Jupiter Ascending (United States, 2015)February 04, 2015
One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.
Visually, Jupiter Ascending excels, although those with an aversion to CGI may be offended. A close cousin to the special effects excesses of George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels, Jupiter Ascending makes sure that its entire budget ends up on display. There are some jaw-dropping space battle scenes and more pyrotechnics than even Michael Bay has attempted. One can throw many criticisms at Jupiter Ascending but it's never boring. It is, however, occasionally unfocused, sometimes confusing, and saddled with a too-predictable ending.
The film begins in a low-key fashion, introducing us to Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant to the United States who works as a paid maid to help her family make ends meet. Little does she know, she has been targeted by an alien conglomerate for extermination. The Abrasax family - Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth) - see Jupiter as either a threat or an opportunity and act according to their own interests. Balem sends assassins to Chicago to eliminate her. Titus hires Caine (Channing Tatum), an elite ex-military "hunter," to protect her and bring her to him. Kalique plays her cards close to her chest; it's unclear what her goals are until she reveals them. It doesn't take long before the laser beams start firing and Jupiter discovers she is very definitely no longer in Kansas - and not even on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is episodic and none of the episodes are developed as fully as they should be. The sense of incompleteness increases as the movie unspools. The love story between Jupiter and Caine is rushed, giving the Padme/Anakin affair in Attack of the Clones a run for its money as the least convincing sci-fi screen romance in recent memory. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum evidence little in the way of chemistry but this could be more the fault of the action-oriented script than an inability of the actors to meaningfully connect. And, although Tatum's casting is defensible, the same claim can't be made of Kunis, who is out of her depth. Delightful in smaller movies, Kunis never convinces as the Earth-born, space-faring heroine of this would-be epic.
In many ways, Jupiter is the least interesting character. The Abrasax siblings are more complex and deserving of a greater share of the screen time than they are accorded. Kalique's amoral ambiguity is fascinating and Titus' oily charm and obscure motives make him a fascinating antagonist. Balem is a more straightforward villain, although 2015 Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne plays him like he's auditioning for a part in a remake of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Sean Bean portrays a standard-order grizzled veteran whose loyalties are as flexible as circumstances dictate.
Although Jupiter Ascending contains its share of missteps, there is a moment of brilliance that deserves recognition. During an extended aside, we are treated to a satirical look at the bureaucratic labyrinth that infects the alien society into which Jupiter is catapulted. She is shuttled from officious paper-pusher to officious paper-pusher without getting closer to a resolution. I was strongly reminded of Brazil - an intentional allusion made concrete when the final bureaucrat on Jupiter's odyssey is played by none other than Terry Gilliam. It's as audacious a wink as one can imagine.
Fans of the Wachowskis may be disappointed that Jupiter Ascending recalls their more recent efforts - the bloated Matrix sequels and Cloud Atlas - than it does the tight, taut movies they made early in their careers (Bound and The Matrix in particular). It's a hit-and-miss affair - not so bad that it deserves dismissal but not good enough to earn a strong recommendation. The 3-D is a mess and Michael Giacchino's overbearing score frequently drowns out the dialogue. Jupiter Ascending may have enough energy and razzle-dazzle to compensate for some of its deficiencies but there are a few too many of them to lift the film out of the decaying orbit into which it enters.
Jupiter Ascending (United States, 2015)
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton
Home Release Date: 2015-06-02
Screenplay: The Wachowskis
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers