Big-budget space opera Jupiter Ascending required leaps of faith from its stars

The Wachowskis are hoping their space opera Jupiter Ascending will give them a hit after a series of disappointments

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm

Andy and Lana (formerly known as Larry) Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending is being described as belonging to the new-fangled genre of "space opera" - a science-fiction action adventure with the inevitable futuristic gadgetry, but also featuring hefty doses of romantic drama and soapish sibling dramatics.

Written, produced and directed by the American siblings who brought us The Matrix trilogy, their latest ambitious offering promises to be a multi-layered and multi-dimensional intergalactic thrill-ride featuring scheming royal relatives with entitlement issues along with key characters with exotic DNA.

For a fan of science fiction such as Channing Tatum, signing up to work on Jupiter Ascending was a no-brainer. "I'm the guy that watches the Syfy Network. I love it."

Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, who is plucked from her pretty forlorn life of cleaning houses in Chicago by Tatum's Caine Wise. A genetically engineered, ex-military, hunter alien who is part wolf, he spirits her off to his planet via a shimmering beam-like tube (no boring spaceships here.)

Caine has a plan: the three heirs-apparent to the House of Abrasax (one of whom is portrayed by The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne), the most powerful dynasty in the galaxy, are planning to harvest (space-speak for kill) residents of earth to create an immortality serum. And Jupiter may be the only one who can stop them.

Kunis says she was drawn to the role because Jupiter becomes a superheroine, albeit not in the traditional sense. "It's not a physical power" Jupiter has, the actress says. "She just all of a sudden inherits a power that enables her to make decisions that put earth in danger. And Channing's character is kind of a bad-ass. He rescues me from a horrible situation and puts me on this very long journey … And he kind of takes his own journey, and through this journey they find respect for one another."

"It's a vey complex and detailed universe that the two directors have created," says Sean Bean, who plays Stinger Apini, a former military commanding officer "evolved from a bee, and [who] has the kind of attributes and skills of a half bee" and who acts as a father figure to Caine. "It's pretty mind-blowing, but at the same time the characters are very well-drawn and all of it hinges on the characters."

Originally scheduled for a summer 2014 opening, Jupiter Ascending's release was pushed back seven months, supposedly to give the Wachowskis extra time to fine-tune the more than 2,000 special effects utilised in what promises to be a visually spectacular work.

It’s a vey complex and detailed universe that the two directors have created … It’s pretty mind-blowing, but at the same time, the characters are very well-drawn

That said, industry observers are sceptical about the success of the project, which, despite a reported budget of US$175 million, has much stacked against it. The siblings' most recent efforts have disappointed at the box office: V for Vendetta (which they scripted and produced but did not direct), Speed Racer and the dense Cloud Atlas all made between US$90 million and US$130 million worldwide; not chump change, to be sure, but still falling painfully short of the more than US$460 million global gross of the first game-changing Matrix film alone.

"Making a big-budget science-fiction film like Jupiter Ascending as their 'comeback' is definitely a risk right now," says Barna Donovan, professor of media studies and film at New Jersey's Saint Peter's University. "Their work since the original Matrix has been a critical mixed bag."

Donovan describes both Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas as "big-budget, ambitious science-fiction failures", and proof that "the directors' names alone do not seem to guarantee instant success for their films. Furthermore, with audiences at this point content to watch only well-known stories and formulas, [hence] all the superhero films and sequels, the fact that Jupiter Ascending is a completely original concept written by the Wachowskis is another major risk for this film".

Talk to the film's principal cast members though, and they sound hyped about the production. "A movie is all-encompassing. It's going to be a hard experience because they're hard to make. Especially a movie like this - it's physical, it's a marathon that you're doing with a family of creators and people, and you have to be all in on all of those things," Tatum has said.

Perhaps, ultimately, the film's exceedingly elaborate special effects will help draw audiences in. The action scenes are plentiful and intense - especially an eight-minute-long chase sequence showing Jupiter and Caine attempting to escape enemy aliens in downtown Chicago.

For Tatum, who does his best work in physical roles such as the Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler he portrayed in Foxcatcher, the high action quotient in Jupiter Ascending was ideal. For Kunis, however, the action scenes were often harrowing to work on: she spent much of her time in a harness, swinging from the ceiling. While shooting one such scene, she found herself heading, face first, straight into the camera - until someone kicked the camera out of the way. And then there was the daily pain that came from being rigged up for so much of the day.

"Every day was 'get this harness off me'," the actress recalls. "I mean, it's never really bad. But after 15 hours in a harness, you're never like, 'You know what? Let me keep this on.' You are so bruised and battered by the end of the day, you really can't even feel your own ribs, so you do want to get it off. But does it feel good to face your fears and jump 80 feet from a crane? Yes. Would I do it again? No. I've done it. I'm good."

Compelling stunts aside, Kunis says she was drawn to the strong emotional component to the story. "[It's] about destiny and human consumption, and how everybody is so self-centred on earth," she says. "How everybody just consumes everything - whether it be actual consumption as in food and nourishment or in the sense of information and superficial items."

The way Bean sees it: "Apart from the action, there is a depth of characters and humour. And [the film] has a surreal quality to it. It's avant garde and groundbreaking. I remember Lana saying, 'We're just trying to do something that's different and original'."

Because of the scope of the film, with so many special effects being layered in afterwards, Bean says that much of the time he simply had to imagine being in this complex, fraught, treacherous world. "I was very trusting in Andy and Lana [because] we knew it would look pretty stunning in the end. But it was sometimes hard to imagine. They would say, 'Do this, do that, just trust us. We know what we're doing.' And they were right," he says.

"Sometimes all you need is a big leap of faith."

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Jupiter Ascending opens on Thursday