The Wachowski's sci-fi ambitions take a fall
Jupiter Ascending feels like a splice of other movies, but not the ones the Wachowski’s (Lana and Larry) probably intended. While superficially a 21st-century blend of Star Wars and Cinderella lore, Jupiter Ascending instead seems stitched together, like Frankenstein’s monster, from failed sci-fi franchises. Its DNA contains trace elements of the 1980 Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune, John Carter, and more — while losing track of the gene that makes any of those movies fun.
It’s hard enough to suspend your disbelief for the interplanetary shenanigans, but you also have to swallow that our humble heroine (Mila Kunis) has the name “Jupiter Jones.” She works as a miserable Chicago housecleaner with her harsh mother (“Orphan Black’s” Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Russian relatives who provide thudding comic relief.
Improbably, Jupiter discovers that she’s an heir to one of the most powerful dynasties in the galaxy — outer space having been populated by human-type beings since before the time of the dinosaurs. Jupiter finds herself a pawn between the three powerful, decadent Abrasax siblings, Titus (Douglas Booth), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Balem (Eddie Redmayne). None are to be trusted, but the latter sees Jupiter as a direct threat to his unsavory plans for the Earth’s population and will stop at nothing to eliminate her.
The title Jupiter Ascending has astrological roots, but also refers to our heroine rising in status from nobody to the most important woman in the galaxy. Ironically, Jupiter seems to spend much of the film descending — as in, falling from great heights and needing rescue from Caine (Channing Tatum), who can use gravity boots to fly speed-skater style. It would be much easier to forgive Jupiter Ascending’s ridiculousness if its action scenes weren’t so rote and repetitive.
The visual design suggests a rich, thoroughly envisioned universe, including spaceships and otherworldly palaces that reflect their owners’ personalities. Even the ray guns and other gadgets seem carefully thought-out. Details like a sinister, city-sized factory based in the turbulent red eye of Jupiter (the planet), or a whimsical encounter with galactic bureaucracy, only make the dumbed-down simplicity of the overall story all the more disappointing. The fairytale aspects, which extend to a hero interrupting a fateful wedding ceremony, feel like cynical efforts to appeal to audiences hungering for an archetypal adventure tale. Even the score seems to be trying too hard.
While Jupiter is meant to be an everywoman with whom audiences can identify, the character comes across as ill defined and passive for nearly the entire movie, and Kunis’s performance seems lost alongside the sentient bees and reptile-men. Similarly, Tatum invests Caine with none of the edgy charisma you’d expect from a guy who might as well be a werewolf Han Solo. Only Redmayne’s spoiled, deranged princeling provides the level of over-the-top camp that the Wachowskis want, or think they want.
Jupiter Ascending was supposed to open last summer before being ominously postponed to February. It’s easy to see why the studio would’ve wanted to put as much distance as possible between it and Guardians of the Galaxy, which is funny, fleet, and fresh whereas Jupiter Ascending is self-important, labored, and derivative. The Wachowskis re-wrote the rules of sci-fi action movies in 1999 with The Matrix and revealed an impressive level of thematic and narrative ambition with 2012’s financially doomed Cloud Atlas.
At a time when labels like “visionary director” are applied to the likes of Zach Snyder or Michael Bay, the Wachowskis seem like filmmakers with the true potential to rewrite the rules of Hollywood blockbusters. But their latest effort suggests that a comeback won’t be ascending any time soon.