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Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending

Your hair smells good. What conditioner do you use?

Way back in 1999, audiences were eagerly awaiting the release of a science fiction movie that would kick off a trilogy that promised to reshape the pop culture landscape for the 21st century.  Star Wars fans had waited 16 years for George Lucas to continue his beloved saga.  Despite the presence of a weird CGI lizard-creature with rabbit ears featured prominently in the trailer, fans were prepared to be wowed by The Phantom Menace.

Instead, the Star Wars prequels became one of the biggest disappointments in cinema history (not at the box office, but in the hearts of fans who had waited nearly two decades to see them).  But 1999 brought movie-goers another sci-fi movie that proved to be far more influential than Lucas’ anticipated prequels.  Compared to the Wachowski’s The Matrix, The Phantom Menace seemed completely out of step with what audiences wanted.

Sixteen years later, the Wachowskis set out to launch their own science fiction franchise.  But what they ended up delivering was a movie that makes a lot of the same mistakes as the Star Wars prequels without having the Star Wars name to fall back on.  Not surprisingly, Jupiter Ascending was a spectacular failure.

Disappointment is nothing new for fans of the Wachowskis.  The siblings followed up The Matrix with two sequels that were every bit as anticipated as the Star Wars prequels.  And every bit as disappointing.  The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions were filmed back to back and were both released in 2003.  Reloaded proved a talky mess of a movie with a few eye-popping action scenes.  Fans were left hoping that the series could be redeemed in its final chapter.  Instead, Revolutions proved even more frustrating than the previous film.  The Matrix went from one of the most influential movies in recent years to one of the most disappointing trilogies in film history.

speed racer

In 2008, the Wachowskis returned with their candy-colored adaptation of the Japanese cartoon, Speed Racer.  The movie was a feast for the eyes but devoid of plot or characters.  It joined the ranks of movies that were supposed to launch franchises, but didn’t.  By the time the siblings released their messy, sprawling sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas, in 2012, even their most fervent fans had abandoned them.  Cloud Atlas, which starred Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, was greeted with an indifferent shrug.  The Wachowskis who had once been seen as visionaries who would reshape cinema had become irrelevant in roughly a decade.

It’s easy to wonder why given their post-Matrix track record, anyone would give the Wachowskis a big Hollywood budget to play with.  There was probably only one person in Hollywood who would do so and that was then-Warner Brothers president, Jeff Robinov.  Robinov was the Wachowski’s agent in the early days and rose to prominence on the success of The Matrix.  Robinov gave the Wachowskis over $100 million dollars to make Jupiter Ascending based on their treatment – not a full script.  He also gave them complete creative control.  Then, before filming even began, he quit the studio.

A rough cut of the film tested poorly in early 2014.  So the studio decided to push Jupiter Ascending from a summer release to February 2015.  They also made the decision to throw more money at the movie’s special effects in hopes that they could fix what was wrong with it.  Admittedly, Jupiter Ascending proves to be nothing short of visually spectacular.  But then, that has never been a problem for the Wachowskis.

Queen bee: Mila Kunis is high and mighty in Jupiter Ascending.

The problem with the movie, not surprisingly, is the story which is confusing in all the ways audiences have come to expect from the Wachowskis since Matrix Reloaded.  On some level, Jupiter Ascending is a simple fairy tale.  Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter (yes, she was named after the planet Jupiter), a house cleaner who is actually intergalactic royalty.  Reduced to its basic elements, Jupiter Ascending is as easy to understand as Cinderella.  But the Wachowskis bury their simple story under one bewildering choice after another.

Like The Phantom Menace before it, Jupiter Ascending makes the assumption that audiences are keenly interested in alien bureaucracy.  We are introduced to the movie’s universe through three royal siblings played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton.  Immediately, this trio of royals begins squabbling over who owns the rights to which planets according to their mother’s will.  These legal wranglings will drive the movie from start to finish.

Of course the audience doesn’t understand the terms of these negotiations.  So the movie consists of one scene after another in which characters who are trying to manipulate Kunis into signing over her rights to them explain the complex legal system of a vast universe to both Kunis and the audience.  Characters are always telling Kunis that the legalities of the universe are way beyond her comprehension which is also true for all of us watching the movie.

