Jupiter Ascending Lacks Gravity but Owns Spectacle
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2015 5 Feb
DVD Release Date: June 2, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: February 6, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content, partial nudity, and some language)
Genre: Science Fiction
Run Time: 127 min
Directors: Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, James D'Arcy
The Wachowski siblings, the writer/director filmmaking duo, have built a career from the phenomenal success of The Matrix. But since then (and, really, starting with the disastrous final chapter of that saga), the Wachowskis have shown that while they excel at creating magnificent new worlds, they're not so gifted at creating the people who live in them. Jupiter Ascending continues that mixed tradition but, to its credit, is the most entertaining effort by the Wachowskis in nearly fifteen years.
Originally slated to be a blockbuster release in the summer of 2014, Jupiter Ascending was yanked from the July slate at the last minute and moved to early February – the time of year when studios often dump their troubled projects, a wise box office strategy for this likely lost cause. That said, it's not entirely indicative of where Jupiter Ascending lands as a piece of satisfying escapist fare. Yes, the story is too convoluted for its own good, and yes the characters – in both script and performance – are almost entirely underwhelming, but wow is it often an eye-poppingly fun ride.
Charting a very generic Hero's Journey template, Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis, Oz the Great and Powerful), a toilet-scrubbing maid who thinks she’s a nobody but soon discovers that, in the context of the entire universe, she's galactic royalty. What unfolds on a rather grand scale is the journey of her, well, ascent.
In classic Wachowski fashion, they've constructed a mythology way too complex to unpack in a two-hour narrative, but that doesn't stop them from trying. The burden of this falls on the movie's first hour, and while it doesn't actually get bogged down in the unpacking – action sequences unfold at properly metered intervals – the volumes of exposition fly by way too fast.
Details get lost, but all you basically need to know is this: two alien brothers who own claims to planets throughout the universe end up fighting over Earth (because it's one of the most valuable, naturally), and Jupiter Jones is the vital asset because, as the reincarnation of an alien princess, she alone owns the title to Earth's claim. Commence space opera.
Balem, the psychotic brother (played by Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything), looks to take our planet and Jones by force, dispensing creepy alien creatures to abduct her, while the Caligula-like Titus (Douglas Booth, Noah) hires a renegade warrior to get to her first. That warrior is Caine (Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher), an ex-military alien and genetic humanoid/wolf hybrid, who also employs the help of his former commander Stinger (Sean Bean, Percy Jackson and the Olympians) despite a lingering rift between the two.
Once you get past how over-complicated the whole mythos is, two fundamental problems remain. One is obvious, and the other slowly reveals itself. What is clear is how boring and flat these characters are. No matter how high the stakes are (and with the balance of the entire cosmos on the line, they couldn't be any higher), if you don't actually care about the characters then you're not going to care about the outcome. Other than Bean, the performances never reach any level of sincere conviction or passion, with Kunis coming off as particularly artificial (and she only gets worse as the film progresses). Tatum is brawny but bland, Booth's Titus is theatrically banal, and Redmayne seems to be the only guy relishing the scenery he's asked to chew. Sure, it's a ridiculously campy turn, but at least he's going for something.
The more fatal flaw is the narrative trajectory of Jupiter herself. I don't know if I’ve ever seen a more passive protagonist. As Jupiter is tugged, jostled, and pulled between guardian protectors and warring siblings – and deceived, threatened, and in need of rescue at every level of her so-called ascent – she has no active role in her own destiny. From start to finish, she's only a pawn. It's easy to understand feminist objections to characters like these who are mere victims-without-agency (to coin a complaint). Like salt in the "damsel in distress" wound, Jupiter's romantic attraction to Caine pops up out of nowhere, emphasizing the forced nature of its own cliché (and worse yet, Kunis and Tatum have zero chemistry). As a character arc it's not just lifeless, it's embarrassing.
But then, with such stunning visual grandiosity and thrill-packed action, all of the aforementioned problems don't really end up mattering much. Sure, the story's dense and the characters weak, but its hard to articulate how refreshing it is to not see yet another Marvel or Middle-Earth universe regurgitated on-screen.
This is a brilliantly conceived and achieved spectacle on every front; not just visual effects but also costumes, set design, make-up, the works. Even Michael Giacchino's score is a rousing throwback that stands out in the white noise of theme-less atmospheric bombast common to so many current big-budget adventures. Where the movie misses in plot, it makes up for in the kind of inspired creative ambition we go to the movies for.
Sure, there's also occasionally clever bits (explanations for what really killed the dinosaurs, the cause of crop circles, etc.), but the thrill of the spectacle can barely alleviate what's missing: characters that resonate at the level of Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity. Yet while Jupiter Ascending won't leave you gasping, "Mind. Blown," it's not a waste either. If it looks like something you might enjoy, you probably will. Unfortunately, it doesn't earn the right to be the film that makes studios rethink their strategy of only risking big budgets on familiar properties (comics, YA novels, Star Wars, et al.) rather than original ideas anytime soon.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: None.
- Language/Profanity: Six S-words, three H-words, one D-word, and three instances of the Lord's name taken in vain.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A few instances of romantic kissing. A brief scene suggesting an orgy (the bodies of a man and women are obscured by a mystical cloud, but sounds and faces reveal intent). The full naked backside of woman is seen as she emerges from a pool. A scene in which a woman walks around her room in underwear/lingerie.
- Violence/Other: Many sequences of sci-fi violence, from sci-fi weaponry and warfare to scary aliens. Some bloody wounds and scars are seen. Some people are murdered/killed at point-blank range. A baby being born is shown. Scary alien medical procedures that include multiple simultaneous needle piercings. Some other medical procedures. Scenes of physical hand-to-hand fights/combat. Some alien creatures are grotesque and scary.
Publication date: February 5, 2015