Directed by: The Wachowskis || Produced by: Grant Hill, The Wachowskis
Screenplay by: The Wachowskis || Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth
Music by: Michael Giacchino || Cinematography: John Toll || Edited by: Alexander Berner || Country: United States, Australia || Language: English
Running Time: 127 minutes
The influence brands have on human behavior, including cinephilia and filmmaking, is well established. Sometimes the official stamp of a studio (e.g. Blumhouse, A24) or recognizable intellectual property (IP) alone can guarantee a certain amount of financial security to a feature-length movie irrespective of its quality, marketing, or production team; even smaller, auteur-driven features produced outside the major Hollywood studio system (i.e. “independent films“) are expensive propositions that require dozens to hundreds of people operating together with expensive, often state-of-the-art equipment in complicated schedules, even if the principal filmmaker leading the effort (i.e. the director or “auteur”) has total creative control. Producing a film under the comfortable blanket of an IP label, though that brand can add further scrutiny from fans and/or the press, is often the investment fuel required to get movie projects off the ground and that initial wave of mainstream audiences (i.e. the coveted opening weekend box office) in the door.
Few mainstream Hollywood brands established greater audience goodwill throughout the 2010s than Walt Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-2019), particularly with respect to big-budget, FX-driven tentpole blockbusters (the only comparable rival that comes to mind is Universal’s Fast and Furious [2001-present] series). The franchise accelerated American cinema’s transformation into the IP-dominated, superhero obsessed environment it is today, and its minority of memorable, well executed installments (e.g. Iron Man , The Avengers , The Winter Soldier , Infinity War ) have provided extreme box office and critical cover for its majority of bland, forgettable, mediocre releases. Like Coca-Cola, Pokémon, Toblerone, or Apple, the MCU “brand” has become the star of its parent company’s products, regardless of how much artistic or technical merit each of those products contains.
But we’re not here to talk about Marvel movies in today’s essay; no, this review is about a film people love way more than your average superhero blockbuster: Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s smash hit, Jupiter Ascending! Ascending was compared to Captain Marvel (2019) several years ago by Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media, who postulated how those two films’ reception could’ve been reversed had the former been sold as an MCU installment and the latter a standalone, original IP, but otherwise released as they are.
Conceived in the the early 2010s while the Wachowskis were in production on another big-budget, non-Matrix (1999, 2003, 2021) flop, Cloud Atlas (2012, one of the most expensive independently financed movies of all time), Jupiter Ascending represents one of the braver, more ambitious attempts by Hollywood at an original blockbuster IP since 2012’s John Carter (Carter was based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars , sure, but the novel remains unknown to general audiences) and the latest until Robert Eggers’ The Northman (2022) from this year. We can debate the quality of these films until the cows come home, but arguments over why Hollywood doesn’t make anything original anymore, blockbusters most of all, are best answered by examining the lackluster box office takes of expansive genre films worth tens to $100+ million like the aforementioned, none of which are terribly longwinded by today’s standards nor are reviled a la Batman & Robin (1997), Wild Wild West (1999), Alien vs Predator: Requiem (2007), The Last Airbender (2010), Fantastic Four (2015), Morbius (2022), etc.
Jupiter Ascending (henceforth, JA) itself is a mixed bag of space opera fantasy in the vein of Star Wars (1977) combined with a Disney Princess fairy tale. Its notable female cult following is a function of this familiar yet remixed blockbuster premise whereby our heroine protagonist, Mila Kunis, is described as the typical “most important person in the universe”-cliche, but is also a passive damsel in distress to be rescued by Channing Tatum’s half human, half canine (I’m not kidding) supporting character and love interest; Tatum drives most of the story despite Kunis dominating overall screentime, an interesting if not revolutionary realignment of the traditional hero’s journey fundamental to mainstream filmmaking. My only critique of this setup is Tatum’s lackluster performance, continuing the actor’s streak as one of the worst, most overrated stars in contemporary Hollywood, while Kunis is fine as a relatable if milquetoast main character.
Other weird elements include JA’s villains and comic relief. For one, Eddie Redmayne’s now derided antagonist may be one of the worst characters in a big-budget, high-concept Hollywood film in recent memory, a performance so bizarre it provides unintentional comedy throughout. Even more inexplicable is an extended sequence midway through the story that recalls Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), complete with bureaucratic visual gags and montages galore, but tonally stands apart from the rest of the narrative like a sore thumb.
With regards to visuals and overall cinematographic vision, director of photography John Toll shows vast improvement over his digital cinematography from Iron Man 3 (2013, his first digitally shot feature), playing with light and colors to create one of the prettiest blockbusters of the 2010s. Much of JA’s good looks can be chalked up to the Wachowskis’ limited use of digital doubles, extensive stuntwork by the starring cast, and complicated multi-camera rigs impressive even by the standards of other FX-heavy American movies. This combination of gorgeous visuals, including everything from extensive CGI to on-location photography to wacky physical sets with Toll’s fluid camerawork are what sustained my attention throughout JA despite the inconsistent acting and formulaic storyline.
The ultimate irony of the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is that the circumstances of its production and ultimate box office failure are far more interesting than the movie itself. For lack of a better description, Jupiter Ascending is a hypothetical example of a non-established IP mainstream comic book-movie, a generic Marvel movie without the Marvel label; its so-so cast, passable script, and impressive visuals paint a picture awfully similar to a random sampling of MCU installments in particular and Hollywood superhero blockbusters in general, most distinguishable by its female-centric damsel-in-distress protagonist alone. Any further differences between the most infamous Wachowski flop and your average beloved Marvel movie that earns $600+ million and scores 70%+ on Rotten Tomatoes likely exist only in your mind.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: A weird sort of hybrid between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Star Wars on paper, Jupiter Ascending on screen plays much like countless high-concept Hollywood tentpoles before and after it with a plethora of expensive special FX, good-looking stars, and bizarre diegetic details that should feel experimental instead of generic. Mila Kunis is OK, Channing Tatum is bad, Eddie Redmayne is hilarious, and those winged lizards are just wonderful.
— ON THE FENCE
? This movie paid way more homage to Kunis’ Ukrainian heritage than I thought any movie ever would.
No comments yet.