Clay Liford (Earthling) Talks Andy and Lana Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis' new space opera delivers "Chihuahua Face," absurd character names, apathetic supporting villains, and a retro '90s plot and ideology.

OK, no drugs this time. Nothing to shield my emotions from the reality of the silver screen in THREE-DEE! Jupiter Ascending, I come to you naked as a jay. And, as those of us who’ve seen Speed Racer know, taking on the Wachowskis sober is tantamount to bringing a knife to a gun fight.

I have a really lazy love-hate relationship with the Wachowskis. It’s really lackadaisical and binary. I didn’t care for Bound (possibly because I’m the rare heterosexual male who doesn’t get off on lesbians doing it). I mostly dug the first Matrix. Both sequels I disliked, but didn’t hate. Liked V for Vendetta (which they co-wrote), but not enough ever to want to see it again. Loved Speed Racer drunk. Surprisingly liked (a step down from love — sometimes you need to delineate that to ex-wives and whatnot) Speed Racer sober. Really liked every scene in Cloud Atlas until Halle Berry inevitably showed up. So this one was really gonna be a roll of the dice.

The Wachowskis generally have good taste; it trickles down through most of their work. It’s never their references or visual sensibilities that throw me off. It’s their characters and (most often) casting. I’m not a big fan of Mila Kunis (aka Chihuahua Face). And apparently we’re all still collectively pretending that Channing Tatum can act with his clothes still on. At least Channing Tatum looks like an action star. Mila Kunis is so out of her element here, it’s like Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky bad. Some people are just meant to act in romantic comedies until they eventually stop acting and die. The only person blissfully aware of exactly what he got himself into is Eddie Redmayne as Balem Abrasax, the main villain-y guy. Actually, I don’t officially know if he’s actually the main villain, but trust me — we will get back to Eddie shortly.

This movie is so bloated with unnecessary characters, it often feels like a cut-down version of itself. I mean, clearly there were at least two more subplots filmed that didn’t make the final edit. There had to be. This fucker takes more extreme tangents with characters that show up just to disappear; it makes The Thin Red Line look totally cohesive. Let’s try to break this down.

Mila Kunis plays the eponymous Jupiter Jones, a Russian-immigrant toilet scrubber who’s so totally about to ascend, you guys. Before this movie, I’d nearly forgotten about that awesome ’80s trend of naming your action-hero super cop or whatever after the title of the film. They also did that with ’80s pornos, I think. (Wasn’t there a Ramming Speed with someone named Dick Speed or something?) Anyway, faster than you can say, “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” a bunch of hairless midget aliens are trying to kill her because she’s apparently the reincarnation of the Queen of Earth (or the universe, or something equally hefty). Enter ex-space cop turned bounty hunter Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). Caine is aptly named, because he has been genetically fused with the DNA of a wolf (the Caine part, as indicated by his pointed ears), and has a non-ironic “frosted hair and matching goatee set” (an unwise choice, making his last name extra ironic). Caine arrives just in time to save Jupiter from getting a fatal anal probe (possibly vaginal, who can tell in a PG-13, am I right?) from the aforementioned midget aliens, who are initially disguised as regular-sized OBGYNs, ostensibly there to harvest the eggs Jupiter is attempting to sell for cash. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that this is probably the only sci-fi movie ever to feature a trip to the “lady doctor” as a major action set piece. That’s got to be worth something.

Anyway, Caine saves Jupiter. They rocket to safety on his flying-gravity-“surf” rollerblades. There are no fewer than four instances in this movie where Jupiter plummets from some great height just to have Caine go all Kristi-Yamaguchi-of-the-friggin’-wind and wrap her up in a triple Camel Spin (thank you, Google!) mere moments before she’s about to become extra rare street meat. Wolf-boy proceeds to inform Jupiter of her royal birth, which comes with some pretty sweet perks. Not the least of which is having regular-ass bees instantly recognize your royal status and sting any haters on your behalf. The other pretty sweet perk is owning the planet Earth, cash and carry… even though none of the current occupants of said planet Earth know anything about this, and probably only see you as a Russian-immigrant toilet scrubber. The reason the gynecological aliens want her dead is because of Eddie Redmayne — see, I told you we’d get back to him!

