) and ambitious, if overwrought, narratives (Cloud Atlas), but none of their movies have coalesced into a cohesive whole. Jupiter Ascending is somehow the worst of both worlds.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young woman who cleans toilets for a living. When a pointy-eared Channing Tatum shows up (he’s Caine Wise, a genetically engineered, speed skating wolf / human hybrid), Jupiter discovers that she’s actually the genetic reincarnation of the queen of the universe. As such, she’s in line to receive some of the queen’s assets — which include Earth itself — but some of the royal children want to stop that from happening.
That already sounds pretty damn convoluted, and that’s only the logline. Add to that competing family members, a corporation that the queen’s family runs, the socio-political dynamics of the interstellar world itself, as well as layers of backstory on how the human race was seeded by intergalactic visitors. Jupiter Ascending is a shambling, rambling mess, and while it’s certainly a welcome change any time an original work of science fiction is produced, when the net result is this convoluted, it’s all too easy to see why studios are far more comfortable with adapting known material.
For every narrative weakness, however, Jupiter Ascending soars as a visual accomplishment. It’s outrageously gorgeous, full of life and color and intricately designed spectacle. None of it may be particularly original, but it’s a wonderful screensaver of a movie. The Wachowskis take full advantage of 3D — one imagines what Speed Racer could have done with the format — embracing its strengths and weaknesses to create a moving graphic novel full of sharply defined, exaggerated layers. If you fondly remember the ViewMaster, Jupiter Ascending will feel all too familiar: this is pure sci-fi fantasy, not worried about remaining grounded or realistic in the slightest.
A wonderful screensaver of a movie
The outrageous, opulent design had me thinking quite a bit about Alejandro Jodorowsky, actually. Last year the wonderful documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune detailed the filmmaker’s failed attempt to bring the novel Dune to the big screen in the 1970s. He assembled a group of incredibly talented artists and visualists to articulate his vision, and while the movie itself was never made, many of those design fragments seeped out into the world, seeding films like Alien and Star Wars. The unspoken truth at the heart of the documentary, however, was that Jodorowsky’s vision for Dune was genuinely batshit crazy, and even if it had been made we would have gotten a visually stunning film that made zero sense.
That’s Jupiter Ascending. And it’s not just a matter of too many ingredients being thrown into the pot either; there are some basic character and story issues that make the film an inherently passive experience. That all begins with Jupiter; while she’s ostensibly the hero of the story, she takes almost no action on her own. The entire film is her being whisked to one location, where she receives a piece of exposition, then being flown to another location, where somebody needs to step in and rescue her. Which is then followed by… well, you get the idea.
It’s so exaggerated I started to wonder if it wasn’t some sort of intentional choice or meta-commentary. One sequence in the film — a truly fun play on Brazil, complete with Terry Gilliam cameo — follows Jupiter as she’s bounced around what feels like the intergalactic DMV, desperately trying to get her genetic queenhood authenticated. The entire time she’s accompanied by a robotic companion that does all the talking for her, and that’s what Jupiter Ascending itself feels like: an exhausting trial that you never want to experience again.
An exhausting cinematic trial
Despite those problems, or perhaps because of them, I’m still rooting for the Wachowskis — and their Netflix show Sense8 in particular. Ever since The Matrix Reloaded stepped outside the comfy confines of the hero’s journey archetype, their films have seemed bloated and slightly lost. Not like they’d forgotten how to tell stories, by any means, but that the tales they wanted to tell were poorly matched for the pacing and confines of a generally two-hour medium. Stretching out over 10 hours a season could be the exact right match, letting the incredibly talented filmmakers rethink television sci-fi much like they did with movies in 1999.
It’s certainly got to be better than Jupiter Ascending.