First of all, I’d like to thank the Wachowskis for their unprecedented run of crazy, idiosyncratic big budget studio genre movies, and wish them luck in whatever their new vocation is.
I love the Wachowskis without reservation. BOUND is alot of fun and THE MATRIX is a brilliant sci-fi action classic and then everything they’ve made since then has been messier and crazier. But for them to make sane movies would be a waste of their talent. They can keep pushing the envelopes of special effects technology and storytelling technique as long as they also keep challenging the limits of what a studio can sink hundreds of millions of dollars into. And while I understand some of the disappointment in the MATRIX sequels, I also think that most of it comes from people wanting them to just do the same exact shit again. To me those movies are brimming with excitement about which unexpected turn they can make while also continuing to top themselves in action spectacle.
And then they got to make SPEED RACER. And they must’ve suspected that wasn’t gonna light the world on fire. They are heroes.
Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy their new sci-fi-fantasy joint JUPITER ASCENDING like I did the MATRIXes or SPEED RACER, and didn’t intellectually admire it as much as CLOUD ATLAS. It has way less ambition than that one and a little more boredom. I can respect that it’s something that nobody else would ever make, or want to make, or want to have made. It’s ballsy in how shamelessly corny it is. But it’s a shame that their worst one by far will be their last. (I’m assuming. After this many big budget flops in a row you gotta figure they’ll be washing dishes at Warner Brothers until they’ve worked off their debt.)
The story is kind of like the basics of THE MATRIX redone as a sort of fairy tale romantic comedy. Instead of Neo it’s Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) and instead of Trinity it’s Caine Wise (Channing Tatum as a pointy eared half-man, half-“like a wolf” bounty hunter from another planet who roller blades on air using rocket boots) who flies in and introduces her to a whole new world. (The world she lives in is just a sugar-coated topping, and there’s another world out there, the real world, in my opinion. Just my two cents.) Instead of programs there are people spliced with animal DNA and if you thought, like I did, that Tatum looked stupid in the ads I’m sorry to report that he’s easily one of the coolest animal people in the movie. Probly #2 after the guy who has a mohawk and goatee made out of feathers. I was debating whether the stupidest one was the elephant guy (who occasionally makes noises out of his trunk nose) or the owl guy until I remembered the guy who has a turtle shell forehead. I mean, for chrissakes you Wachowskis.
And there’s non-animal guys that are just as corny. There’s a groaner of a comedy sequence about intergalactic red tape. I was sad when I realized that the bureaucrat with the wacky hairdo and monocle was Terry Gilliam. Pretty damn disrespectful in my opinion to recast John Glover’s beloved character from BATMAN AND ROBIN.
What I’m getting at is that it felt like kind of a random hodge-podge of sci-fi tones and styles, things that reminded me of JOHN CARTER, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK and, I’m sorry to say, SUPER MARIO BROTHERS. It doesn’t seem as much like a real movie as a 2-hour extended cut of one of the incomplete stories in CLOUD ATLAS.
Like Neo in THE MATRIX, Jupiter is an unhappy working schlub (she cleans toilets) who is suddenly targeted by agents of a secret other world (ghostly grey aliens disguised as humans) in a bizarre medical procedure but is rescued by a warrior who recruits her for a war she doesn’t understand because she’s special (royalty instead of a chosen one) and also she has to stop the bad guys from harvesting humans like cattle. Unlike THE MATRIX she doesn’t learn to fight and have powers, she just keeps falling off of things and getting caught by old flying space wolf.
(There’s even a little MATRIX RELOADED reload: we’re told that our myths of vampires are based on the ageless people who control the universe, instead of on the programs like those albino twins from the freeway chase scene.)
Part of why the story works so well in THE MATRIX is because it has a truth behind it. We relate to the message that Neo can do better than sit in a cubicle all day, that he can see beyond the surface level designed to pacify drones and use his unique talents to fight against a system of oppression. JUPITER ASCENDING is more of a cliche because it’s just that fairy tale idea, you think you’re a maid but you’re actually a princess. I know it’s trying to play around with that kind of myth, but it doesn’t exactly turn it on its head or anything. It feels pretty tired.
I do like what I think it’s trying to do with gender. Jupiter is more like a romantic comedy heroine than a normal genre one. She gets to be awkward and embarrassed. She’s not a female given a few traditionally masculine qualities to be “strong,” she doesn’t start out as or even turn into a warrior. She’s just a young woman. The reason she gets mixed up in all this is because she looks like the royal space family’s mother, and the reason she looks like her is that once every billion years or something genes just happen to line up in the same order they did before and re-create the same person. I like that idea.
