It’s September now, so that can only mean one thing: big studio releases for the year are becoming available to rent and stream in numbers! Here’s one that I turned away from during its theatrical run because of some – well, a lot of – bad press, mostly in relation to a story out of control and acting that was, ahem, poor. But the Wachowski siblings are a big deal for a reason, even if they have never really been able to garner the same kind of critical acclaim or notice that The Matrix did. Is Jupiter Ascending an unfairly maligned sci-fi offering, like Fantastic Four? Or is it just as mediocre and poor as so many critics said it was?
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) lives an unexceptional life in Chicago, cleaning houses for a living and dreaming of something better. But she does have a higher destiny, unknowingly being the genetic “reoccurance” of an intergalactic matriarch. Threatened by alien attackers, her life is saved by genetically engineered soldier Caine (Channing Tatum), after which she is quickly drawn into a warped family dispute between some of the most powerful individuals in the universe.
I should point out of course that the basic plot summary above is only skimming the surface of a very complicated beast. Weird characters, plot twists and various alien worlds abound, all wrapped around a plot consisting of economic wrangling over human genes, or something. There are lots of strange looking planets, ships, flying dinosaurs, and a Dune-like aura in the cutthroat politics of the universe top families.
And therein lays the problem for the Wachowskis. I think they had a very grand vision for Jupiter Ascending. And I think that maybe it was too grand, for the capital they had to work with and the time and energy they could put into the project (after all, they also had a Netflix TV show out this year, Sense8).
Jupiter Ascending is a film that is trying to appear far more epic and amazing than it really is. Right from a very ham-fisted prologue (James D’Arcy just can’t get “The sky is full of miracles!” out with any kind of seriousness), to the introduction of the “Abrasax” siblings (“Could it be that success does not agree with you?” “Could it be that failure agrees with you?” – actual dialogue in a $176 million film), you suddenly get that very sinking feeling with Jupiter Ascending, a film hogtied by its very unspectacular script and even worse performances, and from star names very much capable of better.
If you can get past those two gigantic problems, and the recurring theme of “capitalism is bad”, shoved down the audiences throats with such abandon that one suspects Paul Murphy was involved in the film in some capacity, you might start to find some things to enjoy. Sure, Jupiter Jones’ story of finding out that she is exceptional having lived a very unexceptional life is the kind of tale that has been told millions of times, but it’s relatively rare that a woman has actually been the focal point.
And while the Wachowskis have a terrible tendency to bombard the audience with vital exposition or universe building very quickly (they did it so much better in The Matrix, didn’t they?), you can find yourself getting lost in this sci-fi wonderland, with its cool weaponry, alien designs and spiffy CGI spaceships. There is a certain uniqueness (in terms of what we’ve seen from the genre recently anyway) to the design of everything – call it Gothic or Baroque or whatever – that makes one think of a slightly less dark Warhammer 40K kind of setting, and if Jupiter Ascending is going to be getting props for anything, it is its visuals and action scenes, which are entertaining and cool looking for the most part, though a certain level of repetition does abound by the time we get into the last act.
But every good thing also has a negative. Some of the action scenes, like that ship dogfight through the streets of Chicago or the more confusing assault on Titus’ vessel later on go on for a bit too long, and an otherwise enjoyable score gets drowned out by some odd audio mixing choices. And for all the kudos that Jupiter Ascending should be getting for featuring a central female protagonist, I was surprised, and a little disappointed, with how little agency Jupiter actually gets in her own story.
Time and again she is thrust into the role of an audience surrogate question asker, with Caine the real hero with agency and direction, flying in on his anti-gravity boots to save her at least five times in the course of the film. Only by the end does Jupiter get to take some matters into her own hands, and even then there is a sense of her just being a witness to the much bigger stories and characters that surround her.
But if I had to name a single killing aspect of Jupiter Ascending, it would be the strange pacing of the film. When we had hit a point where I thought we had entered a third act, I thought it was a bit soon, and was stunned to see that half the film remained. And through a dose of repetitive sequences, boring character interactions, and a bizarre Gilliam-esque (the famous director is even part of the it) comic escapade through galactic bureaucracy (a sequence that killed the momentum of the film stone dead for me) the second half just drags and drags, with my notes for the film including the phrase “Man, this just keeps on going, doesn’t it?”.
