“V for Vendetta,” which the Wachowskis wrote, was their most straightforward political movie, about an anarchist who recruits a young woman into his campaign against a fascist state. Even “Cloud Atlas,” their often-lovely and underrated adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel, used its interlinked stories to explore the human urge for freedom.
This focus on revolution means that the Wachowskis’ movies have often been interpreted and appropriated in ways that are either reactionary or outside of the existing political spectrum. Anonymous, the collective that intervenes in a wide range of issues from protests against the Church of Scientology to attempted interventions in the alleged rape and subsequent suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, has adopted the Guy Fawkes masks from “V for Vendetta.” Some men’s rights activists use the image from “The Matrix” of a red pill that reveals the truth of human existence as a metaphor for their belief that men are actually more oppressed than women.
But with “Jupiter Ascending,” the movie starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum that arrived in theaters this weekend, the Wachowskis have made not just a movie that doesn’t live up to the potential of its own strangeness, but also their first truly reactionary picture. “Jupiter Ascending” is about a woman who goes from the bottom of the economic rung in America to wealth and power beyond human imagining. But instead of fighting the machines as Neo did, or raging against the state like V, “Jupiter Ascending” argues that the best thing she can possibly do is make peace with her own poverty.
“Technically speaking, I’m an alien,” Jupiter Jones (Kunis) tells us the first time she speaks. “And from the perspective of immigration, an illegal one.” Born in a shipping container as her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) was sneaking into the United States, Jupiter’s legal status condemns her to a life cleaning the apartments of the wealthy and wishing for something better — or at least for a telescope like the one her father had before she was born.
The “alien” part of things is what changes Jupiter’s existence, though not in the ways she expected. Jupiter learns that she is the exact genetic match of the deceased matriarch of the Abrasax clan, a family so wealthy they own entire planets, after Caine Wise (Tatum) shows up to save her from bounty hunters that are trying to kill her. Among Jupiter’s inheritance is the Earth itself, an unsubtle example of the meek getting theirs, but in this world, rather than in the next.
The Abrasax fortune turns out to be built on a nasty business with echoes of “The Matrix.” The family hasn’t just generated enough wealth to buy planets. They use those planets as farms, growing humans to harvest and turn into an elixir of youth. That’s the sort of premise the Wachowskis have used to good, queasy effect before in movies like “The Matrix.” But “Jupiter Ascending” lacks the willingness to be as direct, or as horrifying, as their prior projects. Rather than seeing humans emerge from baths of nutrient goo, hoses bolted to their bodies, the Abrasaxes’ victims have a tendency to disappear just as blades are about to cut into their flesh.
The means by which Jupiter claims her inheritance are too complicated to explain here, and with the exception of a marvelous sequence in which she shuffles between a series of hilarious bureaucrats, not really worth delving into. In particular, the way the Wachowskis handle the motivations of the rival Abrasax siblings (Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Booth and Eddie Redmayne, in a performance that shames his Oscar nomination) is shoddy to the point of cinematic malpractice.
But even compared with this slap-dash storytelling, the really strange thing is what happens after Jupiter secures her inheritance of the Earth and returns home. Earlier in the movie, we saw her dawdling on cleaning jobs, sighing over her employers’ jewelry as a way to delay cleaning their toilets. But at the end of the film, she’s accustomed herself to her place, working with an efficiency that surprises her mother and relatives, buoyed by the knowledge that she’ll get to flit around Chicago on rocket skates and smooch with Caine while overlooking the city’s skyline.
Unlike Neo, who learned about the Matrix and vowed to take it down, or the clones and artists who struggled for self-actualization in “Cloud Atlas,” Jupiter appears to have heard Caine when he told her that “It can be difficult for terses, or people from underdeveloped worlds, to learn that their planet isn’t the only one in the universe.” Now that they’re no longer in imminent danger of being turned into beauty projects, Jupiter seems to have decided that it’s safer to let humans live in ignorance, discovering the universe at their own pace.
“Some lives will always matter more than others,” Balem (Redmayne) lectured Jupiter earlier in the movie. “It is better to accept this than to pretend it isn’t true.” Maybe Jupiter is trying to prove him wrong: She may own Earth, but she’s not too good to do a humble job. But she’s also apparently not good enough to take on real stewardship of her own planet. Defying Balem’s insistence that she’s superior is a way for Jupiter to let herself off the hook for any responsibility she might have to raise Earth’s level of development or its standing in the galaxy, which has a lot more to offer than just an eternal-youth fixation.
“Jupiter Ascending” may be about waking up to the truth of human existence. But that sharp shock apparently doesn’t mean as much to the Wachowskis as it used to.