(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.
This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t encountered this kind of fatigue since interminable Battle of Zion in The Matrix Revolutions (although Sense8’s repetitive plotting and scenarios are also prone to test the patience).
Lana and Andy were apparently inspired to embark on an exercise in grand, legendary landscaping, a tale of princesses and loveable rogues, evil siblings and villainous lizards. A broad canvas encouraging a Star Wars-esque mythos to unfurl. You have your Han Solo-type, Channing Tatum’s Caine Wise, a space (ex) policeman with dog DNA who rides around on hover roller-skates (it looks as goofy as it sounds; at least Back to the Future Part II’s hover boards had a Silver Surfer chic).
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), the main character, riffs on Cinderella heroines; she’s the poor immigrant girl cleaning out toilets but destined for greatness. Jupiter’s also the Luke/Leia figure by virtue of her lineage to the dark overlords (the Wachowskis have bestowed burdensome backstory on the picture, but mainly it comes down to Jupiter being the post-Matrix “one” of a cyclic series of chosen, and the post-Cloud Atlas reincarnation (recurrence) of the mother of the bad seeds; I guess it’s a step beyond Anakin/Darth, but also marginally unwholesome when one of your former sons proposes to you). Or, reducing it to the siblings’ inspiration, Jupiter and Caine are Dorothy and Toto (I’m still vague on how The Odyssey feeds into the finished picture).
Part of the problem is the set up just doesn’t grab, following the (inevitable) discovery by Jupiter that reality is not what it seems. Her kids are in dispute; Balem (Eddie Redmanye, initially entertaining with an offbeat Margaret Thatcher with asthma impression, but it gets old quickly), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton, obviously a hit with the siblings, and for good reason, but wasted here; like Jupiter, her character in Sense8 needed a whole lot of saving) and Titus (Douglas Booth, preening posh kid I’ve yet to be convinced by). They each want access to Jupiter on account of her being the rightful owner of Earth, so Titus wants to marry and then kill her and Balem (who has inherited in her terminal absence) just wants to kill her.
A series of “classic” (regressive?) damsel-in-distress routines ensue, as Jupiter is continually captured and saved by Caine, none of which are especially engrossing. The action set pieces lack the flair and dynamism that made the original Matrix such a great ride; it’s almost as if the siblings have lost their mojo in that department (this isn’t the case, as whatever myriad faults it displays, Sense8 gives good action). The one notable exception comes when Cain with his stupid name is ejected into space and must get his doggy paws on an inflatable survival suit; it’s the only point where the picture verges on becoming exciting.
The effects are top notch, of course, and the siblings’ mingling of elegant futurism with medieval religious and angelic imagery is quite arresting. Less so the make-up. Whether it’s dog boy Tatum, who looks a complete joke, or Tim Piggot Smith buried in god knows what, or someone who’s half rodent, or a woman with Mickey Mouse ears, the results look incredibly silly, like a ‘70s BBC production of Alice in Wonderland. It’s a curious mish-mash then, with the photo-real reptilians looking so convincing that their issuances become unintentionally funny (you won’t get intentional gags landing in a Wachowskis picture); when one comes in to report “There was a problem at the clinic”, you half expect him to also show up in ER with a facemask on.
Evidence of the Wachowskis and comedy not mixing comes with the Terry Gilliam cameo/Brazil homage; even the queen of the universe has to queue in line and go round the houses to stake her claim.
Jupiter Ascending isn’t a case of “Well, with a better cast…”, but the leads don’t help any. Tatum has a very precise (narrow) range that needs a specifically designed vehicle to match. He can work in comedies and he can work in dramas, but he’s a charisma vacuum when everything rests on his shoulders, as here. And, he looks ridiculous, but I think I already said that (I guess the only point of note is that they work actively against Tatum’s pin-up looks by festooning him with prosthetics – the only thing absent is a shiny wet nose).
Kunis is similarly lacking, so much so you begin to wonder if the siblings didn’t purposefully sabotage the project by casting the least winning couple with zero chemistry.
Which leaves Sean Bean as… Alec Guinness. Well, sort of. He’s called on to deliver reams of exposition and makes it actually work. The siblings could have used more of his style of effortless-seeming performance. Most shockingly, Bean’s bee man doesn’t die, even though he's given a bit of Lando Calrissian moment (he also doesn’t look like a bee; they could at least have given him a yellow and black mohawk). Bean clearly needs to get a new agent, as audiences will feel short-changed if he starts making a habit of not buying the farm.
