“Bees don’t lie,” assures Sean Bean. “Feel my skin!” implores Tuppence Middleton. “I love dogs,” swoons Mila Kunis. Say what you will about the Wachowskis’ space fairytale Jupiter Ascending, it’s not short of quotable lines.
Since they struck box office gold with The Matrix in 1999, the Wachowskis have turned out a string of bold films with varying success, from the bewilderingly hectic (Speed Racer) to the bravely intricate (their 2012 adaptation of Cloud Atlas, with co-director Tom Tykwer). Jupiter Ascending emerges as a manic compendium of most of their films to date: it has the dark conspiracies of The Matrix trilogy, the high-octane action sequences of Speed Racer, which whiz past your eyes in a blur of pixels, and the labyrinthine plotting of Cloud Atlas.
In essence, Jupiter Ascending is Cinderella spliced with the DNA of Flash Gordon. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a lowly toilet cleaner living in Chicago with her bickering extended family. Little does Jupiter know that she’s descending from astral royalty; thanks to her secret lineage, she alone holds the key to Earth’s survival, which has come under the beady eye of Eddie Redmayne’s effete villain Balem Abrasax and a number of other beady-eyed tyrants.
An attempt on Jupiter’s life is foiled by half-man, half-wolf soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who swoops in like Kyle Reese on his anti-gravity boots and whisks the heroine off for an adventure on the other side of the galaxy.
The Wachowskis have dreamed up a Rococo galactic empire that makes 2011’s John Carter look positively drab; the ships are rocket-propelled cathedrals, the buildings look like the kinds of things the architects of Naboo would have rejected for being too elaborate, and the iPads come in gold cases covered in arabesques. You know the logos of the various production companies, which always shimmer up before a movie’s opening credits? Here, even those are covered with a bramble patch of engravings.
In keeping with their surroundings, the supporting cast turn in similarly opulent performances. Eddie Redmayne’s villain whispers and then suddenly shouts like a combination of James Mason and Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. It’s a weird performance, but at least it’s amusing, unlike Douglas Booth’s Titus, who looks as though he’s been booked for an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot and is idly wondering when the bloke with the camera’s going to arrive.
For the most part, Jupiter Ascending gets by on its camp appeal, and it’s fun to hear Sean Bean (playing a half-man, half-insect space cop shorn of his wings) tell Jupiter, “Bees are genetically designed to recognise royalty,” or see firm-chested man-candy Channing Tatum float about with his pointy wolf ears. There seems to be a subversive and amusing subtext, too, where the rich are all portrayed as a bunch of vain, jewellery-obsessed weaklings with worrying mother fixations. The Wachowskis even find time to throw in references to grey aliens, crop circles and reincarnation.
Conversely, the story finds worryingly little for Mila Kunis to do, which is quite curious for a female lead in a post-Hunger Games pop cultural landscape. She’s more Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades than kick-ass heroine, and while Kunis’ performance is likeable, she spends too much of her time wearing florid dresses and waiting around for other members of the cast to jump in and rescue her.
The Wachowskis clearly have a huge budget at their disposal, but the action carries disappointingly little dramatic weight, and holds less appeal than watching Eddie Redmayne sit on his fancy throne and threaten his underlings. When an early set-piece involving the destruction of several Chicago buildings fails to raise the pulse, something’s surely gone amiss somewhere.
For its pure cheesiness, Jupiter Ascending might deserve a cautious recommendation; like Cloud Atlas, there’s something likeably batty about its more outlandish moments, such as the wonderful scene where a giant alien lizard in a leather jacket enters stage left and says to Redmayne, “Sire, something’s gone wrong at the clinic.” But it’s also important to point out that large tranches of Jupiter Ascending are also dreadfully earnest and thuddingly dull. The plot, although recalling things like Dune and even the Star Wars prequels with its dynasties and grasps for power, is predictable stuff beneath all the power plays, and you could set your watch by the various changes in fortune and last-minute rescues.
Revelling in its pulp roots, Jupiter Ascending is eye-poppingly baroque from beginning to end, but all the bling, bees and ripe dialogue in the galaxy can’t quite mask its myriad shortcomings.
Jupiter Ascending is out in UK cinemas on the 6th February.
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