(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Since June is Pride Month, we’re taking a deep dive into the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two of the most prominent – and fascinating – transgender filmmakers around. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of the Wachowskis here.)
As of this writing, Jupiter Ascending, the 2015 space opera starring Mila Kunis as the eponymous Jupiter Jones, is the Wachowskis’ most recent feature-length creation. Outside of some remarkably scattered rumors about a Matrix reboot/sequel/something-or-other, we have little-to-no evidence of any further cinematic output from two of the most boundary-pushing, genre-bending storytellers working in the medium today.
If it were that this does somehow end up as the Final Wachowski Film, Jupiter Ascending would certainly stand as a testament to the core values that lie at the heart of their work: unabashed sincerity, a call to our inner humanity, and some truly bonkers sci-fi imagery. It’s the Wachowski id on full display, warts and all, and who are we to judge this piece of pure artistic expression that also features Channing Tatum as a half-albino dog person wearing jet boots? Like I said, warts and all.
The most positive thing one can say about Jupiter Ascending is that it creates a cinematic world that you earnestly want to explore more of.
The Wachowskis admit that The Wizard of Oz provided some inspiration for the story, which tracks pretty well with the plot at hand: Jupiter Jones, a Russian immigrant who cleans homes for a living and lives with her large and boisterous family, gets wrapped up in the interstellar family dramatics of the House of Abrasax, three siblings fighting over dominance in the universe, and harvesting human life to retain their youthful appearances even after living for millennia upon millennia. Jupiter is accompanied through these misadventures by her personal “Toto,” Caine Wise, the aforementioned Channing Tatum dog-man-warrior-person, who is initially hired by a member of the Abrasax family to hunt her down, but ultimately becomes her guardian (and also lover? I mean, Jupiter loves dogs, she insists).
In a twist of interplanetary fate, the Abrasax family matriarch has died, and her genes have “reappeared” within Jupiter, granting her a royal title, and potential ownership over the planet Earth. Thus, this ownership, alongside the billions of humans providing a life source, is at the center of this hunt for greed from Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton).
But no discussion of Jupiter Ascending is truly complete without a full dissection of the brilliance and wonder that is Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the villainous Balem Abrasax, eldest of the Abrasax siblings, and the most deserving of a replacement winner for 2015’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Redmayne provides a scenery-chewing performance that practically destroys the fourth wall in its absurd histrionics, his vocal dynamics wavering on a beautiful inconsistency, his gaze staring off beyond the frame, almost staring into our very soul. It’s a level of camp performance that pays out in bucketloads throughout the film’s runtime.
But between the manic Redmayne performance, the gloriously deranged brightly colored aesthetic, and the pleas for human decency sprinkled throughout the plot, the unifying element here should be our hero, Jupiter Jones, tasked with restoring order to this chaotic universe. But whatever hint of a unique protagonist might exist within Jupiter, it, unfortunately, doesn’t appear on the screen in Kunis’ performance. Jupiter spends most of the film being dragged from set piece to set piece, bending to the will of whatever villain she’s sharing screen-time with, only to be rescued by Caine Wise at the last possible moment. The first time Caine rescues Jupiter as she’s falling to her death is noble and exciting. The third time, not so much. It’s only when facing off against Balem that Jupiter is finally able to stand her ground and show her true power and potential, and even then, the confrontation ends with her falling into oblivion.
There are still heaps of layers to discuss in the surprisingly dense world of Jupiter Ascending: Sean Bean as a half-human half-bee; the brilliantly crafted Space Bureaucrat Section lovingly cribbed from Brazil; the elephant-alien pilot that trumpets their way into a scene out of nowhere. The most positive thing one can say about Jupiter Ascending is that it creates a cinematic world that you earnestly want to explore more of, and judging by the ambitious nature of the Wachowskis, one imagines that they’ve got a series of Jupiter-adjacent stories hidden somewhere that would’ve been whipped out were the film a smashing success (it, sadly, was not).
The Wachowskis are master world-builders, and though some of the elements were too disparate to create a compelling-enough film upon initial release, Jupiter Ascending is a fitting conclusion (for now, at least) to the majesty, ambition, and heart that have made these stellar sisters an irreplaceable filmmaking duo.