Dec 14, 2020
Jupiter Ascending (2015): a recap (part 1 of 12)
Much like M. Night Shyamalan, the Wachowskis appear to be the beneficiaries of a generous Hollywood studio welfare program that allows them to continue directing films with massive budgets, despite most of them flopping and/or barely turning a profit, and just plain not being very good.
Back when they were the Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry were comic book writers who got their first big Hollywood break in the ‘90s with a screenplay that was optioned for $1 million and made into Assassins starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas. Richard Donner came onboard to direct, and immediately had the entire script rewritten to wipe out any trace of subtext and turn it into more of a conventional action thriller. The brothers were apparently so mortified by the results that they tried and failed to have their names taken off the film.
But the experience made them realize that to ensure their creative visions made it to the screen intact, they would also have to become directors.
And so they made their directorial debut with Bound, an indie crime caper drama with a lesbian romantic twist. It was a solid film and impressed plenty of people, most importantly Joel Silver, the producer who had not only optioned Assassins, but also paid a large sum of money for another of their screenplays, titled The Matrix. Silver would later claim that Bound was their audition piece to direct The Matrix—which the Wachowskis still deny—but either way, they got to direct their own script and the rest is history. The Matrix was the fifth highest grossing film of 1999, and would go on to become one of the most influential action/sci-fi films of the new millennium.
And that, for the most part, was the end of the Wachowskis’ artistic peak.
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They quickly dived into filming two sequels to The Matrix back to back, with both released in 2003. Despite becoming (at the time) the highest grossing R-rated movie ever, The Matrix Reloaded earned plenty of scorn, with many feeling the film was loaded down with pretentious psychobabble and college freshman-level philosophy, but I recall being mostly entertained by it, if only for the intense freeway action sequence that made up a big chunk of the film. But six months later came The Matrix Revolutions, a complete clusterfuck of convoluted nonsense that failed to resolve anything from the previous two movies.
The Wachowskis then polished off their screenplay (which had been written before The Matrix) for an adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but turned over directing duties to Matrix assistant director James McTeigue. By the time they returned to directing, Larry had become Lana and the newly rechristened Wachowskis decided to switch things up with a family film. But their 2008 live-action remake of Speed Racer was mostly derided for its absurd, headache-inducing special effects and paper-thin plot. Their next project wasn’t a whole lot better: 2012’s Cloud Atlas, which they co-directed with Tom Tykwer, turned a centuries-spanning novel about faith and reincarnation into a three-hour block of blandness that felt like five or six separate (but equally dull) movies randomly edited into one.
I realize both of these films have their passionate fans; and surely, there are people who aren’t going to bother to read the rest of this article, because they’ve already scrolled down to the comments just so they can defend one or both of these films. But there’s no denying that the reviews were, at best, tepid (39% and 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively), as were the box office returns. Speed Racer fell well short of recouping its budget, and Cloud Atlas may have turned a profit, but only barely.
So by now, the big question is: why in the world were the Wachowskis then given $176 million to make Jupiter Ascending, a dopey sci-fi actioner built around the charisma of Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum as a half-man/half-dog bounty hunter with pointy ears? Originally slated as a summer release, the movie was eventually shunted off to February, earning it the distinction of being the first box office bomb of 2015, with a dismal 25% on Rotten Tomatoes.
However, I should note that Jupiter Ascending did much better overseas, where presumably the really terrible bits of dialogue were glossed over in translation. Reportedly, this $176 million movie has now made $183 million worldwide, which is still a big loss when you factor in marketing costs, but I don’t doubt that in a year or two, the Wachowskis will be handed the reins on another mediocre film with an even bigger budget.
(But like Shyamalan, who recently experienced modest success on TV with Wayward Pines, the Wachowskis may see some redemption for their new series Sense 8, currently streaming on Netflix. The first season has garnered positive reviews, though after viewing three episodes, I can’t say I’m in any hurry to watch the rest.)