She’s a genetic match but she has to keep telling them “I’m not your mother!” They put all their baggage on her and she has nothing to do with it. I think this is kind of a joke about both men and women whose experiences growing up permanently shape the way they treat women.
Because of all this she literally inherits the earth. And she has no nationality. She’s born in international waters and is not a citizen. That’s a cool way to set her up as a mythological heroine. But I don’t think she quite clicks as a character. I like Kunis, I thought she was charming in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, and you should really check out her brave performance in AMERICAN PSYCHO 2. Just kidding about that second one, I think I turned that off after like 10 minutes. But I think she has a real charisma that doesn’t come across as much in this one, so I gotta blame the character more than the actor.
I think probly her best moment is when she tries to hit on Caine. She never once acts like it’s weird that he’s an animal man or space elf or whatever, and she makes a really funny suggestive comment that he doesn’t pick up on, and then she’s embarrassed. In some movies I might find it too ludicrous that a human lady would want to fuck a wolfman or whatever, but the Wachowskis have always been kinda fetishy and I think it’s part of their non-judgmental world view. I guess this would be the difference from that scene I think is funny in NIGHTBREED where the porcupine lady seduces the redneck cops: in NIGHTBREED the implication is “Sorry dude, but you know you wanna fuck a porcupine lady,” and in JUPITER it’s more like “You know what? She wants to fuck a wolfman from space. So what?”
If only the villains were as freaky. Unfortunately they’re a fuckin snooze, especially Academy Award frontrunner Eddie Redmayne as “Balem Abrasax” (the names in this one give HUNGER GAMES a run for the money) who mostly speaks in a quiet voice and only gets to go mega and seem like he’s having fun for a couple brief incidents. I know it’s space opera tradition, but for God’s sake don’t ever make me sit through another long boring monologue by an effeminate, aristocratic British guy in a robe. This is by far the most boring villainous archetype. You gotta mix it up, man. THE FIFTH ELEMENT let their guy talk like Andy Griffith. Man, anything would’ve been better for the bad guys than the snooty English royalty cliche. A giant crocodile or snake. A ghost wearing a tie. A super-intelligent frog. Anything.
I guess the Wachowskis showed their weakness for jibber-jabber when they had all those long scenes of “The Architect” spewing philosophical and conceptual mumbo jumbo. I enjoy those scenes but they were a warning sign. Here’s a movie where most of the cool ideas are just explained in long, dull conversations like that. There’s one scene where Jupiter and Queen Villain Lady are walking down a hall talking and jesus man they are walking so god damn slow I couldn’t figure out if they just couldn’t walk in those dresses or if they knew how many pages the scene was and were worried they’d run out of green screen hallway.
At least the bad guys have some bat-winged lizard guys in trenchcoats as henchmen, but you don’t see them that much. Also I wouldn’t mind them doing something more with the bounty hunter guys, or whatever they are. There’s the feather mohawk guy I mentioned (David Ajala from FURIOUS 6) and there’s Doona Bae from CLOUD ATLAS riding a speeder bike and sporting Lana Wachowski’s hairdo.
Of course there’s a bunch of stuff to look at, futuristic buildings and spaceships and shit. Some of the imagery is beautiful. Not all. Some of the people are beautiful, if you can avert your eyes from their ears.
And of course I appreciate some of the crazy shit in here. There’s the lizard guys and some okay robots, and there’s some guard guys that look inspired by Jodorowsky’s DUNE designs. I gotta respect shots with a random collection of dudes like this:
It’s shot in actual 3D, and the stereoscopics are decent, for example it works well in a weird scene with lots of bees flying around. And the many scenes of Tatum zipping around in the air leaving light trails are pretty cool and different. But without the martial arts beauty of THE MATRIX action it just looks like a cartoon guy flipping around. It doesn’t have the same impact. I guess you could say that defying gravity even more makes it have less gravity.
Even as I kept seeing bad reviews I suspected I was gonna love this movie. It seems like the kind of thing where even if it doesn’t work it’s so ridiculous that I would get a kick out of it. And I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t so deadly boring. It’s not half as engaging as other Wachowski movies and then on top of that it’s just not cool. It’s like they took THE MATRIX and swapped out everything cool for something kinda embarrassing. There’s alot of the ol’ “worldbuilding” here, but this is just not a world that I want to pore over. It’s too random and too often cheesy to get excited about the details. Get me away from these fucking animal people.
Seriously guys, he had a turtle shell forehead.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.