I happily still hold the cheerleading banner for The Wachowskis. Mainstream critical consensus is a strange and fickle beast that far too often wants to make blanket assumptions based on very subjective things like being bored or I didnt understand what was going on and is notoriously intolerant of such notions as embracing the conception and ideas of a work. Science-fiction is often a genre that requires people give filmmakers a certain amount of rope to see where they are going. It is worth noting that the initial critical view of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was one of confusion and boredom, while people also tried to tell George Lucas that audiences would ever understand the world he created in Star Wars (1977). You have to be willing to engage with The Wachowskis films on a very different level to popcorn entertainment and/or the two-minute soundbite review. That said, Jupiter Ascending did not seem that promising. The initial trailer with Channing Tatum in funny ears and androgynous makeup seemed more absurd than exciting, while the films release was pulled from July 2014 to February of 2015, often a dead zone for studio releasing schedules, and did not presage well as a work that Warner Brothers had any faith in, while the critical and audience consensus about the finished result seemed universally negative.
One of the things I like about The Wachowskis is that they take familiar genres the martial arts film, virtual reality themes, an anime tv series from the 1960s, the ninja film and completely reinvent the genre every time by pushing the action scenes and visuals to a heretofore unheard of level, while throwing in a mind-bending series of ideas. With Jupiter Ascending, they have taken on the space opera. The film could easily have emerged as one of the numerous Star Wars clones. Indeed, you feel like the plot was conceived by The Wachowskis after a watching of Flash Gordon (1936) or its camp remake Flash Gordon (1980) whereupon they set out to elevate its melodramatic plot devices of ordinary mortals plunged into an interstellar adventure up against an intergalactic monarch (or royal dynasty). There is the same sense in Flash Gordon (as well as Star Wars) of a galaxy inhabited by multifarious species, while the heroine here is even accompanied by a human-animal hybrid, Channing Tatums Caine, who at one point says he has more in common with a dog than a human, who could easily sit alongside Flash Gordons Hawk Man, Lion Men and Shark Men. Both films also centre around villains climactic plans to marry the heroine. (You also cannot help but think the choice of Jupiter Jones as the name of Mila Kuniss heroine is The Wachowskis tipping their hand that they are fans of the 1960s/70s juvenile detective novel series The Three Investigators).
Another thing I like about The Wachowskis is that they push the creative bar on their films into a stratosphere that is light years ahead of any other competitor. You could compare Jupiter Ascending to the Star Wars prequels both films come with enormous creativity placed into their backgrounds but with George Lucas you feel that he has done precious little to think about the sociology, the rationale and cultures of the worlds he creates in anything beyond novelty costuming depth. The Wachowskis love coming up with wild rationalisations and here create a fascinatingly original universe one where the Earth is no more than an intergalactic breeding pen created by another species of human that has existed since before the dinosaurs; where the animal hybrids of Flash Gordon are rationalised as being genetically crossbred for military use; the idea that reincarnation is nothing more than the same genetic sequence repeating itself after numerous possible combinations; that the reason for the Red Spot of Jupiter has been storming for hundreds of years is that it secretly houses an alien base; or in the creation of a complex series of political machinations and rivalries that challenge something of the complexity of Frank Herberts Dune (1965). There is the odd moment this slips into the slightly loopy like scenes of bees all paying obeisance to Mila Kunis but mostly the film rocks it. As always, their films are jam packed with astonishingly creative pieces of throwaway gadgetry that are so casually layered it has you going wow every few minutes.
The other distinctive thing about The Wachowskis is how they come up with amazing action sequences that are light years ahead of everybody elses game. The film has you stunned from the sequence a few minutes in where Channing Tatum emerges from the fertility clinic into an ambush by the mercenaries that suddenly erupts into a barrage of raygun bolts before Tatum activates his anti-gravity hoverboots and flies up around the sides of buildings deflecting laserblasts with his portable forcefield. This is left for dead a few minutes later during the exhilarating sequence with the mercenaries pursuing Tatum and Mila Kunis through the skies of Chicago first on his hoverboots and then in an appropriated flyer, while destroying entire buildings, bouncing off vehicles, narrowly avoiding trains and even diving under water. It is a sequence that in its sheer exhilaration rivals the best of George Lucas. The visual effects throughout are expectedly stunning there are some shots of ships gracefully emerging out of the storm clouds of Jupiter or the ice rings of Saturn constructed for the pure beauty of it that give you fanboy orgasms. The climax of the film is a breathless sequence filled with mass destruction, people fighting on the edge of collapsing structures and colossal fireballs erupting below, before the extraordinarily triumphal last minute rescue.
Of all The Wachowskis films to date, Jupiter Ascending ranks as the most unpretentiously enjoyable, the least concerned with the epic meaning of it all and just a determination to create a rollicking good adventure. There is a good deal more humour than usual, not something Wachowski films are exactly noted for, with some overlong comic relief scenes cutting back to Mila Kuniss Russian family. There is an extended sequence in the middle with Mila Kunis going through an intergalactic inheritance claims bureau that seems played for broad comedy that doesnt suit the rest of the film although the sequence does include a cameo from Terry Gilliam, unrecognisable behind a beard and wild hair, inserted as homage to his bureaucratic nightmare classic Brazil (1985).
I am still to warm to Mila Kunis as an actress of lasting substance. She at least passes through the role here delivering all that is required of her adequately. Channing Tatum on the other hand is an actor that has been stuck with pin-up status but is constantly making a series of intelligent casting choices that show there is far more going behind that big goofy smile. Here, outfitted with a gold-dyed leonine hairstyle and goatee, elf ears and mascaraed makeup job that could have fallen into ridiculousness for another actor (try to imagine a he-man action hero like Bruce Willis or Jason Satham pulling it off), he plays fiercely determined and contrarily emerges with a sexual sizzle on screen. Sean Bean gives a strong supporting performance. Much of the film was shot in England and I was a little disappointed at The Wachowskis for settling for the casting of the royalty with the standard cliches of upper-class British accents. Among these, Eddie Redmayne, whose name is suddenly big right now with The Theory of Everything (2014), gives an okay performance of languidly bored arrogance, which is ruined by the decision to play it through a silly voice.