Haters gonna hate, but the Wachowskis’ space opera Jupiter Ascending is a hell of a lot of fun, says MacDara Conroy
With 2012’s Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis’ reach most definitely exceeded their grasp. That unwieldily folly, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s beloved 2004 novel that weaves together multiple story threads with criss-crossing timelines, served variously for critics as both the acme of their creative endeavours and the reason why they should never be let behind the camera again. Personally, I’m somewhere between those polarised views. Coming after the poorly written but visually arresting adaptation of Speed Racer, their take on Cloud Atlas was a marked improvement. Mitchell’s book gave them a template to riff off of, and while it’s often meandering and self-serious and ludicrous and by most measures a Bad Movie, at least it’s them, and doesn’t play like the desperate, strained effort to make something out of nothing that The Matrix and its sequels turned out to be.
The siblings’ latest, the fantastical space opera Jupiter Ascending, reaches in the same direction but not quite so far. The story here is certainly easier to follow than Cloud Atlas, yet more brazenly ridiculous: a young Russian-American cleaner (Mila Kunis) discovers she’s the queen of the universe when she’s whisked away by a genetically engineered bounty hunter (Channing Tatum, complete with elfen ears) amid a convoluted cold war of galactic succession. Yep. And that’s just the framework for the Wachowskis to let rip with a shameless pastiche of near every sci-fi classic you can think of.
Their bricolage samples from a dizzying array of sources: Moebius’ designs for Jodorowsky’s Dune, the garish excess of Flash Gordon, the trademark musical cues and derring-do of Star Wars, the existential horrors of The Body Snatchers and Soylent Green, the weirdo banality of Brazil (with a cameo by Terry Gilliam, because of course). They even sample their own work, with the playful hopping from scene to scene between jarringly different worlds lifted straight from Cloud Atlas. The Wachowskis have been accused of stealing for their art since The Matrix pulled its ‘signature’ look from Aeon Flux, Ghost in the Shell et al. This time around, we’re supposed to get the references. It’s kinda the whole point.
Within that heady po-mo stew, it has to be said Jupiter Ascending has got all the markers of a Bad Movie. The plot has more holes than a colander, and more logical flaws than a Tea Party convention. The casting is all over the place: Sean Bean slots in as a retired space cop, Maria Doyle Kennedy pops up randomly as Kunis’ Russian mother, and Eddie Redmayne as a raspy-voiced evil space prince is the least of its problems when the two leads have absolutely zero chemistry. It also feels a tad longer than its rather economical two hours, interrupting its own zippy momentum with false endings and restarts (ah, the curse of Christopher Nolan).
But – and it’s a big but – it’s a hell of a lot of fun. A sense of cheeky playfulness abounds as the Wachowskis unselfconsciously mesh grandiose space fantasy (it really looks exquisite, and often breathtaking) with flashes of suburban sitcom silliness and the occasional wry sight gag. Yes, it has a sense of humour, but it’s funny without letting an irreverent tone totally overwhelm the picture. Think more Guardians of the Galaxy than the insufferable Whedonisms of Avengers Assemble. Indeed, Guardians is the closest to what the Wachowskis seem to be going for here. It also brings to mind Green Lantern, another Bad Movie that suffered at the hands of critics and the public alike but was still enjoyable to watch.
For sure, the Wachowskis have long struggled to support their idiosyncratic visual style with a substantive script. They came close with Cloud Atlas, though in the end it was too po-faced for its own good. With Jupiter Ascending, they make it work by not even trying, abandoning any pretence to originality in giving us one long nod and a wink with the screenplay and a delicious smorgasbord for the eyes. Still, haters gonna hate, I guess.
Jupiter Ascending opens nationwide on Friday February 6th