‘Jupiter Ascending’: The Wachowskis’ long journey

Feb. 06, 2015 | 4:00 a.m.
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A show-stopping wedding ceremony set aboard the spaceship of Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth), the youngest son of intergalactic royals, was shot partially on location in England’s Ely Cathedral, but technicians digitally added ornate vaulting and views of star fields glimpsed through the windows. “Real places bring a tremendous amount of textural authenticity,” Glass said. “In every case we’d just do some treatment that gave it a little bit of a twist or edge, so that it felt familiar but there was something different about it.” (Warner Bros.)

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Jupiter learns of her extraordinary lineage while on Earth; in one scene shot in Chicago’s Willis Tower, she extends her arm through a high-rise window; Hall points out that the glass and the reflections were created in post-production. (Warner Bros.)

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As Jupiter and Caine flee the treacherous Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), they head to the pastoral home of an ally, and Kunis’ heroine discovers another power — the ability to control the movement of bees. None of the insects were on set, however. “All the bees that were in motion were done digitally,” Glass said. “We looked at a lot of footage of how bees fly and move but ultimately it needed to have its own magical quality. It required some artistry to communicate that. We did have some little plastic flies that were painted [to look like bees].... We tried to make sure that none of them ended up standing out in the final movie.” (Warner Bros.)

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The design for Titus’ spaceship was chiefly conceptualized by artist George Hull, Glass said. “The ship itself was designed to have these beautiful sails, somewhere between an insect and some sort of beautiful bird — the solar panel look to the wings. The Art Deco-inspired lattice overlay to the ship was a beautiful addition and part of juxtaposing different aesthetic styles in a way that felt harmonic but gave the impression of a vast complexity.” (Warner Bros.)

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“Jupiter Ascending” includes a menagerie of non-human creatures such as the keepers, the small gray aliens seen above in the bottom right corner. “The thought was that our mythology, ghosts or aliens, are based on a reality that we become aware of in this film,” Glass said. (Warner Bros.)

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Throughout the film, Caine wears gravity boots that enable him to race and glide through the air. “We started with extreme sports, things like snowboarding, which was a fairly close comparison we felt, surfing, and tried to devise ways to photograph stunts that were using something like that,” said Glass, who worked closely with the filmmakers on set during the nearly six-month shoot. (Warner Bros.)

The idea for “Jupiter Ascending,” the newest film from the Wachowski siblings, took root 15 years ago while they were filming their two intricately plotted “Matrix” sequels concurrently in Australia.

Crews looked to them to answer the infinite number of questions that inevitably arise on the set of a complex film. The Wachowskis’ decision fatigue inspired a line for Keanu Reeves’ messiah-like character in “The Matrix: Revolutions,” as his crew hovered over him expectantly: “I need … time.”

“Every single day for 10 years we’d come to set and people would be like, ‘What are we doing? What are we doing?'” Lana Wachowski said recently over drinks with her brother, Andy. “We’re like, ‘We need time.’ I remember thinking, we have to tell a story about time at some point. Time is the most important resource in human lives. It’s precious.”

That story is “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowskis’ first original science-fiction film since 1999’s “The Matrix” established them as groundbreaking genre filmmakers. It’s easy to see why it would take them a while.

A cosmic, feminist twist on Cinderella, “Jupiter Ascending” stars Mila Kunis as Jupiter Jones, a Chicago housekeeper who is the unwitting genetic heir to a family that represents the universe’s ultimate 1-percenters. Unbeknownst to Earth, Jupiter’s family plans to harvest our planet of its best cash crop, human vitality. Channing Tatum plays a tracker with wolf DNA and gravity boots who has been sent through the galaxies to retrieve Jupiter for reasons neither he nor the audience initially understand, and current Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne is a profit-obsessed alien industrialist.

As a $179-million film that is not a sequel, comic book adaptation nor remake, “Jupiter Ascending” is that rarest of projects in modern Hollywood — an original idea, lavishly and expensively made. The Warner Bros. film features 2,700 visual effects shots and a single, aerial chase sequence that the Wachowskis shot for six minutes a day over three months to take advantage of pre-dawn light on the Chicago skyline.

