How do I even start this? That may just be a rhetorical question, but I honestly have no clue how to review this movie. As I stated before in previous articles, my “reviews” would not contain the designated meaning of that word, but would instead be ruminations on how the movie made me feel, what I got from it, etc. I don’t need to re-state myself here. I am just buying my fingers some much-needed typing exercise time in order to allow my brain to fully process some things before I dive into the movie that is the 2 hour and 7 minute long non-stop thrill ride Jupiter Ascending.
Ok, I think I am ready now. Jupiter Ascending may just be the most fully-realized space opera ever to be put on-screen. It fully, whole-heartedly commits to its premise, and, more importantly, to its world, whilst saying….well, not all that much really. The Wachowskis are my favorite filmmakers of all time. I feel like I should get that out of the way first. I understand how incredibly large and hyperbolic that statement is, but they really do deserve that designation. No artists currently living are more largely misunderstood or underappreciated as they are. Every movie-going individual out there knows them best for one movie alone: The Matrix. After that, you will hear varying opinions on whether their following works have any real value. The consensus is that the Matrix sequels are Phantom Menace-level garbage (that rave scene, though), Speed Racer is a candy-colored travesty, and Cloud Atlas is a convoluted mess of six films tied up into one that doesn’t fully work. Now, Jupiter Ascending has been receiving a similar amount of negative response, with critics saying that it is “soulless”, “CG-addled”, and “confusing”, as well as being “studio-tampered”. I honestly don’t know about that last one, but the prior designators speak to one simple, irrefutable fact: People are fricking idiots. Yes, that includes you, and it most certainly includes me. But, our stupidity lies in other areas. I am referring to the overabundance of critics who are idiotic when it comes to art. They have no idea what they want from a movie, except complete and total unoriginality, naturally. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but it is this fact about art that has made me into such a jaded and cynical person in the past few years, which is ironic given that my favorite filmmakers are the most hopeful, optimistic filmmakers around; their miraculous longevity of a career can attest to that.
And, again, talking about general audiences…..they’re wrong. Why is Transformers 4 a billion dollar plus grossing behemoth of unoriginality, while Jupiter Ascending is getting bashed and will most certainly flop? I already gave you the answer, didn’t I? Audiences want to feel safe and secure in their narratives, and in their aesthetic images. They may rail and complain how everything is the same, but they still go to these movies and perpetuate the deterioration of an art form into a soulless and cash-driven business form. Notice how I used soulless there; Jupiter Ascending isn’t soulless! It’s the industry in which it is inhabiting that is. Every year, it is the same deluge of explosive blockbusters and Oscar bait that keeps oiling the machine; it is nothing but a nightmare that never ends.
What does all of this rote theologizing by me have to do with Jupiter Ascending, though? Well, for starters, it is a movie that is *gasp* original. Support it! I am begging that of you. Strike that, I am demanding it! If you want daring, evocative movies that go against the grain at your local movie theater, then support original works. Also, back to what makes the Wachowskis my favorite artists of all time: it displays a cavalcade of concepts and ideas by them that makes this fanatic feel like I was in blissful joy when I watched it. The Matrix sequels are far more interesting and ballsy in their trope-deconstructing ideas, concepts, and resolutions than the fairly typical monomyth storyline of the first film was (and I truly do love that movie). It is my favorite movie trilogy of all time. Yes, even more than The Lord of the Rings. V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced) was the movie that got my adolescent brain into political gear and made me realize that the world needs to change. As I have stated to death, every single frame of Speed Racer defines me as a person, as it thinks, feels, and bleeds like I do, with an incredibly life-affirming message that maintaining your integrity, love, and passion for art is the most important thing any true artist can ever hope to do. Cloud Atlas is the most ambitious movie ever made, and it is a full-fledged masterpiece; a film that contains the gamut of film genres and the entire breadth and scope of life, with humanity as its central character. I could not have possibly come out if it weren’t for that movie. So, again, where does Jupiter Ascending fit into all of this?
I honestly have no idea. I am sorry, but I truthfully have been attempting to find the art behind this movie, and, beyond its gorgeous design and aesthetics, I don’t know if I can find it….yet. I have seen the movie twice now (and I plan on seeing it in the theater at least twice more), and it is undoubtedly a bold and gorgeous movie. I seriously do love every frame of it. But I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed that its themes, at least in the week following my first viewing of it, remain elusive to me, if there are indeed even any. Admittedly, these reservations were stronger upon my first viewing than they have been on my most recent one, but nonetheless the reservations remain. Shall I pander to you with a short synopsis? If you want to see Jupiter Ascending, or any movie for that matter, I suggest you just see it if it looks interesting to you or you admire the filmmakers, actors, or whatnot. But, alas, I will go into brief detail. Jupiter Jones (awesome name, by the way) is an undocumented immigrant living in Chicago with her poor Russian family, working as a part of the family business that is made up of janitorial work. Mila Kunis plays the role of Jupiter, and, in my honest opinion, is phenomenal in the movie. I was worried about her casting, for some weird reason, but she really shines on-screen in this film. She makes several hilarious, confused facial nods or gestures, while always remaining firmly in control of who her character is. Several critics have already described her as being “grotesquely miscast” but I really could not disagree more. Kunis grounds this movie like no other actor could, and the meta-casting of her as a Russian immigrant is just too awesome to ignore.
