I find the Wachowskis a perplexing duo. Their debut film Bound (1996) was a smart, lithe, new-fashioned twist on classic noir fare, and more recently the intermittently impressive folly Cloud Atlas (2013) suggested cinematic ambitions far outside the normal still guttered in their hearts. Of course, the Wachowskis became pop culture lightning rods when their 1999 hit The Matrix did what the same year’s Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace pointedly refused to do, and gave the canards of pulp sci-fi a cyberpunk-tinted techno-noir makeover that defined a quintessence of modish cool. The siblings were then encouraged to drive the modest pleasures of the series into the ground, albeit with the franchise hitting high points in the ragged but dynamic second entry The Matrix Reloaded (2002). But I’ve never been particularly convinced of the Wachowskis’ sci-fi chops, especially considering that the genre enabled the duo’s propensity for leaden technobabble and pseudo-philosophical koans in place of proper dialogue – something their immediate progeny Christopher Nolan readily appropriated – and flat, cliched characters. Since the good-looking but cumulatively unbearable Speed Racer (2008) the siblings have shifted gear considerably, preferring bright colours and a rather less self-serious tone that flirts with camp without quite making the leap. Jupiter Ascending at first seems like an attempt to expand the sketches of the “Sonmi” chapters of Cloud Atlas into a full length movie, which on the face of it is a good idea, as the Wachowskis were clearly much more comfortable there than with that film’s other genre discursions and indeed made those scenes sing with their personal passion. But something goes badly awry with Jupiter Ascending, and even a lengthy release delay and possibly brutal reediting can’t be blamed for this yawning void. Whereas the Wachowskis hooked a generation of young men with the masturbatory fantasy of being meek computer nerds randomly chosen to become digital supermen, here they offer the same thing for young women, but not.
Jupiter Ascending still caught my intention in abstract because I’m fond of space opera, and the film’s advertising promised a lush visual experience new to the Wachowski’s palette. Jupiter Ascending at least damn well looks like a science fiction classic, and yet it has no grasp on the particulars. Then again, I thought pretty much the same of The Matrix films, and those were epoch-altering hits. Space opera is a seemingly simple formula that has actually proven awfully difficult for many filmmakers, and even the best examples, like John Carter (2012), have no guarantee of success. Jupiter Ascending follows Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) onto the big screen and seemed with that film to promise a revival of this mode’s force. Even though I was no fan of James Gunn’s film I have to admit it was still better than what the Wachowskis end up with, in large part because the self-satirising aspects of Gunn’s film had a specific bite the Wachowskis are too full of themselves to match. The script for Jupiter Ascending is a teeming tonal mishmash, assimilating every cliché of the genre: bits of Flash Gordon, Barbarella, Star Wars, Dune, The Terminator, The Last Starfighter, Brazil, Foundation, Lensman, even, hell, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, can be found in this film’s genetic structure, but with no sense of constructive synthesis. Small wonder the Wachowskis are so obsessed with consumerist parasitism as a trait for their villains. It’s odd that the two siblings who have some real talent for visualising difficult ideas should have chosen to expend what’s left of their cachet on such a lumpen, under-written hunk of carbonite.
Whereas the Wachowskis respected the boyish fantasy within The Matrix sufficiently to give Neo the kind of real, numbing job many could relate to, here they try for Dickensian humour in making Jupiter an outright dogsbody – she cleans rich peoples’ toilets for a living – and saddling her with a clan of absurd Russo-American caricatures. There’s a potentially interesting gesture at connecting familiar forms of Earth exploitation as Jupiter is cajoled by her cousin Vlad (Kick Gurry) into letting her eggs be harvested for cash, with the colossal intergalactic enterprise she will later encounter that farms worlds like Earth for extractable life essence to feed the immortality of an elite ruling class. But the Wachowskis mistake a variety of broad inevitability for wit and insight. For one thing, they make what’s going on clear far too early in the narrative and then expects the audience to share Jupiter’s shock when she finds out what’s going on – a moment of grim revelation the Wachowskis handled far better in The Matrix and Cloud Atlas. Jupiter, in spite of her lowly Earth status, becomes the target of a swathe of bounty hunters and various warriors when her DNA strand is detected and found to be the same as the former Queen of the Galaxy. This odd, Dalai Lama-esque anointment by reincarnation is all because of the repeating patterns in the DNA seeding on planets to be farmed for life-essence which means that the same people are often reborn over and over.
The seeding and harvesting of the free range populaces is a business run on an intergalactic scale by various dynasties including the Abrasax clan, whose deceased matriarch Jupiter is the “recurrence” of. Her three children and inheritors, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth), all have good reasons to fear her recurrence and also see opportunities to annex her property rights, which, confusingly, override some of theirs but not others. Titus sends Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a talented but disgraced superwarrior, to protect her and bring her to him. Lots of surging, booming, crashing action scenes result as Caine has to fight off the invisible alien sentinels on Earth, and then rescue Jupiter from Titus’ wily plot to marry and murder her for her property. Balem takes a more direct approach, seizing Jupiter’s family from Earth and using them as leverage to make Jupiter give up her claim. It’s amazing to realise that in the end all of this money and enterprise have been expended on a narrative that is essentially a breathless Victorian melodrama writ large, a la The Woman in White, with Jupiter cast as the hapless damsel being forced by mean relatives to sign over the will to them, and waiting for the hunky hero to come rescue her. The Wachowskis try to salve this a little by making much of Jupiter’s achievement of self-sacrificing bravado as she resists Balem for the sake of her larger family of fellow Earthlings. But Jupiter sadly remains a mostly passive heroine. The Wachowskis have long laid their fetishes on the line, and their usual fondness for tightly-attired femme-punks decorates the background of many scenes, as does their idealistically multicultural casting, but even with Lana’s post-transitional queer attitudes the siblings remain desperately square in a lot of ways.
Derring-do is almost entirely left to Caine, a human-wolf hybrid specially bred for warlike instincts, but who was kicked out of the space army thingy for biting a toff. This punishment also included being stripped of his prosthetic wings (yes, like Barbarella’s Pygar he’s a sort of angel), which means that to fly now he has to wear anti-gravity boots. Caine is supposed to be torn between his noble human and bestial impulses, but the filmmakers can never find a way to communicate the schism, and really he’s just an entirely regulation bit of heroic rough trade. In the course of protecting Jupiter, Caine goes for help to his former commander Stinger Apini (Sean Bean), who suffered a similar fate to Caine when he stuck up for him and now hides out on Earth with his daughter. Caine and Stinger are supposed to have an enjoyable Han-and-Lando frenemy relationship, but Bean walks through his role with veritable contempt, and neither he nor Tatum are able to bite into their paltry dialogue with anything like conviction, never mind lived-in camaraderie. One of the film’s few good touches does stem from Stinger’s requisite betrayal of Caine, a betrayal Caine dismisses with a kind of shit-happens understanding, before bringing Stinger back on board of Team Hero. At least here the film’s biting disregard for the niceties of genre dramaturgy is deliberate. But just how badly the Wachowski’s ears have failed them becomes clear when they try to write romantic dialogue for Jupiter and Caine where Jupiter dismisses Caine’s anxiety over his hybrid nature with promising that she “likes dogs.” The romantic angle comes from absolutely nowhere, like something the Wachowskis remembered to throw in there at the last moment. Elsewhere the plot, even though it’s not actually very complicated, is badly garbled, with bounty hunters who turn on one-another for no apparent reason, and multiple factions vying for something or other, including the team under spacefarer Diomika Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird) that ends up helping Caine and Stinger for reasons that I for one never grasped. The troika of evil royals could have been worked for something interesting, as a seductive cabal of metaphoric upper-class users offering the temptations of decadent exceptionalism to Jupiter, an inversion of the embracing clan of the Twilight series or a more outrightly barbaric version of Brideshead Revisited’s treacherously attractive Flyte family. But this would have required a dramatic care the film can’t approach.
