The Wachowskis have been formal innovators from the start, building a pulley system to show a body falling dead or breakaway sets to stage an elaborately photographed lesbian sex scene in their debut, Bound, to the candy-colored greenscreen hyper-anime world of Speed Racer, and even splitting directing duties with a third party, Tom Tykwer, for the sprawling pulp epic Cloud Atlas. Through all that, their narrative and thematic preoccupations have remained consistent. Their films, especially the oft-derided sequels to The Matrix, constantly engage with the issue of individual agency in complex systems designed to inhibit it. They’ve also displayed a reticence toward stale, violent power fantasies aimed at teenage boys, a staple food of studio filmmaking at their budget level (despite the prominence of guns in the Matrix series, one could easily flip the gender of any character therein, and it’s one of the few franchises in history to resolve itself by everyone choosing to put the guns down—maybe that’s why so many fanboys find them unsatisfying). Jupiter Ascending is in no way a departure. It’s a dazzlingly visual pulp adventure, unabashedly in love with its dorky stylistic influences (in this case fairy tales, trashy sci-fi paperback covers and modern YA lit), eschewing cliched narrative hero’s journey tidiness for relatively novel (though not particularly deep) anti-capital sentiment and, in a new twist, it’s geared expressly toward young women. In other words, it’s not a ton different from the likes of Guardians of the Galaxyor even Harry Potter other than in being, you know, “for girls.”
filmmakers who, true to their work, have never backed down from their artistic principles.
Improbably named Chicago cleaning lady Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) discovers that she’s actually the genetic heir to an intergalactic family that seeded Earth with its DNA millions of years ago, and that her true identity is that of a space princess caught up in an interfamilial struggle to maintain the deed and title to our little blue orb, which like many planets in the galaxy is to be used as a giant human farm (our genetic material is the key to the universe’s anti-aging industry). She teams up with a bounty hunter hired to deliver her to her actual space family (Channing Tatum playing a Dog-man who flies around with rocket boots because his wings were ripped off). It’s staggeringly, unapologetically silly. Just as silly would be to argue for this as some sort of landmark in Hollywood feminism, but measured against other recently-anointed hallmarks of such things (The Hunger Games being an obvious example), its tactics are rather refreshing. Jupiter becomes a heroine not by picking up a gun and starting a revolution like Katniss Everdeen, but by making principled choices, refusing to have her destiny determined by class or capital (even if it is goofy space-class and goofy space-capital), or really anyone but herself. Her human cousin tries to con her into selling her eggs for some quick cash, and her alien relatives try to trick her into selling them our planet on the cheap. A crucial mid-film interrupted wedding cements this as an intergalactic Cinderella, only one in which victory isn’t achieved by marrying a prince. It’s not part of the Wachowskis’ project to make Jupiter “as tough as a man” (whatever that means), nor does she need to wield a weapon to be a hero. Moments at which she seems reduced to damsel-in-distress status are nevertheless consistently the result of her making her own decisions (usually to not kill or act in her own self-interest), even if they’re the wrong ones.
So why the relatively cold reception from critics thus far? Certainly Jupiter Ascending is not a clear triumph; its story is often needlessly expository, there are whiplash shifts in tone, and its stylistic references are, at least to today’s audiences, not what you’d call “in fashion.” But given so many recent complaints by both audiences and critics about lack of diverse representation and homogeneity of studio content, it’s surprising that critical and popular consensus has abandoned these filmmakers who, true to their work, have never backed down from their artistic principles.