Jupiter Ascending ** (out of 5)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and James D’Arcy
Written and directed by: Lana & Andy Wachowski
History will suggest that Jupiter Ascending was an utter disaster; it teeters ever so close to the edge of that, but a disaster it isn’t. Consider the sad state of affairs for blockbuster story ideas in Hollywood when I’m praising a bad film for trying. Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the ambitious, and occasionally brilliant Matrix trilogy and the wonderful Cloud Atlas, have created a monstrosity with their new film. It makes little sense, suffers from a lack of focus, is loud and dumb, and is utterly forgettable- but I absolutely adore that someone out there bothered with an attempt to make an original blockbuster, and well, it is beautiful to gaze upon.
Channing Tatum co-stars as Caine, a genetically engineered, half man/half wolf bounty hunter with a past. This past is not integral to the plot, but it is included anyway to give his character more of an ‘edge’. His mission is to track down Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who may or may not be the ‘recurrence’ of a dead alien queen. Tatum and Kunis actually do develop some decent chemistry in their roles, and manage to give the film some much-needed charm, even if it barely lasts. Kunis is her usual stunningly beautiful self, but her ability to pull of humility is what solidifies her in the role. Tatum and his abs “air-skate” through the movie, much of it with his shirt off for the pleasure of ‘oglers’ everywhere.
It says a great deal about the rest of the film that they’re the only ones that seem to be having any fun, however. The convoluted plot finds Jupiter hunted by various factions, some interested in her claim to various worlds (including Earth), some interested in just plain killing her. Balem Abrasax (Redmayne), the current big man on the universal campus, is the baddie here, apparently suffering from some sort of laryngitis along the way. If I hadn’t been assured from critics everywhere that his performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant, I’d have wondered if Redmayne was actually trying for ‘most miscalculated delivery ever’. Not only is it a difficult performance to watch and listen to, the character doesn’t make much sense. What is his problem, really? If Jupiter is truly the reincarnation of his mother, wouldn’t that be a good thing? If he’s the ruler of the universe, why would he risk everything for Earth? Is he not aware of global warming or the depletion of our natural resources?
Let’s not forget the Abrasax siblings, specifically Titus (Booth). Space Caligula here wants Jupiter- yes, his mother reincarnated, for his wife. Sure, we know that he’s just interested in her hereditary claims and titles, but the thought is still disgusting, right? Jupiter, as grounded as she is, sees no choice in the matter, for if she doesn’t relent, Balem can and will ‘harvest’ the Earth. This ‘harvest’ I speak of? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the film never bothers to present it as starkly as is necessary- yet another missed opportunity. Kalique (Middleton), the other sibling, is just as gross and awful. The sibling rivalry is akin to a midday soap opera, substituting Romanesque archetypes instead of wealthy urbanites.
Similar in many ways to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, The Wachowskis have created a world with this film in which they were allowed to play at will, and seemingly spend money at will. Make no mistake- those dollars ($179 million of them) are on-screen here. They’ve made a miscalculation on what the film should have been, however. When your title has Jupiter in it, and the gas giant is prominently featured in the film, one should take the time to properly explore the awe of the planet itself. I envision this whole idea working with a change of tone and a change of focus. Instead of a popcorn flick, why not take an additional chance and make this an abstract, strictly sci-fi film? Why not let the wonder of a familiar yet still mysterious planet be the centerpiece of your film? Why not make the horror of the ‘harvests’ the real villain and not the painfully typical Emperor Emphysema? Instead of generic action cues for music, why not have the great Michael Giacchino develop something inspired? Maybe he had little to inspire him? Likely.
Jupiter Ascending never quite reaches the ‘so awful that you should create a drinking game to mock it’ level, but it certainly never aspires to be great. The Wachowskis should know better than to play it lame like this, for this critic believes they’re quite capable of the greatness, making this all the more disappointing. The Wachowski’s seeming obsession with messiahs or saviors is on clear display, when a better, more watchable film is well within their grasp, especially with the budget allotment they received. At the same time, I hope this grand financial failure isn’t the figurative nail in the coffin for their creativity. I hope they continue to get opportunities to showcase their abilities. I also hope they use some of that creativity to reign themselves in, to find ways of producing films with more focus and direction. After all, that is what Jupiter Ascending so desperately lacks- and that’s all on the filmmakers.