Jupiter’s Ascension and the Wachowski’s Decline
If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you’re going to do tomorrow, amirite?
I mean, it was almost three months ago now that I made my first post in what I planned to be a series that would be very important to me. A post which I immediately followed up with yet another piece on Nebraska football, and then not blogging for over two months.
And now that I’m making time for it… yeah, I’mma blog about a movie instead.
Don’t worry, nameless, loosely-intertwined series. I’ll come back to you one day. And I’m sure the 17 people who read your first post will love you just the same. But right now, I gotta strike while the iron is… already a week old.
Someday I’ll figure this “blogging” thing out.
Since the first Matrix made them superstars, the Wachowskis have been doomed to ever decreasing returns on their efforts. Cloud Atlas gave them by far their most critical success in six years, sitting at a mediocre 66% with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, and even that seems to be just a blip in the ever-descending spiral of their careers, careers that could be in jeopardy now. Their latest film, Jupiter Ascending, has been reviled by critics and audiences alike and finished a distant third at the box office on its opening, February weekend, behind American Sniper, which was in its fourth week in theatres. It seems entirely possible Jupiter has brought the siblings’ careers to a shuttering, pathetic end.
And the saddest part about all of this is that Jupiter Ascending is one of their best films to date.
In fact, watching it, I kept comparing it, favorably, to two other sci-fi epics from last year, which critics and fans fell all over themselves to heap praise on: Snowpiercer and Guardians of the Galaxy. I talked about both of these in an early post and I liked them both a lot. But they both had critical flaws that keep me from completely endorsing them. And these films’ flaws are areas where Jupiter was exceptional.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a ton of fun, Indiana Jones in space, and yet somehow sillier than that implies. But for all that, it failed to be truly compelling as a film, notably in comparison to the real Indiana Jones, because we know so little of substance of the film’s universe that we can never truly understand what’s at stake. We know little about the culture or society the heroes end up defending, and nothing about the society of the villain or his motivations. How do we know he’s evil, just because he’s a jerk? What makes the Nova Empire worth defending, and why does Ronan want to destroy it in the first place?
On top of that, there’s this weird, almost Dragon Ball Z-like idea of power at work in Guardians‘ universe. Take, for example, Drax (top) and Ronan (bottom). Based on their respective physiques, if these two ever got in a fight they should be on a roughly even playing field. If anything, Drax should actually be the stronger of the two, and yet when they fight in the movie Ronan no-sells several unblocked shots from Drax before casually tossing him aside. More notably, when each tries to wield the
ultimate Macguffin of ultimate power infinity stone, Ronan is able to do control its power with ease, while none of the Guardians can, and even their joint effort as a group is barely enough to hold the stone for a few seconds.
Is this because they’re different species? Is Ronan a demigod? Maybe Dave Bautista kept pulling his punches like it was WWE? We never get any sort of explanation. For all we know, it’s because Ronan picks his nose and eats it more often. When the rules of a universe are never established, how can anything that happens in that universe properly have any weight?
Jupiter Ascending serves as an excellent counterpoint to this, because it consistently makes the stakes clear. In part this is certainly due to the Wachowski’s decision to make Earth, rather than some other, made-up planet, the target of the film’s villain, but the truth is the annihilation of Earth never seems that threatening. It’s definitely part of the film, and a part that matters, but, as with all good journeys, the real focus is almost always our heroine’s (self-)discovery. Even though we don’t see much of it, we know a lot of the society the film introduces us to and, aside from a few scientific advances that feel more at home in the world of Harry Potter than serious sci-fi, it makes sense. It seems like something that humans could make, given the time and access to resources.
Probably most refreshing, though, is the lack of any unclear classification of “power.” There’s no need to break out a scouter or scream about power levels being over 9 (or 8) thousand! The beings who hold power in this universe do so through a combination of divine right and having a lot of money. You may recognize this as the same two ways most people throughout human history have both gotten and kept their power. This, to me, was the capstone to a very well-built universe, and what made the entire society feel very organic, especially compared to the poorly defined universe we visit in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Snowpiercer, too, serves as a great example of a film that establishes its universe very well, though I’m sure it helps if your universe is only as large as a train. Where it didn’t do so well was in its message. I’ve said this before, but this really felt like a movie that wanted to say something grand, but just kind of… didn’t. For all of its high concepts and trendy topics, it never seemed to be able to get past the blatantly obvious. “Class warfare is bad. Done.”
On the other hand, Jupiter Ascending was the opposite in nearly every important way. It was advertised as a decidedly nine o’clock movie, but actually ended up having some interesting themes and creative ways of expressing them. The ideas Jupiter Ascending has to share aren’t shockingly original, but they’re well done. And they feel surprisingly relevant. I’m hesitant to go into too much more detail to avoid revealing major plot points, but I will say in a lot of ways it reminded me of In Time, although In Time was another high concept movie that failed to develop its concept in any meaningful way. So it’s In Time: But Done Well This Time, with Channing Tatum replacing Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis filling in for Amanda Seyfried. Upgrades all around, as far as I’m concerned.
Simply put, Jupiter Ascending definitely had its share of flaws, but has enough strengths to rival even the best science fiction films of the past few years. It deserves better treatment than it’s gotten and is being unfairly dismissed by critics simply because it has a plot that demands more than half your brain and maybe another viewing or two.
I’m still trying to figure out why that’s a bad thing.