In 1999, 16 years after Return of the Jedi, George Lucas released The Phantom Menace. It hit theaters a couple months after The Matrix, a film that turned the Wachowski siblings into superstar directors. The Matrix was not The Phantom Menace: R-rated and ultraviolent, dense with French philosophy and chic andro-goth fashion. And yet somehow, 16 years later, the Wachowskis have now released Jupiter Ascending, a movie that looks and feels an awful lot like The Phantom Menace. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A lovable every-person prole protagonist with a dead-end job gets plucked out of obscurity by a space warrior, who reveals that the protagonist is actually some kind of chosen one.
Elaborate bureaucracy ensues: The Phantom Menace stages some thrilling parliamentary debate, Jupiter Ascending glories in the wonder of intergalactic estate planning. Half the movie is shot on a greenscreen: Because the backgrounds are so beautiful and because the actors have been instructed to stand still and show zero emotion, the cumulative effect is that the actual human beings look like stick figures painted onto a Hieronymus Bosch postcard. Both movies look “interesting,” insofar as it’s interesting to consider that a spacefaring civilization will reach a point of pointless peacocking decadence when every spaceship has sails and/or Roman columns.
I enjoyed Jupiter Ascending way more than The Phantom Menace, mainly because I enjoy hilariously bad movies much more than numbing mediocrities. And Jupiter Ascending is hilarious, and bad. You can feel the Wachowskis trying to come up with a visual idea half as compelling as bullet time—and what they land on is Channing Tatum’s sky-boots, which don’t so much allow him to “fly” as roller-skate through the air. Close to two hundred million dollars, and the Wachowskis came up with Space Xanadu.
Jupiter Ascending did horribly at the box office, and there’s already a lot of talk about how its poor performance is “bad” for Original Movies. There’s also the notion that Jupiter Ascending is somehow impressive purely because it is an original movie. Given the chance, the Wachowskis will take the opportunity to toot their own horn. “We’re sort of oddities in that we keep making original movies” is what Lana Wachowski—director of two Matrix sequels and the movie Speed Racer—told the LA Times. She got a bit more precise in an interview at Buzzfeed: “People who write about movies are obsessed with derivative material in a way they never were before. And they crave it. They hunger for familiarity, and they actually have a suspicion of originality.”
In the same interview, the Wachowskis bring up an interesting idea—that somehow, the horror of 9/11 and the ensuing terror decade sent people retreating into the safety of unoriginal stories. That is a fascinating notion, much more fascinating than literally anything in Jupiter Ascending, a movie that argues that the universe is run by evil British vampire rich people, that the most important thing in the world is family, and that calling someone “Jupe” is a wholly acceptable thing that normal people do all the time.
With all due respect, the reading of Jupiter Ascending that resonates most strongly with me comes from star Mila Kunis, who described it thus to The Times: “This is like diet Matrix…The movie is about entitlement. It’s about the fact that we, as a society, have a sense of entitlement and greed.” This is an interesting thing to say, not least because it forces you to retroactively consider all the Wachowskis’ films in the context of Coke products. (V for Vendetta is Cherry Matrix. Cloud Atlas is Black Cherry Vanilla Matrix. Bound is Matrix and Rum. Speed Racer is cocaine. The Matrix Revolutions is terrible.)
But it’s also interesting, because in a weird way, Kunis is locking into an idea that should be central to the Wachowskis’ movies—except that it’s an idea they seem to have completely forgotten they ever had. With the maybe-exception of Cloud Atlas, all of their movies have the same basic structure: Normal person discovers that their society—indeed, their whole world—is actually ruled by a shady corpo-political-robot cabal. The normal person–Neo, Evey, Speed, Jupe—learns all this hidden knowledge from a mysterious man (always a man) who lives outside society’s normal rules: Morpheus, V, Racer X, Space-Tatum.
Every movie circles through a narrative that vibes simultaneously of ’60s radicalism and ’90s indie-movie individuality: V for Vendetta is clearly a political statement, even if that statement is “Don’t trust presidents who look like Hitler,” while Speed Racer is clearly an aesthetic statement, a movie that argues that racing is an “art” and that art is only true when you’re racing for yourself and not for a major corrupt corporation.
