One definition of insanity is to repeat the same activity and expect a different outcome. A modern variation on that might be to go to a Wachowski Siblings movie expecting something akin to The Matrix. Watching Jupiter Ascending last week, I wondered if this was a case of optimism triumphing over experience or a more simple case of refusing to heed the signs.
This is not to say that The Matrix is a perfect movie—it hasn’t aged well. Nor is it to say that the Wachowskis haven’t done anything else of worth—their movies have remained visually imaginative and have never shied away from incorporating big ideas. All the same, the shadow of their game-changing early success seems to weigh as heavily on them as it does on their audience.
So what do we get with Jupiter Ascending? We get a weirdly unbalanced mix of overstuffed science fantasy, underplayed “big ideas” and a selection of narrative cliches that combine to waste just about everyone’s time. It’s remarkably ambitious, but it doesn’t seem to be ambitious to do anything in particular—it’s happy enough to just be ambitious.
To trade in spoilers for a little while, one of the nicer things about Jupiter Ascending is its heroine. Mila Kunis is a Russian emigre housemaid, cleaning the toilets of the super-rich in Chicago. Essentially, she’s a romantic comedy character who suddenly finds that not only is she in a science fiction epic, but that she’s genetically destined to be the ruler of the Earth. Actually, she’s the genetic owner of the Earth, rather than its ruler, but the legal basis for that, as well as just how she came to inherit her genetic payload (if it wasn’t just random chance), is one of the many things that Jupiter Ascending skips over rather than engages in.
So what is the galactic civilisation that she finds herself a player in? Well, you could watch the entire movie and not really have a clue. There’s a galactic police force that mostly exists to give people a spaceship to fly around in (because they’re certainly not enforcing any laws). There’s a bureaucracy borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, to the point of including a bizarre cameo by Gilliam himself. And there are the main antagonists, who are competing over a valuable youth treatment—not that there seems to be anyone around to actually buy the stuff.*
This absence of context infects the entire movie, making it feel oddly hollow even as it tries its best to fill itself up with incident. The main victims of this include the aforementioned antagonist family: Of the three of them, one is shunted off the stage after explaining the plot to the heroine, another has an interesting scheme that he abandons at the end of the second act, and the last just pouts and scowls in the background until it’s time for the big finale.
If the movie had the confidence it desperately needed, it wouldn’t have felt the need to fire off every arrow in its quiver in one go. Whereas The Matrix was a focused, low-stakes, personal story—which led to the sequels increasingly revealing the lack of a coherent universe—Jupiter Ascending puts the fate of the Earth at stake from the start, leaving it nowhere to go but sideways.
So what about those big ideas that the Wachowskis like to play with? Well, they’re there, sort of. As mentioned, there’s the Soylent Green-style youth serum, but as it’s embodied in just three people, none of whom are given any depth as characters, it’s a rather one-sided critique of capitalism. (There’s even a wedding two-thirds of the way through the movie where the crowd are all robots.) Beyond that, well, aren’t the chase scenes and the explosions nice? Certainly, there’s nothing like The Matrix’s juxtaposition of an appealing simulated world with a grimy reality. Both movies might count as high concept, but The Matrix’s high concept informs the entire film. Jupiter Ascending’s high concept drifts out of sight for long stretches of time and is entirely absent in the finale.
Whatever flaws there are in the film though can’t be blamed on the actors. Eddie Redmayne happily chews away at the scenery as the final boss, and Douglas Booth is surprisingly good as his kid brother and the penultimate boss. Kunis and Channing Tatum are likeable enough leads, if never particularly believable in their underwritten romance, and Sean Bean commits to his supporting role as well as he ever does. The sad fact though is that there’s no one else in the film of note. This is a very, very empty galaxy.
The Wachowskis might never make another Matrix, but that’s hardly a criticism—few filmmakers ever make a film that has such impact. But their triumph is also their curse. Knowing what they’re capable of, we’re always going to hope, if not expect, that they’ll reach those heights again. Jupiter Ascending aims for that, but it never even comes close.