A series of advertisements for Bud Light has recently featured the hashtag “#upforwhatever” as a marketing slogan. In them, some variety of affable Everyman dodders between bemusements, Bud Light in hand, chuckling with glee as corporate sponsors stage stunt after stunt. Life-size Pac-Man game! Ping-pong against Arnold Schwarzenegger! A pirate ship in someone’s back yard?! It’s a celebration of the North American bro as the gleeful consumer, a reassurance that with the right attitude, we can withstand #whatever.
Channing Tatum, too, has always seemed up for whatever. He’s an Adonis carved from granite who keeps ribbing you, Audience Member and Friend, about his own Adonis-like beauty. His gamesmanship and comedic chops have quietly made him one of the more appealing young action star possibilities, as self-aware as Bruce Willis but with Rock Hudson’s face. And, while the new Jupiter Ascending is technically a low point for Tatum, he has never seemed more endearingly up for whatever than he is here, rollerblading shirtless through a castle at night with a goatee and fangs and playing some sort of wolfman, all the while still pouting and smoldering and wooing. Very little is asked of him but to endure the indignities—to remain up for whatever.
The Wachowskis, the masterminds behind this as well as the lizardmen, elephant-men, fairy-people and other absurdities in Jupiter Ascending, are relying on the audience to be similarly tolerant, pliable and consumptive. The film begins with a storybook lightness of touch, but within minutes we’ve been whisked through the cosmos to an enormous Frank Gehry-designed Utopia. It is all oppressive rose and alabaster, with talk of alien dynasties, harvesting and genetic splicers. The object of the midnight-castle rescue attempt, as well as about a dozen others, is Mila Kunis, who plays the movie’s titular Jupiter—or, as she insists exactly one time in the movie, “Just Jupe.” Kunis, the heavy-lidded whiskey salesperson, is docile here, staring blankly at her costars from scene to scene, jogging through the action sequences and waiting patiently as various setpieces go up around her. She remains resolutely up for whatever as computer-animated bees swarm around her, as buildings are magically resurrected, as enormous space-industrial complexes tumble and explode. She is intended to look at things and change costumes, and so she does, between bouts of falling into Tatum’s wolfman arms.
If there is anyone who seemed not to get the memo, it’s Eddie Redmayne, still in lithe Hawking shape, who secretes all of his lines like they are the last squirt of toothpaste in the tube. “Life is an act of consumption,” he slimes out at some point, late in the movie, before delivering yet another dump of weighty exposition. Earth, we discover, is a farming planet for him and his extraterrestrial family; Kunis’s primary arc is to realize that this is a bad thing, and, at length, reject it. (Tatum, shirtless, helps her toward this realization.) That this is the essential backstory of The Matrix, too, casts an uncomfortable parallel with the Wachowskis’ earlier triumph.
That trilogy’s human-battery backstory was told in active, sweeping scenes, and its visual splendor—the green and black computer monitors, the slow-motion action—congealed into a metaphor for the audience learning the backstory alongside its protagonist. It conveyed its still-resonant cyberpunk ideas within the context of a surprisingly tight heist film.
The Wachowskis, five films later, appear to consider this a mistake they will not repeat. The following two Matrix movies, in an attempt to expand the original world, fumbled over themselves, breathlessly blowing out the universe before shrugging it to a conclusion with a Jesus metaphor. Speed Racer stretched into infinity like its own impossible neon racetrack, attempting over 135 minutes to turn a cartoon about a boy who drives a car into a canonical, cinematic Bildungsroman. Cloud Atlas featured Hugh Grant as a futuristic cannibal.
There is a tendency to want to view their movies—visually garish and confident in their absurdities—as midnight classics, but they’re all close to an hour too long for even spectacularly intoxicated late-night viewings. A Wachowski film now, more and more, belongs to that subset of sci-fi embarrassments that go for broke and mistake speculative fiction for costume pageants—think Battlefield Earth, The Chronicles of Riddick, or the Star Wars prequels. There is no doubt, when a starship rises through a field of deep-space crystals, or, well, a different starship bursts through hyperspace to land outside Earth, that there is a great love of myth and scale in Jupiter Ascending; the issue is that that love suffocates the story and the characters intended to tell it. We are instead left with justifications for that scale, which we are to blink through alongside the protagonists. If the Spielberg face is one of wide-eyed awe, the Wachowski face is one of blank acceptance.
In one twist, part-way through the movie, Redmayne’s playboy younger brother confides in Kunis that he alone is a force for good in this great mythos. He enlists her help in a conspiracy against Redmayne, and suddenly, that missing ingredient appears: an active narrative component, something revealed to us in real time. This cartoonishly evil character reveals a new layer of meaning which we can use to sort through the previous scenes with a new reading. Seconds later, he reveals to Tatum that he was lying and blasts him out of an airlock to die in deep space. “Sometimes I think lying is the only reason I get out of bed in the morning,” this evil guy says. The shades of gray revert back to stark black and white, and he returns to Kunis, maliciously encouraging her to go through with the sham wedding. She sighs and looks at her dress, covered in red roses, the Wachowskis continuing to confuse a costume change with a plot.
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton
Release Date: Feb. 6, 2015
Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor living in Chicago. He is an Editor at Kill Screen and has written for the AV Club, Pitchfork, and Cokemachineglow. You can follow him on Twitter, where he’ll stand by everything he ever said about Gucci Mane.