“To live is to consume.”
Sometimes it feels like we’ve already consumed every conceivable type of Hollywood blockbuster. Besides movies adapted from comic books or, um, older movies, we’ve gotten mega-budget films based on board games and theme park rides. And that’s why I was so excited and intrigued by Jupiter Ascending, especially when The Wachowskis’ nutso space opera was slated to hit theaters during what seemed like a particularly sequel-heavy Summer of 2014. The movie, in theory, represented a wholly original vision. Instead, the messy, unnecessarily dense Jupiter Ascending is Star Wars. It’s also The Matrix, The Princess Diaries, Flash Gordon and even a little Soylent Green.
To be fair, that insane-sounding mishmash of movies absolutely holds more appeal to certain moviegoers than yet another three-hour Michael Bay/Transformers opus. And as someone who watches WAAAAY more films than the average person, I include myself in that group. My movie antennae perk up whenever something bold or new hits the block, especially when it’s made by filmmakers with the boundless resources and creativity of The Wachowskis. It’s why I’m a fierce defender of Cloud Atlas; even though the film was based on a best-selling book and not technically an original work, The Wachowskis put something on screen that didn’t really look or feel like any other movie that had come before it.
“We can’t name a child after a planet.”
Try telling that to The Wachowskis. Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, the world’s most stunning cleaning lady. The star-crossed Jupiter, who scrubs toilets alongside her Russian immigrant family, has always had the feeling that she was destined for greater things. That hunch pays off when she crosses paths with Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetically-altered, ex-military hunter. Caine is also a “lycanton”, which means he has both wolf and human DNA. He informs Jupiter that her genetic signature makes her interplanetary royalty, and that she is the rightful heir to Earth.
You see, Earth is merely a valuable, life-giving resource to a family of spoiled rich kid aliens. The House of Abrasax is one of the universe’s most powerful dynasties, and early on it’s fun watching its three grown children squabble over Earth like it’s a particularly desirable trinket. Balem (Eddie Redmayne) is the eldest Abrasax sibling and wants Earth for himself, which is why he considers Jupiter’s claim on the planet such a threat; Titus (Douglas Booth) hides behind a playboy veneer that masks his true ambitions; and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) is the most outwardly friendly to Jupiter, but it’s for her own self-serving reasons. Eventually, Jupiter and Caine leave Earth and tangle with each of the Abrasax siblings in order to save Jupiter’s home planet.
The plot is relatively simple space operatics that The Wachowskis decide to present in the most confounding, momentum-killing way possible. The movie has a cornier, more sanitized feel to its anarchy than any non-Speed Racer Wachowski production, which makes it seem like they might be trying to appeal to younger viewers who will either be lost or bored by the all the intergalactic political jockeying. (Pause for Trade Federation flashbacks.) Even the typical Wachowskian Big Ideas about humanity and destiny get bogged down by the ponderous plot. Jupiter Ascending generally lacks the flair and nimbleness of something like The Fifth Element, partly because it feels like the movie has someone stop what they’re doing and explain what’s happening to Jupiter every 15 minutes or so.
More often than not, that task falls to Tatum. His half-abino character is considered to be genetically deficient, which I’m taking as a sly riff on the fact that Tatum is considered to be one of our more genetically-blessed Earthlings. But despite the moony eyes Caine and Jupiter make at each other, his brooding, damaged protector is more T-800 than Han Solo. He still fares better than Kunis, who has the chops and likability to be an appealing audience surrogate. Instead, when the actress isn’t falling or dangling from something — which feels like 30 percent of her screen time — she’s mostly asked to model some outrageous, show-stopping galactic gowns.
Out of the Abrasax siblings, Booth makes the best impression as the conceited Titus. (Unless you count Middleton’s peekaboo nudity.) Then there’s Redmayne, who swishes around a series of greenscreen sets while delivering all his lines in a raspy whisper…except when he’s YELLING! Let’s just say the performance is not likely to help the actor’s Theory of Everything Oscar chances, and leave it at that. I should also mention that Sean Bean co-stars as a character named Stinger Apini, who has an uneasy relationship Caine. You’ll have to see for yourself whether Stinger will join an updated version of this classic YouTube video.
Jupiter Ascending does have some inspired moments of world-building, including the instantly immortal line “bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty.” (Of course they are!) There’s also a thoroughly amusing bureaucratic detour when Jupiter has to make her royal claim that shouts out to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and features a cameo by Gilliam himself. On top of that, every bit of Jupiter Ascending‘s reported $176 million budget is visible on the screen. (That’s right…the oddly specific budget figure being reported is $176 million because, um, Wachowskis!) During action sequences, Caine frequently busts out a pair of anti-gravity boots that probably seemed cool in theory, but have the unfortunate side effect of making him look like Frozone from The Incredibles. (I say it’s “unfortunate” unless the Wachowskis *wanted* their hunky hero to look like a cartoon character.)
I was more impressed by the extraterrestrial battles set against earthbound backdrops — downtown Chicago, a corn field near Stinger’s house — than I was when the action moves to outer space. There’s also a multi-racial team of bounty hunters, lizard people in leather trench coats, and I’m fairly sure I saw an elephant co-piloting a spaceship.
Obviously, the Wachowskis have a grand plan for the universe they’ve concocted for Jupiter Ascending. (For example, I’m confident we’d see/learn more about Jupiter’s astro-enthusiast father, briefly played by James D’Arcy.) But planning on having multiple movies to tell your entire story is putting the cart before the horse. And counting on a movie like Jupiter Ascending — whose main appeal is its singular originality — to spawn a lucrative franchise for a major studio simply feels like a karmic misstep.