Jupiter is hunted by an intergalactic fallen angel, an ex-military splice, who has both wolf and human DNA, named Caine Wise (Smart Dog, get it?) played adorably by Channing Tatum. Yes, I realized I used the word adorable, but it is true. He also has anti-gravity rocket boots that allow him to surf on air, a new sci-fi apparatus that is the coolest since the lightsaber. Naturally, a love story develops between these two, and it is quite a cute and emotionally-involving one. In a very nice twist, Jupiter is the one who throws herself at the stoic Caine, making several attempts to get him to admit some emotional attachment to her. These scenes are beautifully romantic and, again, adorable, making it a very special romance than the ones typically shown in the Wachowskis’ films. That is one thing this movie definitely has going for it; while sci-fi romances have become incredibly predictable, trite, and rote, this film finds a way to make it fresh and altogether plausible, and it is damn cute at the same time.
The reason why Caine is hunting Jupiter is because he was hired by one of the three siblings from the Abrasax dynasty, whose matriarch has recently died after having a change of heart about her family’s business, and has since been literally reincarnated in the form of Jupiter (thus making this the second Wachowski film in a row that uses reincarnation as a significant plot point). This particular business is the owning of planets such as Earth that are seeded with human beings that will eventually be harvested to create a youth serum that the entitled of the universe will consume to retain their immortality (yeah, this may just be the most nerdy movie ever made, but it’s so awesome). These three siblings whom Jupiter meets along her journey all wish to kill her, marry her (in a weirdly incestual and Oedipal manner), and use her for their own nefarious purposes.
The first sibling Jupiter encounters on her journey is Kalique Abrasax, manipulatively played by British actress Tuppence Middleton. Kalique’s purposes are never fully revealed, but the scene set on her homeworld is still beautiful, rife with fantastic visuals and deliveries of exposition that are confusing as hell, but for good reason in my opinion. The Wachowskis want their audience to feel like Jupiter, immediately and violently thrust into this expanded universe, and we learn things at the same rate that she does, with an overabundance of detail given to us all at once, simultaneously building the mythology of said universe while allowing viewers to literally become the lead, an experiment that the Wachowskis admittedly also attempted with the entire Matrix trilogy. Kalique also has a spliced advisor who is half-owl, and he looks awesome as hell. (I just wanted to share that.)
The second sibling Jupiter meets is Titus Abrasax, last in line for the throne and title of his dynasty, well-played by Douglas Booth. His section of the film is meant to show how Jupiter finally is able to make decisions for herself, whilst further cementing her opinion that she should always expect the worst of people. Titus is a party boy who flies through the skies in a cathedral of a spaceship known as a Clipper. It is during this part of the film where a visually ravishing wedding is held that immediately calls to mind other classic space-operas like Flash Gordon or John Carter.
The third, and final, sibling Jupiter meets also may just happen to be my favorite character in the entire film, Balem Abrasax, wonderfully played by Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne plays his performance so incredibly broad and slimy, as if he were a cowardly Voldemort. Every time he is on-screen, he steals the limelight. Some people are describing his performance of being worthy of a Razzie, while others are praising it for its daringness and entertainment value. I fall firmly in the latter camp, as his character is actually scary and, weirdly, understandable in his motivations. His will be a villain that shall be remembered for quite a long time. The way that Jupiter meets and interacts with all of these people is intentionally representative of works such as Homer’s The Odyssey in how she goes to each one individually and in a sequential order, learning something altogether new and revelatory about herself. Likewise, other influences this film wears proudly on its sleeve include various fairy tales, such as Cinderella (Jupiter’s starting point as lowly janitor), Beauty and the Beast (Jupiter’s beauty falling in love with Caine’s beast), and The Wizard of Oz (The color of the outfit Jupiter wears when she first meets Caine and starts her journey is blue and white; this is not a coincidence. Balem is the Wicked Witch in this instance, complete with flying henchmen, although they are dinosaur splices known as Sargorn instead of monkeys.). All of these various references serve to provide Jupiter the means of finding something new in herself, returning home with a new outlook on the fortune in her life that she took for granted and felt so miserable about before.