The Wachowskis clearly loved the universe they had come up with, maybe a bit too much, as their exploration of both it and its key side-characters – the Abrasax siblings, the space police, etc – meant that there was less and less time for Jupiter’s heroic journey and a very tacked on romantic angle with Caine. There are a lot of films recently within that “nerd/geek” banner that are starting to do away with the previously obligatory romantic sub-plot, and I feel like the Wachowskis, who have done very well with romantic plotlines if we are being honest with ourselves, would do better if they just left such things alone.
Watching Jupiter meet all of these seemingly impressive people, who continually come out with bad dialogue, delivered poorly, reminded rather of the FilmCow animation featuring the unimpressive reality of Greek deities. Kunis, a much better actress than you might think, delivers an OK performance, but she’s lost at the centre of this whirling hurricane of strange creatures and odd characters, which began to take on a bit of a George Miller look to them at times (think “Rictus Erectus” was bad? There is a character in Jupiter Ascending named “Chicanery Night”). Channing Tatum, having wowed me and others earlier this year in Foxcatcher, is left with a dull monotone action hero role here, without a shirt for a very long period of time (though I suppose that balanced out a garish bra/panties shot earlier).
And then there are the others. It’s always weird to see an actor recently praised to the hilt, to the extent of winning an Oscar, suddenly turn and give a performance so awful you can’t even bring yourself to laugh. But that’s what Eddie Redmayne does here, as primary antagonist Balem, who sounds, for some unexplained reason, like he has throat cancer, except when HE GETS SHOUTY SHOUTY for a few seconds at a time. Douglas Booth’s dumbass playboy and Tuppence Middleton’s slightly creepy sister (“Feel my skin” she nonchalantly asks Jupiter at one point) complete the Abrasax trifecta, and the likes of Sean Bean (playing, I kid you not, a half man, half bee), Maria Doyle Kennedy (reliving her Tudors days with an atrocious foreign accent) and Nikki Amuka-Bird just can’t get a word in edgewise. I recently caught Tim Pigott-Smith giving a very moving recitation of the last book of The Illiad with the Almeida Theatre, but here he is buried under so much prosthetic and bad wordplay that any trace of his actual talent is lost to the ages.
So Jupiter Ascending muddles its way into a confusing and unsatisfying ending. Having established a galaxy-spanning narrative based around the promise of the individual over the steamroller of the collective, Jupiter Ascending suddenly seems to back track and, in the same vein as Wreck-It Ralph’s horrible closing message, essentially seems to insist that we should all just be happy with our lot. Know your place pleb, even if you have anti-grav boots and are part of an intergalactic monarchy (and don’t worry too much about the gigantic genocide taking place everywhere else). Everything about the conclusion seems rushed, like the production team just wanted to tie a bow on things rapidly and move on.
There is a scene a bit into Jupiter Ascending, highlights in the Filmspotting review, which showcases one of the films central problems. As Balem looks out over an expansive sci-fi landscape, a processing factory hidden inside the Eye of Jupiter, while within a fabulously ornate viewing platform, one of the (very cool looking) winged lizard people approaches him with an issue. The issue? “There’s a problem in the clinic”. And with that one horribly out of place line put into the mouth of a nine foot tall flying dinosaur, any hint of majesty and sci-fi wonder that the scene had is cast away.
I just don’t think the Wachowskis had a firm grasp on what they wanted to accomplish here. Jupiter Ascending feels like several films worth of plot mashed into 127 minutes, yet still manages to be extremely slow and dull in large sections, especially a second half that has lots going on, just none of it any good. I half think the ideas behind Jupiter Ascending would have worked a lot better if they had been a serialised TV show rather than a film, since that medium would have allowed for more patient story-telling.
So, there is ambition here. There is uniqueness. There are good ideas, and a sci-fi universe that is the kind of place I wouldn’t mind seeing other stories in. But the downsides are many: the script, which is shockingly bad at points, many of the performances, whether it is the fault of the cast or the directors, and that truly awful pacing problem. Jupiter Ascending is the kind of film that I really want to be better than it is, but is just isn’t. It’s overwrought, lacks depth in the right places and feels more like an advertisement for the universe than a film worthy of plaudits. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).