While I was watching the Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending (2015), I realized that Andy and Lana Wachowski are acutely aware of their own career arc. Given that they've helmed a series of big budget fiascoes (commercially, anyway), this might be the last time they get to play with a megabudget production. As a result, they've crammed all of the ideas they have for big budget spectacles into this one delirious package. As you can imagine, this results in a dense film with overlapping moods and elements that are at odds with each other. It's a mess, sure. That much was suggested by its delayed release, moving from prime summer real estate into the wasteland of February, where orphaned productions go to die. I would be lying if I said that didn't like it though, because as fun times at the movies go, this was more fun than I was expecting. A lot more fun.
The plot of the film finds Russian/American maid Jupiter Jones suddenly thrust into an interstellar dynastic struggle when the powers that own the Earth realize that her genome is a recurrence of the dynasty's murdered matriarch. The ruling trio of the Abrasax family each have an interest in Jupiter, whether that's using her to screw over their siblings, or wiping her out of existence so she doesn't threaten their claims to their various fiefdoms. The Earth is of particular value, because it has a vast potential for profit in the family business. That business is longevity. "Time is a resource," Kalique Abrasax tells Jupiter, and the substance that makes longevity possible is "harvested" from human stock grown on planetary "farms" that have been seeded with human life. In any event, all three of the siblings have an interest in Jupiter and send their agents to Earth to find her. The keenest of these is Caine Wise, a hunter engineered from human and dog DNA. He protects Jupiter from the agents of Balem Abrasax at the behest of the youngest Abrasax, Titus. In the course of rescuing Jupiter from Belem's agents during a spectacular battle in the sky over Chicago, Caine begins to suspect the motives of his employer. Those suspicions are confirmed at the hideout of his former commander, Stinger, a beekeeper whose bees recognized who Jupiter really is. Soon, though, Jupiter is abducted by hunters working for Kalique. Kalique, the kindliest of the Abrasax siblings, introduces Jupiter to the wealth and wonders of her heritage. At her behest, Jupiter is sent to confirm her claim by the bureaucracy that runs the universe. Once navigating that hell, she's abducted once again, this time by Titus, who tells Jupiter some of the unpleasant truths about the nature of her inheritance. He proposes to marry Jupiter, though the wedding, from his perspective, is intended to be short. Jupiter is rescued at the altar by Caine. Meanwhile, Jupiter's family on Earth has been abducted by the agents of Balem Abrasax, whose claim to the Earth is threatened by Jupiter's very existence. He vows to harvest the planet immediately before letting her take it from him. He uses Jupiter's family as a bargaining chip to coerce her into abdicating her position, though Jupiter has come to realize that abdicating means death for everyone on Earth. Balem has no such squeamish qualms...
Jupiter Ascending is structured like a fairy tale. Like a fairy tale, its narrative is split into three tasks nested inside a broader story arc. The archetypes that populate the film are designed to echo fairy tales, too, even the Disney-fied ones. The conceit of having various characters gengineered from animals is a perverse take on anthropomorphic sidekicks, especially in the (mostly forced) romance between Jupiter and Caine (who is human and dog). The Abrasax siblings, similarly stand in for the fairy godmother, prince charming, and evil overlords. But the Wachowskis aren't content with just one level of meta-narrative. Although Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton) functions as a fairy godmother figure, she also embodies a version of the Elizabeth Bathory myth, something the film throws in as text and subtext. Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth) functions as prince charming and gives the film an excuse to stage an elaborate wedding scene with an absolutely ridiculous costume for Mila Kunis to rock, but he also deconstructs prince charming in much the same manner as Frozen. Balem is more psychologically complex than one would expect from a fairy tale dark wizard. His character clearly has Oedipal issues. The dynastic squabbling between the siblings that drives the film's plot echoes everything from King Lear to Dune.
