JUPITER ASCENDING Movie Review: The Wachowskis Get Lost In Space

A big, expensive original science fiction movie that feels like a rushed adaptation of a book you never read. 

How the hell did this happen? How did the Wachowskis, a truly visionary duo granted an enormous amount of money and the freedom to follow their own muse, end up making a movie as bad as Jupiter Ascending? How did these two, who have been smart and radical in their previous films, end up making a movie about a damsel in distress where all the weird scifi concepts are just decorations, as opposed to the central conceit?

Nothing in Jupiter Ascending works, beyond the production design. The space ships and the Jovian refinery and the bizarre creatures and baroque costumes are incredible, the stuff that makes a “The Art Of…” book mandatory. The Wachowskis wear their influences on their sleeves here, with touches of anime and video games and big dollops of classic scifi art (the movie plays like a gallery of great Analog: Science Fiction & Fact covers) and big, looming shadows of Flash Gordon and Dune over it all. There’s an elephant man pilot who trumpets with joy when he flies his ship through a wormhole - that’s the good stuff.

But everything else… The script is dead, a series of scenes of expository dialogue where Mila Kunis, grotesquely miscast, parades through various quadrants of the galaxy while everybody tells her who she is, what she means and what they want. She has almost no chemistry with Channing Tatum, trapped in a humorless role as the dog man Caine Wise. Their love, which must be the engine for the plot (such as it is) generates less heat than your phone. Tatum often seems to be tolerating his leading lady. And the action - how many sequences where the CGI camera weaves through CGI action until Channing can save Mila at the last minute can you stomach? I hope it’s more than five. Many more than five.

Kunis is Jupiter Jones, who discovers that her genes have taken the exact shape of the dead matriarch of an intergalactic royal house, the Abrasax clan. That means she has a claim to the properties of the family, including the planet Earth, which is actually a big farm for the people in the stars, who melt humans down to genetic material in order to keep living lives that stretch on for millennia. There are three heirs to the matriarch (who was murdered) and each tries to convince Jupiter to side with them, as well as kill her, as the situation justifies. Through it all there’s Caine, hired by one of the heirs to find her, hanging around with the loyalty of a dog.

While Kunis is wan as a lead and Tatum’s charisma is hobbled by his character’s haunted history, Eddie Redmayne makes up for all of it in his role as Skinny Baron Harkonnen With A Sore Throat. Redmayne delivers most of his lines in a hoarse whisper, except when he suddenly explodes on a part of a sentence with the fury of a thousand Shatners. It’s a bravely outre performance, one that shows a lot of faith in his directors. It ends up being not quite campy enough to be legendary - one more outburst could have cemented it - but Redmayne certainly gives his quivering best.

The film is adamant in its retro qualities; one of the big set pieces is about Caine having to rescue Jupiter before she marries an evil prince, which is the sort of Flash Gordon stuff that flew eighty years ago but here, after he saves her a half dozen times, feels regressive. In between these sequences are plenty of scenes where Jupiter stands around and has people tell her stuff, a lot of it boring and without a real bearing on the story itself. There’s a lot of world building going on here, but very little effort is made to populate that world with interesting characters. And the film’s central idea - that we’re cattle in a world where reality is carefully maintained for us - is just a rehash of the central conceit of The Matrix. The ending of the movie even seems like a redo of the ending of The Matrix, except that the Wachowskis have left behind the flying around as a loner idea for a flying around with the love of your life vibe.

The outer space sequences are contrasted with Jupiter’s earthbound home life, where she’s a house cleaner living with her large Russian immigrant family. Here the Wachowskis attempt humor, and every moment of it is grating. I don’t think they’ve ever been particularly adept at comedy, but the Russian family stuff plays only slightly less cartoony than  the Chim Chim business in Speed Racer, which at least had the excuse of being a live action cartoon. By the end of the film Jupiter’s decisions come down to protecting her family, and I found myself simply not caring if that clan got wiped out. I might have rooted for it.

It’s important that you understand how much I love the work of The Wachowskis. I have the same issues you do with The Matrix Revolutions (I still love Reloaded), but I’m also one of the people who strongly supports Speed Racer and who thinks Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece. I feel like I “get” what they’re doing more often than not, but I simply cannot “get” Jupiter Ascending, which under its imaginative designs feels like a rote CGI blockbuster that takes no chances narratively, cinematically or philosophically. I kept waiting for the switcheroo, for Jupiter to start saving Caine, or for the element of innovation that would match the groundbreaking action scenes of The Matrix and Speed Racer or the daring storytelling techniques of Cloud Atlas. They never came.

The worst thing about Jupiter Ascending is that it feels butchered, like the scenes are cut short and like expanded elements have been removed to cut the running time. It’s an original story, based on no particular material, but watching the film gave me the feeling I imagine folks jumping into Harry Potter and the The Goblet of Fire without reading the books or seeing the previous movies must have had - I could follow the story, understood the characters but also had the nagging sensation that there was more I wasn’t getting. That there is some reason why an out of nowhere character gets a spotlight, that it would all make more sense to me if I had read the book or comic. There are these space cops, The Aegis, whose actual jurisdiction and authority is unclear and who go from disliking Caine at the beginning to cheering for his survival at the end but I never understood why they had that change of heart about him. It was nice that they cheered for him, but it was as if an entire subplot was cut, or as if your friend who knew the source material could explain it to you better.

So I would like to read the comic on which Jupiter Ascending is based. I would like to get a look at whatever bible the Wachowskis put together, to be able to see how their universe works and what their game plan for this world is. I believe in them - completely believe in them - and this lovely but rote film can’t be what they hoped to make. While they had money and freedom this couldn’t have been what they envisioned when they set out down the path to making Jupiter Ascending. Something went wrong along the way - a rewrite of the script nerfed the uniqueness, or the casting process went awry and we ended up with leaden leads or somewhere in editing they lost sight of the path.

Until then I’ll be buying The Art of Jupiter Ascending so that I can revel in the only aspect of this film that actually, truly works.