The return of the Wachowskis is fast becoming a matter of a grave concern, like a recurring skin condition that refuses to clear up no matter much emollient you use. Jupiter Ascending’s a baffling movie, because it seems to represent the directors’ desire to splice Highlander 2 with the Star Wars prequels and see what happens. A film that begins with the line, “tonight the sky is full of miracles” is downhill from there. The two hours that follows is a strange cocktail of sense deadening performances, verbal oddities (“Stalin’s balls”/”Bees don’t lie”) and spiritual bullshit clad to advanced science in search of respectability. It’s just the kind of unfocused mess that got made every other day in the 1980s, but then it hadn’t cost $175m. Did the backers truly believe they had a franchise hit on their hands, and if they did had they seen it? This, like many behind the scenes decisions, is something we’ll never be able to truly comprehend.
There’s no question that Lana and Andy are comfortable with visual effects and have a love of the grandiose but like George Lucas, another director with similar priorities, they’ve neglected the olive bread and parsley butter matter of strong characters we care about, coveting things we’re interested in. In fact it’s likely that Lucas directed Mila Kunis personally. So redundant is she, so lifeless, it’s as though she wandered in from an adjacent sound stage and was pushed in front of the camera, a cue card held up to kick start each scene.
Long after we’ve stopped caring about why she’s been hunted by an imperious megalomaniac cliché spouting Eddie Redmayne, for she’s hardly phased by it, we’re up to our necks in a burgeoning romance with Channing “Chatum” Tatum’s alien bounty hunter, that fasts resembles that of Padme and Anakin in Attack of the Clones. When you learn that Natalie Portman was first offered the part, we imagine rejecting it when she saw the resemblance, you’re tempted to ask if the Wachowskis are watching the right movies. The only thing that’s certain is that a barely cognisant lead whose sole function is to ask questions for the first half of the film, is not a character we can get behind. There must be a better way of imparting a new mythology to an audience, you feel, so it was brave of the Matrix directors to ignore it.
So if Jupiter Ascending doesn’t care about its principle characters and is content with token villainy, what does it care about? The answer appears to be youth and vitality; the plot hinging on the trade in revitalising genetic material that allows almost everyone, with the exception of Sean Bean and Kunis’ unfortunate family of Russian émigrés, to be fresh and sexy. It’s not unreasonable that Lana Wachowski, a transgender woman, might be obsessed with identity and body reshaping, but one wonders if she’s focused rather too much on the theme at the expense of higher concerns, like story and character. Following Cloud Atlas, which ruined performances by hiding them under layers of conspicuous gender bending and old age makeup, this is the second Wachowskis flick in a row that’s played less like a movie, more an extended trawl through the creative team’s subconscious. When you add in the movie’s boorish focus on dynastic power and princess fantasies, you find it tumbling in your estimation, rather than ascending as the filmmakers hoped.