Jupiter Ascending is a borderline-infuriating space opera because it won’t stop apologizing for itself. The Wachowski Siblings have created a world that’s massive, bizarre, and wild. And yet they’re constantly pausing to explain everything that’s in it while also being oblivious to the larger problems with their story. It’s a movie where they decide to drop in a half-werewolf soldier who flies around on gravity boots, but then pause to explain his entire back story. It’s a movie that carries itself as bold, visionary, and original and yet it feels like a reheated YA novel that’s aping the Wachowskis’ earlier films both in terms of themes and narrative. And yet when you create a disaster this big, it’s impossible to look away.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) hates her life as a housekeeper. Lucky for Jupiter, she’s the genetic descendant of an extraterrestrial species, and this gives her ownership of Earth. Jupiter is unaware of this fact until she becomes targeted by the scheming Abrasax siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a hybrid soldier-turned-mercenary, comes to Jupiter’s rescue, and the two of the get caught up in a massive web of intrigue as the Abrasax siblings jockey to take possession of the Earth and its valuable resources.
Jupiter Ascending is an ornately polished turd. From the finely engraved, golden corporate logos that grace the scene, the movie is a triumph of costuming and production design insofar as it’s style over substance. Form never follows function, which isn’t necessarily an unforgivable sin; there are some neat concepts floating around like spaceships that can break apart and reassemble at command and the aforementioned gravity boots. But there’s also plenty of stuff that just comes off as silly such as guards have machine guns at their elbow joint so they can only shoot straight forward rather than aim, and they also wear what appear to be metal luchadore masks. One of Jupiter’s many costumes is a dress that looks like a cheap chandelier fucked a branch of cherry blossoms. They’re striking designs, but in way that elicits chuckles instead of awe.
The film evokes constant cognitive dissonance because the tone of the picture needs you to jump in completely. You need to say, “Fuck it. There’s a corporate-royal-dynasty. They have giant lizards as security guards. One of the siblings wants to marry a woman who looks like the reincarnation of his mother. Okay, let’s just run with it.” There’s enough nuttiness swimming around inside Jupiter Ascending that I can almost appreciate its braggadocio. There’s only one other recent film I can think of that would be so outlandish in its sci-fi style, and that’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Except Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t explain every damn thing that happens. Yondu doesn’t take five minutes to tell us how Ravagers function in the galaxy. We don’t get a long history of Groot’s species. The film doesn’t grind to a halt as one character gives us Rocket’s entire biography. The highly successful and incredibly entertaining Marvel film happily speeds along, and it trusts you to keep up. Rather than get bogged down in the surroundings, it lets the characters express the tone and allows us take in the scenery.
Even if you remove the convoluted story from Jupiter Ascending, you have a movie that fluctuates between exposition and set pieces. Someone is always telling Jupiter how the universe really works, and Caine tags along to take care of the action since Jupiter’s main talents are making doe eyes and falling from tall heights. This kind of sloppy storytelling is how you get laughable moments like Caine’s former C.O., Stinger (Sean Bean), whose home is filled with bees (Stinger. Bees. Ha ha. Get it.), can say with a straight face that Jupiter is royalty because (and I wrote this down verbatim because it sounded so incredibly dumb) “Bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty…Bees don’t lie.”
You see, because bees have a queen, they won’t sting Jupiter since she’s also a queen. She passes the bee-test. Apparently, ants are completely useless when it comes to arbitrating monarchies.
This is a film where bees are just as informative as anyone else when it comes to revealing details about characters. Jupiter is an awful protagonist as she just bounces from Abrasax to Abrasax, and gets rescued a lot by Caine. Tatum, who has shown for the past several years that he’s an incredibly talented actor, reverts to his pre-Haywire days where his job was to be handsome and nothing else. The only person who seems to understand the lunacy of the movie is Redmayne. Balem’s tendency to whisper his words mixed with random bouts of shouting make his character completely bizarre, and oddly refreshing. He’s the guy who’s jumping in with both feet while everyone else is holding the audience’s hand. Redmayne is like the guy who rushes out in the middle of the dance floor and starts busting crazy moves while everyone else is being a wallflower. Even though we should applaud his willingness to dance like no one’s watching, we’re all watching, and he looks like a weirdo.
It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, and while it might have the veneer of a film that’s fresh and exciting, it’s remarkably stale as the Wachowskis start rehashing ideas and themes from their earlier movies. For the third time they come back to “Humanity shouldn’t be treated as a commodity.” They bring back the awkward pontification from The Matrix Reloaded. There’s the fascination with business dealings that we saw in Speed Racer. Jupiter Ascending even cribs itself as one act of the film is basically a repeat of the previous act. For a picture that’s trying to carry itself as part of a vast, sprawling universe, its story is tellingly limited.
For all of its many, many faults, I still have some begrudging respect for Jupiter Ascending. Perhaps it’s the deluge of pre-tested remakes, sequels, and adaptation that causes me to appreciate any big budget film that’s not based on existing material. I like that movie is big and even refreshingly strange at times like when the characters traipse into an intergalactic bureaucracy, although this scene isn’t fresh if you’ve seen Brazil or read/seen Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, this is a scene where even thought it’s a rip-off of another film, it at least feels confident enough to have fun.
Jupiter Ascending is not a good movie, but I admire the spectacle of its spectacular failure. I was never bored, although the film held my attention through morbid curiosity and ironic appreciation. But a failure this big should explode instead of sadly plummeting back to Earth.