Just what changes are the Wachowskis looking at though? I am not entirely sure, although my initial reactions include the transformation of a cynic who always expects the worst from people into an optimist who finds love and is satisfied with her real family and the life she leads. Further differences include Jupiter actually remaining a female in her demeanor, negotiating with empathy instead of turning into a man and shooting everybody to achieve her goals.
Some other themes that I have initially noticed include ideas of capitalism (a topic the Wachowskis always return to, most prominently in Speed Racer, so you can tell that it holds great significance for them) and division of class, with the pyramid structure that our society seems so concretely built upon, with “some lives always mattering more than others”. Jupiter may be special, an inherent Chosen “One” like Neo, but she unusually rejects that status and returns to her life as a staunch member of the lower class. Time as a commodity is also a large theme in this film, best represented by the entitled people such as the Abrasax family in the film, and how they can become young again simply by dipping themselves into a pool, an act that is “as easy as changing a lightbulb”.
The design of the film is also heavily reliant upon time. The aesthetical architecture ranges from the sleek and futuristic to the Gothic, baroque, and classical. I am not exaggerating when I say that this has to be one of the best designed movies of all time. The Wachowskis, visual effects designer Dan Glass, costume designer Kym Barret, and production designer Hugh Bateup create a fully-realized universe of possibilities here, whether it be all of the various splices (including the coolest idea ever that is a half-human, half-elephant splice as a background character) that call to mind our world’s history of dinosaurs and worshipping cat-headed people, or sleek androids that provide great comic relief and are named Bob. Speaking of that, there is an entire detour the movie takes into the bureaucracy on Orus, the main planet and Commonwealth of the universe, where Jupiter is escorted around waiting in one long-ass line after another. This is a direct reference to Terry Gilliam’s science-fiction classic Brazil, capped off with a hilarious cameo by Gilliam himself. Furthermore, I didn’t even mention that Sean Bean is in this film, and he plays a human-bee splice named Stinger Apini…..this movie is fricking awesome.
The cinematography is also gorgeous in this film, with the Wachowskis once again working with John Toll as they did on Cloud Atlas. He lights all of the various worlds and locations in such an eye-catching way, including the ones set on Earth. A chase scene in particular set in and around the environs of Chicago was filmed with little CG and almost certainly no doubles. The actors were literally hung from a helicopter and flown around Chicago to simulate Channing Tatum surfing on the air. Toll had to shoot the scene at the same time every morning, at dusk right before the sun breaks. That means they could only shoot one shot every morning, since this particular moment in time the Wachowskis wanted to capture only lasts for six minutes, so they shot it every morning for five months….talk about ambitious. It pays off in dividends within the actual film itself, and keeps you on the edge-of-your-seat because it literally comes out of nowhere. The other action scenes within the film are equally impressive and visually ravishing.
I could not go through this whole review without mentioning the sublime splendor that is Michael Giacchino’s score, which (again, ambitiously) was composed and orchestrated before a single frame of the film was shot, and it is his best work yet, containing thrilling sci-fi tones mixed with operatic grandeur. In the final act, when Jupiter is running through a refinery that is hidden behind the hurricanes within the Great Red Spot of the planet Jupiter, Giacchino’s score elevates the images on film to transcendental levels.
As I have said again and again throughout this review, I am still unsure what exactly this film is trying to say. On my initial first two viewings, I can already tell that it has a wealth of ideas and is trying to say something. Like all of the Wachowskis’ prior efforts, it overwhelms completely on first viewing, but once analyzed and understood on repeat viewings, I hope that its stature will inexorably grow as their past masterpieces have done. Jupiter Ascending is already receiving its fair share of bashing, and it absolutely sucks that my first two reviews have been partially in defense of these two unfairly maligned films made by such incredible filmmakers, but, like their other works of art, Jupiter has already begun to develop a strong fan base, one that I am positive will ensure its future status as a cult film. As it stands right now, you should absolutely go see their latest effort, because 1) it’s an original movie, and 2) it is the most fast-paced blockbuster I have ever seen, literally dropping you into another world without preparation or explanation and sending you on a wild thrill ride. The Wachowskis don’t make useless, bad, or unimportant films, and I am positive that Jupiter Ascending will receive a massive critical re-evaluation such as Speed Racer did (which is now pretty much recognized as the modern masterpiece that it really, and rightfully, is). We will just have to wait to see in the coming days, months, or even years; it will probably be the latter. Maybe I too will come back and re-evaluate and re-review this movie after I have achieved some distance from it. The Wachowskis are still my favorite filmmakers, artists, storytellers, what-have-you, of all time, and Jupiter Ascending does not lessen that opinion in the slightest. They have made another movie that I feel speaks to me, as I too, like Jupiter, could probably do with not being cynical and expecting the worst from people, and instead be optimistic with what I have right in front of me, and all that is yet to come.
Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski