While their peers sell toys and beg for Oscars, the Wachowskis can’t help but infuse their massive tentpole productions with a resilient strangeness around which camp, existential musings, self-conscious iconography, and countless other preoccupations orbit like rabid electrons. They are as fearless and curious as any great film artist, yet enjoy nine-figure budgets and, if the fanfare for The Matrix Resurrections (2021) is any indication, an impressive surplus of goodwill from the public. Their films are sensual and sexual in ways that delay the securing of appreciative audiences. But time has been kind to the first two Matrix sequels (both 2003), mocked or dismissed upon release, while the cult of Speed Racer (2008) and its digital-native thrills grows by the day. A tougher sell is Jupiter Ascending (2015), an earnest sci-fi fairytale pitting cosmic capitalism against a dog-man in rocket boots.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, an undocumented house cleaner drudging through the bathrooms of Chicago’s bourgeoisie and dreading her daily predawn alarm. Jupiter’s Campbellian journey from obscurity to adventure begins when her medical records ping on the radar of House Abrasax, a millennia-old merchant dynasty that counts Earth among its intergalactic real estate. Like ants navigating picnic scraps, terrestrial humans are clueless as to the true scope of their species’ history or activities, which involve seeding planets across the “Verse” and trading in a youth-giving compound harvested from the corpses of their descendents. Warring Abrasax heirs—Eddie Redmayne’s fey Balem and Douglas Booth’s hedonistic Titus—dispatch bounty hunters in pursuit of Jupiter, whose genome matches perfectly the deceased Abrasax matriarch. This cosmic coincidence provides certain legal privileges in the greater human empire, making Jupiter an Anastasia figure with the potential to undermine the prevailing order. To her rescue flies Caine (Channing Tatum), a chimeric fusion of canine and human DNA recently exiled from imperial military service. Together they unravel her regal destiny while outrunning the horde of reptilians, steampunks, and cyber goths sent to preserve the status quo.
The Wachowskis’s maximalist cinema teems with ideas and sentiment, constantly running the risk of alienating rubes and pedants alike. For every speech condemning the profit-motive there are details like Caine’s gun making woof-woof noises every time he fires. The approach undermines the supremacy of satisfaction as a metric for evaluating popular art. Jupiter Ascending is the Wachowskis’ most challenging work, a rejoinder to the gray gelatin coughed up by the IP wars.
Jupiter Ascending is streaming on Tubi and HBO Max