This Jupiter Ascending review contains spoilers.
After a long delay, the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is finally making landfall this week, with much hand wringing about whether or not the visual maestros behind The Matrix can rediscover their former glory. Not lacking for ambition, this latest effort is a vast space epic that mingles the trippy musings of dog-people with the Wackowskis’ own dogged fixation with genetic transmigration.
Unfortunately, while offering a stunning digital marvel for the eyes, the final effect is, strangely, galaxies removed from entertainment.
Much like The Matrix films, Jupiter Ascending returns to the “chosen one” conceit, but with the shrewd awareness of stepping away from the messiah archetype that the Wachowskis (and their many imitators) exhaustively explored over the last decade. Rather, Jupiter is about a girl with that exact fortuitous name. And despite being born the daughter of Russian immigrants whose family business is cleaning Chicago’s richest toilets, this young maid discovers that fairy tales really do come true.
As her eventual mentor Stinger (Sean Bean) explains to Jupiter, it’s not what you do that defines you, but who you are underneath. For our heroine that hidden inner-aurora is a reincarnated queen from one of the universe’s oldest and most powerful dynasties, the Abrasax Family. And as it so happens, this family also owns the deed to Earth, one in a countless line of planets that have been cultivated for human life and other nefarious fiduciary ends.
She discovers all this because rugged scoundrel Caine (Channing Tatum), a descendent of a human-wolf hybrid splicing experiment, rescues her from the minions of the Abrasax Family, whose varying blue blood rivalries would make their reincarnated matriarch a casualty of war. There appears to be little love lost between the grown Abrasax children Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and absolutely none for their returned mother, who will have to survive many space battles while clinging to Channing Tatum’s back if she ever hopes to claim her royal inheritance.
…If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry, it’s much worse than you know.
Jupiter Ascending has about a dozen ideas running through it at the speed of light and they prove to all be as equally swift in their viscosity. My favorite element is the revelation that the order of the cosmos’ infinitum actually resides in the hands of a few overly bred families whose motivations are as weak as their wrists. It teases the mind to wonder if there’s a smaller (and better) intergalactic comedy as black as space itself about how the only higher power found in the mastery of space travel is calculated profit.
As personified in the performances of Booth, Middleton, and especially Redmayne, this oligarchy building could have been a movie unto itself, and perhaps it is since that’s just one narrative strand left dangling from a screenplay that has zero gravity in its weighty aspirations. Indeed, there are an endless array of action set-pieces that vary from the spectacular to the banal, a continuation of the Wachowskis’ cloying insistence about the possibilities of reincarnation, an on-the-nose princess parallel with plenty of first act lip-service to the virtues of fairy tales (though at least no one calls Jupiter their own personal Jesus Christ), and even an appreciable but shoehorned transgender subtext about loving who you want.
Thus it’s inevitably jarring that it has all been in service to a movie that is posturing like a blockbuster, but feels every bit as aloof as the last four movies from the Wachowski siblings. To be sure, Jupiter Ascending is their first film since the original Matrix that appears even moderately reined in by a studio with foreign concepts like “audience appeal” in mind. But even with a stunning visual style and a straightforward girl meets boy conceit filled in by two popular stars, Jupiter is definitely off of the Guardians of the Galaxy mainstream center.
Traditionally, these should be happy tidings in a marketplace abducted by boilerplate hokum, which also so happens to be the PR justification Warner Bros. used in moving the release date from summer to winter. But whereas WB’s other summer 2014 effort, the very deserving and unfortunately overlooked Edge of Tomorrow, was punished by franchise-obsessed audiences, Jupiter Ascending’s February banishment is far more apt. Beyond a dizzying spectacle of a budget far greater than its box office competitors, Jupiter suffers as yet another project where the Wachowski reach has exceeded grasp, creating a space adventure that is more a daydream for the furry subculture than the fanboy one in search for that still long lost Star Wars novelty. Instead of a visionary melding of space and fantasy (with some allusions to Blade Runner fashion to boot!), Jupiter Ascending is obtusely suffocating with its decadent and inescapably artificial pageantry.
Paradoxically a film tailored for world building, this industrial capitalist cosmology never feels alive off the frame; it also hardly feels vital inside of it too. This may be partially due to the fact that while box office friendly, Kunis and Tatum have all the chemistry of oil and water. Kunis, who almost always exudes an appealing “cool girl” persona, plays Jupiter as simply cold, and she is as lost as the audience in all the CGI and blue screen carnivals supposedly whizzing past her monotone expression. The Cinderella myth universally relies on wish fulfillment and vicarious joy, but who would wish to look this apprehensive even when learning they’re a cosmic princess that owns the Earth? Tatum fairs better as the wolf-man splicing that unlike all the other digital plushies running around has only the modest cosmetic alterations of doggy ears. He is appropriately loyal and stoic, but the Han Solo role calls for more than well-trained obedience.
The one actor who seems to get that space operas call for grandiosity as broad as the Milky Way is Redmayne, who snivels as the villainous Balem like a lounge lizard version of Darth Vader. Too lethargic and effete to actually conquer anything, Balem still quivers with enfeebled rage and overcompensating creepiness, showcasing a performance that understands the frivolity of this space age mumbo jumbo and tears into it like a celestial Caligula. Redmayne, along with a crackerjack action scene in the first act involving Tatum and Kunis becoming literal skywalkers around the Chicago skyline, remains this chosen one narrative’s only true salvation.
Attempting to build an out-of-this-world space opera, even with a blockbuster budget (or because of it), is an unenviable task. Yet, Jupiter Ascending neither recaptures the brilliance of the long ago first Matrix film nor the perpetually elusive “Star Wars” quality all studio tentpoles covet. Originality for its own sake alone is not without merit, but if Jupiter is ascending, it is still well out of reach from similarly chaotic 1990s space adventure misfires like The Fifth Element and Event Horizon. Also like those astrological oddballs, the “underrated masterpiece” cult status campaign will probably begin for Jupiter next Monday. But not before this much more noticeable fireball makes its movie theater collision.
***Also embrace your own genetic destiny…by following me on Twitter.