February 2021

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

jupiter2DIRECTOR: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

CAST: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton


While they’ve struggled to equal their 1999 sci-fi hit The Matrix (including with two inferior sequels), the Wachowski siblings have always had a strong sense of style, even when they have repeatedly had difficulty wedding that to an equally strong narrative.  Their latest would-be epic, Jupiter Ascending, does not buck this pattern, but it’s visually sumptuous and never boring, and worth a look for eye candy alone.

We begin Earth-bound, where our unlikely heroine with the unlikely name of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) works scrubbing toilets to help her Russian immigrant family make ends meet.  But Jupiter’s humdrum life is about to get a whole lot more interesting.  Unbeknownst to her, Earth is only one small part of an entire empire of inhabited worlds with intelligent life, divided up as inheritances among the ultra wealthy and powerful Abraxas siblings, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and they all have their eye on Jupiter for their own agendas.  It seems Jupiter is a genetic “recurrence”, an individual born with identical DNA to their mother, essentially the queen of the galaxy (to put it more simply, their mother reincarnated).  This gives Jupiter a claim on a royal title as head of the Abraxas family–and in effect, ruler of the galaxy–that leaves some of the Abraxas siblings feeling deeply threatened by her, while others smell a business opportunity.  Soon, an assassination attempt on Jupiter is thwarted by genetically spliced man/wolf hybrid Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an elite ex-military hunter who whisks the bewildered Jupiter across the galaxy to evade the various factions seeking her for varying reasons, and face her birthright.

jupiterFirst things first: the one area where Jupiter Ascending unquestionably triumphs is visuals.  This is a visually spectacular film that provides the most eye candy this side of Avatar or the Star Wars prequels.  The costume work is just as sumptuous as any of the CGI images; particularly striking is a scene in which Jupiter is dressed in an elegant dress and feathered headdress, raised on a platform above her throngs of subjects between marble colonnades, flower petals raining down.  It’s pure visual style and a feast for the eyes.  There are a fair number of criticisms to throw at Jupiter Ascending, but however scatterbrained the narrative may be, there is always something interesting to look at.

In fact, one could say the movie spends so much time on worldbuilding and visual spectacle that character development and narrative is truncated.  The romance between Jupiter and Caine is rushed, and the amount of subplots the Wachowskis have jammed into two hours leaves various plot elements underdeveloped.  The intrigue and power plays among the three scheming Abraxas siblings is intriguing, but it also becomes convoluted and sometimes confusing as the three continually bribe factions, and individuals within factions, to steal Jupiter from each other for their individual murky motives; at times, one almost needs a flow chart to keep it straight who is taking her to whom at any given point in time.  The narrative is episodic, with Jupiter dropped into the hands of one Abraxas sibling before being rescued and ending up delivered to another, wash rinse repeat, and the fast pace keeps any episode from being developed as much as it should.  The “genetic recurrence” idea doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (exactly how does an Earth girl have the exact DNA of a woman from across the galaxy?), giving the entire narrative a flimsy plot device on which to stand.  There are other slightly goofy ideas, like Caine being a man/wolf genetic “splice” and his comrade-in-arms Stinger (Sean Bean) being a man/bee splice, and Balem has dinosaur henchmen (yes, literally).

Jupiter Ascending might not make a whole lot of sense, but aside from copious amounts of eye candy, it has a whiz-bang pace (in fact, one could argue it moves too fast and may have benefited from a longer runtime) and rarely ceases to be engaging in the moment.  There is a fast-and-furious aerial chase through Chicago early on, and a later extended sequence parodying convoluted bureaucracy, as Jupiter is shuffled from one officious paper-pusher to another while getting no closer to results in order to formally claim her royal title, culminating in a Terry Gilliam cameo.  The climactic battle–on the planet Jupiter, no less–is suitably over-the-top and pyrotechnic.

The visual spectacle is more impressive than the acting.  Mila Kunis, who was the third choice for the lead role after Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara turned it down, is a bland heroine who never seems to react that strongly to any of the fantastical events unfolding around her.  Kunis isn’t glaringly terrible in the role, but it’s easy to see how a stronger actress could have  done more with Jupiter.  In fact, partly because of Kunis, and partly because the script mostly relegates Jupiter to being a damsel in distress shuffled along from one situation to another, Jupiter herself could be said to be the least interesting character.  Channing Tatum, despite donning silly pointy ears and zooming around on anti-gravity boots, is comfortable in his action hero part.  Along with his role as the ill-fated Ned Stark on the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones, Sean Bean gets to make a rare appearance in a non-villainous part, even if his role is limited to “grizzled mentor”/”exposition”.  Eddie Redmayne swishes around speaking every line in an affected breathy whisper apart from an occasional random burst of over-the-top shouting, none of which leaves his prissy Balem a particularly impressive big bad.  Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything won him an Oscar, but his weird, campy performance here isn’t likely to win him similar acclaim.  In fact, one could argue Douglas Booth’s silver-tongued pretty boy Titus is more intriguing, oozing oily charm and moral ambiguity, but he and Tuppence Middleton’s equally inscrutable Kalique get shuffled aside for a more conventional climax with Redmayne’s more straightforward villain.  Two alum of the Wachowskis’ 2012 would-be magnum opus, Cloud AtlasJames D’Arcy and Doona Bae, have small roles.

Those hoping for the Wachowskis to make a triumphant return to the heights achieved by their best film, the original Matrix, will be disappointed to know Jupiter Ascending has more in common with bloated, overstuffed mixed bags like the Matrix sequels and Cloud Atlas, and stronger on style than substance (one could argue “style over substance” about The Matrix as well, but its narrative was comparatively lean and taut).  Even so, while Jupiter Ascending is not a masterpiece, it’s also not the colossal failure some of its detractors have made it to be, and is still an enjoyable and entertaining, albeit flawed ride that serves up enough cool action sequences and visual splendor to be worth a look on those scores alone.

* * 1/2