This essay contains spoilers.
The Wachowski siblings, Lana and Andy, learned the hard way that franchise building can be a tricky and unforgiving task. Sure, the Matrix sequels made a lot of money, but they were critically derided (Revolutions in particular with a Metacritic score of 47 and 36% on Rotten Tomatoes), and the writer/producer/director siblings have never quite emerged from the trilogy’s long shadow. For me, the problem with the Matrix sequels was their starting point; so few loose ends remained at the end of the first movie that the script had to contort itself in unimaginable knots in order to retread similar ground and retain a familiar level of threat. When Neo talked the machines into submission and launched himself into the sky at the end of The Matrix there was very little wiggle room in which to pitch a satisfying sequel. Flash forward 16 years and we find the Wachowski’s revisiting the concept of big budget science fiction world building in their latest picture Jupiter Ascending, even touching on the same Matrix tropes of an anointed saviour (Neo/Jupiter), a leather clad super-capable bodyguard (Trinity/Caine), and humanity as commodity (fuel in The Matrix, cosmetic aid in Jupiter Ascending). Except this time the Wachowski’s appear to have gone out of their way to leave nothing within reaching distance of a resolution at the end of the movie; key characters drop out of view, story arcs fade into the background, and plot-breadcrumbs are cast about with wild abandon. This is presumably to leave as many story options and characters in the box for the potential sequels, but it serves to diminish the standalone nature of this would-be franchise first outing; I couldn’t shake the feeling I just watched a TV pilot for a show that isn’t getting picked up.
Jupiter Ascending is a film with perhaps more problems than characters, and it has a whole lot of characters, and they vary in importance and scale. The cringe-worthy dialogue, poor soundtrack, confusing action scenes, and hammy performances are all distracting and grating enough, but could probably be overcome if the plot and structure issues weren’t so glaring (and if Jupiter falls off one more platform I might just jump through a wall). But you can stack on top of all those an urgent and inescapable feeling that the Wachowski’s are pleading with you to ‘buy-in’ to their universe. Everything about this film screams ‘I want to be a multi-picture’ franchise. So much is left loudly unsaid (“what’s the sister’s deal?”, “why don’t the Aegis do anything?”, “WHY DID YOU BITE THAT GUY CAINE?”). It seems like this may all be a reaction to the difficulties resulting from the conclusive ending to the original Matrix film. By resolving too much at the end of The Matrix it made organic and escalating sequels more difficult to write, and particularly more difficult to make satisfying for audiences. So is it possible Jupiter Ascending is just a long list of plot decisions taken solely for the purpose of leaving open threads for subsequent adventures?
After an impressive lead up to an incredible subway station fight with Agent Smith The Matrix takes an abrupt wrong turn into so massively over-powering its hero that the big finish is almost laughably disatisfying. By the end of the movie Neo has become unstoppable, he literally jumps into the antagonist who has been his better throughout the film and destroys him from within. Neo is able to bend the code of the Matrix to his will, and is untethered by its rules or restrictions, he can fly and he can summon cool end credit music at will. Note also that the majority of the supporting cast from the film, primarily the crew of Morpheus’ ship the Nebuchadnezzar, had been killed off (8 crew down to just 3). So any sequel has to start from this point, you have an unbeatable protagonist, no visible or likely antagonist, and a very small supporting cast. Sure, there were a couple of established plot threads available to explore (Zion, how humanity and the machines can co-exist.), but the core building blocks of the previous film are no longer available. Neo has completed his entire hero journey in the first story (at least within the matrix itself), he believes in his position as the one, he has developed incredible power, and he has faced down the machines’ greatest weapon. It is as if Luke Skywalker became a Jedi Knight and killed Darth Vader at the end of A New Hope – where do you go from that? And sure enough as they struggle with these problems the sequels get lost in overly long overly elaborate fight scenes interspersed with overly long overly elaborate pseudo-philosopical nonsense. All of which exists only in an attempt to add weight to the paper-thin philosophy of the first movie and detain Neo long enough to stop him from winning the universe in the first five minutes. The supporting cast are half-heartedly replaced by a few new faces who are never fleshed out or developed sufficiently to make them compelling and only seem present so that there can be a couple of recognisable faces in the finale battle (and weirdly the Nebuchadnezzar is never re-crewed). And finally, there is an attempt imbue the story with some tension by building a threat so strange and narratively perverse that it is still baffling (hello Architect/ridiculous multiple identical Neo’s twist).
From the outset Jupiter Ascending appears intent on establish itself firmly as a franchise-ready universe. The introduction of new concepts and characters is non-stop throughout, even though most of these are touched on only briefly and then left criminally unresolved. Take for instance the bounty hunter Razo; featured prominently in the movie’s advertising and employed by potential antagonist Kalique Abrasax, Razo at first appears to be the kind of character that would be a persistent thorn in the side of our action hero, Caine Wise. However, after a couple of early actions scenes Razo disappears from the plot, never to be heard from again and without any clue offered to her fate. This is especially curious given that the character and her companion Ibis have the makings of an arc about trust and betrayal and honour amongst thieves – a story that would mirror the machinations of the Abrasax siblings quite well. It seems likely that Razo was taken off the board in order to re-enter the story at a future point, in a potential sequel of course.
Similarly there are dangling plot threads concerning Sean Bean’s character Stinger Apini and his daughter who is sick, the fate of sexy-slimy-sibling Titus Abrasax, and Caine Wise’s tortured throat-biting past. Whole factions are introduced and yet they play little part in the film’s core plot – the Aegis for instance who simply ferry Jupiter between dangerous situations and then wait around places. And what of Kalique who is introduced as a presumably important character (it is she who first introduces Jupiter to her real life)? She clearly has a hidden agenda (she hired bounty hunters to track Jupiter down outside and is wary of Aegis law), but then plays no part in the second half of the film at all. These all feel like ideas that were tabled so that they would be available in a sequel – they serve no function in this film as a standalone story and only work to bog it down in unnecessary baggage (how this film got made with the exact same ‘Jupiter meets an Abrasax sibling to discuss interminable exposition’ scene three times in a row is beyond me). Moreover, the fact that the film ends with Jupiter making no attempt to resolve the galactic exploitation trade in human bodies, or in fact to change her own life at all, seems to be more obvious place-holding. The wider conflicts introduced in the film go completely unresolved by the end of the story, and the film fails to provide satisfying story arcs for any character at all (although I suppose Caine does get his space wings back, but what the heck is the ‘Legion’ all about?). Even if more effort had been put into closing some of these story loops, or at least doing a better job of integrating future plot-threads without leaving them unresolved like gruesome hang-nails, this film wouldn’t have been particularly successful, but at least it wouldn’t have gotten me so irked as to write 1424 words on the matter.