Since the release of the original Matrix 15 years ago, the Wachowskis have become deeply embedded in the world of high concept sci-fi. Their most recent release, Jupiter Ascending – which opened last Friday, is no exception to this trend, offering an outlandish, operatic version of the tried and true monomyth. The film is by no means a masterpiece; it doesn’t compare with even the filmmakers’ earlier iconic forays into the genre. It hardly deserves however the critical drubbing it has received since its release, as the film possesses enough lunatic energy and melodramatic power to compensate for its various narrative flaws.
I would certainly be remiss if I said that I went into Jupiter Ascending with an entirely clear mind. With trailers featuring talking lizards, energy shields, and Eddie Redmayne not playing Stephen Hawking, you can certainly understand the need to fortify oneself. I was pleasantly surprised though by how enjoyable Jupiter Ascending is. The “hero’s journey” at the core of the film is one that you won’t mind taking, even after a buzz wears off.
Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a young house cleaner of Russian heritage. Born while her mother was in the middle of immigrating to America, Jupiter has grown up without any definitive country of origin. As an adult she is lost and disillusioned, with life consisting of little more than her squabbling Russian family and cleaning the shitters of rich people. She’s a sad sack who dreams of something more than her provincial life can offer. But, just as Mr. Anderson was before he received his own call to adventure, Jupiter is entirely ignorant of the larger world outside her own. She has no idea that she will soon be thrust into the middle of a conflict beyond her imagination.
That call comes remarkably quickly, coinciding with Jupiter’s small steps to liberate herself. Tired of living hand to mouth, the character’s life changes quickly when she decides to sell her eggs and buy a telescope. Unexpectedly attacked by her own medical team, she is saved by the timely intervention of Channing Tatum’s Caine Wise (who is half-man and half-wolf), an alien soldier possessing pointed elf ears, an unbeatable laser gun and jet boots with seemingly limitless range and power.
Through Caine, Jupiter is introduced to the tumultuous universe outside of Earth. The pair seek shelter with another alien named Stinger, whose own genetic material has been merged with that of a bee. Played by Sean Bean, an actor who seems to exist solely to glower, Stinger shares a chaotic history of violence with Tatum’s Caine. However, the two soldiers are able to settle their differences in time to help get Jupiter successfully off the planet. She soon learns that she has not only been targeted by the Abrasax clan, a bunch of celestial lords who view her as a threat to their ownership of Earth and its inhabitants, but that she is also believed by the interstellar community to be the reincarnation of the clan’s matriarch. Can you say “Woah?”
Although adhering to a similar storytelling paradigm, Jupiter Ascending lacks the accessibility of The Matrix. While that may seem oxymoronic to some, the basic mythology under that earlier film’s philosophical waxing was beautifully simplistic. Not so here. With its innumerable amount of characters, cryptic allegiances, and mammoth scope, Jupiter Ascending’s canvas is simply much larger than that earlier epic. Sadly, it’s also much more difficult to follow.
In these situations it is well written characters, with clear arcs and goals, that help a story from flying off the rails. This doesn’t exist in Jupiter Ascending, whose characterizations are all over the map. For every recognizably human figure with an established goal, there is another that is absolutely bonkers. Eddie Redmayne’s outrageous depiction of celestial villainy serves as mixture of the two. As Balem Abrasax, the film’s main antagonist, the actor turns in one of the most stupefying takes on greed and entitlement seen in recent years. Speaking in raspy whispers and festooned with ornate costumes, he is an alarming presence to behold and gives perhaps the most serpentine performance since Kaa in Disney’s The Jungle Book. One positive thing about him is that he at least possesses a clear goal. The little creep has designs on harvesting the Planet Earth and eventually using its human populace to cook up some gloop that will restore the vitality and youth of anyone who bathes in it.
Giving a far more human performance is Kunis as Jupiter, but she is also relegated to being the voice of the audience during the film’s first two acts. She only becomes semi-active once the story’s parameters have been established. Tatum is perhaps the most successful of the film’s main characters, striking a balance between the whole “man of action” schtick and vulnerable hangdog. Of course, he too suffers somewhat from the Wachowski’s nebulous scripting. His exact motivations are never entirely clear, and his romance with Jupiter is confounding, with her seeming to take a shine to him because…he’s…simply… around.
The film’s script is inconsistent in a broader way than in its characterizations. It oscillates wildly between the inspired and the perfunctory. A scene at a galactic governmental office, for instance, introduces beautifully designed sets, and it allows for previously vanilla characters like Kunis’s Jupiter to show some spark and wit. These irrevenant moments however are off-set by many of the film’s dour action sequences. One of these is an aerial chase in Chicago, which does nothing with the city’s topography and is generally so listless it would even bore Michael Bay to tears. What is lacking in these moments of action is purpose. As opposed to The Matrix, which harnessed its relatively few fight scenes to further explore its world and characters, Jupiter Ascending seems to stage action just because its gotta light some stuff up.
Despite this problem there are potent ideas regarding heady concepts like capitalism, family and personal worth, which percolate at the core of Jupiter Ascending. They can’t be entirely diluted, even if the film’s plot occasionally feels meandering or some of its action scenes feel insipid. While they aren’t examined in the most cohesive way, the film’s stance on these topics is still felt emotionally. There is a spirituality to the proceedings which drives the film and its humanity forward, even when what is transpiring on-screen has all the realism of dog-man fighting a dragon – which is actually a scene. In keeping with the core ethos of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending critiques the predatory, hierarchical world that humanity has created for itself. It is perhaps a bit on-the-nose, with the Abrasax clan looking at humanity as nothing more than a commodity, but it gives the film a strange sort of power. Jupiter’s lack of a clear nationality is fundamental to this critique and it informs her hero’s journey.
Although Jupiter Ascending is influenced heavily by The Matrix, it also possesses an important divergence from the formula of that earlier work. Like Keanu Reeves’ Neo, Jupiter is forced to examine herself throughout her encounter with the Abrasax clan and discover her hidden capabilities. This moment represents a key part of Joesph Campbell’s monomyth, where the hero becomes the “master of two worlds.” In The Matrix that involved Neo very literally transforming into some sort of superhero savior. In Jupiter Ascending it transpires with far more nuance but also far more in line with the choices we all must make in a world consumed by avarice and bloodshed. Instead of becoming a metahuman, Jupiter simply evolves into a world citizen. It’s a powerful transformation that speaks to the Wachowskis’ ambition and increasing maturity. They have again produced a film that may not be entirely successful but certainly is admirable and unique.