Written By: Brandon Booth
Edited By: Larissa Duff-Grant, Cassie Oberndorf
Jupiter Ascending @ Wide Release, Released February 6, 2015
In the latest visual spectacle from the Wachowski Siblings, Jupiter Ascending, visual excess is combined with innovative design to create a series of new images. In the commentary for Alex Proyas’ film Dark City, Roger Ebert quotes a conversation he had with Werner Herzog, saying,” modern civilization is starving for new images. In human history, until fairly recently, with the dawn of mass media, we were capable of being astonished by new things that we saw, that we hadn’t seen before. But now, thanks to television and the movies and MTV…we have become satiated. We have seen so many images that somehow they have all become noise…As a result our imaginations are starving(Mirasol).” Jupiter Ascending is a film that gives itself to this principle wholeheartedly. The trouble with a lot of commercially successful science-fiction and fantasy films is that the world of the story not only follows the guidelines of various genre tropes, but it also copies the aesthetic style established by the original pioneers. This can be seen in films films like The Colony or Pandorum which are knock-offs of Alien, or Babylon AD, which pulls inspiration for its locations out of Blade Runner.
The film is about Jupiter, a young woman of Russian-immigrant heritage that is swept up in a galactic conflict between three heirs to an industry which packages and sells immortality. The film plays with the idea of reincarnation, establishing that Jupiter is the genetic recurrence of the murdered queen of the galaxy, and head of the royal family. She is protected by Caine, a genetic hybrid between a human and a wolf. The film follows her as she is kidnapped by one of the heirs and tricked into losing her inheritance through a political marriage. Narratively the film is quite ambitious, only succeeding partially in establishing its scope through the dialogue. However, as with many of the Wachowski’s previous films, the visual language takes the wheel and elaborates on the themes which don’t really work through the characters themselves.
There are two arenas in which this film excels at delivering new images. The first is the creation of new worlds, or environments distinct and logically self-contained. The second is that the way in which we travel between these environments is not only effective, but also contributes narratively to the structure of the film.
Jupiter Ascending creates new image-worlds on a scale that rivals Lynch’s Dune, or the original Star Wars trilogy. The first instance we get of visual otherness is through a scene which takes place in a white-walled coastal city devoid of life. This environment’s landscape combines a rigid blue and white color palette with a subdued yet empty score. Visually distinct in its architecture, the designers have added a fine layer of blue pellets dispersed across the empty pathways. It isn’t explained during the scene outside of a reference to a harvest, but it gains importance as the mechanics of the world are revealed. Harvesting lifeforms is a trope long established in the genre, the fact that there is a remnant of the occupants being a unique aspect. Instead of leaving clothes or dust behind, the designers turn this narrative plot point into a key distinguishing feature of the landscape. The worlds created for this film are full of new image objects, primarily the multitude of species of varied sentient creatures. By establishing genetic splicing as a thematic strain throughout the film, the filmmakers open themselves up to creating new visual sequences by filling every film with species which have been previously unvisualized. Speaking of the design involved in visualizing the final battle sequence of Matrix Revolutions, the Wachowskis state that their ambition is to create visual images which cannot be repeated, in part resulting from the popularization and appropriation of the bullet-time effect at the beginning of their careers. This process of crafting worlds with enough detail so as to not be repeated or mimicked is a fantastic generative force that they wield extremely well.
In his article titled “Take 3: Filmic and Architectural Promenades,” Henri Lefebvre speaks to the virtue of the journey itself saying “Space…exists in a social sense only for activity-for(and by virtue of) walking…or travelling(Bruno).” As it pertains to this film and new images, the use of action sequences that bring together the disparate worlds help create the “travelling” that Lefebvre speaks of. It is a classic mistake in action films to have action sequences which exist not for themselves, or as self contained and effective works of art, but merely as tools to heighten drama or investment. In order to fully invest in the “virtue of …walking,” the Wachowskis use the operational devices of the anti-gravity boots to open up three-dimensional movement for their chase scenes. As self-contained sequences they have a logical arc, that of initial shock, followed by escape, pursuit, combat, escape, damage and suspense, final conflict, and ultimately resolution. Within this structure then, they throw the characters around according to the unique physics that they themselves have created. It is recognizable, but the scale and complexity transcends its source material. The camera is placed in the perfect location for each angle and portion of the sequence. It’s as if Muybridge focused less of the replicating and more on idealizing human movement, taking time to take a picture of the most unique angle of the subject to fully encapsulate the “meaning” of walking. That is what the Wachowski’s do with this film, treat every image and every movement as an opportunity to fully explore the possibilities and impossibilities of the situation.
Through the high attention to detail and an eye towards creating irreproducible images, the Wachowski’s manage to deliver the bulk of their narrative visually. While perhaps not resulting as a perfect film, in a world saturated and resigned to seeing the same thing over and over, the most admirable pursuit is that of the yet-uncaptured.
Dark City Commentary
Bruno, Giuliana. Visual Studies: 4 “Takes on Spatial Turns.” Journal of the the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 65, No. 1 (Mar., 2006) , pp. 23-24. Print.
Mirasol, Michael. “Dark City Commentary.” Vimeo, April 2014. February 25, 2015. https://vimeo.com/90818085.