The trailers for Jupiter Ascending were astounding; full of beautiful space shots, incredible ship designs, fascinating and quirky-looking aliens, plus an intriguing premise–all you can ask for in an original science fiction epic, really. From the brains behind The Matrix trilogy and most recently Cloud Atlas, The Wachowskis are fans of big, flashy sci-fi, that much is apparent.
Unfortunately, their enthusiasm for everything sci-fi – from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – does more bad than good. Jupiter Ascending is a mess, mashing together some of the best elements from the last 50 years of sci-fi with uninteresting characters and an uninspired plot that even die-hard fans of the genre will find hard to follow.
It’s a real shame, too, because Jupiter Ascending is littered with promise. In it, Earth is one of many farm planets seeded by the original humans to grow lesser humans until they reach a peak state of evolution and are then harvested to create a everlasting life serum. Earth is under the domain of the House of Abraxas, a longstanding royal family whose business is manufacturing this serum. Of course, this is all going on unbeknownst to anyone on Earth, including a young woman named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) who just so happens to be the reincarnation of the Abraxas family’s late matriarch and therefor heir to the company’s empire.
This turns Jupiter into the universe’s most wanted as the three Abraxas siblings – Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth), all warring over their mother’s inheritance – try to locate and secure her. Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an albino-human/wolf hybrid and former soldier, is sent by Titus to confirm Jupiter’s genetic signature and ends up needing to protect her from a bounty placed on her by Balem, who’d rather harvest Earth than let its ownership transfer to Jupiter.
Obviously, there is a lot going on in Jupiter Ascending, but its two hour, seven minute runtime provides ample length for The Wachowskis to establish a little world-building and give audiences an exhilarating adventure. Unfortunately, they manage to squander that opportunity every chance they get. Instead we’re given painfully awkward moments between Jupiter and Cain that try desperately to establish a romance between the two for no other purpose than this is a movie with two attractive leads, why not have them get together? There’s far more time given to Jupiter’s Russian immigrant family than necessary – much of which hangs on the use of tired stereotypes – while the countless alien worlds and species introduced are barely given a line of explanation.
The film’s villain is presumably Eddie Redmayne’s Balem, but even that isn’t given the necessary clarity and almost every character is a potential threat to Jupiter at one point or another. When he is onscreen he’s barely audible through his dry, scratchy throat delivery peppered with the occasional jarring outburst. He’s no Zorg from The Fifth Element, that’s for sure, but neither is Redmayne’s performance truly outrageous or over the top enough to become memorable.
Sean Bean is in this movie, too, as a human/bee hybrid named Stinger whose eyes occasionally glow yellow and he can move really fast or something. He’s also Cain’s former commanding officer who took the heat for him when Cain went wolf-crazy and killed someone. But again, I’m not too sure what that has to do with Jupiter inheriting her rights as ruler of the Abraxas family and neither does the movie, truthfully.
The pacing and plotting of Jupiter Ascending is a huge issue with the film. Its first hour, for instance, could have easily been condensed to about 20 minutes. From there, more time could have been spent on establishing the world the Abraxas family inhabits, explaining who all benefits from or even knows of the human-harvested youth serum, and the role the Aegis (space cops) have to play. Are they aware of what the Abraxas family are doing? What is their jurisdiction? Is the harvesting of entire planets commonplace?
So much is unclear and Jupiter Ascending can’t find the time to make sense of any of it. Instead, choosing to get lost in the tired, over-used aspects of its plot – like Jupiter being imperiled, typically by falling from some great height, and Cain riding in on his anti-gravity, space roller blades to save her. This happen at least four, maybe five times over the course of the film. Those space roller blades are the stars of the picture in all honesty.
What’s most upsetting about Jupiter Ascending, however, is how magnificent it looks. For as weak and jumbled as its narrative is, the movie has no right looking as good as it does. The sweeping shots of outer space would make the Hubble jealous and the designs of humanity’s future technology are captivating and unique. The production design employed here is really top notch, and again, not really deserving of the pitiful story being told.
There are a zillion aliens and androids populating the film, too, but they’re barely more than window dressing. From the winged lizards that serve Balem to the robot helping Jupiter navigate the tedious process of acquiring her entitlement to the elephant-headed pilot of the Aegis’ ship – any could have been deserving of more focus, and the film would have benefited immensely.
In fact, there’s only one scene in the film that captures the charm and character of the many sci-fi classics which inspire it, and that’s Jupiter working her way through the hellish and bureaucratic rigamarole of receiving her inheritance. Those in need of the required paperwork are lined up in endless queues being sent from one “help” desk to another, typewriters are attached to old glassy monitors as tubes send and receive messages over head–it’s a scene straight out of the cult classic, Brazil, and in fact, actor/writer/director Terry Gilliam has an extended cameo as one of glorified paper pushers. It’s the film’s one redeeming moment.
Jupiter Ascending is disappointment on all fronts except that it looks so damn good, but that in itself is an insult considering its wasted on such poor material. We can only hope the film isn’t a death nail for original sci-fi flicks, but it certainly isn’t one that will persuade any studio to take such risks in the future.