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