But all talk of budgets and box office aside, Jupiter Ascending is a pretty awful, uninspired mess, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what the compelling concept or idea was here that made the Wachowskis want to spend years making it. Perhaps they saw it as their triumphant return to sci-fi/action films for the first time since the Matrix trilogy. Or maybe they saw it as some form of salvation for the genre, in that it’s a rare sci-fi/action film with an original screenplay in a sea of remakes and reboots and comic book adaptations.
But while it may not be based on an existing property, there’s nothing the slightest bit “original” about this movie’s plot, which is packed full of rehashed space opera clichés from everything from Star Wars to Dune to The Fifth Element, and the parts of the story that aren’t completely derivative are just dumb and weird. Let’s check it out.
To a shot of a starfield, we hear the bland tones of Mila Kunis’ voiceover. She says, “Technically speaking, I’m an alien. And from the perspective of Immigration, an illegal one.” Yes, those are the first lines spoken in the whole movie. I think we’re in trouble, folks. I guess it’s supposed to fake us out and make us think she’s from another planet, when in reality, she just came to the country illegally, but that’s not exactly a clever play on words.
Mila’s voiceover continues as we get a flashback to how her parents met. She says they were both teaching at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father Maximilian Jones (James D’Arcy, one of the reincarnated repertory players of Cloud Atlas, and Jarvis from Agent Carter) was the son of an English diplomat and taught astrophysics, while her mom Aleksa taught “applied mathematics”.
And I’m assuming the main character’s Russian background is a nod to our lead actress’ actual background; Mila Kunis was born in the USSR, specifically Soviet Ukraine (and technically, “St. Petersburg” wasn’t called that when she was born, but who’s nitpicking?). This would suggest that the script was significantly rewritten when they hired Kunis, and I’m not sure what to make of that.
She describes how Mom and Dad met on the “bank of the Neva”, when Dad was looking at the stars through a telescope. In flashback, Mom asks him in Russian what he’s doing, and he replies in Russian, “Isn’t it marvelous?” He then tells her in English that “tonight, the sky is completely full of miracles!”
Mila says her mother doesn’t talk much about those days, and she only knows about her father through her Aunt Nino, but she’s learned he was someone “who always saw the best in people”. However, she wonders if what happened to them next “changed me” into “someone who always expects the worst.”
Cut to her parents, now married, so I guess telling a woman the sky is full of miracles is a surefire way to get in her pants. Dad is again looking through a telescope, and Mom interrupts him and hands him a jar of Vaseline. No, it’s not whatever filthy thing you’re thinking; Mom is extremely pregnant with our main character and it’s time for Max to rub down her belly.
As he rubs her belly, he talks to his unborn child, saying, “How’s my Jupiter?” Mom protests in Russian that they’re not going to name their child after a planet. But Max insists on it, saying it’s “the biggest and most beautiful planet in our solar system”, and therefore, their daughter will be “our Jupiter”. Well, based on Mom’s belly, she’s gonna be about the same size.
Mom retorts, “Over my dead body we will name her ‘Jupiter’!” And yes, that’s foreshadowing of the clumsiest variety, because suddenly, a bunch of armed men burst in. This is apparently a home invasion robbery, because the intruders demand money. But then they also decide to steal Max’s telescope, and he tries to stop them, and ends up getting shot. The men leave and Mom cries over Max’s body as he dies. Bye, Max Jones.
And if you recall the voiceover from a moment ago, this is the event that changed our Jupiter into “someone who always expects the worst.” How did something that happened before she was born “change” her?
We then get a shot of a cargo ship crossing the dark ocean, and Jupiter’s mother giving birth inside of a shipping container. Meanwhile, adult Jupiter delivers the cringe-worthy lines, “In her grief, my mother pushed everyone except her sister out of her life. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, she pushed me out, too.” Ugh.