The movie comes at a time when the Wachowskis are at a crossroads professionally. After 20 years of making visually ambitious films that deal with knotty philosophical and political themes, the most recent of which, “Cloud Atlas” and “Speed Racer,” stumbled commercially, they are contemplating just how they fit into an industry that plans to spend its biggest budgets making more than 40 movies based on superhero comics — many of them sequels — over the next six years.

“We’re sort of oddities in that we keep making original movies,” Lana said. “How long will that last? I don’t know, in the current cultural climate. When I was young, originality was everything. A sequel was like a bad word. We’ve gone to the opposite place where [audiences] actually are more excited about a story we know the ending to, and we become obsessed about, ‘Oh, did they move that character?'”
Like their movies, the Chicago-born siblings are difficult to slot into neat categories.

Director/writer/producers Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' "Jupiter Ascending." (Murray Close / Warner Bros.)

Director/writer/producers Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “Jupiter Ascending.” (Murray Close / Warner Bros.)

Lana, 49, born Larry, is a transgender woman with pink dreadlocks and an exuberant, labyrinthine way of speaking — “How did you like that segue?” she said, after linking a personal question back to themes in her film. “That was one martini, too.”

Andy, 47, seems like the kind of man Carl Sandberg might have had in mind when he called Chicago the “city of the big shoulders.” He’s blocky, basso-voiced and more reserved than his sister, but he also wears dark nail polish, wonders about the misogynist subtext of action films and delivers the efficient one-liners that punctuate Lana’s commentary.

After Lana explained how speaking publicly for the first time about being transgender during the promotion of “Cloud Atlas” in 2012 led to a bittersweet loss of anonymity for her and her wife, Andy told a story about a fan who pounced on them while they sat in the Chicago Bulls seasons seats they’ve had for years. “It’s youuuu guysss!” he said, mimicking the woman who had seen them on a South Korean TV show.

The siblings are now in post-production on their first television series, “Sense8,” a science-fiction drama that interweaves the stories of eight strangers, which will premiere on Netflix in May. The format is one that should reward the Wachowskis’ signature style — their affinity for dense, interwoven stories that benefit from multiple viewings and feed fan discussions.

“There’s an interest among a lot of people within the studios to do big, original pictures, but it’s become very hard to fund them when the audience is so reliably going to spectacle pictures from an existing source,” said Grant Hill, who has produced all the Wachowskis’ films since “The Matrix Reloaded.” “The industry is re-framing itself in so many different ways. There are a lot of avenues out there, and [the Wachowskis] are noticing that.”

Halle Berry with director Lana Wachowski, Tom Hanks and director Andy Wachowski on the set of "Cloud Atlas." (Warner Bros.)

Halle Berry with director Lana Wachowski, Tom Hanks and director Andy Wachowski on the set of “Cloud Atlas.” (Warner Bros.)

After “Speed Racer,” then-Warner Bros. studio chief Jeff Robinov encouraged the Wachowskis to explore a large-scale original picture, and they began writing “Jupiter Ascending” at the same time they were adapting “Cloud Atlas” from the David Mitchell novel.

Warner Bros. pushed back “Jupiter Ascending” from a release date last July to buy the Wachowskis more time on their post-production. The move took the film out of the summer popcorn season, which would have seemed a natural home for it, to a date where Warner Bros. had recently seen success with “The Lego Movie,” and it fueled speculation that “Jupiter Ascending” was troubled.

The film’s story, which includes a romance, a family tragedy, some intergalactic double-crossing and an Odyssey-like epic for Kunis’ character, asks more of its audience than most others in the genre. With a sleeveless Tatum’s delivery of the line “Your Majesty” to a woman who scrubs toilets for a living, the Wachowskis have also made their first romance since “Bound,” their 1996 feature directing debut that has become a cult film for its portrayal of a lesbian love affair.

“This is like diet ‘Matrix,'” Kunis said. “It’s not that complicated. The movie is about entitlement. It’s about the fact that we as a society have a sense of entitlement and greed.”

Director/writer/producers Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski and Eddie Redmayne (center) on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' "Jupiter Ascending." (Murray Close / Warner Bros.)

Director/writer/producers Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski and Eddie Redmayne (center) on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “Jupiter Ascending.” (Murray Close / Warner Bros.)

