Two heads are not better than one when it comes to the Wachowskis, the filmmaking siblings best known for making The Matrix in 1999. Since that zeitgeist hit, the Force has not been with the Wachowskis, even though their new film Jupiter Ascending keeps the sci-fi fantasy faith of the Star Wars generation, blending it with the multiculturalism of The Fifth Element. As with The Matrix, they continue to perpetuate political naïveté.
Do Andy and Lana Wachowski balance separate interests in fantasy with politics, or are they equally ditsy? Their preposterous new plot takes a young woman named Jupiter (Mila Kunis) from working-class Chicago to a resplendent-though-treacherous galaxy that resembles dozens of other sci-fi blockbuster locales from Thor to Pacific Rim where she proves to be the genetic match (identified as a “Recurrence”) for the late matriarch of a far-flung planet named Abrasax.
Caught in the middle of Abrasax’s intergalactic power struggle (Eddie Redmayne, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Sean Bean in featured roles), Jupiter is rescued by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a “genetically engineered ex-military hunter” and airborne skater boy who performs numerous F/X stunts in her defense.
That “ex-military” bit exposes the Wachowskis’ simpleton politics. Born in the mid-1960s, they’re of the generation that avoided the draft, and they show little respect for military service — only skepticism. Despite cursory belief in romantic resolution to human conflict, the Wachowskis’ spectacles use violence overload. It’s the Angelina Jolie folly.
A juvenile predilection for violence has always been the two-headed Wachowski monster’s trademark. Not intellectuals (and only superficially politicized), they’re geeks addicted to visceral excitation — the sex-and-murder comedy Bound, the Matrix trilogy with its bullet-time and chop-socky, the cartoon-based Speed Racer, the cartoonish Cloud Atlas, and now this action/yawn-packed epic.
The formulaic concept behind Jupiter Ascending merely ensures their own commercialism, not pacifism. It’s ironic that Redmayne’s soft-spoken villain, Balem, defines the Wachowskis’ confusion about consumerism, saying, “To live is to consume. Life’s sole purpose is to create profit.” Hard to tell if the self-implication there is the character’s or the moviemakers’.
Jupiter Ascending repeats the diversity parade of the Wachowskis’ previous film Cloud Atlas (based on the novel by David Mitchell), in which mankind’s geopolitical conflicts through the ages were enacted by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry portraying various white, black, Asian, Slavic characters – their histories, as here, to be thought of as fantastic “recurrences.”
After Cloud Atlas proved an embarrassing box-office flop, it’s surprising that the Wachowskis would reboot a similar pretense. Warner Bros. must think the combination of futuristic utopia with contemporary dystopia gives Jupiter Ascending the possibility of another Matrix-style success.
Remember: The Wachowskis hired professor Cornel West for a role in the Matrix series, which somehow boosted its academic cred among fans who bought its racial allegory. They also wrote the screenplay for V for Vendetta, the movie that inspired the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing anarchists who have hijacked recent social protests. Some reviewers may praise Jupiter Rising as wondrous in order to overlook its political shallowness. The culture-wide juvenile obsession with violence — that boyish enthrallment with skill and valor in combat (whether hand to hand or joystick to keyboard) — confirms a certain spoiled-brat tendency.
The Wachowskis represent a generation that is culturally empowered (Hollywood favored) yet morally and politically jejune. The Abrasax family squabbles that send poor Jupiter hurtling through space, or dressed up in coronation-style bridal gear (à la The Hunger Games) tries for a political allegory but is more like grown children’s rec-room tantrums. These outlandish, multidimensional characters are so earnest and solemn yet foolish, they even deaden campy derision.
Jupiter’s rise from meager circumstances is also done childishly. Lewd, pouty Kunis whines, “Technically I’m an alien, an illegal one. Born without a father, without a country. I hate my life.” Fronting for her Russian-immigrant family that labors menially as though still in Moscow, she gets to choose from unimaginable riches, power, and glory. This Millennial’s daydream eventually sends Jupiter and her star-crossed lover Caine soaring across Chicago skies, achieving a Superman–Lois Lane fantasy. If you’ve ever wondered why today’s graphic comics-besotted youth are not more politically savvy, this wannabe blockbuster — Hollywood’s equivalent to what the Beltway calls a boondoogle — provides a clue.
Jupiter Ascending’s confounding title shows cultural strain — the Wachowskis trading interest in astronomy for astrological gullibility exposes another level to the pandering in Hollywood’s ongoing surrender to the video game, sci-fi, Star Wars, Marvel comics conglomerate.
The Jupiter Ascending boondoggle, with its talk about illegal aliens and exaggerations of statelessness and pretense of ancient/futuristic myth, falsifies the Wachowskis’ audience’s socio-political roots and offers no credible speculation about its future. Several years ago, critic Gregory Solman memorably dubbed the Wachowskis “The Watch-Out-skis” for their penchant to have one F/X action sequence follow another. They’re still urging modern audiences (including too many gullible youth) to indulge political escapism.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.