Chicago-based cleaner Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an alien, in both the international and intergalactic sense. Born to Russian immigrant parents, she works in her family’s cleaning business, completely unaware that she is also heiress to an extraterrestrial empire. Jupiter is genetically identical to the late matriarch of the Abrasax dynasty, entitling her to an estate which includes the planet Earth, but in her absence siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) are scrambling to secure the respective systems for themselves. Titus dispatches a genetically engineered warrior named Caine (Channing Tatum) to locate Jupiter first, but after the bounty hunter’s saved her from Balem’s assassins he gets waylaid, warming to his quarry and becoming embroiled in a larger conflict between the House of Abrasax and the authorities.
Recurrence is a theme that, well, recurs throughout the Wachowskis work. In The Matrix: Reloaded Neo is revealed to have met the Architect not once but six times, on each previous occasion choosing to maintain the status quo and prevent a system crash before finally opting for another course of action, while Cloud Atlas followed the same six souls through a series of reincarnations, as some continued to make the same mistakes as others sought some sort of redemption. Andy and Lana Wachowski have so far explored human spirit from a technological and spiritual perspective, but with Jupiter Ascending they this time approach it with a biological slant. Their latest film posits that across the vastness of time and space some genetic codes are repeated at random — something the laws of probability would not permit on Earth but mathematically at least might be possible across a multitude of planets.
Their other major (related) preoccupation seems to be the recycling of human matter, and once again the siblings find a way to incorporate quasi-cannibalism into their plot. This time, however, the deceased aren’t fed to the living by mechanical overlords or South Korean slavers but monetised: stockpiled and sold by alien nobility for their dermatological properties. (To bathe in ‘nectar’ is to buy oneself more time, the greatest commodity of all.) We’re no longer seeing human beings as fuel or fabricants, but as farmed produce nearly ready for harvest. This is in addition to other notable similarities, from certain narrative beats (chosen ones and such) and stylistic influences (steampunk, mainly) to returning Cloud Atlas cast members (James D’Arcy and Bae Doona). The Wachowskis are auteurs through and through, and one of the principle joys of Jupiter Ascending is seeing how it compares and contrasts with the pair’s other works. Up until a point, anyway, as there is no denying that it is unfortunately the least successful of their films to date.
That’s not to say that Jupiter Ascending is not breath-taking or thought-provoking because it is. The Wachowskis are, after all, visionaries of the highest order, and their latest film once again proves that they can reinterpret ancient philosophies and create new mythologies like no other filmmaker working today — they’re also instant masters of 3D. Who else would Warner Brothers trust with such large sums of money to create an original science fiction film, save perhaps for Christopher Nolan? Whether it’s watching Channing Tatum weave in and out of skyscrapers while wearing anti-gravity roller-blades, Sean Bean and his bees recognise Jupiter as their queen or winged giants bow down to a wild-eyed Eddie Redmayne there is such delight to be had in their singular imagination. Unbound by genre, fashioned and reason, they are free to cut from Russia to space, segue into Gilliam-esque satire and have Belle‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw cameo as a another hybrid ‘splice’. There is something incredibly pure about their mode of storytelling, as though it was produced through some sort of unvetted free-association exercise in wish-fulfillment and not with one eye on the box office and one foot in their producers’ office.
That said, while Jupiter Ascending might be as ambitious and unabashed as the rest of the Wachowskis’ output — they’ve not been this “out-there” since Speed Racer — it lacks even that film’s coherence and consistency. Despite their proven track record when it comes to balancing different tones and making esoteric ideas accessible to general audiences, they’re clearly struggling to integrate the different spheres of Jupiter’s world and explain the plot’s complexities. Not enough time is spent with Jupiter’s parents in Russia or in her job as a cleaner to make these essentially subplots feel important to the story, while their decision to drop each of the Abrasax siblings after their allotted screentime leaves the narrative feeling episodic and directionless. It might be that Jupiter Ascending simply requires repeated viewings to truly unravel, but even so the story is particularly impenetrable — full of technobabble and irrelevant background detail designed in lieu of a sequel or series to confuse and confound. If Caine’s genes are crossed with those of a wolf, why does he have wings? If splices are used in the military, why does Mbatha-Raw’s assistant have the ears of a deer? What is the genetic advantage of having an elephantine pilot? Happily, it’s not too hard to imagine awe-struck seven year-olds coming up with improvised but perfectly reasonable answers to these questions. Well…well…BECAUSE.
Overall, however, the Wachowskis are to be commended. In a sea of sequels, remakes and literary adaptations Jupiter Ascending stands out as something fiercely original. It may deal with familiar archetypes and tropes but there’s no confusing it for any other existing franchise. It’s a curiosity, and in a year that brings us spoiler after spoiler for films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens that it something to be encouraged.