‘It’s not what you do, it’s what you are’: world-building and reckless event pacing in Jupiter Ascending

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Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Dir. the Wachowskis

The Wachowskis through maximalism resolve the fact that their works tend to run at capacity or pause to talk with little to mediate these cinematic modes. In Jupiter Ascending crises for parallel action are contrived when the narrative does not call for action’s centrality, which means a frantic momentum is maintained at all times. The film is structured through Kunis’ conversational encounters with three faces of capitalism (consumer apathy, make-pretend opposition (liberal gesturing), open vampirism) which illustrate the film’s ecology and the place of its key players, as well as the passage of Jupiter who is called on to make judgement calls about these revelations. Removing Tatum’s Caine from this dramatic stage time again to watch him scramble back (a dog to his owner) before advancing the next phase might make for a scrappy sequencing of events, but if you buy its corny desperation it’s hard not to get swept up in its shambling flow.

What impresses beyond its obvious visual splendour, is the fact that our journey through the world never settles anywhere for long and yet it also never feels as though it’s been paraphrased. Rather, the specificities it removes from its telling suggest an authentic life that extends beyond the limits of the narration- it’s a landscape we can believe in, whether we’re granted intimate access to its finer points or not. Kunis plays Jupiter as a weary Cinderella, hearing out each of these voices with a politeness concealing solemn disbelief. The fact her instinct to cynicism tends to be correct visibly bores and tires her out over the course of the film, although she never stops trying to reach a point of mutual understanding with the people she encounters. Her remoteness from the world of Jupiter Ascending, her inability to wander through any of its environments, speaks to both her discomfort within it, as well as the detached entitlement of her tour guides. She can stomach it all as ideas- encountering human consequence before she destroys the Abrasax political structure would likely break her first.

Kunis’ support cast necessarily act as a foil to her restraint, although Booth and Middleton just read the lines they think are silly enough to do the work for them. Tatum is hired less for his wet eyes than his abilities as a dancer, bending and releasing his body to make believable the fluidity of his antigravitational rollerblades. Redmayne, encouraged by his understanding of the Wachowskis as directors of nerd-baroque, goes all alienation for his performance as Balem, aspiring to a freakiness rarely seen in contemporary cinema. His bizarre timing of whispers and shrieks, his ludicrous pouting and overwrought grace makes for a presence that’s nervously inscrutable. He has the unchecked tyranny of Darth Vader but his gravity is ostensibly that of the spindly eccentric. His lunatic outbursts come so atonally from his strained dandyism that it’s hard to tell which one is the tic. We laugh, inevitably, but partly because it’s so frightening. Of course people would hate it- we have come to expect personalities we like to appear in accordance with their off-screen personas, and Redmayne’s Balem demands to exist on its own terms.

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