Jupiter Ascending hit somewhat of a rocky road in the time leading up to its release. Originally scheduled to be released on July 25, 2014, it was pushed back a week to July 18, 2014, and later, February 6, 2015, supposedly to allow time for completion of several special effects shots. It becomes clear when watching Jupiter Ascending that special care was put into meticulously crafting its gorgeous, creative, and detailed aesthetic, as is standard practice for Hollywood auteurs Andy and Lana Wachowski. Unfortunately, it appears that the usual visual ambition of the visionaries behind The Matrix is once again matched with their usual lack of ambition when it comes to Jupiter Ascending’s clichéd and overstuffed screenplay.
Mila Kunis is a tolerable everywoman in the lead role as Jupiter Jones, the Russian immigrant daughter of an astrologist. Or maybe he’s an astronomer. The film speeds through the story of how Jupiter’s parents met, but it’s entirely unnecessary; I don’t even care about how my parents met, let alone Meg Griffin’s. She’s attacked by aliens, but is saved by some sort of wolf-human hybrid, gloriously named Caine Wise (played by Channing Tatum). He’s a bounty hunter sent by intergalactic emperor Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth) to save her, as she is the reincarnation of Titus’s deceased mother and is therefore entitled to all of his mother’s belongings. He also tries to Freudian-slip a wedding ring onto her finger later on in the film, but that’s to be expected. After all, can royalty without an oedipal complex even claim to be royalty at all? Titus is one of three siblings currently ruling over universal real estate, with his brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne) and sister Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) rounding out a trifecta straight out of King Lear. Jupiter, by assuming her place as the ruler of the universe, now controls Earth, which upsets Balem; he used to own Earth and knows that Jupiter will protect it with it under her control. He wants to harvest the people on Earth in order to turn them into wrinkle cream (it wouldn’t be a Wachowski film without human harvesting as a plot point) because human beings are literally made into an age-defying serum and sold on the market by the Abrasax family business (wholesome family businesses are really hard to come by these days, so that’s nice).
If the plot sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. It feels like both Jupiter Ascending and its probable planned sequel were crammed into a single film once someone at Warner Bros. had the common sense to realize that nobody was going to see this movie. There are two major conflicts in the film, one involving Titus and the other involving Balem, and they’re both handled separately, making the film feel like a to-do list of sorts. For video game players, it’s like the kind of missions in role-playing games that require the player to fetch a thousand different items in order to open a single door. Along the way, there’s an unconvincing and chemistry-free romance between Jupiter and Caine, along with Gundam-style mechs and a space wedding that’s crashed with twice the panache of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, but none of the humor; by the end, at least half of the plot threads relegated to the background are left unresolved. In particular, why is no one stopping the human wrinkle cream industry run by this family? Is it an allegory for the unchecked treatment of animals in the food and pharmaceutical industries? I don’t think it is, but maybe the Wachowskis have a leg up on me.
Sean Bean does nicely in the film as a half-man, half-bee named Stinger (let that sink in), who exists almost solely to provide exposition about intergalactic law enforcement and the nature of royalty within the animal kingdom (leading to one of the funniest lines in the movie about how Jupiter has never been stung by a bee before because they “recognize royalty”). Fans of his will have a fun time wondering how soon into the film he kicks it, and I won’t cheat them by spoiling anything. The real standout performance here is by Golden Globe and SAG Award winner Eddie Redmayne, who may very well be able to add Razzie winner to his résumé by this time next year. Alternating between the low whiny drones of an amateur Voldemort and the echoing, voice crack-ridden yells of John Travolta in Battlefield Earth (all while looking like the only grown-up fan of Evanescence), Redmayne’s acting style truly boggles the mind, simultaneously being both the worst and the best aspect of the film.
If there’s anything truly positive to be said about Jupiter Ascending, though, it’s that it’s a treat for the eyes. One doesn’t usually expect such a gorgeous film to be released so early in the year, but Jupiter Ascending looks as good as any major summer blockbuster, likely because it was initially meant to be one. The space ships are shiny, the CGI creatures and galactic backdrops are mostly integrated well with the exquisite live-action sets, and the costumes are lavish and intricate, creating a sort of “Shakespeare but in space and with more explosions” vibe. There’s a fantastically thrilling set piece early on in the film in which Caine and Jupiter are being chased by small alien fighter jets through the Chicago skyline; watching Channing Tatum glide around on anti-gravity roller skates (not blades, these are definitely skates) gets old by the end of the film, but in this particular set piece, it’s an absolute riot to witness.
Jupiter Ascending was clearly meant to mark the beginning of a new franchise, but given its weak reviews and disappointing box office return, it will likely remain nothing more than a remnant of what could have been, had the Wachowskis steered away from over-familiar territory and gone for a more streamlined narrative. At its best, Jupiter Ascending is a slick and entertaining live-action anime. At its worst, it’s a bad young adult film with grownup characters. Sadly, it leans far too often towards the latter.