The Wachowskis have stated that Jupiter Ascending was heavily influenced by classic stories like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.  Kunis’ character has a lot in common with the protagonists of these stories.  In fact, one of the most refreshing elements of Jupiter Ascending is that it features a strong female protagonist navigating a strange and beautiful world.

Jupiter Ascending - Tatum and Kunis

Channing Tatum, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, co-stars as Kunis’ protector, Caine.  The pairing of two likable leads like Kunis and Tatum should have been one of the movie’s strengths.  (Exit polls show that most people who bought tickets to Jupiter Ascending did so because they liked the stars.)  Instead, they make for a bizarre and off-putting onscreen couple.  The problem is that Tatum is not a stand-in for Prince Charming.  He is Toto to Kunis’ Dorothy.

Kunis is understandably attracted to the hunky man who keeps rescuing her from danger.  But Tatum, who sports facial hair and Spock ears, keeps reminding her that he is a genetic experiment with wolf DNA.  At one point, he tells her point-blank that he has more in common with a dog than he does with Kunis.  From that point on, Kunis’ efforts to win the dog-man’s heart feel like Dorothy putting the moves on Toto.  It’s just wrong.

Word of advice to anyone trying to launch a science fiction franchise: Your romantic male lead should not remind audiences of Barf the Mawg (half-man, half dog – he’s his own best friend) from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs.

John Candy - Spaceballs

Caine spends most of his time protecting Kunis from the three royal siblings who want to obtain the rights to her inheritance.  It turns out that Kunis’ character is the reincarnation of their mother, the queen of the universe.  In the world of Jupiter Ascending, the royals are able to stay forever young by bathing in a youth serum that is harvested from the inhabitants of planets like Earth.

Since reincarnation – or recurrence in the movie’s parlance – is a thing, we are told that it is not uncommon for the rich to leave part of their inheritance to themselves in the event that they should be reborn in the future.  That’s how Kunis has come to literally inherit the earth.  In her previous life as queen of the universe, she wrote herself into her own will and just happened to be reborn on the planet her future self would inherit.  So much for that simple fairy tale story!

Redmayne stands out as giving the movie’s most perplexing performance.  He delivers most of his lines in a strangled whisper.  He barely seems to be awake except when he is shouting.  Whenever Redmayne isn’t speaking in hushed tones, he is screaming at the top of his lungs.  He has no indoor voice.  Depending on your personal preferences, this is either a brilliant choice on the part of an actor who knew he was in a B-movie or grounds for reclaiming Redmayne’s Oscar for Best Actor.

Jupiter Ascending - Redmayne

The failure of Jupiter Ascending to find an audience is both understandable and unfortunate.  The lesson that studios will take away from Jupiter Ascending is that audiences want more sequels instead of original stories.  And it will also reaffirm their closely held belief that audiences don’t like movies with female leads.

The movie spends two hours primarily on world building.  Unfortunately, the world the Wachowskis chose to build is one most audiences would rather not visit much less return to.  The film’s failure at the box office virtually guarantees that the planned sequels will never see the light of day.  However, I have to admit that Jupiter Ascending is kind of fascinating to watch.  It has the DNA of a cult movie spliced into a would-be blockbuster.  That may be enough to win the movie a kind of immortality.

More Movies that were supposed to…

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Posted on September 16, 2015, in Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I saw that you mentioned it was pushed back from summer 2014 to February of this year, but some people may not realize that those release dates aren’t random. Clearly they realized the film was a mess and reworking it wasn’t going to save it. Otherwise you would release it during the holiday season or during the following summer. A summer tentpole movie being relegated to February is the studio’s way of admitting the movie is a failure before it is even released.

    Someone (forget who or where) commented once that the Wachowskis have made a lot movies that turn out to be a mess, but at least they are interesting messes. I completely agree.

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    • This is studio politics at its finest. If your predecessor greenlights a movie, you bury it. If the movie is a hit, he gets the credit. You’ve got no incentive to support the movie.

      What blows my mind is that they spend more money on special effects to prop up a movie they planned to bury in February. Obviously, they were counting on foreign markets to mitigate the damage. To an extent, that strategy appears to have paid off.

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  2. Had to laugh at your comment regarding Eddie Redmayne. Maybe he thought this movie would have Star Wars type impact.
    I forgot about Cloud Atlas – never saw it, but intended to. Because a good friend saw it and really liked it, I had the impression it was a bigger hit than it was evidently.

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    • I tried and failed to sit through Cloud Atlas. I can actually recommend Jupiter Ascending if you understand going in that it’s not a good movie. But Cloud Atlas was too much for me.

      I don’t think Redmayne or anyone else whose last name wasn’t Wachowski had any illusions about Jupiter Ascending having a Star Wars-like impact. I think he realized that he was appearing in a B-movie and pitched his performance accordingly. Here’s a taste:

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      • Wow, Eddie Redmayne plays this like how the dialogue on certain television programs can be SO quiet that one strains to hear and has to pump up the volume, then for the commercials the sound becomes deafening. That unnerves me, and so would this.

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  3. “but at least they are interesting messes” – but this movie is a stupid mess. It’s like a badly written Guardians of the galaxy with charmless leads. And they play it so serious. “No man this is real, this guy is half wolf and he’s really brooding..”

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    • Maybe it’s because my expectations were set very low going in, but I didn’t hate it. I don’t know that I would say it’s played completely straight either. The movie has a whimsy to it. I think the Wachowiskis even try to be funny. It’s just that what they find funny isn’t funny to most everybody else.

      I’m not going to defend Jupiter Ascending too much. It’s a bad movie. But it’s not entirely without redeeming value. There are elements I liked. They just get drowned out by all the nonsense.

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  4. Lebeau, I give you credit for making that connection between Star Wars and Matrix – especially that 16 year gap between the Prequels and the Wachowski’s Matrix and Jupiter Ascending. Not many people would see that connection – admittedly not even me until now, but it instantly makes sense. Nice job sir, along with the rest of the article.

    I didn’t see Jupiter Ascending, nor ever plan to. The Wachowski siblings have delivered for me exactly twice: their underrated 1996 film-noirish Bound, and especially The Matrix which I would regard as a brilliant film in its own right and one of the best films of the 90’s (and that’s really saying something). The Matrix sequels were messy films that were a huge disappointment and I quickly wrote them off after that. It seems ever since The Matrix made them essentially household names, they are incapable of making anything less than films of huge scope – and huge budgets -, when maybe after so many failed attempts they should scale back some and attempt to make another smaller scale, more personal film like Bound again, even if just to center themselves creatively once more.

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    • The Phantom Menace-Matrix connection isn’t so much something that came to me 16 years later as it is something that has stayed with me for 16 years. Everyone was so pumped for the Star Wars prequels, that no one saw The Matrix coming. Here was this little movie starring Ted that no one cared about and it turned cinema on its ear. Then the movie everyone expected to rewrite movie history turned out to be such a disappointment.

      After Bound and The Matrix, I had really high hopes for the Wachowskis. But the Matrix sequels were a disaster. I didn’t sit through Speed Racer. I tried to endure Cloud Atlas but I could not. Jupiter Ascending is not a good movie. But it did have a charm about it that is almost enough for me to recommend it. You have to go in knowing that you are going to witness a train wreck. If you’re down for that, it’s actually worth a look.

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    • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1617661/board/thread/248382770?d=248409949#248409949

      While I agree with a lot of what’s in this review, its first point of comparing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Jupiter Ascending (in not being able to launch franchises) is not correct.

      The Phantom Menace reached a huge audience and relaunched the Star Wars movie franchise which continues today (even though I think the movie is very flawed).

      Just because someone does not like a movie (Phantom Menace) does not mean that reality should be ignored.

      The existence of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith demolishes the argument in the review title and the first two paragraphs of the posted review.

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      • The comparison wasn’t between JA and TPM. It was between TPM and The Matrix. I was simply comparing the relative expectations for the two 1999 movies. The assumption was that TPM would be THE movie of the year. But it ended up having less cultural impact than a little movie no one was looking forward to. Reality wasn’t ignored. The box office success of the prequels is acknowledged. But the legacy of tje prequels is one of disappointed fans. I then drew a comparison between the prequels disappointing fans and the reaction fans had to the Matrix sequels. All of that was done to establish that once upon a time, a sci fi franchise from the Wachowskis would have been hotly anticipated. But after a decade of disappointing movies, the Wachowskis have become irrelevant.

        It really wasn’t about talking down TPM or the prequels. It was a way to contrast the reaction to the Matrix films and to give a bit of context. Yes, the prequels were financially successful. Can’t take that away.

