Review: 'Jupiter Ascending' is a Mixed Bag of Story and Imagery
by Jeremy Kirk
February 7, 2015
Good or bad, the films of the writing/directing sibling duo, The Wachowskis, have always struck a chord of interest. Even their less respected works either present noteworthy, sci-fi questions or deliver cool, sci-fi extravaganzas for the senses. Jupiter Ascending is their film most deserving of deep deconstruction. It’s a messy film, one that seems to have been sadly cut to shreds by post-production meddling. Its frantic structure and goofy accents keep it on the fringe of landing as highly as many of their previous works, perhaps all of them. For all of its hokey details though, Jupiter Ascending is a true Wachowski sci-fi action adventure that fully delivers the heart-stopping excitement for which we’ve all grown to love them. Read on!
Mila Kunis stars as the eponymous Jupiter, the only daughter to a Russian housekeeper, her father having been killed by thugs before she is even born. Jupiter and her mother live in a single room they share with her aunt, the three spending their days in the same, house-cleaning rut that seems to have no end. But Jupiter is more deserving than the labor-intensive life she’s been dealt. You see, she's royalty as far as the galaxy is concerned. She’s heir to one of the most powerful thrones in the universe, that being an endless superhighway of alien races conducting intergalactic business, as you do.
Naturally knowledge of Jupiter's birthright brings sadistic characters out of the woodwork, namely the children of the House of Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton) who each have their own spoiled-brat stake in the galactic claim. Jupiter is soon on the top of a hitlist of bounty hunters and space-age warriors, chiefly a genetically modified, half-man/half-wolf (Channing Tatum basically playing a Mog from Spaceballs), and a race commences to find the girl and protect her.
With intergalactic politics, wildly eccentric and colorful characters, and enough space battles to wipe out half a dozen solar systems, it’s easy to spot Jupiter Ascending as the Wachowskis' Star Wars, a gigantic, space opera with equal parts intrigue and incitement. To look at a number of single frames of their film, you may even mistake it for even the worst entry in George Lucas’ saga. Yeah, that one. Jupiter Ascending is overloaded with CG creations: the strange monsters, exotic locations, and massive starships that apparently have to make up the universe in sci-fi movies these days. Some of it is overkill, though the grandiosity of the story they're telling is certainly deserving of such epic visuals. But this comes with its own set of drawbacks.
Far too often, especially in earlier moments, The Wachowskis move their film at an uncomfortable pace. Action scenes amp up far too early without the slightest sense of establishment. Characters make choices and events play out with nary a shred of evidence as to why. Motivations are eventually explained here, usually a scene or two after the fact, but the narrative frequently slips into complicacy and even confusion, the spectacle of what’s playing out, gorgeous as it all may be, is required to be enough for our attention. Sure, this works more times than not. A chase/battle in downtown Chicago is a visual highlight, and every chase/battle that takes place among the stars is more breathtaking than the last.
Unfortunately, the chase/battle of just about every other scene in Jupiter Ascending wears thin by the time it comes to its climactic, you guessed it, chase/battle. These usually play out with Kunis acquiring knowledge about the universe around her from someone who has kidnapped her and Tatum flying through the air, either in a ship or with the use of hokey space skates he uses to slide around, to rescue her. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a structure that would play with far less thrilling results if the individual shots weren’t so damned beautiful. Still, the paint-by-numbers layout with which The Wachowskis' progress their story has a noticeable hand. Many of the characters, one-dimensional as they are, seem to make choices based on necessity towards the story rather than any real, natural volition.
The leads, Kunis and Tatum, have more of an organic chemistry than the story itself. The romantic subplot builds around them, not between them, but the actors have a strong hand in pulling it off. Kunis’ Jupiter is written with two speeds throughout much of the movie, in peril and utterly confused, of which the actress moves between smoothly. Tatum also does well with little to do. The stunts that make up his character’s daring feats are spectacular, and his crazy, hand-to-hand, fight scenes are as wild as they are impressive. Beyond that, though, he grits his pointed, genetically modified canines between bland bouts of exposition. I mean, he does that well. He, like Kunis, could just do so much more.
The remainder of the cast are all equally suitable, Sean Bean filling in nicely as one of Tatum’s warrior’s former comrades, one whose loyalties is a major portion of that convolution I mentioned earlier. The villains are all elaborately created through look and performance, Redmayne dominating just about every scene he’s in with menacing glares and an uncomfortably quiet voice. It’s as if raising it past a certain decibel level brings him immense, physical pain. It’s awkward at times but, believe it or not, very effective. For what it’s worth, Monty Python alum and director of Brazil and 12 Monkeys Terry Gilliam makes a brief appearance as a clerk during the processing of Jupiter's royal validation. It’s a scene that only exists for the punchline that caps it off, but it’s unfunny, uninteresting, and ultimately unnecessary.
Sadly that’s the feeling with much of what's going on in Jupiter Ascending. It all looks immaculate and the gears do turn even if it's in the strangest of ways. After The Matrix saga, despite the immediate backlash toward the sequels, any motion picture The Wachowskis put their name on is bound to be an event. While Jupiter Ascending isn’t exactly an exception to that rule, one can’t help but have the feeling that it’s a step back. Gloriously visual and ripe with some incredible action sequences that only they can visualize so well, the light impact with which the story lands unfortunately makes it a shrug-worthy endeavor. Jupiter doesn’t exactly ascend but more lifts her head up casually to reflect on The Wachowskis' pretty pictures.