Last weekend at the GLAAD Media Awards, while accepting an award for Sense8, and making her first public appearance since coming out, Lilly Wachowski shared her thoughts on the new wave of commentary on her and her sister Lana’s work that re-examines it through the lens of transness: she thinks it’s ‘cool’. Which is perfect because I’d already signed up to write about the work of these two women for our 52 Films by Women series with exactly that in mind.
I thought long and hard about which Wachowskis film I wanted to focus on. While The Matrix is hands down their most known and most well received work, and there’s certainly enough to say about it, I just kept coming back to Jupiter Ascending. There’s a few reasons for that, but one of them, one that I think is especially pertinent to the “By Women” nature of this series, is that while I will fight you tooth and nail if you try to argue with me that The Matrix is not a film by women, because it totally is, I do have my doubt that it would even exist at all if the studio had known that at the time. While we don’t know how long Lilly was out in her personal life, we know that Lana was when this movie was made, and I think that matters.
The biggest reason why I picked Jupiter Ascending over The Matrix is a much more simple one: I love this movie so, so much. It’s a flawed, jumbled, bizarre and batshit mess of a film. It is too long. It’s laughably ridiculous at times, and absurdly inconsistent. It also falls too far into ‘damsel in distress’ tropes for a movie that otherwise is soaked with the lubricant of female empowerment. Every word of that is objectively true about this movie, and yet none of it does anything to make me not love it. It was one of the most fun movie-going experiences I had in 2015, and I wish so much that I could experience it again, on the big screen, with 3D glasses, for the first time.
Not to let go of The Matrix quite yet though, I feel like these two films are more directly linked than anything else in the Wachowskis’ library. At their bones, they both tell essentially the same story, one of an Earth whose humans are ultimately only here for the fuel of a technologically superior society, but are asleep to their own oppression. They’re both the stories of a single person who is a prophesied chosen one with the fate of the Earth in their hands. Two films with the same story, made by the same filmmakers, that couldn’t feel more different.
Where The Matrix is cold, Jupiter is warm. Where The Matrix feels constrained, claustrophobic, Jupiter presents a vast universe brimming with life. It is bright, colorful, extravagant. If The Matrix is the story someone tells when they’ve been down so long that they’ve forgotten what the sky looks like, Jupiter Ascending is what happens when they’ve finally stepped out the door and are unable and unwilling to pull their heads back down from the clouds. The Matrix is a movie about being in the closet, Jupiter Ascending is about coming out.
As a transgender woman myself, the film feels like it was pulled through time directly from the psyche of my childhood self, a painting concocted from the stories I would craft while playing with a combination of different LEGO collections or random action figures. It perfectly captures the imagination of a little girl raised on the laser beams and explosions of action sci-fi, afraid to admit to anyone that sometimes she just wants to imagine herself as a princess in a fairy tale she enjoyed when she was too young to be told they weren’t for her, before those dreams were buried and hidden away. At the same time, Jupiter is also a film that shows the psyche of what little girls can imagine when they’re not told they have to dream about being princesses, that lasers and explosions aren’t for them. As my friend and fellow comedian Guy Branum perfectly put it, “It gets at a confluence of male and female pre-adolescent fantasies.” Speaking for myself again, I think the sisters do so in a way that maybe only a queer filmmaker can at this time. Maybe that is why myself and so many other queer viewers have connected with a film that has seemed to be a bit just beyond the grasp of so many straight or cis folk I’ve talked to who just can’t quite make the same journey with it.
The Wachowskis give us a massive universe to watch them play in, one filled with aliens that resemble winged dragons carrying guns, with effete robots, all playing out on ships that function as space-faring palaces, eschewing unnecessary aerodynamics in favor of gauche parapets and architecture that would actually fare just as well as a pointy nose in the vacuum void of deep space. They give us cruel decadent monarchs who craft their own immortality from their privilege by taking life from entire worlds at their grasp.
Perhaps the most tragic flaw of the world building the sisters undertook for the film is simply that they loved their little sandbox so much that they were unwilling to let it go, unwilling to kill any of their babies. Every idea they could toss in, they tossed in. Bees that can sense royalty? A male lead who is literally part puppy in order to be even more of a little girl’s fantasy boyfriend? Literally two complete climaxes to the film? Lingering on the edge of playtime, ignoring the calls to come home for dinner, they paid no mind to editing things down, saving them for a potential sequel or trilogy that would ultimately have let them spend far more time at play.
Watch Jupiter Ascending on Xfinity, Cinemax or buy it on Amazon.