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  5. Nostalgia Critic Real Thoughts On: Jupiter Ascending

    http://channelawesome.com/nostalgia-critic-real-thoughts-on-jupiter-ascending/

    This movie has a following…REALLY?

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  6. My first introduction to Jupiter Ascending was a webcomic theorizing Lana and Andy were getting their plot ideas from a six-year-old. It made an excellent argument.

    I’ve never seen Cloud Atlas, but I want to. I tend to have complicated feelings regarding watching the movie form of a book before reading the actual book (though I’ve done it before — watched A Clockwork Orange when I was the age Alex was in the book, read it when I was the age he was in the film). I understand it is surreal, chaotic, and hard to follow. These are selling points. I’ve also heard that if nothing else it’s visually beautiful, which when you watch all your films on an old netbook is less important than if you see them in the cinema, but it’s a nice thing to have all the same.

    Surprisingly, I’ve only seen snippets of the Matrix. I think I was meant to watch it at some point around age eleven, but I followed an odd developmental schedule in my childhood (autistic, attention deficit) and couldn’t really pay attention to films prior to age 12. I remember very clearly the first film I really watched and appreciated was Scott Pilgrim vs the World, which I saw in theatres when it was first released and thought was the coolest thing ever made. I’m still surprised it flopped, and I’m kind of scared to rewatch it because nothing can hold up to what my preteen mind saw. My parents both saw the Matrix when it first came out, I think, and were fans. My father is firmly in the camp that the Wachowskis were one-trick ponies, but not in a negative way — he thinks they had one great idea in them and that people shouldn’t keep pushing them for more or buy into their less great ideas. The evidence mostly supports this, but he also thinks the same about Tarantino, a subject on which I greatly disagree.

    My mother is a fan of their TV show Sense8, about which I’ve heard mixed but mostly positive things. They seem to be carving out a niche on TV now that Hollywood is leaving them behind as it did so many others.

    At least Lana has cool hair. No matter how many of her films flop, she’s got that going for her, which is nice.

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  7. I need to understand whether this is going to bomb in the same way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNrK7xVG3PM

    I can’t imagine it will do well but I’m always wrong about this stuff…

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  8. Why we’ll never get to see a Matrix 4

    http://www.looper.com/38635/well-never-get-see-matrix-4/

    The Wachowskis may not want to go back to The Matrix

    A lot has changed since 1999, and the part where the Wachowski brothers are now the Wachowski sisters is actually the least of the big differences in their creative lives. They’re famously picky about their projects; it took three years after the release of The Matrix Revolutions before they put out another film, in the form of the political (and entirely different from The Matrix) dystopian thriller V for Vendetta. And if you look at their slate of ambitious projects since then—from Cloud Atlas to Jupiter Ascending—it’s clear that the pair are in the business of pushing their limits and trying new things, not revisiting the same territory they’ve already tread.

    Add to that the fact that the Wachowskis aren’t even making movies these days; as of 2016, Lana’s attention was focused on their Netflix series Sense8, while Lilly seemed to be taking some time off work during her gender transition. Based on the arc of their respective careers, the likelihood of them being willing to re-enter The Matrix—or to give someone else permission to take the reins on the franchise that made them famous—dwindles ever further.

    And Hollywood may not be willing to risk a reboot

    Although The Matrix was a mega-big-deal for its time, grossing a whopping $1.6 billion at the box office over the course of three films, the Wachowskis haven’t gone on to become reliable moneymakers for their studios. Lately, their movies have had two unfortunate things in common: they’re expensive to make, and they don’t earn back their budgets, even when critics are on board. The sprawling sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas was a highly polarizing project—critical reaction was evenly split between hating it and thinking it was pure genius— but it barely eked out a $130 million gross on its $128 million budget. And Jupiter Ascending, their grand space opera, was an even bigger disaster; not only was it expensive to make and unprofitable with audiences, it was panned by critics who called it goofy, inane, and “an incoherent sci-fi spectacle.”

    It almost seems like the Wachowskis’ approach to filmmaking, in which a sprawling and inventive visual world is used to prop up a not-quite-fully-fleshed-out story, doesn’t work as well now as it did at the start of the 21st century—and their power to secure a big studio budget, the kind it would take to crank out a new Matrix movie, isn’t what it used to be.

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