My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
The Wachowskis’ 1999 cinematic touchstone became so influential that the history of science fiction (and action movies, for that matter) can be meaningfully divided into two distinct eras: pre- and post-The Matrix. Like George Lucas and James Cameron before them, the Wachowskis had masterfully intuited the needs of a mass audience and delivered on a historic level while pushing film technology forward. But it took Lucas and Cameron decades to go from the crackerjack entertainment of American Graffiti/Star Wars and The Terminator/Aliens to the tone-deaf tedium of The Phantom Menace and Avatar. The Wachowskis managed the leap from wunderkind to “grudgingly tolerated largely on the basis of nostalgia” in but a single film.
The Matrix Reloaded was an enormous disappointment on every audience level, yet it still grossed around $750 million worldwide. If you listened closely the day Reloaded came out, you could hear a distinct murmur of disappointment from all the moviegoers in the world. Reloaded was the kind of film that transforms fans into apologists. It has a reputation so dire that people who express enthusiasm for it often have to qualify it by asserting that their affection for the films is real, and that they’re not just trying to be provocative.
If getting into bed with the Wachowskis professionally would have been a coup in 1999, it became a much dodgier proposition a decade later, following the disappointments of Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions and the flat-out bombing of Speed Racer, the Wachowskis’ visually overloaded but underwritten neon daydream of the 1960s cult cartoon.
The duo’s decline continued with its co-direction of Cloud Atlas, another bewildering oddity that attracts apologists and reluctant defenders rather than enthusiastic fans. By the time Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ first wholly original project since The Matrix, hit theaters in the dead zone of February 2015, amid a flurry of bad buzz and low expectations, getting into bed with the Wachowskis began to look a lot more like a professional death wish than a savvy business move.
The Wachowskis did not lose their connection to a mass audience because they ran out of ideas, ambition, or audacity, nor because they sold out and started making movies for mercenary reasons. If anything, the Wachowskis have screwed themselves over professionally by making films that are aggressively non-commercial rather than cynical and calculating. What audiences responded to in the Wachowskis’ films may not necessarily equal what the filmmakers were passionate about. Audiences dug the monochromatic style of The Matrix, the exhilarating martial arts, the edgy clothes, and the trippy meditations on the nature of reality. But it felt like the Wachowskis were luring audiences in with those sexy, commercial elements so that they could deliver earnest entreaties on the importance of love, connection, and embracing destiny. It’s like having a conversation with a seemingly cool, relatable stranger only to realize that said stranger is trying to get you to go to the “hip” Unitarian church.
The earnest Jupiter Ascending is infinitely more compelling for the insight it offers into the Wachowskis’ worldview than it is for its entertainment value. Protagonist Jupiter (Mila Kunis) opens with the following narration: “Technically speaking, I’m an alien, and from the perspective of immigration, an illegal one.” This is an early indication that the Wachowskis like jokes, and desperately wish to include some in their movie, but fatally do not understand how they work. At all. Even if the line weren’t the most groan-inducing possible way to open a giant science-fiction epic, Kunis’ airless, monotone delivery would kill it. The sexy, magnetic Kunis the public fell in love with is nowhere to be seen in Jupiter Ascending. She has been replaced by a pod person who looks just like her but has none of her charm, humor, or sensuality.
Jupiter Ascending isn’t just perversely unsexy. It’s somehow actively anti-sexy. Its two stars would be safe, conventional choices for the sexiest woman and man on the planet: Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, who, in case you forgot, rocketed to superstardom shaking his junk in delighted women’s faces in Magic Mike. Yet in Jupiter Ascending, these sizzling founts of sensuality cut bizarrely asexual figures. Here Tatum is playing not a Magic Mike todger-waggler but a genetically engineered super-soldier with wolf DNA named Caine Wise. So Caine is, on some level, a wolf-man, or a space werewolf, or a wolf boy, or some other manner of part man/part animal hybrid. When Jupiter tentatively begins to express romantic interest in Caine, he sternly but compassionately informs her that genetically speaking, “I have more in common with a dog than I do with you,” which should be the ultimate deal-breaker. It doesn’t matter how handsome Caine is; bestiality is a line that should not be crossed, even when the boundaries are blurry and the man-wolf is from outer space.
In another instance of the Wachowskis saddling their luckless heroine with material no one on Earth, or the rest of the universe, could pull off, Jupiter responds to Caine’s “I may be hot, but you don’t want to fuck a dog” polite dismissal with a clueless, “I love dogs!” another weak attempt at humor. The line uncomfortably implies that for the right dog-man, Jupiter might be willing to cross the line between admiring golden retrievers at the dog park and having sex with a dude who’s also largely a dog.
In interviews, the Wachowskis have posited the relationship between Dorothy and Toto as an inspiration for the dynamic between Jupiter and Caine, but the big difference is that unless they are pretty warped, no one watches Wizard Of Oz wondering if Dorothy wants to fuck Toto. In Jupiter Ascending, however, it is very hard, if not impossible, to watch this PG-13 would-be tentpole blockbuster and not let your mind wander to uncomfortable—and, I would imagine, unanswerable—questions about whether Jupiter’s tentative feelings for Caine represent a strange form of space-bestiality.
