I’ll be upfront, I’m not a fan of The Wachowskis. For me they exist in the same bracket as M. Night Shyamalan – filmmakers who are still good on the directing side, and remain convinced they can write, even though it’s painfully clear that they no longer possess that ability. It’s been an incredible 17 years since the Wachowskis last wrote a good script. That movie, of course, was The Matrix, a movie that will remain a seminal action movie for decades to come, but whose inevitable sequels seemed more perfunctory than anything else. Whereas The Matrix Reloaded was The Brett Ratner-quality sequel, Matrix: Revolutions was the Uwe Boll capper, a sequel so spectacularly terrible it could have been done by people who hated movies. And since then, The Wachowskis have gone to make a string of unwatchable crap – (Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas) – culminating in their latest, and worst, effort Jupiter Ascending.
Like Shyamalan, it’s hard to see why people keep throwing their money away with these filmmakers. It seems to be that they are so well connected, and now that they’ve gained a new level of purchase as members of the LGBTQ community, they can secure funding because of who they are. I can’t imagine that they are still able to coast on the success of The Matrix, even as great as that movie was. Jupiter Ascending is surely the coffin nail of this stage of their movie making career. With a gross worldwide box office of $184M ($47M US domestic) against a budget of $176M, it squeaked a profit, but only just, and likely that profit has already been eroded by back ends and residuals. It’s a far cry from being a success, yet when one looks at the movie, it isn’t difficult to see why.
This movie is a disaster from out the outset – once again, we have a “The One” type storyline. The downtrodden protagonist suddenly pulled into a grand saga where they are the star. It’s pretty much a trope these days, a wish-fulfillment tale that The Wachoswkis make no attempt to play around with. Sure, the Matrix was a little derivative, but it hit the reset button on the trope of The One by burying it within an engaging storyline, great looking visuals, by bringing “wire fu” to a gigantic new audience, and pioneering the “bullet time” CGI effect that became standard in many action movies from that point. Jupiter Ascending has no such distractions – it’s a simple tale of The One, played here by Mila Kunis, who looks and sounds as bewildered here as she does in anything she’s in, rescued from a humdrum existence of toilet cleaning when it’s revealed that she’s the genetic copy of the matriarch of a family (Eddie Redmayne, Tuppence Middleton, and Douglas Booth) of … cosmic capitalists ? She’s aided here by beefcake Channing Tatum, an actor who actually does have some range, but who truly has one of the worst roles he’s ever signed on for. He plays a soldier who used to have wings, and is a “splice” of human and, uh, wolf genes. You know what, forget it. I feel embarrassed to having watched enough of this movie where all of this stuff sank in. The story itself plays like a more animated version of David Lynch’s Dune, but dumbed down. Way down.
It’s hard to pinpoint one element or one particular scene where the story goes off the rails – it’s literally just terrible from start to finish, and it astonishes me that anyone outside of Kunis who read this script actually decided to commit to filming it. Sure, it’s possible that people are lining up to work with The Wachowskis (though, I’m not sure why), and it’s possible that Tatum, Bean, and Redmayne signed up without actually reading the script first – it’s also possible that the latter three actors are just stupid, but I don’t buy it. Some of the lines that Bean and, in particular, Tatum deliver in this movie are so downright awful that I’m amazed they wouldn’t demand on-scene rewrites. I actually felt bad for Tatum sometimes, but he’s a hot actor right now with a lot of fans and a reasonably eclectic resume – Jupiter Ascending isn’t gonna ruin his career. Watching Tatum, I got a sense of “man, really?” every time he has to speak in this movie, but as a heroic figure, he does what little the script asks of him okay. The main source of crap outside of the actual script here is Eddie Redmayne. If this guy didn’t win an Oscar already, this movie could have been a real career-ender. He’s flat out terrible here – a combination of one-thirds bad writing, and two thirds terrible direction. Redmayne goes through the entire movie as the stereotypical effete English villain, all upper-crust public-schoolboy affectation and no real personality. It’s embarrassingly two dimensional comic book stuff, and is absolutely painful to watch here. Mind you, Redmayne’s character is a pretty odd choice for the Wachowskis. Given that by the time of this production Andy Wachowksi (per the movie’s credits) was heavily into transitioning to Lilly Wachowski, the choice to make the villains a family of effete English aristocrats is a cliché I’d have thought they’d avoid. But no. Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting if Tatum’s herowolf … guy … thing … was the sexually fluid, groundbreaking one, and the villains could have been the more macho bunch? Well, maybe a little – the story itself would likely have been just as crap.
I imagine that if all one demands in a movie are great visuals and wave away bad scripts with the phrase “it is what it is”, one might get some kind of entertainment value from this utter waste of time. More discerning viewers will see Jupiter Ascending as the biggest misstep yet from a couple of filmmakers who are way past their prime.
Going back to M. Night Shyamalan, for me he’s moved a little back up the ladder with his last movie The Visit, and perhaps it’s because his investors finally lost patience with his lack of box office success. I like to think that he found the humility that he once would have had as a little-known pre-Sixth Sense moviemaker. Could be that The Wachowskis will be humbled by Jupiter Ascending’s box office critical and commercial reception too, but I think for time being, they’ll continue to produce meaningless, badly written garbage.
© Andrew Hope, 2016