Jupiter is born, and we see her being held by a relative (Aunt Nino, I presume?) out on the deck. Adult Jupiter says she was born without a country and without a father, but she was born “in the house of Leo… with Jupiter rising at 23 degrees ascendant.” Which, according to her mother, is a sign that she’s “destined for great things, and that I will find the one true love of my life.”
Cut to the present, and adult Jupiter is gazing at the Chicago skyline from a penthouse apartment. We pan across a bedroom dresser covered in jewelry and see Jupiter trying on a diamond earring… And the joke is, Jupiter doesn’t live here; she’s actually here to clean the place, and she and her mother and her aunt now work as maids. Though it’s all laid out so quickly, most viewers would probably miss the gag here.
Her mother asks if she’s finished cleaning the bathroom. Jupiter says not yet, and Mom yells out in Russian, “Stalin’s balls!” Is this really a saying in Russia? I dearly hope it is. Cut to Jupiter cleaning a toilet (in full makeup, of course) as her voiceover tells us, “The problem with astrology? Total bullshit.”
And with that, we get a shot of the sun rising over Jupiter, and then a shot of the Great Red Spot, and nice shots of Jupiter’s moons passing over it, while the title of the movie appears to loud choral music. And now you know the source of the title: Her name is “Jupiter”, and over the course of this movie, she will be “ascending”. Clever, no? (And yes, this does mean our main character is named “Jupiter Jones”. Were the Wachowskis big fans of the Three Investigators books, or is this just a coincidence?)
We’re then taken to an alien landscape. It’s an abandoned city with trash strewn around in the dirt. And the dirt is blue, which is how you know it’s an alien planet. Two characters, a man and a woman, are strolling around outside, talking about how this was the planet “Zalintyre”, and there’s some mention of the “harvest” which is responsible for its current desolate state.
The man, named Titus, asks the woman, named Kalique, if she’s ever seen a harvest before. She has not, but she’s been told that they’re very “humane” and “they feel no pain”. Titus says there are usually “marshals and administrators” around to make sure everything is “done according to code”, but nevertheless, “it can be rather… affecting.”
Kalique says, “Now you sound like Mother!” And that’s your leaden clue that they’re siblings. And the actress (Tuppence Middleton, who also costars in Sense 8) is really obviously wearing old age makeup here, so already we know we’re going to see her get de-aged before the film is over.
Just then, Eddie Redmayne shimmers into view, apparently here to temporarily throw his eventual Oscar win into serious jeopardy. He’s going to be the main villain of the film, and his performance is simply dire for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is how he speaks every line in a raspy, barely audible groan. He says of the people of Zalintyre, “Most of them were miserable in their lives, and what we do for them is a mercy.”
Redmayne’s character is named Balem, and Titus calls him “brother” and says they were just admiring his “latest success”. Balem says that the “House of Abrasax” continues to thrive, even though Titus squandered his “inheritance” from their mother. Titus responds that Balem is looking “worse for wear” these days, and wonders if “success does not agree with you”. Balem snipes back that maybe “failure agrees with you?” Oh, snap!
Balem says he has more important things to do and starts to leave. So Titus says it was recently Mother’s birthday, and feeling sentimental, he decided to go through some of her “sheave-work” and came across a description of a planet that was the most “beautiful estate” she ever owned. “I believe she named it…” Wait for it… Wait for it… “Earth!”
He knows Earth was part of Balem’s “inheritance”, and Titus wonders if Balem would be willing to “part” with it. But Kalique just scoffs at this. She tells Titus that Earth is “worth more than all of your estates combined!” Titus says he had no idea, though it seems like he probably did. And with that, Balem takes his leave and shimmers on out of there. And between all the characters constantly calling each other “brother” and “sister” and all the clunky “you’re just like Mother”-type lines, this whole scene is a pretty good lesson on how not to establish relationships in a movie.
And then it’s back to Earth. An alarm clock goes off at 4:45 AM and Jupiter’s Aunt Nino hits the snooze button. But it seems she and Jupiter’s mom and Jupiter all sleep in the same room, and Jupiter’s mom yells at her to get up and make the coffee. Jupiter grumbles, “I hate my life!”
And thus begins a Montage of Cleaning, as we see Jupiter vacuuming, Jupiter taking out the trash, Jupiter dusting, and yes, Jupiter cleaning more toilets. And all of it in full, immaculate makeup. The montage comes to an end with Jupiter going to sleep and muttering, “I hate my life.” And thus, we have learned that Jupiter hates her life. But could there be a handsome stranger waiting in the wings to not only reveal that she’s destined for great things, but to also be her one true love? If only we could have gotten some clumsy foreshadowing to let us know for sure.
And now it’s nighttime in the city, and a guy in a leather coat walks through an alley, past the obligatory random clouds of steam. A close-up from behind reveals that he’s got pointy ears.
As he walks along, an Asian girl with purple dreadlocks and flowery facial tattoos watches him from a rooftop. She whistles, and a black guy who’s the spitting image of Will I Am shows up. He says, “Damn it!” and the woman says, “Told you!” Will I Am has a special eye that allows him to see that Pointy Ears Guy is a “Lycantant”. Then some white guy with a mechanical monocle shows up, saying it’s “another hunter”. The woman knows he’s “ex-Legion” and was also a “Skyjacker”. Monocle Guy wonders how she knows that, and she says she can tell by his boots.
Pointy Ears Guy continues to walk along, and no surprise, it’s Channing Tatum. And we can see from the signage around him that he’s approaching a women’s fertility clinic. He sticks a small gizmo to a door that spins around and creates a portal that lets him walk through the door. Up on the roof, the other three talk about a hunter in the Legion who was a “legend” because he could “track a single gene in the Gyre”. They don’t know if it’s him, but they do know he’s “after our bounty”.
And so they decide to go after him, and the woman hops on a hovering vehicle that looks a lot like a speeder bike from Star Wars, except it has Predator-style cloaking technology. The other two guys, meanwhile, remain on foot. Could the people who hired them not afford two more cloaked hover/speeder bikes for their bounty hunters?
Inside the clinic, Channing is going through a file cabinet, and soon, he pulls out one particular patient’s record, which contains an egg donor consent form. He proceeds to… smell it. And as he sniffs it, he gets a visual of a woman signing it, and he looks at the name on the form, and it’s “Katherine Dunlevy”.
With this information acquired, Channing goes to leave, but he apparently senses the ambush waiting for him outside. So he whips out his gun, and makes some kind of holo-shield materialize on his arm, and then he switches on his boots, which glow and allow him to hover in midair like he’s on roller blades.
He hover-skates to the door and bursts through, blasting away at his assailants with his laser gun. He leaps across the alley and jumps from fire escape to fire escape and skates across walls as they fire on him. He takes out Monocle Guy (but doesn’t kill him), and the gun battle continues a little while longer, before finally, Channing just hover-skates away, and the others watch him go. Apart from the way it ends, this was a perfectly serviceable quick action scene, but you’d expect with all the loud laser blasts going off in the middle of the night, some of the clinic’s neighbors should have woken up by now and come out to investigate. (Though, that might be explained later. I think.)
The bounty hunters have figured out, long after the audience did, that this must be the legendary hunter they’ve been talking about. Purple Hair Woman says they should warn “Lord Balem”, but it seems Will I Am has other ideas. “That is what we should do,” he says, “but… do you trust me?”
So far, we’ve got a pretty generic setup as far as action/sci-fi plots go, and if the film kept going like this for the remainder of its duration, it would have been a mostly forgettable but adequate effort. But trust me, things get a lot nuttier and a lot stupider than this. Join me next time as Balem pays a visit to Jupiter, as in the planet, while we meet Jupiter’s Big Fat Russian Family and she has an encounter with the Grays. All of that and much more, coming up in part 2.