The Wachowskis Archive

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Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

It would be too easy to call Jupiter Ascending a “bad” film. It would also be a crime against the English language and common decency, itself, to suggest the Wachowskis’ sci-fi epic is a “good” movie. Jupiter Ascending wants, desperately so, to be a 21st century version of The Fifth Element. But the Wachowskis are no Luc Besson, and Jupiter Ascending, for all its ambition and flash, lacks the essential charm, timing, and wit that made The Fifth Element work.

Jupiter Ascending tells the story of Jackie Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian émigré, who cleans American toilets for a living. The movie is smart enough to get right into the sci-fi twist on the longing-ladies-of-fairy-tales trope, rather than spending forty minutes faffing about with Jupiter’s backstory. We witness a few scenes of Jupiter coveting the expensive lifestyle of her social betters as a prelude to a bunch of Sectoids aliens legally distinct from X-Com’s intellectual property showing up to kill her. Fortunately, Jupiter has a guardian in the form of Channing Tatum, who plays some sort of wolfman hybrid with hover boots, man pain, and the power to remain shirtless for half his scenes.

So yeah, I guess I’m not the target demographic. If the secret alien princess gimmick doesn’t elucidate who the movie is playing to, then the parade of beefcake probably drives home the point. The scantily clad space babes of literally any other sci-fi movie are replaced by shirtless dudes alternatively pouting, grimacing, or showcasing their troubled past through gruffness. Okay, cool. Points for being different. Points for being progressive. However, dismantling traditional cinematic sexism through benign machismo and eye candy doesn’t add much to the story.

And at the risk of putting too fine a point on things, Jupiter Ascending’s story is probably the worst part of the movie. The aesthetics are amazing. Ships, costumes, and orbital megastructures all boast a richness of design and promise an amazing backstory. Visually, Jupiter Ascending makes Mass Effect look like the crude scribblings of a toddler with their crayons. What do they yield in terms of story? Cinderella meets the three bears. To wit:

I hate my life on earth.

Oh no, the bad aliens are trying to kill me, let’s go to space and meet my genetic children who all want to use me for some nefarious purpose.

This child is too cloying.

This child is too incestuous.

This child is too psychotic.

Well, fuck it. I’m going back to Chicago to clean toilets and hang out with my beefcake, wolfman, alien boyfriend. Also, hover shoes and I secretly own the Earth, but I still clean toilets because now I appreciate my garbage life through the lens of a meta immigrant experience.

Seriously, this is the entire story. For all the splendor built into Jupiter Ascending’s world, the actual story is light years wide and inches deep.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: it’s an action movie, of course it’s going to be shallow. Perhaps, perhaps not. What’s problematic in this case is how the lack of depth in the story shines a light on all of the areas where the writing cribs from other parts of science fiction’s history. In some ways, the entire enterprise is a love letter to L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Not the movie, mind you, the much, much longer novel about space capitalists. Likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the movie’s utterly pointless homage to Brazil is the product of the Wachowskis holding Terry Gilliam’s cat hostage in exchange for ten pages of script. And when Jupiter invokes Brazil’s infamous form 27b/6 as a regulation against being kidnapped, I honestly could not tell if the movie is winking at the audience or shouting, “Do you get it?” like Bojack Horseman.

So it’s the archetypical hero’s journey for Jupiter and Jupiter Ascending. The story reaches for greatness, but it is poorly assembled and a depressingly textbook affair. This said, the movie stunning in its visual richness. The costuming is as extravagant as what one would expect from a Sofia Copolla period piece. The problem is that none of the aesthetic translates to meaningful plot. It adds depth to the setting, but not to the story. And without a strong story to anchor the fantastic, the entire narrative spins off in a thousand inchoate directions.

Jupiter Ascending

Directors: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Stars: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne


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TV Review: Sense8 Season One

The first three episodes of Sense8, the latest creative entry from the Wachowskis and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, were a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t sure where the series was going, but I liked what it was doing. This from past-Adam.

“What I have seen so far is a series interested in both people and the clash of collectives – in this case the gestalt of the Sensates (a cluster of eight individuals who can share memories, experiences, and consciousness) versus the institutions of humanity, particularly the medical establishment.”

It’s nothing new to see a science fiction story exploring alternative definitions of humanity. X-Men has been doing that for the last forty years. What sets Sense8 apart from so many superhero-style stories is an odd sort of optimism. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but this tonal shift away from matters dreary and morally ambiguous is a welcome change of pace.

Make no mistake, there are some profoundly dark elements to Sense8. This is to be expected when human evolution is at odds with state authority and an invasive medical establishment. I’m sure, somewhere, there are grad students frothing at the mouth to apply a Foucauldian discourse to the ways Sense8 explores biopolitics – particularly with respect to transgender issues – the panopticon embodied in an antagonist who hunts “deviants” after locking eyes upon them, and a stream of studies into power relationships. Fortunately for you lot, I’m not such a grad student. I’ll content myself with saying that the Wachwoski penchant for philosophy seems to have grown up a bit since the clumsy applications of Plato and Nietzsche in the Matrix movies.

The optimism in Sense8 is largely due to its subversion of the origin story. Evolutionary differences between humans and sensates may catalyze the series’ conflict, but the emotional core of the story is that of a deep and meaningful engagement with sensates as people. Not super powered people, not even “special” people, despite their talents. Just people.

Focusing on the sensates as complete beings slows the series’ pace from what one might otherwise expect to find on television. The first six episodes deal almost exclusively with individual character conflicts. Only in the season’s second half do the stakes escalate to something that threatens the sensates as a cluster. Even then, so much of the show’s richness is in its introspection. This will probably challenge the attention span of an audience accustomed to things moving at break neck speeds.

Yet the style pays dividends in dialing up the intensity of the character-viewer relationship, ultimately increasing the tension when bad things threaten the sensates. Likewise, the highly-functional interpersonal relationships the sensates bring into their interconnected stories develops even the secondary characters into robust beings. Whatever the series might lose from not explaining things to the satisfaction of every slack-jawed, CSI Miami fan, it more than gains in making the audience give a damn about its players.

Underwriting all of this engagement is a very simple message: we’re better together than we are divided. The sensates demonstrate what can happen when people are stripped of their secrets but given a way to truly understand each other. While this might result in the occasional psychic, pansexual orgy, it also drives home a message of universal understanding as the key to a better world. Again, this is not what audiences have come to expect from television. Narratives powered by genuine optimism are few and far between. Scruffy white men burdened with angst have become the new definition of hero. Sense8, with its incredibly diverse cast and emphasis on cooperation over competition, turns this formula on its head. And somehow it manages to do so without engaging my hair-trigger cynicism; this is no small feat.

I ended my first impressions review of Sense8 with a question: will the denouement of the first season prove worthy of the time invested? I’ll conclude this review by answering my own question. Yes, yes it did. Sense8 is the embodiment of the slow burn. It never wants for story or substance, but it doesn’t rely on singularly action to achieve either end. However, the action sequences are glorious in true Wachowski fashion. More than anything else, Sense8 wants the audience to care about its characters, and in doing so care about people in general – even if some people are assholes. This is a good message, and it’s one that science fiction from time to time. Collective angst and catharsis in form of The Dark Knight is a necessary outlet, but it should not be the end all and be all of popular expression. Sense8 is at its best when reminding the audience that hard times need not produce singularly hard works of escapism.