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Please Don’t Send the Wachowskis to Movie Jail for JUPITER ASCENDING

February 16, 2015

I liked Jupiter Ascending. On a related note, I knew going in that I really wanted to like Jupiter Ascending. It’s the kind of grand space fantasy that we just don’t see much of anymore – the kind free of preordained franchise aspirations. With only about $32 Million at the box office (against a budget rumored to be in the $200 million range), one has to worry that other filmmakers will be discouraged from trying to realize similar projects in the future.

Two weekends in, and with “bomb” already branded on its neck, Jupiter Ascending is going in the books as a failure. Movies bomb all the time, but what is frustrating about this case is that Jupiter is somehow not a creative failure. It’s messy, but the laudable ambition shines through. In situations like this, I have to wonder if Star Wars would still have been a hit had Rotten Tomatoes existed in 1977. To be fair, Jupiter is no Star Wars, but it still begs the question.

Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones. She works with her Russian immigrant mother cleaning bathrooms in Chicago. It’s not a glamorous life and she longs for more. Then Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a human/wolf splice with rocket boots, sweeps her away telling her she is destined for greatness and has a throne waiting for her on the other side of the universe. Only problem is, Jupiter has three pseudo space siblings, all of whom want to lay claim to her title. I guess there’s always a catch.

Poster courtesy

Poster courtesy

That sounds reasonable right? To give any more of a synopsis would just make the movie sound ridiculous. I admit, this movie has problems. While the broad strokes are in place, certain characters are simply not fleshed out at all and their scenes only seem to break up action scenes in which Jupiter and Caine are interminably hurtling through space.

I actually really liked Eddie Redmayne here as the biggest, baddest of the Abrasax siblings looking to swindle Jupiter for her birthright. I’ve heard the words “great bad performance” to describe him. I don’t know if I buy that label, but the current Oscar nominee is very interesting in this movie, employing a Voldemort-like whisper punctuated with volcanic outbursts. It’s campy but definitely fun.

Elsewhere, I really liked Nikki Amuka-Bird, who plays a spaceship captain and ally to Caine and Jupiter. She had a really small part but I would have enjoyed seeing her in more scenes. A small role like this in a quickly forgotten film may not do her any favors, but she was an asset here.

I have a lot of faith in the Wachowskis and, like most, have followed them with interest since The Matrix came out in 1999. I simply must believe siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski were coerced into compromising their story. The fact that Jupiter was delayed from an original summer 2014 release date until now supports the narrative that the studio was wary of unleashing it at all and may have demanded changes be made to the finished product. I don’t have any evidence that there was ever a longer cut of Jupiter but the finished film does feel truncated, hence the conspicuous underdevelopment of certain characters.

There are a lot of interesting things happening on the surface, but very few elements seem to be given the screen time needed to flourish. It’s easy to imagine a version of Jupiter Ascending that emphasizes the Abrasax clan and plays like a cosmic Cruel Intentions, with the three entitled siblings jockeying to either dupe or kill off Jupiter first. The vaguely incestuous web of ulterior motives would have been a fascinating foundation for this story, rather than a barely touched subplot. Try and tell me you wouldn’t want to see that movie.

This movie doesn’t have a strong enough sense of self, which may have as much to do with Warner Bros. as it does the Wachowskis. Perhaps it is trying to be too many things for too many people. That gap in self-assurance likely precluded Jupiter from the kind of success enjoyed by The Fifth Element, another science-fiction fantasy tale.

Over the last eight months, we’ve seen two films attempt to jump into the lane that will be occupied by Star Wars at the end of this year. Exhibit A was Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Pretty much everyone liked that smash summer hit and it became the second highest-grossing movie of 2014. We’ve all heard the jokes about how Chris Pratt basically played Han Solo in Guardians, and how he now seems destined for the Harrison Ford fast lane to movie stardom. While it seems trite if you look at it that way, it’s worth mentioning that Pratt and Guardians actually achieved a space fantasy that grooves to the same vibes as the revered Original Trilogy. Even though it has that Marvel Cinematic Universe (a.k.a. “The Avengers“) stank on it, Guardians often captures the magic of the first Star Wars film and it basically stands alone in being able to make that claim.

Fast forward to February 2015, and we have Exhibit B: Jupiter Ascending. With its handicapped script and uninteresting political machinations, Jupiter stumbled short of the Original Trilogy and ended up somewhere in The Phantom Menace territory. I know Jupiter would welcome Phantom-style box office stats, but that dough seems pretty hard to come by for non-branded films. In this sense, Star Wars and Guardians already have it made. They bring built-in fan bases to the table and are known quantities when comes to the box office.

Are audiences now averse to one-off movies? A look at the year-end box office results supports that idea. Seven of the ten (and 12 of the top 15) are obviously franchise films. Of the remaining three, Maleficent and Big Hero 6 are still Disney properties so to rule sequels out for either would be naïve. That leaves American Sniper as the sole film that doesn’t come with any major branding implications.

The Wachowski siblings have had some spectacular bombs in recent years including Speed Racer (2008) and Cloud Atlas (2012), all of which were budgeted at over $100 million. Speed Racer is peculiar as it would seem to come with tons of merchandising potential, but somehow it never coalesced. I didn’t think much of Speed Racer the first time I saw it, but you know who did? People who liked the Speed Racer cartoons. My wife’s childhood was steeped in Speed Racer and she loves this movie. It’s an odd bird, but a critical reappraisal isn’t unwarranted.

Then you have Cloud Atlas, a movie I love. Like other recent Wachowski fare, it’s a bit messy. It combines six story lines spanning several-hundred years and features a small ensemble cast playing different roles in each story. The way the casting disregards racial and gender conventions can be disorienting, but when the through lines begin connecting the stories, it doesn’t matter anymore. Cloud Atlas wins merely by having the audacity to go there. It may have been a phenomenon as a miniseries. Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer, like Jupiter Ascending, are not film franchises. The sibling filmmakers behind them haven’t bothered with franchises since The Matrix. There’s nothing inherently wrong with franchising, and the Matrix sequels have some redeeming qualities, but do we really want to live in a world where every movie must lead to another and another after that? I am dubious about living in such a world, which is part of why I cling to such fare as Jupiter.

What does this mean for the Wachowskis? With three consecutive bombs on their ledger, they may indeed have to serve a stint in “movie jail.” Worst case scenario: they are ostracized by Hollywood and never really trusted with anything again within the studio system. Their only path back to directing would be through the gauntlet of independent financing. Fortunately, I don’t think things will be so bleak. With Sense8, a promising miniseries coming up for Netflix, the Wachowskis have a ready-made opportunity to rehab their auteur status. Optimistically, they’ll get to direct again in the near future albeit with a third of the budget they had for Jupiter Ascending.

I would be interested to see what they could do on a pared back budget. I think Andy and Lana are great filmmakers and that their unique worldview needs an outlet. Perhaps with stricter parameters, they will be able tighten up their storytelling while still delivering the imaginative experiences we have come to expect of them.

From → Essay, Film Reviews

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