Andy and Lana Wachowski's work represents the epitome of the contemporary blockbuster. In 1999, The Matrix seemed to announce that, in the new century, outer space had been replaced by cyberspace. The aesthetic, like the kids who flocked to see it, embraced anime and gaming influences. Audiences showed up for the two sequels, but many were disappointed. The Matrix was a lean, effective action movie wrapped inside a cyberpunk shell, but Reloaded and Revolutions burrowed into world-building and arcane symbolism. Other blockbusters reacted to the Wachowskis by becoming denser and longer, but no one else could quite match The Matrix's power. In a landscape increasingly dominated by remakes and adaptations of pre-existing intellectual properties, it was one of Hollywood's last original ideas.
Since then, the Wachowskis have had a hand in the creation of one more bona fide classic: 2005's V for Vendetta. Maybe they haven't always succeeded, but they have always tried to do something different. Which brings us to 2015, and the Wachowskis' first attempt at the hoary old genre of space opera.
Jupiter Ascending does not start by introducing us to Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), the housecleaner who will turn out to be the most important person on planet Earth. Instead, it begins with world-building. Or in this case, world-destroying. Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) Abrasax are galactic royalty touring a dead alien world whose empty cities and disused technology are covered with a blue powder, which we learn is all that is left of the planet's inhabitants, who have been "harvested." They are interrupted by a holographic message from their older brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne), and from the conversation, it's clear that potentially murderous sibling rivalry is not just a problem among Earth royals.
Family life is no more harmonious for Jupiter Jones, who, in flashbacks, we see was born to a Russian couple who fled the post-Soviet chaos for America. She's currently living in a cramped apartment with her aunties and uncles, making a meager living and hating her life. But when her cousin convinces to her to make a quick buck by selling her eggs to a fertility clinic, her planet's perilous condition is exposed. The Earth is essentially a giant human farm, seeded by the Abrasax clan millions of years ago to provide raw genetic material for the elixir of immortality that gives the royal family their power. Jupiter's DNA sequence is a "recurrance" of the clan's recently deceased matriarch, which means that, in the eyes of galactic law, she holds the deed to Earth. Once the powerful siblings Titus, Kalique, and Balem see their valuable livestock holdings are in peril, they send bounty hunters to Earth to find Jupiter. Titus sends Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered super soldier, to bring her back alive and install her as family matriarch, dethroning his cruel brother Balem in the process.
Like all of the Wachowskis' work, there are moments of great inventiveness and visual bravado, such as Balem's spectacular base floating in Jupiter's Great Red Spot. The film's pastiche of influences range from Harry Potter to Neon Genesis Evangelion. The set pieces, such as a running dogfight through the towers of Chicago, are the equal of any contemporary blockbuster.
And yet, the whole thing fails to gel on some level. The screenplay is overstuffed with detail, but it holds together better than The Fifth Element, which was clearly an influence. The acting is not bad, with the glaring exception of Best Actor Oscar nominee Redmayne, whose hissing portrayal of Balem is downright laughable. It might sound strange to say, but Jupiter Ascending lacks Keanu Reeves. He might not be the best actor in the world, but he does "movie star" really well, and his chilly aspect was essential to creating the tone of The Matrix. Kunis can hold the screen, but her character is a space princess who serves mostly as a McGuffin. Tatum does yeoman's work, but he lacks the charisma to carry the movie.
Comparing Jupiter Ascending with Guardians of the Galaxy exposes the Wachowskis' fatal flaw: They're just not funny. The Matrix inspired a wave of somber sci fi and fantasy that dominated the 2000s. Guardians' lighter tone was a response to a decade of grimdark overkill. There's evidence that the Wachowskis are aware of the problem in a sequence where Jupiter and a robotic lawyer try to navigate the galactic bureaucracy, which nods to Terry Gilliam's absurdist Brazil. But it falls flat, and so Jupiter Ascending putters along, spreading its handsome wings but never quite taking off.