Just over 16 years ago, I sat in a packed screening room on opening night for The Matrix, not knowing a thing about it beyond Laurence Fishburne's portentous intonation/command from the trailers that if you wanted to find out what it was, "You have to see it for yourself." And after I had, I felt like I'd discovered some secret treasure just for me. I have a feeling most of the folks who caught the movie that weekend felt something similar. As directed by the Wachowski siblings, The Matrix wasn't a sequel, prequel, remake or reboot, but it confidently created a mythology so intricate that it managed to sweep me up in a cinematic experience that remains, even today, a singular expression of everything the medium can be.
That said, it's weird how totally The Matrix has disappeared from our collective radar screen in the years since. It burned white-hot, with its visuals and vernacular fully conquering the mainstream for a while there, but then it just kind of faded away as quickly as it first appeared. Now, granted, the lackluster reception accorded the two sequels in 2003 probably didn't help in that regard, but in a way it's almost like the Wachowskis became imprisoned by the out-of-the-blue early success of their sci-fi spectacle. Try as they might, through would-be crowd pleasers and high concept "think" flicks, they just never quite managed to recapture that ineffable Matrix mojo.
And thus, after a very circuitous detour, we arrive at Jupiter Ascending, the pair's first fully original property since Keanu Reeves' Neo first bullet-timed his way into our hearts lo those many moons ago. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the audience, and (given the $175 mil price tag) the studio, Jupiter Ascending isn't exactly the second coming they were hoping for. Instead, it's a melange of misplaced ambition that's asphyxiated by tangled plot threads that are at once overcooked and undernourished. It's a chore for me to even puzzle out which parts of this mess to try and synopsize, but here's me giving it the ol' college try.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) spends her days cleaning swanky apartments in Chicago while fantasizing about the life she wishes she had. Enter Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a human-wolf hybrid mercenary from space, who spirits Jupiter to another galaxy (following an elaborate chase through the Windy City's highways, byways, and skyways that left me wondering if anyone in Chicago looks out their window anymore). Before long, Jupiter learns she's actually a pawn in a longstanding scheme involving three siblings (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton) from an ancient royal family, who have designs on harvesting the Earth for human genetic material.
Honestly, the sheer volume of nonsensical exposition coupled with nerve-deadening action sequences was enough to lull me into a state of advanced catatonia. At least twice, just when I thought the closing credits might mercifully be in sight, I realized that nope, we've still got that other villain to deal with. And on it went, interminably. Like being bludgeoned by thousands of angry pixels. Things so quickly get off on the wrong foot with Jupiter Ascending that I started trying to pinpoint the exact moment when the tumblers clicked in the actors' minds that they were stuck on a sinking ship. I'm a fan of both Tatum and Kunis, but neither is done any favors with the paint-by-numbers love story they're stuck in.
Still, both stars get off light compared to poor Eddie Redmayne, playing the villainous Balem, who finds himself in the unfortunate circumstance of campaigning for an Oscar (for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) while theaters are showing him deliver one of the most unintentionally hilarious performances ever committed to an ostensibly serious production. His bizarre acting choice (long spells of raspy whispering punctuated by random shouting) actually boomerangs around and becomes kind of magnificent. I mean, it's still terrible, but magnificently terrible. You'd think someone on the set at some point would have given Redmayne the "dial it back" signal, but no such luck.
And speaking of dialing it back, that's something I expect the Wachowskis will find themselves forced to do after this film's calamitous opening this past weekend. In that sense, this is not a fun review to write. Going in, I wanted more than anything to be able to say this was a triumphant return to form for the sibs. From the latter two entries in the Matrix trilogy (both of which I love, by the way) to 2008's Speed Racer to 2012's Cloud Atlas, even when their increasingly esoteric (and expensive) projects didn't catch on with auds, I always found something to admire. In a perfect world, Jupiter Ascending would have been a timely reminder of the Wachowskis' mastery of the form, but instead all it does is cement their long, painful descent. D