Oh boy. This is going to be a challenging review to write.
Despite all the nasty things I’m about to say, I found Jupiter Ascending to be very compelling. The Wachowskis were onto something here – something that was an original idea and not a retread of an old property designed to set nostalgia goggles off. I think Jupiter Ascending should still be celebrated for being a gamble. I would rather see filmmakers try and fail. It’s better than not trying at all and remaking, say, Starship Troopers just because people have heard the name before.
I hope that comes across in this review.
Now then, let’s get to it.
Ever since the release of the first Matrix movie sixteen years ago (Jesus.) the Wachowski siblings have been in a bit of a conundrum. With the exception of V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced, but did not direct) they’ve been playing to a diminishing audience and most critics are dismissing them as washed up has-beens that can’t tell a coherent story. It started with the release of the Matrix sequels and the huge audience backlash against the conclusion and continued with what was supposed to be big blockbuster events like Speed Racer.
But there are people who still celebrate their works as being visually arresting and at least challenging. Count me among them. The Matrix sequels are not as bad as their reputation (the same narrative problems and goofy sequences were present in the first Matrix, but no one seems to care). Cloud Atlas was among the best films of 2012. I haven’t seen Speed Racer, but it looked like a great attempt to create a new visual world. That’s becoming rare indeed. And Ninja Assassin – OK, that was awful, but they didn’t direct that.
The Wachowskis seem to be focused on science fiction tropes and examining why they affect us in the way that they do. It means that, sometimes, their films come across more as stoned post graduate essays than narrative films. This is going to alienate some people, but that’s something worth thinking about.
Jupiter Ascending fits into that tradition at its basic level. It’s a gorgeous looking film that examines virtually every single science fiction trope in existence.
But that’s the first of many flaws in Ascending – it’s almost in love with its complexity. I can’t begin to describe all the plot points of the film. I think it’s about the fact that the Earth is actually a gigantic farm for human cells that are sold to wealthy humans on other planets so that they can live for tens of thousands of years. This company is lead by the Abrasax family, who are considered royalty. Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones, a person on earth who happens to be the exact genetic replicant of the Abrasax’s siblings mother. (This is because the genetic code only has a finite number of sequences, so such copies are treated as reincarnations of the original.) She is thus legally entitled to own the earn the earth. This sets up a great conflict with the Abrasax siblings – one seeks to kill her and one seeks to marry her. She’s being protected by a man named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who I think is a human crossed with a wolf.
After that, you’re on your own.
The film keeps introducing elements of this world throughout the entire run time. We don’t get an explanation about Jupiter until at least an hour into it (and even then it’s rather flimsy), and we don’t hear about the villains’ plans until the third act.
This is a problem. It’s basic story telling – all stakes must be laid out in the first act. Introducing new points that late is a distraction from whatever you’re trying to accomplish.
And the villains are not that interesting anyway. Eddie Redmayne gives the worst performance of his and several other careers as Balem Abrasax. He barely speaks above a whisper and has no emotion in any of the delivery of his lines. His motivations are confused and he’s about as threatening as a small child with a water pistol. He probably just cost himself an Oscar.
Jupiter herself is quite a bland character. That worked in The Matrix, because it emphasized Neo’s transformation from an everyman into a messiah. I never get the sense of Jupiter’s arc though. She also fails to become a strong female character, hopping at the chance to kiss Caine at the first moment. This romance subplot makes no sense in the context of the film. Jones never becomes a strong female character the film so clearly wants her to be.
Again, the whole idea that has kept the Wachowskis afloat creatively is the fact that they know these tropes and these ideas. If they make mistakes with them, then their approach will stumble. That’s what happened in Jupiter Ascending. They had these great ideas about space opera Some worked, but others did not. The Wachowskis were just throwing things and seeing what stuck. That’s not going to make for a real cohesive whole. Maybe what they needed to do was turn it into a TV series. That would have fleshed out the characters more and, perhaps, given audiences a more complete experience. Right now, it almost feels like I’m watching a clip show to some cult sci-fi series.
So what works? Well, the action sequences are fantastic. The gravity boots that Caine wears are a particularly nice touch. They serve as a great reference to The Matrix without being a direct lift of the bullet time. There are also several funny moments in the film, which may represent the Wachowski’s first attempt at comedy. Terry Gilliam makes a cameo during an extended tribute to his Brazil, and most of the “bad” dialogue that other critics have commented were deliberate jokes. Also, when the space opera elements did work, they worked incredibly well. To me, it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was meant to be a deconstruction of science fiction. Jupiter Ascending’s plot is no more complex than Dune’s, and features equally bad dialogue.
So, there are many things to like about Jupiter Ascending. But I just can’t get over the terrible performances and some of the most pointless set pieces. It’s going to alienate a lot of people – and, indeed, already has. The Wachowskis are smarter than this, so I’m not sure why these elements were not corrected.
But, there are so many good ideas present in Jupiter Ascending that I still enjoyed it. Hopefully, they Wachowskis will learn from their mistakes and give us a full experience next time. Hey, aren’t they developing a TV show for Netflix?