Eddie (as Balem) is the eldest son of the dead queen of the Earth and/or-universe, and heir-apparent to the Earth until/unless her DNA reconfigures/reincarnates in the form of a Chihuahua-faced Russian-immigrant toilet scrubber. Said toilet scrubber would trump his claim. Ergo, she needs to die. Balem is pretty damn amazing. It’s like Eddie Redmayne was all like, “What lens are we on? A 100 mm? Fuck it.” Then he proceeds to do a slow growl line read than morphs into a sudden burst of straight-up baby tantrum screaming. I love an actor that isn’t afraid to play to the nosebleeds in a medium close-up. He’s in a completely different movie from anyone else here, but his is the movie I want to see. Not the Frosty-Tips and Chihuahua-Face Variety Show. Sadly, he’s not the only contender for the planet Earth title transfer. He has a brother named Titus, who is boring. And a sister named Kalique, who is amazingly beautiful and also boring. Some really ’90s-looking space goons kidnap Jupiter and bring her to Kalique, who holds forth on the various motives of her family members, none of which are completely clear. She also has a great moment, complete with a show-stopping bare-ass shot, where she explains to Jupiter the only true currency of all space-faring species. If you’ve seen The Matrix, it won’t come as a huge surprise. Here, instead of being used as living batteries, humans are turned into a sort of Nivea anti-aging crème. Time, expressed in the mathematical constant of supple skin, is the coin of the realm. And Earth is loaded with potential skin-crème sources. Because you have to harvest live humans. And apparently they can’t be aware or scared or something. I guess it spoils the crème.

Just explaining this is killing me. Finally, Caine arrives to save Jupiter and Kalique doesn’t even try to stop him. She pretty much just goes, “Eh, fuck it,” and presumably wanders off to sip wine in a nice warm bath of human Aveeno products. Never to be seen again. Major set-up. Seemingly major character. Never. Seen. Again. This will become a recurring theme here.

There’s some space travel. A scene of extremely forced sexual tension between Jupiter and Caine. I really cannot express how little chemistry these two have together. At some point, and I honestly can’t remember how, Jupiter ends up in the clutches of Villain #2, younger brother Titus. Titus, like his sister, is super-attractive and super-pointless. Though his plot did remind me of Flash Gordon, in that he wants to marry Jupiter (the reincarnation of his mother!) in order to share her claim. Somehow she doesn’t realize that he intends to kill her shortly after, because why share?

This leads to a pretty cool action sequence where Caine and his buddy Stinger (Sean Bean, who — spoiler alert — doesn’t die horribly!) fly through a storm of metal “Warhammers” to stop the royal-incest space wedding, just like in Flash Gordon! Look, it’s seriously becoming a thing where subpar modern films seem to exist just to remind me to re-watch films I really dug from years past. Anyway, creepy reincarnated Kentucky marriage averted, Jupiter is rescued just long enough to move on to Villain #3. And, oh yes, after the wedding, Titus also just says, “Fuck it,” and completely disappears from the movie.

So, a bunch of bullcrap happens, most of which involves Jupiter’s bumbling Russian-immigrant family being abducted by Balem. This forces Jupiter to surrender herself (“take me instead”-style) in order to save them from death at the hands of Balem’s dragon men. Yes, Eddie Redmayne is lord of the random dragon men. In defense of the dragon men, I’ve actually been waiting a very long time to see some bitchin’ live-action dragon men. Ever since I read the Dragonlance series of Dungeons & Dragons books in junior high, to be precise. Jupiter Ascending features some Advanced D&D quality dragon men (or Draconians, for the purists).

There’s a huge fight. Eddie Redmayne gets pimp-slapped and shrieks like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Some other crap happens. Sean Bean somehow lives. We also get a pretty cool elephant man. Not like John Merrick, Elephant Man. I mean a man with the actual head of a miniature elephant. He also has the best line. He pilots a space ship, and there’s a great “Punch it, Chewie!” moment where he gets to let out an orgiastic elephant trumpet the moment before he launches the ship into the breech. Part of me hopes there’s some director’s cut where we’ll get 25 percent more dragon and elephant men.

In the end, I didn’t hate this movie. I sort of wish I’d saved my dumb ’shrooms stunt for this one. Paddington deserved better. The visuals are really amazing, and only prove the Wachowskis have great taste in old school sci-fi visuals. Some of the ship designs are pretty rad. Some Chris Foss-style “fish ships” on good display here. It’s just those dang blasted characters. All bizarre ’90s stereotypes that sort of exist in a weird purgatory of irrelevance.

The Matrix came out in ’99. I feel like that movie really locked in the siblings’ sensibilities. From the hair, to the clothes, to the basic ideology (damsel in constant distress, yet who still manages to “tell it like it is”). Everything seems trapped. At the very least, I feel it’s safe to say that Jupiter Ascending may be the harbinger of ’90s nostalgia. Flying rollerblades, the hair (I didn’t even mention the dreads on the 4 Non Blondes singer subbing for an evil bounty hunter), the over-reliance on neon prop guns straight out of the Super Mario Bros movie. Nineties nostalgia frightens me. The movie stopped short of having Caine sport a flannel tied around his waist, but I wouldn’t doubt there’s at least one piece of concept art featuring that look. And while I have no desire to watch this movie ever again, I sort of hope it does well, if only so we can get an Eddie Redmayne origin story spin-off prequel. All yelling. All medium close-ups.

Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.