Where the science-fiction genre is concerned, it’s not hard to at the very least appreciate the ambition of the storytelling. It takes an honest, extra layer of creativity to create a reality not bound by the restrictions of our own, and it can be a delight to watch a perfect mixture of detailed universe building mesh with smart, unique storytelling. Of course, this requires delicate balance, as a dip too far one way finds a convoluted mess, and a dip in the opposite direction creates something that ultimately feels hollow and incomplete. It is sadly the former trap to which Andy and Lana Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending falls victim.
In a similar vein to what they were able to accomplish with previous sci-fi stories like The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending is a narrative set in a vivid and comprehensive world. There are legions of soldiers who have had their DNA spliced with animals – like the wolf-infused Caine (Channing Tatum) or the bee-like Stinger (Sean Bean). There are galaxy-spanning businesses where worlds are held like long-term investments. There’s even intergalactic low-level bureaucracy that has all varieties of individuals waiting in lines and shuffling from one department to the next. It’s dense, interesting, weird and at times funny, but what it’s all wrapped around is another “Chosen One” story that really feels drawn out and convoluted, eventually crumbling into something tiresome and tedious – albeit consistently beautiful.
The Wachowskis do legitimately make good choices in the casting department, as both Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum make for fun, charismatic leads to take us through the story. Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, an illegal alien living with her Russian immigrant family and working as a housekeeper living in modern day Chicago. As we see happen oh so often at the cinema, however, her life changes in an instant when she meets Caine (Tatum), an intergalactic bounty hunter. Jupiter is not only made aware of life on other planets, but also that she is the genetic recurrence of one of the most powerful women in the galaxy, and stands to literally inherent the Earth now that she has passed away. It’s a simple and rather familiar plot, but through a first act of enjoyable “awakening” material and sky-shredding action scenes, Jupiter Ascending holds its own.
It’s with the introduction of the trio of central villains that everything begins to fall apart – which is a sincere problem considering that they wind up completely driving the entire story. These are the three surviving members of the Abrasax family -- Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) – and the sons and daughter of the woman whom Jupiter Jones is a genetic equal. Each of them has a personal desire to take control of the Earth – which is alternately described as being extremely valuable and just a single piece of a much larger business – but also each take their own place doing more harm to the movie than good. Kalique winds up being mostly useless to the story, simply providing huge amounts of exposition and then disappearing; Titus merely feels like a stall in the narrative, serving as what is really a fairly pointless obstacle; and Balem simply feels overcooked in every sense, with Redmayne giving a highly bizarre, scenery-chewing performance full of needless affectation that makes him stick out like a sore thumb (really making you wonder what kind of off-base directions he was being given by the Wachowskis). As Jupiter Ascending’s plot encounters these characters, the film begins to degrade faster and faster, exploring needless and unnecessary elements of the sci-fi world that do more subtraction than addition.
At this point in their careers, Andy and Lana Wachowski have become better known for their visual flash and style, and it serves the movie well. Their flair is apparent from the costume and makeup work (the idea of DNA splicing works magic in this department) to the production design, and it all serves to provide Jupiter Ascending with a unique feel (even when it wears references to movies like Brazil on its sleeve). Immense credit also goes to the visual effects teams, who not only render some fantastic air battles and spaceships, but also expansive alien environments that do their part to make the audience feel like they’re being taken to a different world. All of this spectacle doesn’t make up for the fact that character motivations are at times completely dubious, and that the third act drags on far too long, but it does help.
It’s hard to really begrudge a film like Jupiter Ascending, both for its creative scope and in that it is one of the few-and-far-between female-led action movies, but it is equally hard to validate it beyond those elements, it’s aesthetics, and the casting of the leads. There is perhaps a better feature that exists partially on the cutting room floor – explaining some of the more bizarre plot developments/holes – or one that could have been made with just a few tweaks to the screenplay. But the movie that will be hitting theaters this week is best described as unfortunate.