Saturday, November 26, 2016

Rethinking Jupiter Ascending

That the Wachowski siblings' Jupiter Ascending would get anything but a brutal reception was a longshot.

After all, it has long been fashionable to bash these particular filmmakers. Disappointment with the Matrix sequels (some of it reasonable, some of it not), the predictable reaction to a Hollywood version of Speed Racer, the reception of Cloud Atlas did anything but assure a warm welcome for the movie.

That Jupiter Ascending is a space opera did anything but help--the genre being notoriously high-risk. Star Wars may have become a Marvel-style movie machine, with Episode VII a $2 billion grosser and the prospects for Rogue One looking bright--but audiences are much less likely to go for them than films with a milder science fiction touch (like superheroes), and the negative response to the great majority that don't win them over is often wildly exaggerated. Perhaps the only non-Star Wars, non-Trek film to score an undisputed success of this type has been 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy--the beneficiary of a summer of weak competition, the Marvel brand name, and even its own slightness and overfamiliarity. Anything "weirder" or more ambitious--and this was indeed the case with Jupiter--is that much more likely to suffer for being so (as Jupiter did).

All the same, this is far from the full explanation for the hostility. The film too obviously repeated much that was in the Matrix trilogy. Once again, an ordinary person of our time--perhaps even less than ordinary--experiences unusual goings-on culminating in a meeting with a mystery man who makes very clear to them that, unbeknownst to all of us we are really being farmed by an exploitative, monstrous power for its own sustenance; and that they may be the key to humanity's salvation from this fate. Chases and fights ensue, culminating in the hero's choosing to undertake a mission of rescue in which they confront and defeat an enemy, achieve a partial victory, and then after contemplating its meaning, soar into the sky above a modern metropolis in what seems a sure prelude to further adventures.

All this is not to deny that there were differences. The handling of the material is bolder in respects--particularly the political themes. It is easy to mistake The Matrix for just another Frankenstein complex story about out-of-control AI (especially if one just focuses on the first film). However, that this is a case of humans exploiting other humans through a brutal, hierarchical system of high-technology and elaborate deception, with a tiny, hyper-privileged, colossally cynical and arrogant and utterly repugnant elite at the top literally stealing the lives of those at the bottom is unmistakable in Jupiter. The movie also manages to not look like a pale imitation of The Matrix, satisfactorily trading cyberpunk imagery for the space operatic kind. And of course, there is much difference in the plot structure--as our heroine Jupiter successively confronts each of the Abrasax siblings in turn.

However, the sharper political edge likely did not endear it to many a critic and viewer (likely biasing many the other way, many of whom responded in predictably disingenuous, passive aggressive fashion by getting overcritical); the science fiction imagery, while suitably lavish, and more original than that of so many more successful films (Man of Steel, for example, the opening scenes of which looked as overfamiliar as they did ornate), comes across as less distinctive, sharp or fresh than the first Matrix film's visuals; and the comparative novelty of the plot structure (where a wedding is disrupted by the guy who yells "I object!" long before the closing scene), which I found appealing, may have been off-putting to those more strictly insistent on action-movie formula. The result was, once again, that a genre film that was rather more competently assembled and with a good deal more on its mind than most (and not without its charm) was subjected to an exaggerated and unfortunate hostility.

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