Generic Engineering: The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending (2015) – cinema review
Terrible? Brilliant? Both? To borrow the anagram of its directors’ surname, the only description is “Ha! Sick wow.”
(The Wachowskis, 2015)
Had Isaac Newtorn lived long enough, his fourth law of physics would surely have been that space operas are exempt from the usual logic of cinema. By any scientific standard, Jupiter Ascending is a disaster; yet viewed in the spirit of pulp sci-fi and the transportative joys of the big screen adventure, it is strangely compelling.
Give credit to the Wachowskis; they certainly don’t lack for ambition. After the multi-strand Cloud Atlas, here’s an non-franchise blockbuster that attempts to create a new mythology without recourse to comic books or old movies. When was the last time that happenened? The Wachowskis’ own The Matrix, probably, which proves just how rare the duo are.
Like their ground-breaker, there is nothing particularly original here; indeed, the central premise of aliens harvesting humankind for their own gain is simply a variation on the plot of The Matrix. Elsewhere, it’s a compendium of whatever Lana and Andy feel like putting in: a Terminator-esque chase with a burly protrector keeping an important female target out of the firing line; a Flash Gordon-style galactic empire full of strange creatures and even stranger fashion trends; action sequences inspired by video games; and a pair of galactic boots that make Channing Tatum look like he’s skating on air, like an interplanetary version of Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu.
It is patently ridiculous, even before Sean Bean gets to utter his already-immortal advice that “bees are genetically engineered to recognise royalty.” The Wachowskis just haven’t got the hang of a unified aesthetic or structure to their movies. This was fine in The Matrix, where the narrative allowed that anything goes; also fine in Cloud Atlas, where the versatility was the point; and actually the saving grace here, for all that it scuppers the chances of another classic.
The choppy storytelling introduces Mila Kunis’ Jupiter Jones via a lengthy (and, as it turns out, redundant) backstory about how she arrived in America. Then we’re whisked into space to watch a meeting between the three sibling antagonists – but the crucial connective tissue is gone. Rather than gradually unfurl the weirdness, the Wachowskis are impatient to throw us into it, and in the rush it’s hard to care. Aliens with silly names and cod-Shakespearean gravitas intoning exposition; it’s like the nadir of mid-80s Doctor Who. And the show, don’t tell approach cuts the Wachowskis visual prowess down to size; we’re in the realm of film school 1.01 shot/reverse shot, no matter how exotic the backdrops.
The film is full of such missteps – one character is introduced solely to have her standing around in her underwear – before the arrival of Tatum’s skating bodyguard introduces the necessary momentum to push the story through its tick-list narrative: yes, Kunis is destined to visit each sibling, learning a little bit more about this world’s universe (through the dialogue, despite the lavish production design) and in a little bit more peril each time. At various junctures, she will nearly allow her body to be tattooed – the cue for certain death – only for Tatum to skate to the rescue. And if Kunis is more than an inch off the ground, chances are she’ll fall for a bit before being saved.
It’s hard to credit this with anything, except that the Wachowskis continue to throw in unexpected curveballs. There’s a delightful visit to a space-Kafka bureaucracy that plays like an extended homage to Brazil, complete with Terry Gilliam cameo; a flamboyant lizard-monster henchman who stomps into the villain’s lair to bring bad news like, “There’s a problem in the clinic,” with the gruff camp of Harvey Fierstein; a pilot who looks like an elephant. While nearly creative choice is wrong in isolation, collectively the folly takes on its own kind of grandeur. Alchemy, of sorts.
Clearly, the Wachowskis lack the composure of, say, James Gunn in Guardians Of The Galaxy, who nailed his film’s tone from the off. It’s unclear whether Jupiter Ascending is meant to be a comedy or serious, which means, of course, that it becomes an unintentional comedy. Kunis emerges unscathed because she plays Jupiter with admirable sang-froid, stepping into space with a sardonic look that says, “Impress me,” as if hanging out with Tatum’s wolf-boy is the latest in a long line of disappointing dates. But poor Eddie Redmayne loses the plot from the get-go, his almost unintelligible sibilance exploding into a kitsch rage that it’s almost a miracle he won such plaudits for The Theory of Everything. Perhaps Stephen Hawking might complete Newton’s work and realise the ultimate theory of cinema is that for every Oscar there is an equal and opposite Razzie.