The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is not a particularly good film, which is itself not as much of a problem as we might think. I deeply wish it was a better bad movie, however, and this is a problem.
Here we have another in a (not so) long line of indulgent sci fi operas from just about the only directors in mainstream Hollywood regularly performing these sorts of old school “film as magic” feats of personal expression filtered through glossy, high-concept sheen and kitsch-levels of production value. In the 80s, this stuff was thick on the ground to the point of old hat productions being released almost monthly. But in the 2010s, what a rarity it is for a maxi-budgeted tentpole film to seem like the product of two minds furiously at work rather than a corporate machine.
We should be happy, then, for the simple fact that this sibling pair make some of the only blockbusters that have the legs to stand up and peer beyond the post-Nolan fence of “glum, serious, morose” standing in for “high quality” that has been built and re-fitted over the past ten years time and time again, given a new coat of paint every so often by gloomy hack Zack Snyder. And for that fact, Jupiter Ascending has enough to like to grant it the label of interesting curiosity. But it never, not for a second, not like Speed Racer and not like Cloud Atlas, “goes for it” by throttling itself right back into the mid-century like its progenitors did. Instead, it has the luster of a questionable, half-written slice of modern fan fiction pretending to be the genuine mid-century article, painted over with a new coat to hide the rotting wood underneath.
At the very least: what paint! Say what you will about Jupiter Ascending’s failures at the primary level, but it is positively engorged with slight, secondary highlights. The way a world is built and populated with little, sideways details that never tell all. The way the production design does in fact honestly hearken back to a cheerier, brighter time in sci-fi history and has all the fun in the world with its high-gloss, ultra-contrasted pop sci-fi opulence. The way the actors indulge themselves in a heaping slice of theatrical pie with extra calories sprinkled on top for flavor (Eddie Redmayne in particular gives such a classically silly “Acting” turn as the piece’s villain, inducing every slight facial movement with a loopy, David-Bowie-in-Labyrinth-esque sense of energy and fluff that we can’t but enjoy his own personal amusements along with him). The way the Wachowskis seem to have used their film as an avenue to reproduce something they love from the past and re-connect it to the present tense. The way the narrative feels sort of floaty and low-key and never insists too much on its consequences, while just about every other major tentpole desperately wants us to believe that the world is about to blow up every two seconds.
Sometimes, all of this is enough. There is an admitted pleasure to seeing a movie decked out in its Sunday finest for a stroll about town, especially when its interpretation of Sunday finest is so idiosyncratic – a jelly bean encrusted monocle here, a top hat dipped in cotton candy there. The outward appearance almost serves as a window into the film’s soul. Unfortunately, things are a tad hollow on the inside this time out. It’s not that the story isn’t well-written – it’s undeniably not, but that’s part of the fun. The whole idea – a Russian immigrant to Chicago named Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is hunted down by three separate warring alien siblings for three separate arcane, obtuse purposes and is saved by a half-wolf Channing Tatum with a fake jaw – is loopy enough to earn its lack of traditional narrative heights.
No, the problem is that what unfolds is just too conventionally modern and self-serious to really earn its post-Flash Gordon aspirations. That 1980 delight so proudly sacrificed anything that could be thought of as serious and hashed its narrative apart to the point where explaining the episodes served as a sort of personal vexation in itself. This film, however, is fairly straightforward, its obscurities purely surface-level and never descending down to the weird, aloof ways those early 80s films often constructed their narratives and characters. Everything in Jupiter Ascending feels relatively sane and logical, and for this type of film this is actually a detriment – especially following hot on the trails of the more high-brow Predestination that still somehow indulged more of its private musings in ways other films would never dare of.
I hate criticizing films for being “predictable” since so much about what makes filmic storytelling effective and special is the way it can reconceptualize existing stories not through changing the narrative beats but by altering the filmmaking, the shot selection, the edits, and the production design. Jupiter Ascending only gets there half-way; its water-logged story desperately needs its fresh paint to seep down through the cracks and imbue a new character into its base, elemental levels, to freshen up its storytelling past the musty mildew even if this meant indulging in some more conventionally bad narrative formation. Get lost in sideways trips, lose oneself in aimless tangents (there’s a fun, floppy bit of anti-bureaucratic nonsense mid-way through where editing and framing convey the monotony of institutional life that is almost unquestionably the best bit of the film). Jupiter Ascending desperately needs to screw around and forget its story for a bit; it needs to take its production design and play around within it rather than let it prop up a drag of a story (it needs to take a cue from the Wachowskis’ own Speed Racer in this regard). It needs to not feel like every other corporate summer movie released in the 2010s. Although it makes superficial gestures to older times, it never really gets all the way there. It just feels like an everyday 2010s blockbuster putting on airs.
Bonus Review: Speed Racer
In many ways, the failures of Jupiter Ascending are the successes of Speed Racer. While Ascending refuses to be as honest with its own pulpy origins, Speed Racer can do nothing but subsume itself to the anime-inspired candy-coated hyper-plastic mania of its source material. As an adaptation of the “Speed Racer” manga/anime, it is remarkably pure, pure in the way of so few adaptations that water their material down for convention-starved filmic eyes. It is a film totally and completely committed to recreating the aesthetic of its source, from the high-spirited, ultra-saturated color palette to the frenetic, edge-of-sanity pacing to the holistic and fully committed lack of any sort of seriousness to the blanketed layer of high-camp. It is a film that is very honest with itself, very unadorned and very luminous in its own limber way. It is a high that doesn’t want to end.
At the very least, it is something of a realization of what The Wachowskis’ own Matrix could have been had they understood the work’s essential idiocy and allowed it to plum the regions of its own superficial cool without any escape to pseudo-intellectualism (the very thing that, with its greater primacy in the sequels, fell them in the womb). The Wachowskis are not, in and of themselves, nuanced storytellers, and they are generally at their best when they eschew nuance for something a touch more superfluous and exaggerated. Thus, The Matrix is a slice of late 90s slacker-cool with unfortunate philosophical aspirations and the mind of an over-zealous high school preacher with an unearned pulpit, a work saved solely by its supremacy of style and the fact that it delivers its messages with panache and gusto. Speed Racer never pretends to be something it’s not, and its essentially comical demeanor, its pride in being itself and never anything else, is what saves it.
Unfortunately, if the film is wall to wall sugar, it is also loaded with fat. At 135 minutes, the Wachowski’s ambition is a non-discerning, double-edged broad sword a mile wide, unable to find anything of note outside of its own fluffy exterior and desire for superfluity. It is, unfortunately, unable to quench its own hunger. At 90 minutes, Speed Racer would have been a sugary high with no comedown, a streamlined work of panache and pizzaz that existed wholly unto itself. With an extra third tacked on, it drags interminably. Very interminably. There is far too much downtime in the film where nothing much of note happens, and the zippy fireworks grow wearying and difficult over the long haul. I’d like to be on Speed Racer’s side, and for a good long portion of the film, I am. But it makes it mighty hard to stay there, and for your eyes to not hurt at the thought of defending it for too long. Successes becoming failures is a certain Wachowski-curse, but it’s more apparent here than in any of their other films. Shame, because, at some level, it has the potential to be their best film, or at least their most distinctive. Still, as it is, the incandescent kaleidoscope of Speed Racer at its most vertiginous and least principled, or concerned with the world outside its fascinatingly insular goals, is about as distinctive a major blockbuster release as the past decade has offered us, cavities and all.