Critics aren’t persuaded. Many have called “Jupiter Ascending” needlessly convoluted and suggested that the Wachowskis should have spent more time focusing their story and less on their visuals.

With an expected opening weekend box office of about $20 million, it will also be a hard lump for the studio commercially.

The Wachowskis said they have never been guided by reviews or box office in their creative decisions.

“If all we were interested in was money, financial practicality, box office and popularity, we would have never made any of the films we’d made,” Lana said. “With ‘Bound,’ people said, change it to a man and it’s a deal. ‘The Matrix’ every single studio rejected, and the first test screening was one of the worst of our careers, on ‘V for Vendetta’ we got letters saying we were un-American. ‘Speed Racer’ was weirdly the greatest test screening we’ve had in our careers and the biggest box-office bomb, and ‘Cloud Atlas’ was not too financially successful but probably the movie we’re most proud of and the one that’s touched the most lives. After this 20-year career we thought, ‘OK, what do we value? What gives us meaning?'”

The siblings had flown to L.A. for the premiere of “Jupiter Ascending” from the Iceland set of “Sense8,” which marks 12 years on the road for various projects. They seem eager, more than anything else, for some down time.

“When you make films … you go into a decompression chamber, and your world disappears, all you have is the movie,” Andy said. “People get older, kids grow up, people die, suddenly your nephew and niece, they’re graduating high school, they’re going to college. There’s big gaps in your life. For me, I want to reconnect to that. I don’t want to miss that stuff as much as we have been.”

– Rebecca Keegan | @ThatRebecca


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10 Responses to ‘Jupiter Ascending’: The Wachowskis’ long journey

  1. vva says:

    "We’re sort of oddities in that we keep making original movies."

    Two sequels, an adaptation of a cartoon series and an adaptation of a book. Not exactly original movies there.

  2. JupiterDescending says:

    Saw this last night, wasn't expected much and got disappointed..
    My eyes were rolling up to the stars 20 minutes in.

    They needed to spend another 15 years working on the script

  3. sprigs says:

    very disappointed…did not expect such an epic failure after the matrix and cloud atlas…to me a good story is thought provoking and or at least evokes an emotion…however the characters in jupiter ascending were so one dimensional that i did not at any point care what happened to any of them…the only postive thing i can say about this film is that it was visually stunning…i hope the wachowski's will quit writing and go back to making good movies…

  4. michael says:

    Loved this movie. Tired of all the negative reviews. Has anyone actually seen it? I'm taking my kids again this weekend. The movie is a great popcorn movie. My only critic is the Space DMV. Kinda veered Hitch Hikers guide, seemed out of place. Anyway, loved this movie, such a fun romp and visually , well shit! Star Wars had better bring it's A Game.

    • Erika says:

      I liked the movie too.

    • gina facchinello says:

      This movie was awesome….I have seen it three times in 3D. It has many layers and references to other movies …I love that I can see it three times and still get something new from it. The visual effects are so interesting and beautiful. Another thing I noticed and liked a lot was this:I had to use my brain in many ways while watching. We need more films like this… A thank you to all who participated in its creation.

  5. bub says:

    I loved this movie, it was stunning and kept a simple question to the forefront of our minds; what's more important? Wealth? Family? Immortality? I like that it didn't answer all the questions it posed and you didn'tunderstand everything about the characters. They were far from one dimensional. I would love to see a sequel simply to see more of this world and see how Jupiter develops and see more battles. It had everything great movie should have and more. Most of all it had heart!

  6. Lana Lives says:

    Thought the visuals in 3 D were fabulous. Story line was good but the character development very weak. More focus on the genetic trading and harvesting of human energy fields (heart, mind, body and soul) and the lost of one's human dignity through humanities collective amnesia would have developed the characters more in depth.

  7. Scott says:

    Just bought it and loved it! Was wanting a sequel. And yeah it didn't make as much as expected in the united States but made over 130 million overseas. And that doesn't include blu ray and dvd sales that just started. It will make a profit. I'm glad because I liked it a lot.

  8. scott says:

    It made 185 million worldwide before blu ray and DVD sales so it will make a profit. So it was in no way a flop!

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