It is fair to say that the Wachowskis have a surplus of ambition when it comes to their forays onto the big screen canvas. It is probably also fair to wonder how exactly are they still being granted large budgets given their track record since the turn of the century, whilst at the same time pondering what they could achieve if they had the budget to genuinely bring all their ideas to the screen. Jupiter Ascending is the latest garbled mess that the writer/directors have brought to the screen, and just like those films before it, I actually enjoyed it despite the flaws.
When the duo first hit the screen with Bound they brought a skilful direction style with them, and made clear they would make a mark on cinema. That mark came in the guise of The Matrix, which still looks and plays great today. Spinning from that iconic film came two sequels that divided audiences each time, resulting in only a small percentage of remaining fans by the end of Neo’s journey. I was one of those few, and even on recent rewatches of the trilogy I still enjoy the pomposity and bizarre mess the films became. I can understand why others don’t like them, but I still do. Speed Racer came next, adapting an anime by simply casting actors in live action fused with CGI anime for the screen. The film never found an audience, which personally I think is shame. It was criticised by many for being exactly what it was supposed to be – a giant cartoon of a film aimed at 10 year olds. Vibrant, fun, and totally off its toast, it was candyfloss for the eyes, and nothing more. After that flop it would be a few years before Cloud Atlas ambitiously hit the screens, and once more audiences failed to show.
Jupiter Ascending was a chance for the duo to get back to sci-fi action adventure, and maybe redeem their name. When it suddenly saw it’s release date pushed back, dumping it in the wilderness of the February schedule, it was a sign that all was not rosy. The end result that has seen release comes over as a mess of a film that looks great, has some great ideas, highlights how skilful the pair are at making action look amazing, but tries to shoot for the moon and misses by a fair angle. The story sees Mila Kunis playing Jupiter Jones, a Russian immigrant who cleans toilets for a living, who finds herself hunted by alien beings. You see, she is actually royalty by resurrection (seriously), and therefore the most important and wealthiest person in the universe. Sadly this makes her a target for her offspring who either want to kill her, or marry her (which is as creepy as it sounds) then kill her. Oh, did I mention they want to kill her? Well except one offspring who wants to…erm…Well, I’m not sure as it felt pretty much like a huge chunk of the film was missing at one point. Anyway, only a buff looking Channing Tatum with pointy ears can save her, and he’s half wolf or something. Oh and Sean Bean is another human/alien warrior, who appears to be spliced with a Yorkshireman, and has an affinity for keeping bees in his house (which is handy as bees can detect royalty for some reason). As the film flits from one location to another, each time throwing some peril and chases in the mix, you have to really concentrate to keep up with things, and can’t help but notice how there is no sense of wonder displayed, even though the film is a visual treat. Maybe it is that we have seen this visual style before in other films, or maybe it is just that we never spend long enough anywhere for it to really register as anything special. Whatever it is, it all feels very formulaic and typical pulp sci-fi.
The Wachowskis seem to make films for themselves, and for that you have to give them credit. The Matrix series turned more and more Manga inspired over the course of the trilogy, with philosophy and thematic elements of the best Manga churned out, as that was the medium that inspired the duo. Speed Racer was their chance to pay loving homage to another inspiration. With Jupiter Ascending the pair seem to want to build their own Flash Gordon style space epic, whilst also dropping in elements of grandiose space opera of The Chronicles of Riddick, and twisted bureaucracy of Brazil. Again the pair are simply using a movie budget to play with their own toys, but are restricted from fulfilling their true ambitious ideas – or maybe they are genuinely incapable of making their ideas work in any coherent manner.
Much like Lynch’s Dune, within this ham-fisted mess there is a strong, epic scaled story trying to get out, and you get the impression that many hours of material never made the cut. If given a six hour canvas to explore the material more, maybe this one film could have made for a more impressive 3 films. As it stands, however, it is rushed, exposition packed nonsense that doesn’t give time to flesh out any of the key players in the story. Lines of dreadful dialogue are churned out with utter po-faced seriousness, with Eddie Redmayne in particular being laughable as he talks with a stiff upper lip and sinister whisper, except when he suddenly shouts. No mid range to his voice, it is as though his volume control has two settings. Kunis highlights how she isn’t lead actress material, and is very flat in her performance, failing to convey any sense of wonder that someone who has just been kidnapped by aliens should show as they find they are royalty and get taken to alien landscapes. Nope, it is all a walk in the park for her.
Maybe this pomposity and low key acting approach was intentional. Maybe the idea was to emulate the absurdity of Flash Gordon. Sadly that film works so well because it looks so cheap. Jupiter Ascending looks expensive, and so the pantomime nature of the acting works against it.
But, all that said, you know what? I kind of enjoyed it. Not in any way that makes me want to race out and watch it again, but in the same way I enjoyed John Carter. Yes, it is flawed, but it was still fun to watch (even if for the wrong reasons at times), and in there somewhere is an epic space adventure fighting to get out. Sadly, I can’t see it finding an audience, and it is likely to be the final call for two visionary and ambitious directors and their dalliance with the big screen. Maybe this is for the best as it seems the canvas isn’t big enough for what they want to do, and maybe other mediums such as comics or TV will give them the freedom to explore their concepts more effectively.