Speed Racer cost one of those corporations over a hundred million dollars. Corporate-sponsored anticorporate messages are nothing new. (Evidence: Like, any commercial.) Yet there is something weirdly disingenuous, after a decade and a half of this. The Wachowskis clearly fancy themselves outsiders, and the work they are doing is clearly different from, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Wachowskis clearly read a lot of books: Have you heard of that guy Baudrillard? But they are also people who, with one exception, have spent this era of cinema making digital-effects blockbusters paid for by Time Warner, a company which currently ranks 102 on the Fortune 500.
I was a Time Warner employee for about five years. Like all corporate worker bees, I have spent some days struggling with the realities of working for a gigantic corporation; there are also plenty of days when you just shrug and move on to worrying about things that are actually important. Not everyone works for a corporation, of course. George Lucas will always consider himself an outsider: A man who openly despised the Hollywood system, who did everything in his power to ensure that he never had to leave the Bay Area. I am from the Bay Area; it is a place that attracts outsiders, and a place that attracts insiders who think they are outsiders. Much has been made about how, in the Star Wars prequels, Lucas attempted to become openly political in a way that his early films only hinted at: Revenge of the Sith is about how tyranny rises out of democracy.
Much has also been made about the central paradox of Lucas’ career: He made movies about the glory of rebellion, but he ultimately became the head of his own Empire. And so Revenge of the Sith is a stultifying portrait of the birth of rebellion, where the rebels have become so boring and vanilla. The question isn’t: “What are you rebelling against?” The question becomes: “Don’t you realize that you are what people want to rebel against?”
And I think something similar is happening to the Wachowskis now. Jupiter Ascending returns to a central idea from The Matrix that normal everyday human beings are just fuel for the Elites. In The Matrix, dead human juice is battery power for the machines; in Jupiter Ascending, dead human juice is botox ambrosia for the evil space-British sex addicts. Both movies come down boldly against dead human juice…because darn it, it’s wrong to kill people! How true that is!
But just like Lucas in The Phantom Menace, the Wachowskis can’t really conceive of why the system is broken. When Neo and good ol’ Jupe discover that they are, essentially, gods, their reaction is Messiah-perfect: They only want to help people. The end of Jupiter Ascending even implies that Jupe is going back to scrubbing toilets: She’s the queen of the world, but she’s also one of us! Aw, shucks! There’s never any danger that Neo and/or Jupe might use their newfound powers for anything but absolute good. The bad guys are the baddest of the bad: Evil computers and Eddie Redmayne swanning around a throne room, his only friends gigantic lizard people with wings.
This Manichean worldview gets violated occasionally, usually by “bad guys” who are actually the most interesting people in the Wachowskis’ movies. Cypher in The Matrix decides that, all in all, he’d rather be comfortable within the system then frustrated outside of it—a character arc that feels oddly revealing, when you consider that the Wachowskis followed up nominally “independent” failed passion project Cloud Atlas with a movie that at one point was considered the first entry in a PG-13 sci-fi trilogy. But there isn’t really a Cypher character in Jupiter Ascending—the closest we get is Sean Bean as Bee-Man, who betrays the heroes but then un-betrays them and anyhow he’s just doing it all for his daughter. Just like Lucas in the later Star Wars sequels, you can feel how much the Wachowskis want to say something, but all they can really say is that nice people are nice and mean people suck.
Does this come with the territory? Is it impossible to make $200 million corporate products about how big-budget megacorporations are evil? Perhaps wisely, the Wachowskis are retreating to the new corporate frontier of streaming content, developing a new TV show for Netflix. I’m excited about Sense8, even if the plot basically sounds like Everything Is Everything, I’m Down With That: The Series. There was a time when Lucas talked about a move to television, ordering scripts for a Star Wars series set in the scuzzy darker corners of the galaxy. Lucas also spent most of his post-Star Wars career talking about how he just wanted to get back to smaller independent films. You wonder if the Wachowskis want that, too. But you also wonder if they even think they need that.
The tragedy of George Lucas is that he always thought he was Luke Skywalker and didn’t notice when he became the Emperor. Is the tragedy of the Wachowskis that they buried themselves inside the Matrix?
Thoughts? Counter-arguments? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in the next edition of the Entertainment Geekly mailbag.