Be careful what you wish for.
Originality is a virtue in most creative pursuits, but in Hollywood, it will always be less appealing to studio bosses than more of the same. Audiences and critics often decry the sequels and franchises that flood multiplexes, but when filmmakers like the Wachowskis answer their calls for something original and innovative with a film like “Jupiter Ascending,” they’re often rewarded with a cold shoulder. With a production budget of $179 million, not to mention tens of millions spent to promote the science-fiction adventure, and an opening of only $19 million, “Jupiter Ascending” will likely be one of the year’s biggest flops.
“Audiences are kind of reticent to take a chance on something they don’t know or understand,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “They marketed the heck out of this movie, and it was still tough to bring people through the door.”
All the red ink that “Jupiter Ascending” will spill will make studios all the more conservative and risk-averse. There will be more reboots, retreads and revivals as companies try to give facelifts to geriatric franchises such as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “Ghostbusters.” That’s bad for audiences and, ultimately, for business. Right now the formula is working, but the repetition risks making the moviegoing experience feel stale and overly familiar.
As Lana Wachowski told the Los Angeles Times on Friday, “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.”
She’s right. Where are the fresh visions of distant worlds and futuristic conflicts to inspire the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg? Younger audiences are already abandoning the theater in favor of videogames and mobile devices. Nostalgia for an era of popcorn films they didn’t grow up with is unlikely to lure them back.
At the same time, television and gaming have supplanted movies as platforms for iconoclastic works of art ranging from “Mass Effect” to “Breaking Bad.”
In a Wired opinion piece, Angela Watercutter urged people to buy a ticket to “Jupiter Ascending” even as she acknowledged that it was deeply flawed.
“Do it because the Wachowskis are part of a shrinking species: original sci-fi filmmakers,” she wrote. “And in these long, cold months before the Marvel machine cranks back up, it’s good to remember what those look like — for better or worse.”
So what went wrong? Ever since “Jupiter Ascending” introduced footage last spring at CinemaCon of Mila Kunis as a cleaning lady who discovers she’s queen of the universe and Channing Tatum as her protector, a genetically enhanced creature with Spock ears, the buzz for the film has been very bad indeed. The sense of impending cinematic disaster intensified after Warner Bros. opted to push the film out of its July release date last summer and into February.
The studio was hoping that additional time for reshoots and effects work would help salvage the film and put it on the path to solvency. It had employed a similar strategy for troubled or problematic productions such as “300: Rise of an Empire,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Gravity,” one of the rare original science-fiction epics that worked. Unfortunately for “Jupiter Ascending,” the extra time couldn’t wipe away the stench of failure, and critics overwhelmingly decried the film as an overcooked bore.
Across town, there’s likely a feeling of Schadenfreude among Warner Bros.’ competitors, but delighting in the Wachowskis’ misfortunes would be misguided. It signals that the siblings have lost their deft sense of the culture that made “The Matrix” a phenomenon. Given that it marks their third consecutive dud, following “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas,” these once blazing-hot talents risk being iced out of the A-list.
“They’ve been making the movies they want to make ever since the first ‘Matrix,'” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “But there’s only so much mileage you can get from a big hit until people turn off the funds. They need to find something more commercially accessible and crank out a hit quick if they’re going to buy their clout back.”
Like Michael Mann, who headlined the recent box office disaster “Blackhat,” the Wachowski siblings may be forced to return to lower budgeted films and face years in the big studio wilderness. That’s a shame. The movie business needs these sorts of prickly geniuses. The alternative is overly caffeinated and commodified productions designed to sell toys, not stir imaginations.
“Jupiter Ascending” may have crashed and burned, but at least it tried to soar on the strength of its own originality and daring. Its failure makes it harder for other filmmakers to get a chance to take similar risks. In this climate, would “The Matrix” ever have gotten made?