Written and directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski. Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Neil Fingleton, Tuppence Middleton, Doo-na Bae, Katherine Cunningham, Charlotte Beaumont, Andy Ahrens.
It’s an original, great-looking and (mostly) serious take on sci-fi, and for a while that was enough for the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending to win me over. But once all the eye-opening locations and effects and characters are established, story must take over, and that’s when the film becomes a most unfortunate chore to sit through.
The Wachowskis, of course, made their name with The Matrix, and lost some fans with that film’s two sequels. But 2008’s Speed Racer was something special – their masterpiece, in my opinion, an eye-candy mind-trip that ultimately manages to succeed on emotional terms as well – and 2012’s Cloud Atlas (co-directed with Tom Tykwer) was an unusually ambitious piece of mainstream science fiction.
Jupiter Ascending, meanwhile, dials things back to Matrix-level blockbuster terms; it’s an ambitious film, to be sure – how many original science fiction features do we see in the mainstream Hollywood realm these days – but one with more simplistic aspirations. By the end of the film, after being dazzled by good portions of it, I was disappointed to discover the by-the-numbers plotting that it had devolved into.
Mila Kunis stars as the titular character, Jupiter Jones, a Russian-British housemaid working with her mother and aunt in Chicago (side note: this is the second film in a row, following Paul Haggis’ Third Person, in which Kunis finds herself cleaning rooms). Jupiter’s astrologist father died before she was born, a lengthy prologue informs us, but has managed to imbue her with a sense of admiration for the stars.
Jupiter is also “the chosen one.” For some reason. But being the chosen one isn’t always easy, as Neo taught us years ago in The Matrix. In early scenes, Jupiter finds herself attacked by a race of traditional grey alien types before being saved by her protector: Channing Tatum as Caine Wise, a half-humanoid, half-lycanthrope ex-military hunter who has been hired to locate and save her, Terminator-style.
The action in Jupiter Ascending unfolds as we struggle to play catch-up with the plot: relevant information is withheld from us in the interest of providing a twist later on, or at least not flooding us with too much exposition, too soon.
Not that the film doesn’t overload us with exposition from the get-go. Still, it’s fun learning about this new world along with Kunis’ Jupiter. You see, Earth’s humans aren’t the only race in the galaxy, as alien beings have farmed out planets until they reach some kind of perfection, and then will be “harvested’: turned into a glowing goo that will help the aliens stay young, forever.
Earth is one of those planets, and it’s nearing harvesting time. But Jupiter happens to be the re-incarnation of a deceased alien matriarch that once owned Earth, and has willed the planet to her future re-incarnate (as you might do). In the film’s most humorous sequence, cribbed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Jupiter must prove her identity to a series of bureaucrats with the help of a robot assistant – and hey! Gilliam himself shows up as the final bureaucrat.
But it’s never so easy. The old matriarch had three devious children – Balem (Eddie Redmayne), who currently holds the title to Earth in Jupiter’s absence, Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) – who each plot with or against Jupiter to serve their own needs.
This is all exposition, told to through dialogue as various characters explain this brave new world to Jupiter, and if you’ll need to pay extra-special attention to make your way through all of it. The Shakespearian nature of the family politics puts Jupiter Ascending in the Dune sphere, but all the talk and CGI reminded me most of the Star Wars prequels.
For all the wide-eyed special effects that fill the screen, the acting here is pretty dull; Tatum and Kunis are likable, but we’re never all that invested in their developing relationship. Characters played by Sean Bean and Nikki Amuka-Bird are mostly saddled with handling exposition.
Only Redmayne, who seems to be making up for the restraint he displayed as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, goes all-out here and finds the right tone for the material. His Balem speaks in two tones – hushed deviousness and shrieking rage – and while this character isn’t menacing enough to be a real threat, Redmayne is entertainingly hammy whenever he’s onscreen. Balem’s alien lizard sidekicks are pretty fun, too, but their creature design is unfortunately reminiscent of the monsters from the Super Mario Bros. movie.
The highlight of the first half of the film is a roller-coaster ride of an action setpiece throughout the skies of downtown Chicago: Tatum and Kunis are flung through the air like rag dolls while being chased by aliens and whizzing around on jet-powered boots. It’s a crazy-mad sequence that actually doesn’t come across as a cartoon; that’s because the Wachowski’s actually filmed it from helicopters in downtown Chicago, using a special camera that encompassed 180 degrees.
When the action shifts to space, however, it all becomes rather routine, and I found myself slowly losing interest during the second half of the film. The big space battle finale, full of explosions and crashes and fistfights and characters being sucked out into the void, nearly put me to sleep; once I had become acclimated to this world, I found myself disappointed in where the creators had taken it.
I quite liked a lot of Jupiter Ascending, and have a lot of admiration for this attempt at an original piece of science fiction on such a grand scale. Ultimately, however, all the original characters and locations and designs can’t make up for a storyline that feels much-too conventional.