I still had hope for this one. Sure, the signs weren’t looking up, not in the least the trailers and chiefly Warner Bros’ decision to push the movie from the lucrative summer months to February. This thing looked to have ‘disaster’ written all over it. But this was The Wachowskis at work here, the sibling writer/director team whose last film is most probably my pick for best of the decade so far. Not only that, this is on paper exactly the kind of blockbuster we need more of; an original one from ambitious, visionary filmmakers not based on any existing property, the first time for The Wachowskis since The Matrix.
Jupiter Ascending is not the new Matrix I’m saddened to report. It’s messy, it’s ridiculous, and it’s vaguely incoherent on occasion. However it’s also by no means the catastrophe many seemed to inexplicably be willing it to be. The visuals are highly impressive, it’s crammed with ideas, and it’s also often quite fun.
The Matrix is actually a good starting point as in some ways Jupiter Ascending explores similar themes and ideas, but it does so in a completely different manner. While The Matrix was a cool, edgy, innovative science-fiction/action film, Jupiter Ascending is a big, silly fantasy space opera harkening back to the likes of Flash Gordon and indeed Star Wars, though it also has Earth-set sections. The other obvious difference is that the ‘chosen one’ in this scenario is a woman.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a Russian immigrant living in Chicago with her mother making what little money she can working as a maid. She’s also of great importance to a trio of royal alien siblings for reasons that will be explained later. The long-and-short of it is that people, or rather aliens, are after her, and she doesn’t know why. What this boils down to is a series of sequences in which she is pursued and subsequently rescued by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). He’s a ‘splice’; that is someone made with mixed human and animal DNA, in his case a wolf, as he was originally engineered for battle.
Maybe after the astonishingly ambitious Cloud Atlas the Wachowskis just wanted to deal with something a bit more straightforward, as the storyline here is nothing special at all. It’s a fairly standard ‘hero’s journey’ narrative which as I mentioned above, becomes repetitive with its scenes of Jupiter being rescued from a variety of dangerous situations.
They can’t quite help themselves though it seems, as it’s still often brimming with ideas, such as explanations as to why aliens look like humans, some fantastic design work on the futuristic technology, including Tatum’s ludicrous-yet-fun “gravity boots”, and an excellent moment which deftly introduces why no humans have noticed the alien life forms on earth yet (they wipe memories, Men in Black style). Hey, there are even weird space-dragon henchmen in there. Along with the production design the visuals are often quite stunning; there are a couple of exciting action/chase sequences, in particular an early, aerial one which takes place across the Chicago skyline.
Jupiter Ascending fully embraces the ridiculousness camp territory space opera can sometimes occupy, right down to the names and costumes. This is personified by this year’s Oscar favourite Eddie Redmayne. He plays a villainous character called Balem Abrasax, decked out in an absurd shiny black cloak with a metal collar. He gives a performance where he pulls his lips back…speaks….very…slowly…and…quietly…and then SUDDENLY SHOUTS!!! It’s one of those totally bizarre, far-out performances that I honestly can’t decide if is fitting with the film’s general over-the-top nature or is just completely terrible. He appears to be channelling Gary Oldman in the nineties, and I’ve heard more than one person compare his work to Zorg in The Fifth Element.
On the opposing end of the scale, Channing Tatum is a tedious leading man here. I keep thinking that maybe he’s a good actor after all with the likes of 22 Jump Street and Foxcatcher but his lifeless work here is undeniably detrimental to a role that could have benefited from a charismatic performer injecting some energy into it. Kunis doesn’t fare any better either, her flat character mostly just has things happen around her but she also has an eye-rolling love story shoehorned in with Tatum. I wonder if the studio required the film just have two hot young leads as they’ve got no chemistry together whatsoever, and the film provides scant reason to believe that they’re falling for one another. At least there’s some self-awareness present – after delivering what would otherwise be a cringe-worthy line of dialogue, Kunis scolds herself for having said such a stupid thing. Considering that Jupiter Ascending also has some much better actresses in it, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights) has a tiny role as another splice, and one of Cloud Atlas’s brightest stars Bae Doona appears as a punked-out space-biker-bounty-hunter for a couple of scenes before disappearing from the film entirely) I couldn’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have cast one of them as the lead, though it’s a nice touch to get Kunis’s USSR background in.
For all the positives I can identify, I’d have to ultimately call Jupiter Ascending a disappointment, and I truly wanted to love it. At least the Wachowski’s may have found a kindred spirit in none-other-than Terry Gilliam, another ambitious and creative filmmaker whose projects are often fraught with difficulties. In one of Jupiter Ascending’s few deliberately humorous sequences, Jupiter and Caine encounter a bureaucratic hell when attempting to register Jupiter in space. It’s an obvious but successful homage to Brazil and then at the end of it who should appear but Gilliam himself as the final gatekeeper.
I still have a lot of hope for the Wachowskis, and am glad that they already have their next project in the can. Later this year we should get to see Sense8, a sci-fi miniseries that sounds hugely promising. I hope that the platform of a Netflix miniseries will give them much more room to explore their many ideas with a bit more success than they achieved here.