In short, the storytelling in Jupiter Ascending often descends into total gibberish. Then there’s the readily familiar logic lapses of this sort of fare, proffered without humour or irony, particularly the prissy Caligula-esque villain who runs a cosmos-spanning empire but doesn’t have an adequate personal security force. Balem does employ some genetically enhanced dinosaurs (shades of Future War, 1992, MST3K fans!) as goons to counter Caine’s one-man army. Why there isn’t a grand mass of other hybrid supersoldiers like Caine about to stop him crashing various functions held by people who run the universe isn’t explained. The sequence in which Caine crashes his way through defences to halt Jupiter's wedding to Titus, which should be a suitably absurd and thrilling tribute to the climax of Flash Gordon (1980), instead raises neither chuckle nor pulse. Balem proves to be the most easily defeated intergalactic demigod since Stargate (1993) showed that all you need to fend off marauding alien spaceship was a few carts as a barricade like in an old B western. At one point it’s made clear that Caine, Stinger, and Jupiter are going to have to fight their way off Earth which is now under blockade, but moments later Jupiter is snatched up and spirited away by one faction without difficulty. One lengthy sequence sees Caine and a robotic helper ushering Jupiter through the levels of bureaucratic hell to establish her official status, moving down through layers of increasing antiquity and steampunky paraphernalia, a sequence that seems to exist for no logical reason beyond nodding to Brazil (1984) and allowing Terry Gilliam a cameo. Whilst I’m no worshipful fan of Gilliam either, any intended comparison of form and intent to Brazil, a film that achieved the hallucinatory texture of a bad dream, is entirely hopeful on the Wachowskis’ part, as their work’s sense of dissenting satire and fantastic world-building is always preeningly literal.
Ultimately what makes Jupiter Ascending a hard movie to reckon with on the page lies in the problem of not making it sound like an interesting mess or a gaudy potential camp relic. Much like David Twohy’s all too similar The Chronicles of Riddick (2003), it’s so ordinary, so flat on the dramatic level, it becomes excruciating; a product of filmmakers who have run out of ideas, something that ought to be clear by the fourth or fifth time Caine reproduces Neo’s catching of Trinity at the end of The Matrix Reloaded with Jupiter. There is plenty of fuel for a potential trash masterpiece in Jupiter Ascending, particularly Redmayne’s florid whisper-scream performing as Balem, and yet nothing actually gains enough effect or conviction to achieve the level of pop delirium. On the contrary. Jupiter Ascending is often criminally witless, all the moreso when it tries to be funny. Even the collegial variety of jokiness that the Wachowskis sometimes throw out there, like a explanation for crop circles, zips by without landing a proper laugh, whilst the dialogue is relentlessly uninspired and often awful. The Wachowskis have pretences to being pop philosophers schooling the audience quickly in terms of reference connected to established real-world radical thought, but whereas in The Matrix movies the concepts they brought into play, however facetiously, felt apt and of the moment, here the vague mumbling about various forms of consumption as oppression just seems like old hat, and besides, John Carter already wove the same theme into its story calmly and effectively. Kunis is always a vividly likeable screen presence, with a capacity for delivering sarcastic dialogue with a flip skill honed by years of sitcom work, and that makes it all the more frustrating to see her unable to hold the screen in her own movie: her Wicked Witch of Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) stole the whole show, but here she’s utterly helpless in the face of a shapeless role. Tatum’s gift for projecting a kind of nonplussed decency is valuable, recalling the classic peplum hero whose hulking physique is the servant of his goodness rather than the tool of his egotism, but Caine is just an assemblage of traits and attitudes placed into the blank space on a script page that required a hero to fill it.
Not surprisingly, the one scene in the film that comes close to working on the level of dramatic intensity comes when Jupiter and Balem finally meet and Jupiter is forced to confront both the best and the worst in herself, helped by Kunis and Redmayne playing their absurd parts with commitment. If Jupiter Ascending held my attention at all, it was because of the excellence of the visuals, courtesy of cinematographer John Toll and the special effects team, who paint in hues of blue and gold like a Rococo interior decorator on a cocaine binge. The genre landscapes, the massive spaceships, the ornate infrastructure of space royalty’s abodes and the tangled forms of interstellar industry, all have a rich and expansive sense of wonderment that evoke the best traditions of Amazing Stories covers. The repeated image of the naked royals emerging from their baths of rejuvenating serum call back with a little delight to the sexploitation of many an old Roman epic. The sight of Caine skating across the sky on rails of blue electrons is one the film continually offers and it works as a lovely visualisation of a childlike fantasy, and the film ends, fairly, on this vivacious refrain. The Wachowskis in the past have usually had a confidently sinuous way with action sequences, moving their camera vigorously but always tracking the action with visual fluency, and the early battle scene over the Chicago skyline here is terrific stuff, although not quite as cleanly rendered and as the Wachoswkis’ best work at this sort of thing, like the great freeway chase in The Matrix Reloaded. Sadly, though, as the film goes on that coherency begins to fail them as the pressure of their own top-heavy superstructure breaks up the visual rhythms, and the lack of persuasive protagonists and antagonists means that, rather than building to a grand finale, Jupiter Ascending just attains the status of so much white noise.