I do need to call out a couple of Brit faces for work below and beneath the call of duty, though. In the Lucas-type realm of stiff space operas, the English thesps could often be the relief in sea of detritus. Here we have Ramon Tikaram (“Welcome, your majesty to the over populated oozing cesspool we call home”) and Nikki Amuka-Bird shredding cardboard wherever they tread.
Elsewhere, Doona Bae is fine but entirely irrelevant in a coloured-haired shout out to Lana. She and her bounty hunter chums look as if they’ve had their ensembles styled on the set of a Bryan Singer X-Men.
So Jupiter Ascending isn’t much cop. The siblings undertake copious world building, some of it twee, some of it George Lucas prequels-like in its conceptual pig-headedness (everything revolves around the plans of Abraxas Industries; all that’s lacking is a blockade by the Trade Federation), but they have nowhere interesting to take it. They have a passive heroine (until the last scene) and a by-the-numbers dogface hero.
Yet the picture has attracted a fair bit of somewhat tangential discussion on the Internet, if you search it out. Mainly in terms of picking up a theme a theory that has been percolating ever since the first Matrix movie. Namely, are the Wachowskis Illuminati stooges? Whether you think the Illuminati is a load of tosh and its mere mention a hiding to ridicule, or conversely subscribe to the view that every Hollywood product is entirely suffused with material designed to turn us all mind-controlled zombies, there’s certainly sufficient and consistent thematic content in their work to make it a valid discussion point. And with a picture like Jupiter Ascending, it might be the only stimulating aspect. For every discussion on the subject, it’s evident those seeing them as messengers either fall down on the side of “They’re warning us!” or “They’re telling us how it is, at the bidding of their masters” (it’s been suggested they are members of Ordo Templi Orientis). In the face of such confusion and maybes, Robert Anton Wilson-esque scepticism seems called for.
After all, David Icke, the most renowned advocate of hermeneutic conspiracy theories via Illuminati lore and alien influences upon mankind, holds up The Matrix as a template of how it really is; we, humanity, asleep, while our very essences (or loosh, if you will) are sucked dry by the machines/ reptilians/ Annunaki bloodline. Yet one might note how that trilogy ends on a note of ambivalence and passivity. There’s nothing we can do; it’s a never-ending cycle and, just as long as sufficient false hopes are presented periodically, the feeding can continue. In Jupiter Ascending we see basically the same thing, but the machine harvesting has been replaced by loosh-sucking aliens.
Balem: Have you ever seen a harvest?
Kalique: Oh no. Never, but I’ve heard they feel no pain. It’s all quite humane, from what I’ve told.
Further, we learn that, “Most of them were miserable in their lives, and what we do for them is a mercy”. The siblings have clearly worked in the much-proposed idea of aliens seeing humanity as little more than cattle, to be farmed for all they’re worth. Feeding into Jupiter Ascending’s premise are other agenda items, both mainstream and fringe. Overpopulation is an intended consequence of the aliens’ plan (once the planet’s population exceeds its ability to sustain them, it is ripe for harvest). Supressed technology is a given (“Sharing has never been a strong point of your species, your majesty”, is the response to why not share the superior tech of off world humans; the idea that there’s cornucopia of stuff out there for us all, here represented by lifespan extension and instant healing of injuries). And bees are the key to it all, obviously (even Russell T Davies knows that one), as the number one life givers; not only do they recognise royalty, but their mystical status is also reflected in Bean’s hermit shaman (or, as Eddie Izzard wisely noted, “I’m covered in bees!”)
We’re here to be sucked dry then, and the Wachowskis’ depiction of this is one of the few disturbing elements of the picture; aliens (Greys) amass around subjects to draw out the life-force (although its loosh – fear itself – in UFO jargon) and leave nothing. This scene includes doctors behind facemasks with black eyeballs and the sense that the hospital environment is one of violation and desecration. But these are curiously taken-and-left moments (Jupiter records her friend’s failed abduction on her iPhone but, for all the presumed freak-out it bestows, carries on as normal afterwards).
The Greys themselves? They’re aliens here rather than the sometimes-suggested clone beings. With regard to which, we are told, “Clones lack genetic plasticity. Several million years ago a gene plague caused by cloning nearly annihilated the entire human race”. The dialogue sounds like irrelevant exposition, except it would appear to be addressing the genetic purity aspect.
What’s interesting here is that, despite the facsimile of Cinderella starting and ending the picture scrubbing toilets, Jupiter is a chosen one, a Neo, one identified as important by her genetic coding (read: the bloodlines so important to the devilishly clever Illuminati) We are told that “In our world, genes have almost spiritual significance. They are the seeds of immortality” which reduces to a heritage based on what you are, not what you do (“It’s not what you do, it’s what you are”, a denouncement of the commonly held fundamental of how we strive to be decent human beings).
Manipulation of DNA is a precept of subjugation and entirely justified, as humanity is inferior (here, to an uber- humanity, one in concert with reptilian and cloned entities). The confirmation that this has always been going on comes from one of Jupiter’s rare astute questions; “Are you some kind of vampire race?” to which she receives the answer “We are the cause of a lot of those myths”. This in itself brings to mind mentions of vampires and werewolves as glitches in the Matrix. Like The Matrix, humanity’s purpose is quantified in a tangible form (approximately 200 human beings make up an ampule of the good stuff), and we are told the “planet is a farm”.
Earth is labelled an underdeveloped world. There’s built-in justification for not revealing the truth because we’re all such a terrible bunch who can’t be trusted. Caine Dogboy tells us “The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream” an endorsement of those who see merit in (say) Icke-speak. And, “I don’t think most people would want to know the truth” (Cypher type Matrix-omatic).
The siblings also dig a spiritual-cosmological progression of things; the (negative) Saturnine/Luciferian influences are on the way out with Jupiterian positivity making its mark. The science of astrology is venerated, as it predicts and endorses the incumbent reign of the special one. Yet, and in an Illumanti reading of the film’s ideas this seems most significant, Jupiter, who actually owns the Earth, doesn’t end the movie introducing humanity to a new world of freedom and untold utopian destinies.
She resumes/assumes the slave aspect; she’s self-involved and small-minded (like humanity) and carries on scrubbing khazis. And shagging a dog. She is no more than the new face of what has come before. Her Jupiterian influence is at best ambivalent. She doesn’t use her power for good or revelation, presumably because she recognises her destiny is apart from the plebs. All the familial insurrection has done is deposit someone less cruel on the throne. As such, the Wachowskis come out in favour of the same unchangeable regime The Matrix condludes on. And it’s a bummer. Which might be why no one wanted to see it or Revolutions, I guess.
Maybe the siblings didn’t care how good Jupiter Ascending as because they were going through the motions, simply fulfilling an agenda item for the Illuminati. Or maybe they’re just shitty filmmakers. It’s increasingly bizarre that something so perfectly formed and self-assured as The Matrix has led to such increasingly shoddy future outings. Then again, look at Spielberg or Lucas. Perhaps the encroaching reptilian claws dig into any filmmaker. Even Michael Giacchino can’t deliver an involving score, and he’s staunchly reliable.
Certainly, examining Jupiter Ascending for a nefarious subtext makes it far more interesting (well, let’s not get carried away) than it is as a piece of throwaway entertainment. One might pick up on other aspects. Dogboy gets his wings back at the end, like a fallen angel restored. How does Russia fit in? It’s either the source of the new order (Jupiter) or the incorrigible scourge (the Soviet regime results in her parents fleeing to the land of prosperity). The problem is, the picture invites a mainly lethargic response. There’s a lot of stuff stuffed into it, but the Wachowskis seem resolute in making it as unstimulating as possible.
Which leads one back to an uncertain conclusion. The Wachowskis might be really shitty programmers, or they may be warning us about the programmers. Or they may just be vacuum cleaners for Joseph Campbell-esque heroes’ journeys who indulging rampant pop-esoterica along the way. As such, they may have strayed into the sights of those who have conditioned themselves to automatically see any imagery with negative/ enslavement/ dystopian content as examples of programming (be it Game of Thrones of Fury Road).
The subject of Jupiter Ascending is “one of the most powerful dynasties in the universe”, yet the siblings succeed in making these ruling despots and their universe entirely banal. Jupiter might be less didactic than the unfiltered confessional of Sense8, but both reach the same point of torpor. When they apply themselves to the portentous (the first Matrix, Cloud Atlas) their grandiose/inclusive themes tend to stick. It’s when they engage in the realm of feeling or aspiration that sound judgement tends to leave, highlighting the limits of their abilities with character, dialogue and narrative. Maybe that’s the sign of Illuminati agents. Or maybe it’s just your classic erratic Hollywood creatives.