If Jupiter Ascending blunts everything that makes Kunis appealing, it does an equally awful job of playing to Tatum’s strengths. Tatum made the leap from pretty-boy beefcake to critically acclaimed movie star largely on the basis of a winning element of self-deprecation and goofiness that nicely undercuts his physical perfection. That gift for comedy and winking self-awareness is entirely absent from Jupiter Ascending, which reduces Tatum to a scowling, glowering, personality-free mass of muscles ready to swoop in and save the day. Despite the fact that Tatum’s space werewolf has magical flying boots (Why magical flying boots? Why the hell not?), at no point in the film does he slam-dunk anything, wasting the extraordinary opportunity to have a flying werewolf-man from outer space participate in college or professional basketball. Honestly, would it have killed the Wachowskis to include a scene of him taking a group of street-ballers to school in a pick-up game?
In The Matrix, protagonist Neo is a Christ-like savior of a trippy, dystopian realm. In Jupiter Ascending, luckless toilet-scrubber Jupiter learns that she is in fact the reincarnation of a powerful intergalactic monarch and also the owner and queen of planet Earth. She’s an intergalactic Alice In Wonderland or a Dorothy Gale in outer space. Neo discovers that reality is far more dramatic and despairing than he ever could have imagined. In Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter learns that the true nature of reality is infinitely more boring, tedious, and bogged down with bullshit politics and bureaucracy than she ever could have imagined. It’s as if the Wachowskis saw The Phantom Menace and decided that the reason it did so well at the box office is because kids love political infighting and ridiculously convoluted plots that are at once numbingly simple and bizarrely difficult to follow. I have now seen Jupiter Ascending—a film in which characters are continually explaining to Jupiter how the world works—twice, and I still have only a vague sense of what is going on.
Just as Morpheus served as Neo’s guide to the mind-melting Matrix universe, Jupiter Ascending’s Caine serves as Jupiter’s protector but also as an exposition machine. He’s tasked with explaining that Jupiter is a secret space queen whose DNA and body are at the center of internal squabbling between the three heirs of the House Of Abraxas, a super-powerful alien dynasty: malevolent Balem (Eddie Redmayne), debauched playboy Titus (Douglas Booth), and youth-and-time-obsessed Kalique (Tuppence Middleton).
With Jupiter Ascending and The Theory Of Everything, Eddie Redmayne has the curious distinction of winning the most prestigious award in acting and giving the year’s worst performance in the same 12-month span. When I write that Redmayne gives 2015’s worst performance, I mean that partially as praise and partially as criticism: It takes a genius to get away with delivering a performance this spectacularly embarrassing and misconceived. But Redmayne’s performance also has a lot in common with great performances. His turn in Jupiter Ascending is unforgettable and utterly distinctive, but in a bizarre, nightmarish way. The most striking performance element is the voice Redmayne has chosen for the character, which alternates between a barely comprehensible whisper—suggesting the character is being strangled by ghosts or invisible assassins much of the time—and a deafening yell. There is no in-between. He lurches between hammy extremes in a way that suggests that he’s the secret love-child of The Godfather-era Marlon Brando and his-entire-career-era Richard Harris. Redmayne is both the best and worst thing about Jupiter Ascending, and certainly the most wildly excessive. I should also point out that Michael Giacchino’s score is far better than the film deserves, and lends the film at least the illusion of forward momentum and epic grandeur.
Perhaps it is a professional hazard that people who devote their lives to making movies about aliens inevitably seem to lose all sense of how human beings talk and behave. It certainly happened with George Lucas. It happened with James Cameron and it sure seems to have happened with the Wachowskis. Watching Jupiter Ascending, I wondered how much of The Matrix’s genius was attributable to super-producer Joel Silver, who may be a philistine, but understands the needs of a mass audience. He likely would have spotted the folly in a would-be mega-franchise where the Earth is the subject of a tedious tug-of-war between foppish space dandies who all have the pasty skin, sickly pallors, and vaguely inbred quality of members of the British royal family.
Jupiter Ascending has a bold look that fills the imposing blackness of space with a candy-colored rush of kinetic, frenetic neon, all topped off with an ornate, “Shakespeare in space” stateliness. The film’s lumbering tendency toward exposition and creaky world-building is attributable partially to its status as the first film in what was intended to be an expansive franchise. But the filmmakers built their universe in a way that ensured that nobody, but nobody, would ever be tempted to make it past the initial film.
For all its flaws, Jupiter Ascending confirms that the Wachowskis are auteurs whose failures are as audacious, ambitious, heroically sincere, and achingly romantic as their extraordinary early successes. There are many questionable elements to Jupiter Ascending; the Wachowskis’ conviction and belief in themselves, however, are not among them.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco