The Wachowski’s don’t make small, quiet films. They go big, they go ambitious, and they desperately need a hit, like how a crack head needs a hit. Their last two, Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer, did not exactly light up the box office. Unfortunately, their latest, Jupiter Ascending, is not likely to be that movie, as there isn’t much that truly works. This is a mishmash of crazy ideas thrown into a blender with a damsel-in-distress movie, full of what is best described as heroic space rollerblading. What makes this so unusual for the Wachowskis is how, despite fits of madness like what appears to be a race entirely comprised of a flying lizard biker gang, utterly bland this movie is.
Jupiter Ascending is like a pulpy, sci-fi B-movie, but with an insane amount of money and freedom for the visionary filmmakers to do whatever the hell they want. And that’s both its greatest asset and its biggest flaw. With the autonomy to do as they please, there is also the opportunity for just as many missteps and pitfalls, and this movie finds almost all of them along the way, as the script dives into them headfirst.
Over the 127-minute run time, the film never figures out what it’s trying to be. It wants to be a space opera, a star-crossed romance, an action flick, and a pulpy genre adventure, but even the pulpiest pulp has to have something to hook you, and Jupiter Ascending most definitely does not. It begins with the maudlin tale of the protagonist, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), which is admittedly a pretty great sci-fi name. Her father was murdered while still in the womb and she was born in a shipping container while illegally being transported to America. She’s a woman without a home, without a country, and beyond that it only gets worse for poor Jupe.
Scrubbing rich people’s toilets for a living—and not much of one as she shares a tiny apartment with her mom and aunt—she dreams of something bigger, and when it comes out that she shares the exact same genetic sequence as a high muckety much from beyond our world, it opens up a whole new world. As it turns out, Earth is a part of a much larger intergalactic industry, and Jupiter finds herself plunked down right in the middle of a corporate family squabble between an entitled trio of siblings—Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth)—who all want what she is genetically entitled to. When Caine (Channing Tatum), a half-albino, wolf-man hybrid soldier shows up, he becomes Jupiter’s protector, pulling her out of one fire after another. He’s the one who does the space rollerblading with his pair of handy dandy rocket boots—it’s the only way I can describe the motion, now if he only had a pair of huge JNCO pants… For some reason, no one ever thinks to take them away any of the myriad times he’s imprisoned.
And the plot is so much more convoluted, rambling, and involved than even that description. You get into the intricacies of the intergalactic industry that seeds and harvests worlds across the universe. There’s a great deal of time spent on the spat between the three siblings that never amounts to anything except affected overacting—Redmayne may very well deserve an Oscar for The Theory of Everything, but he’s absolutely bonkers here, going from droll and affected to batshit crazy in a beat the way only a few actors can (think Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element). And for some reason you spend a lot of time with Jupiter’s scam-happy Russian relatives in what I think is supposed to be comic relief, but is nothing more than awkward, groan inducing, and misplaced.
With all of this going on, there are still plot holes for days. Elements are introduced and forgotten, you spend multiple scenes learning about the overly bureaucratic, Brazil-like political system, for no reason other than the filmmakers seem to think it will be mildly amusing. Jupiter Ascending is a jumbled mass of storylines that repeats itself at least three times as Jupiter stumbles through encounters with each of the siblings in turn—by the end, you know more than you want to about their rampant mommy issues. The damn movie just won’t end. Every time you think it’s about to wrap things up, the Wachowskis pile on another scene, and another and another. It’s maddening.
All that really delivers is the production design. It’s so stunning a movie to look at that it’s like the pages of an art book sprang to life on screen. The spaceships, the swirling mists of Jupiter’s Eye (the planet, not the girl), the intricate, almost medieval costumes—the detail and execution is across the board incredible. The scope and scale is massive and sweeping, and the Wachowskis are as ambitious as they’ve ever been in that realm. There are cool winged monster creatures, creepy little aliens who blink in and out of sight, and even a crazy, extension-wearing bounty hunter riding what looks like a flying snowmobile.
All of this, however, only serves to drive home how flat and lifeless the script is, and reinforces how much potential Jupiter Ascending wastes. Thematically, nothing in the film matches the aesthetic side. The Wachowskis try to touch on class, corporate control, family, ineffective government, staying true to yourself, identity, and many of the same ideas that fill their other work, but here it’s all like, “Oh, hey, yeah, class divide, there you go.” Nothing much more is made of that, other than Caine occasionally bites rich people, though you sadly never get to see it happen.
And the performances don’t do the material any favors either. Redmayne’s Balem is at least fucking crazy, and that much is fun, but the rest of the cast, from Kunis to Tatum to Sean Bean as Caine’s old war buddy, just sleep-read their lines. No one feels like they have any shred of investment in the words they say, and when Jupiter quietly exclaims that she loves dogs, that she’s always loved dogs, which is a weird moment between her and her part-wolf boyfriend because is sounds like she’s saying she’s romantically into dogs, you can’t help but be perplexed.
No amount of visual pyrotechnics, no matter how spectacular, can save such a tired, weak story. The forced romantic angle, the uncommitted performances, the exponentially tedious false flag endings, and the lack of any thematic depth, sadly amounts to nothing. The Wachowskis are two of the most gifted visual filmmakers working right now, and to see all of that squandered because they don’t know how to rein in their expansive storytelling impulses is too bad. You have to applaud them for the sheer ambition, but unfortunately, Jupiter Ascending isn’t much more than a failure, an occasionally intriguing one to be sure, but not much more than that. [Grade: C-]