Jupiter Ascending is a baffling mix of material that is both impressively innovative, and utterly ridiculous.
Jupiter Ascending takes the classic “Cinderella” fairy tale and blows it up into a big, sci-fi space adventure about a girl named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who dreams of a life better than the one she has. Losing her father before ever being born, Jupiter grows up spending her days scrubbing toilets in upscale Chicago suburbs, and her nights crammed into a house with her big Russian immigrant family.
The proverbial “glass slipper” arrives with unexpected horror when Jupiter is accosted by strange alien assailants looking to end her existence. Thanks to an eleventh-hour save by gene-spliced ex-space soldier, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), Jupiter begins to learn the truth: That she is of royal lineage on a galactic scale, and that others of her bloodline (The Abrasax Family) seek to do her harm, so that they may usurp her claim to the coveted planet Earth.
With Caine as her protector, Jupiter is drawn into the Abrasax family conflict, soon finding herself positioned as the lamb that any one of the three ancient royals may slaughter.
The new film from Matrix Trilogy architects The Wachowskis, Jupiter Ascending is a baffling mix of material that is both impressively innovative, and utterly ridiculous.
On a directorial level, the Wachowskis have once again constructed an imaginative world that is realized with some masterful design and visual effects. The color palette and mis-en-scene composition are fittingly vibrant and epic for a blockbuster film of this scope, and many of the ambitious action sequences are well-executed and impressive, which helps to justify seeing the film on a theater screen.
However, while Jupiter Ascending achieves a certain degree of accomplishment as a sci-fi actioner, virtually every other aspect of the film feels like a clunky misfire. The dramatic scenes are hilariously ridiculous (often unintentionally so); many of the performances feel stilted and off-beat; and the combination of 3D visual design and an attempt to use more on-location settings (as opposed to sound stage or green screen) results in moments that feel unusually amateurish for The Wachowskis. But again, those mishandled moments are juxtaposed to some truly memorable and impressive bits of filmmaking, so all in all, it’s a very uneven viewing experience.
The script carries the same dichotomous stamp as the directorial style – not surprising, since The Wachowskis also wrote the screenplay. On the one hand, the premise and story are a clever adoption of old fairy tale tropes (the pauper princess, heroic warrior savior, evil quasi-relatives, completing three trials, etc.) dressed up as modern big-budget sci-fi. On the other hand, much of the dialogue is laughably ridiculous and is only intentioned to be so about half the time. The characters and character concepts are also pretty silly, to the point that it’s hard to take much of what the cast tries to do seriously.
Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are certainly an attractive lead pairing, and the two A-listers actually have a fun and playful rapport that helps sell their screen time together. The drawback is that Kunis never seems to actually buy into the mythos and world that were supposed to come out of all the green screen and CGI work; Tatum, by comparison, seems to be deep into a drama that feels out of place in a big popcorn film, and his character has little humor or charm underneath the brooding, gruff attitude, campy facial prosthetics and drag-style makeup work.
Actor Eddie Redmayne is up for a Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything – but he may go home with an Oscar AND a Razzie on the same night, thanks to his role in Jupiter Ascending. While actors Tuppence Middleton (Imitation Game) and Douglas Booth (Noah) provide more nuanced and intriguing performances as two of the three Abrasax siblings, Redmayne’s Balem Abrasax is so over-the-top with his effeminate mannerisms and Bane-style whisper voice that Jupiter Ascending devolves into a absurd comedy whenever he is onscreen. When Redmayne gets dramatic scenes with Kunis or other major cast members, the film becomes downright cringe-worthy.
Bolstering things are strong supporting actors like Sean Be(ee)an (Game of Thrones), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Orphan Black), James D’Arcy (Agent Carter), Kick Gurry (Edge of Tomorrow) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) – plus a host of other performers hidden behind makeup and/or CGI to create the strange alien characters. They all do well making The Wachowskis’ unique vision into a tactile and believable world, and certainly sell the concept better than can be said of several of the leads.
In the end, Jupiter Ascending is another example of the good, bad and ugly package that is a Wachowskis movie, these days. The talent and vision are clearly there, but an overindulgence in their own ideas – and a lack of stylistic temperance – results in a film where the filmmakers seem to be in their own way. Going forward, perhaps the siblings would do well pulling back and executing someone else’s vision – or at least allowing more creative collaborators into the mix. With so much talent and continued support (from both fans and the studio), The Wachowskis should be reaching greater heights than the low orbit that Jupiter Ascending hovers in.
Juptier Ascending is now in theaters. It is 127 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity.