Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Dirs: The Wachowskis
The Wachowskis’ latest opus is a space opera in the grand tradition of Star Wars – a straight-faced and earnest tale of rogues and neophytes up against an entrenched evil empire. And while Jupiter Ascending is thrilling at times, it’s weighed down by truly groan-worthy dialogue and some leaden performances, resulting in a wildly ambitious film that puts all of its $175 million budget on screen but misses its mark more often than it hits.
The Joseph Campbell-indebted story follows the familiar pattern of a typical Hero’s Journey. Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, a lowly Russian janitor who just happens to be an exact genetic match for a deceased galactic queen – a birthright that grants her ownership of the planet Earth. Kunis seems like an actor who does well in contemporary roles (which is ironic as she found fame in a period comedy), but she has a hard time selling Jupiter Ascending‘s utter sincerity and lack of guile. To be fair, she’s often robbed of agency and reducing to a reductive damsel-in-distress trope. With various forces seeking to alternately marry, fuck or kill her, she becomes a pawn in what should be her own story.
I guess that makes lone wolf Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) the lead (he does get top billing but less screen time than Kunis). He’s the character that wants to sleep with Jupiter, which is kind of weird as he’s a literal wolf-human hybrid out to secure Jupiter as a bounty on behalf of his master. Tatum, usually an eager and emotive presence, tries to bring gravitas to an essentially goofy space-wolf role (complete with pointy ears and sharp teeth) but ends up seeming half asleep most of the time. His burgeoning romance with Jupiter has shades of Stockholm syndrome as he essentially kidnaps her from Earth and whisks her away to fantastical outer space worlds. At no point is there sparks between the two, but at least Tatum fares well in the action sequences (despite being hobbled with lame anti-gravity boots/space roller blades that he skates through the air on).
After meeting with Stinger (Sean Bean as a Han Solo-type, who beats the odds and doesn’t die immediately in this movie), Caine brings Jupiter to the royal Abrasax family. Having lived for millennia, the entitled and malevolent Abrasax clan now seems to spend their time cultivating then harvesting entire planets (like Earth) and bickering amongst themselves. The fey Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth) wants to marry Jupiter to consolidate his power, while the movie’s real big bad, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), wants to simply force Jupiter to sign over the planet Earth and kill her afterwards.
There’s shades of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi story Dune in this plot thread, with the warring royals in Jupiter Ascending seeking control of a life-extending elixir (instead of Dune‘s spice). Terry Gilliam’s influence is also felt (and nodded at in a winking cameo), while the idea of Earth as a giant farm built by technologically advanced beings is straight from the Wachowskis’ own The Matrix. It all acts as an on-the-nose critique of capitalism and whenever the movie gives way to big speeches from the one-note villains it stops dead in its tracks. (Although Redmayne is fun as he alternately whispers and shouts his lines – he seems to know what kind of movie he’s in.)
Thankfully the production design is on point, creating stunningly realized worlds with a particularly Baroque bent. The costuming, sets, future tech, and spaceships are mostly inventive and unique, drawing influences from a variety of sources in the pastiche (and some would argue derivative) style that the Wachowskis are known for. It feels like a weird 80’s VHS sci-fi flick brought to life with a staggeringly large budget.
It’s visually resplendent, with some inspired touches including: little grey aliens that first track Jupiter down in Chicago, epic space-bound castles and industrial mining complexes, mechanized space suits for battles (like in Matrix Revolutions), and more weird creatures, robots, space cops, and giant winged-lizards than you can shake a stick at. It’s great world-building but much of it seems thrown together and is ultimately in service of a half-baked story. One could argue that Jupiter Ascending is a throwback to the serials of yesteryear (like Flash Gordon), but there’s really no defending some of the lines that are uttered here. Robbed of nuance and truly compelling characters, you’re left to look at the pretty sights and be alternately elevated by some great (but too-brief) action sequences and a swelling score by Michael Giacchino, then let down by excessive cheesiness and a simplistic story.
Coming off the underrated (and masterfully edited) Cloud Atlas – a film that has its detractors but feels more like a secret success – the Wachowskis were in need of a hit that’d reach critics and audiences. Unfortunately, Jupiter Ascending doesn’t seem to be it and it’ll likely be a long while before they’re given a chance to create something on this scale again. Like Icarus who flew too close to the sun on wings of wax (one of this film’s characters does get wings in another example of its crazy excessiveness), The Wachowskis threw everything into Jupiter Ascending and have fallen from grace a bit, creating a gorgeous mess in the process. They seem to have made something big and bold and wild because they could, without stopping to think if they should. Here’s hoping that their next project returns them to past glories instead of faintly echoing them.