Jupiter Ascending Continues Wachowskis Ambitiousness But Movie Lacks Focus: A Review


The universe building is vast, the story is not.

The Wachowskis are an interesting film-making pair. The Matrix saw them break ground in creating a sci-fi epic seemingly inspired by the written works of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson (Neuromancer, Snow Crash) and influenced by Kung-Fu and John Woo action cinema. It would spawn two unwarranted sequels that failed to capture the essence of what made the original work so well. They were more gluttonous than fulfilling. In the succeeding years their careers would spawn efforts like Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. Both films illustrate the duo’s ambitiousness when it comes to visuals and narrative, but neither could catch fire with general audiences. It’s been five years since I last visited Racer, a movie that is pure bubble gum. Cloud Atlas, a more recent release, was a grandiose mosaic that included six interrelated and interwoven stories involving actors playing multiple parts.

Jupiter Ascending is the Wachowskis trying to tap into The Matrix, only now the fantasy is not in the world of 1s and 0s but rather a pulpy space opera like Flash Gordon. With plenty of fireworks and whiz-bang action to exhilarate your eyeballs, Jupiter Ascending is never boring. But for every “wow!” there is a “huh?”

When we first meet our titular heroine, Jupiter (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Russian immigrants, she’s cleaning toilets for a living along with her mother and cousins. Little does she know that she’s been targeted for extermination by the Abrasax family – three alien siblings that see Jupiter as a potential threat. Balem (Eddie Redmayne), is the esoteric one; Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) is a misguided madonna; and Titus (Douglas Booth) is about squandering his inheritance. Ulterior motives are key for the Abrasax clan in wanting Jupiter. None is willing to give much away as far as self interests are concerned, but it is Balem who is first to make the move to send assassins to planet Earth to eliminate her. Titus hires Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an elite ex-military bounty hunter, to act as her protector and bring her to him. Kalique is indecipherable until she reveals her plans. But once the laser beams start firing – look out! Jupiter is whisked away to outer space and is bestowed a new life as the potential queen of Earth.

Like I mentioned at the start: The Wachowskis’ ambitiousness has been a prevailing influence in their works post-Matrix. But Jupiter Ascending is a sweeping space opera that feels shortchanged; as the narrative progresses the more incomplete it feels. A Jupiter and Caine romance is rushed, and Kunis and Tatum are lacking chemistry. Surprisingly, Tatum isn’t the weak link. Shirtless for most of the film – much to the delight of cackling females, I’m sure – it is Kunis that is out of place. Jupiter is the least interesting character, and Kunis plays her as a rag doll being pulled and pushed every which way.

More interesting are the Abrasaxes. Eddie Redmayne is either riffing on his Stephen Hawking portrayal in The Theory of Everything or he just couldn’t get out of character. His voice fluctuates from a whisper that’s overpowered by Michael Giacchino’s resounding score (most of the film dialogue is) to a screeching yell for no apparent reason. Unlike the other siblings, Redmayne’s Balem character is more straightforward in his villainy. Oh, and he’s got flying lizard creatures as minions. Not sure what that’s all about it but twelve year olds will love it.

To help get Jupiter up to speed about her regal powers is Stinger (Sean Bean), a grizzled space military man to whom Caine has an uneasy friendship. And sure enough, Jupiter’s family becomes ensnared in Balem’s ultimatum to her and it’s up to Caine to save the day. Lucky for them, then, that Caine Wise (horrendous name) is a product of gene splicing – so Tatum’s lack of acting ability is masked in a character that is part wolf and part human. Which may be why he has a keen sense of smell and is as lithe as a world-class gymnast.

Jupiter Ascending continues the Wachowskis love affair with comics, waxing philosophically and cult movies. Of course there’s the Flash Gordon nods, but there’s also a heaping of Shakespeare (Jupiter and Caine are legit star-crossed lovers, duh), Soylent Green and Star Wars. But the story is so highfalutin that a two-hour motion picture can’t contain it all. It would work best as a graphic novel or novel in general. That way the minutiae that is universe-building would be best conveyed.

Still, the end product is glistening with sumptuous visuals (Tatum’s anti-gravity boots are a must-have accessory.) The Wachowskis know how to stage big action set pieces that deliver, if only the story could do the same. Thankfully, there’s a fun aside with Jupiter going through the bureaucratic rigmarole of getting clearance for being a queen. It makes going to the DMV look like a piece of cake. The nod to Brazil is evident for the most astute sci-fi fantasy movie lover. If it’s not, then the Terry Gilliam cameo as the final bureaucrat will be the clincher.

Jupiter Ascending is unfocussed and messy. But it’s a pulpy space opera with high production value. It’s got pizazz but it’s also a victim of bad casting; Kunis is definitely out of her element her as the heroine. With a cheesy tacked-on epilogue, it doesn’t go out on a high note, leaving the viewer to weigh the good with the bad and ending somewhere in between.

Writer/Director: The Wachowskis
Notable Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

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