Dune is a key touchstone for this film. This is as grand a folly as Lynch's version of that book, to say nothing of Jodorowsky's unfilmed version. Some of the space ships and some of the futuristic sci fi elements echo Jodorowsky's designs, as do some of the weirder sci-fi concepts built from an emphasis on the mutability of genomes. Many of these elements--particularly the idea of planets as fiefdoms for an oligarchy--go back to Herbert's original novel. The allegorical elements of this film are as obvious and as rich as those Herbert chose. This is a whizbang for the Occupy crowd, in which the .001% literally enrich themselves by devouring the masses. No surprise here, I guess, given that the Wachowskis are also responsible for V for Vendetta. In truth, I would not be surprised if this film winds up with the same kind of underground cult as Lynch's film--it will never be respected, per se--but it will be remembered and reevaluated. That process is already underway.
There are other touchstones, of course. There's a whole sequence mid-film in which Jupiter and her allies navigate a vast, absurdist bureaucracy that's taken whole and breathing from Brazil, complete with Terry Gilliam himself in a key small role. There's some irony in this, because the Wachowskis' film career is beginning to echo Gilliam's. The Wachowskis also bring back Doona Bae, with whom they worked on Cloud Atlas, and dress her up like an anime heroine as one of the hunters looking for Jupiter. The spectacular chase through he skies over Chicago has a very strong anime feel to it and Bae's character is a signifier of its provenance. In spite of this, there's a strong auteurial impulse in this film. The Wachowskis major theme has always been that the surface of reality is a lie and that it hides utter chaos, and that's essentially what we see in this film. Jupiter, like Neo, awakens into a terrifying world in which vast forces are bent on keeping the masses docile, ignorant, and deceived. Viewed in this light, it's an easier film to like than the Matrix sequels, in part because its gobbledigook is familiar sci fi gobledigook rather than deep philosophical gobbledigook.
As a visual creation, this is magnificent. In an era in which every film has amazing special effects, it's incumbent on filmmakers who create special effects films to emphasize design and artistry rather than technical know-how. This is something that has always played to the Wachowskis strengths. The Chicago sequence is a good example: The city itself is vaguely futuristic to this film's eye, and they exploit its photogenic qualities even as they add fantasy elements. More baroque are the settings in which the Abrasax siblings live. Their spaces are grandiose: they put the "opera" back into space opera. Both Titus and Balem play the majority of their scenes in freaking cathedrals, while Kalique's palace is some demented offspring of Maxfield Parrish and Lawrence Alma Tadema. The film's costumes are equally ornate, equally ridiculous, and absolutely ravishing to the eye. I almost wonder if Mila Kunis was cast as Jupiter Jones not because of her acting ability, but more for her ability to wear the costumes and not look ridiculous. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Balem, rocks his costumes in part by selectively underplaying and overplaying everything. Most of his lines are delivered in a hoarse whisper as he glares at underlings. I can't decide if he's brilliant or if he's risible. Probably a little of both.
The film's missteps are almost as spectacular as its set-pieces. The romance between Jupiter and Caine is ridiculous and forced even if it does provide the audience with the spectacle of a shirtless Channing Tatum. Every scene with Jupiter's family plays false. The scenes at Stinger's apiary are...well, they're just weird. Stinger's full name is Stinger Apini, which suggests that he's part bee in the same way that Caine is part dog--which is weird enough. But the idea that the bees recognize Jupiter's royalty contains dialogue I'm surprised Sean Bean could deliver with a straight face. He should get some kind of award for that. I'm also disappointed at how passive a heroine Jupiter Jones is. She spends so much of the film falling and being rescued by Caine that her big scene at the end when she beats the shit out of Balem should be more cathartic than it is. And then she's rescued again. In truth, I wish this had followed the model of the original Terminator, in which everyone who might save Sarah Connor is stripped from her and she has to rescue herself. No such luck, though.
The film on the whole feels strangely truncated. It's a film that doesn't have the room to explore all of its ideas as it rushes from set piece to set piece. It's often overwhelming, both visually and conceptually. I wonder if there's a longer version of this discarded somewhere along the way. This was a problem with Cloud Atlas as well. I wonder whether the Wachowskis wouldn't be better served by leaving the studio model of filmmaking--where they'll probably never again have the same kind of control they had over the Matrix films--in favor of smaller films they control totally. This may happen as a matter of course anyway, but I would be sad if this is the last whizbang they make. Warts and all, this is a film that pulses with life in the way that most "franchise" films do not.
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