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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
We are now just about one week out from the opening of Jupiter Ascending, an original science fiction film starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum. The film’s release is big news for a few reasons. First of all, it was considerably delayed from a would-be cushy summer 2014 release date to the dregs of winter, causing wild speculation about the film’s production. Secondly, Jupiter Ascending is a big budget original science fiction film, the likes of which we only get every so often. These films are often massive failures (Gravity and Interstellar being two recent examples to the contrary). But the biggest reason why Jupiter Ascending interests me so much is that it was directed by the Wachowskis, the brother/sister directing team responsible for some of the most interesting films in Hollywood of the past 15 years.
The two broke onto the scene in 1996 with Bound, a crime drama starring Gina Gershon and Meg Tilly. Though the film failed to gross back its 6 million dollar budget, it was well regarded and a critical hit (scoring a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes). The directing duo obviously became best known for their sophomore effort, the 1999 Keanu Reeves-starring science fiction masterpiece The Matrix. It cannot be understated how important and influential The Matrix was (and still is) to both science fiction and action movies. Itself influenced by Japanese anime and manga (in the years leading up to the “Cool Japan” fad), The Matrix went on to become a sleeper hit and spawn a multimedia franchise while also probably earning Warner Bros. several billion dollars in revenue.
It is approximately at this point where the Wachowskis promptly went insane, never to make a coherent movie ever again. I say this in both good and bad terms. The sequels to The Matrix, subtitled Reloaded and Revolutions, were both hits (more so Reloaded, a film that still holds several records for an R-rated release), but were also critically derided and met with intense scorn from fans online. I personally love Reloaded even if it is a giant mess. The atrocious cave-rave scene is ludicrous and bad, but that highway action scene is one of the most amazing sequences captured on film, and it was shot in 2001. I have to imagine the sting of the ultimate failure of these films hurt the Wachowskis credibility, however, because the two did not direct a film again until 2008, five odd years after their perceived follies.
It was that 2008 film, Speed Racer, that nearly put the final nail in their coffins. Speed Racer was positioned as a summer tentpole release by Warner Bros. This did not go super well. The $120 million dollar film was a huge bomb, grossing only $93 million dollars worldwide. The film failed critically as well, scoring an aggregate 39% on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite some positive notices for acting, the film was trashed by critics and ignored by audiences. In addition to being a critical and commercial disaster, Speed Racer was embarrassingly surrounded by product tie-ins that almost immediately entered bargain bins at retailers. The film has, however, seen a bit of a critical revival in recent years, with many now appreciating what the Wachowskis did with the product.
It would be another four years before the Wachowskis would make another film, this time a collaboration with German director Tom Tykwer. That film, Cloud Atlas, disappointed upon release in late 2012. A would-be awards contender, Cloud Atlas left critics cold and flopped with audiences, grossing only slightly more than its $102 million dollar production budget. For what it’s worth, I really liked Cloud Atlas, wild ambition and all. It was, however, the fourth boondoggle in a row for the Wachowskis. Even if it seemed they were making ambitious and interesting films, it also seemed as if no one save for a few people were interested anymore. I have to imagine a lot of their older fans remained frustrated or just moved on completely.
That leads us to Jupiter Ascending, their aforementioned latest science fiction film. The film was recently screened at Sundance for a surprise audience, who did not seem to like it that much. Sundance is admittedly not the best audience for a $175 million dollar science fiction epic, but this is still not a good sign. In a world where the release schedule goes something like Marvel movie, young adult adaptation, Marvel movie, awful horror franchise, young adult adaption, the Wachowskis are providing some interesting and fresh content here. I just want it to be good so much. While I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, I would still rather have something akin to The Matrix. It remains to be seen whether Jupiter Ascending will fit that bill, and though I like the Wachowskis, I have my doubts.