Jupiter Ascending is a gorgeous mess of nonsensical proportions. Its beautiful yet empty—a stereotypical fashion model of a movie, both gorgeous and illiterate. There are costumes, effects, planets and alien landscapes sumptuous to the degree of appearing edible. Even the 3D effects are well done, if ubiquitous and unnecessary. And yet, with all the chases, crumbling infrastructures, battles and explosions—there’s also no engagement with the characters. No sense of urgency or danger. No sense that anything bad is ever really going to happen to our heroine, even as she hangs onto a loose platform above a enflamed abyss. The film stumbles like a drunk whenever it attempts to explain itself. About an hour in Jupiter’s ascension, I watched a couple several rows in front of me get up and walk out, not to return. If I wasn’t with my friend who invited me, I would have left with them.
What kept me satiated were the effects. The Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, are sci-fi visionaries with some dense ideas even as they are also miserable storytellers. Their best, The Matrix, V for Vendetta, are brain rattling as they to push some truly revolutionary ideas that still resonate years later. I couldn’t get high enough to watch Speed Racer. I’ll approach Cloud Atlas when I let go of my cynicism. But with Jupiter Ascending, as best I can figure, the story is this. Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones—-immigrant Cinderella-styled daughter of a Russian mother and conveniently murdered astronomer father. Jupiter wastes her miserable life in Chicago cleaning toilets of the rich. Its an endless cycle of scrub, wash, repeat until Jupiter nearly falls prey to alien mischief. Early on, she submits herself to selling her eggs for money in a fertility clinic (she has a large poor family with expensive tastes), but the doctors are actually E.T.’s in disguse! Pushing wrong buttons and raising dangerous levels! But since Jupiter is destined for great things, before the aliens can kill her and cash in some intergalactic bounty, she is rescued by Caine, (Channing Tatum) her protector and bodyguard. He’s a military trained, wingless fallen-angel wolf dude spliced with dog-DNA and armed with anti-gravity sneakers and invisible shield. I think I explained that right, even as I’m not sure that last sentence is ‘right.’
Um… So Caine has been assigned to protect Jupiter because she turns out to be royalty and the earth is part of her inheritance. But she doesn’t know her lineage. Her siblings however, led by Eddie Redmayne, plot to murder her before she can claim her right to earth and everything. And… oh nevermind. There’s a lot of business in Jupiter Ascending, and though its pretty, its plot is murky and devoid of tension. And common sense, too.
For example, somewhere around Act 2 of the film, Caine brings Jupiter to meet Stinger, (Sean Bean. See Season 1 of Game of Thrones) another earth bound alien who’s been spliced with the DNA from bees and understands Jupiter’s royalty. Stinger is a former soldier who also served in the military with Caine. Not that I actually understood this from watching the movie, but rather from clicking IMDB. During his sequence in the film, I turned to my friend and asked: “Have you ever met a woman or anyone not freaked out by bees?” That Jupiter plays with them like children is eventually ‘explained’, but only after she spends several minutes standing in an over grown yard in front of a house that’s itself a beehive. To say: I believe Channing Tatum is part wolf who can track a person through the universe by scent and that his wings were removed for punishment, but I don’t believe a group of people, men or women, would hold a conversation in a yard overrun with bees. My belief refused to suspend.
Sorry, I got off topic. Where was I? I think I was on how murky the plot was and how devoid of tension it was and how as an audient I wasn’t feeling engaged with the story and characters. I’m not clear how one commutes back and forth from Earth to the … Planet where part of this story takes place. And that planet was named, right? Let me check the plot description on IMDB. OK, I don’t see it. But after Jupiter and Caine arrives at this planet and meet and greets her distant alien kin and subjects, Jupiter then has to wander through a dark forest of bureaucracy that wasn’t scary or funny or ironic at all, but rather made me think of other sci-fi movies about dystopian futures.
And then there’s the villain, Balem, as rendered by Eddie Redmayne. Balem’s not threatening enough to be scary or intimidating. His work here is ripe to be parodied – his whisper to a scream style of speaking is hilariously misguided. I’m told he just earned an Oscar nomination for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and I can’t help but wonder what if his alien character here was confined to a space-chair and spoke through a voice box? I mean, here he sits in a huge throne room on a floating love seat instructing winged lizards to do his bidding, so why not?
Should I even mention acting here? I was turned on by Mila Kunis in Black Swan, and even sat through Oz the Great and Powerful, though gritting my teeth much of its running time. She has nothing to work with here. Her character advances like a pawn through the plot, left to only ask questions or scream while holding on to Caine’s shoulders as he skates through the Chicago skyline or some enflamed industrial alien city in collapse. Channing Tatum’s Caine meanwhile is a good dog, a loyal warrior. But Channing has no business playing a sci-fi character. As much as I dug his work in Foxcatcher, I don’t think you could switch Tatum with Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and still get a good, fun movie. Tatum should stay grounded.
Jupiter Ascending takes itself too seriously to be much fun or funny. The scattered jokes and one-liners are too dull for even a rim-shot. There’s a quick visual gag involving a car alarm I smiled at, then felt guilty for enjoying myself in quiet theater. And it feels weird, frankly, to see a film none of the stakes pushing the film towards its climax matters. What destruction happens early in the film in Chicago is easily explained away. But more important… If owning the earth were available to you, what exactly would you do with it once you had it? In a way, The Wachowski’s were given keys to all of Hollywood after the juggernaut success of the Matrix, and despite the films of pretty colors they make, they’ve squandered their inheritance big time.