Review: “Jupiter Ascending”

If there’s one thing Andy and Lana Wachowski have proven over their years writing, directing, and producing films, it’s that they’re not afraid to dream big, and that fearlessness is fully on display once again in their latest, Jupiter Ascending. They craft a millennia-spanning mythology all their own to build their grand space opera vision around, and actually put forth a few interesting ideas that, had they been packaged within a more compelling plot and brought to life with a stronger cast, might have conceivably served as a genesis for a viable sci-fi film franchise.

Unfortunately, those interesting ideas are lost amidst the many recycled concepts the Wachowskis utilize here, including ones from their own previous creations. Add to that the absolutely ludicrous casting in play here, and you have a movie that’s more likely to inspire unintended giggles and drinking games than “oohs”, “ahhhs”, and clamoring for a sequel. It’s pretty to look at, no doubt, especially if seen in 3D, but compared to other genre-defining space opera of our time, this one’s just plain tone deaf.

Here’s the setup: Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) absolutely hates the life she’s living, cleaning houses for Chicago’s upper crust along with her mother and aunt, living with them and a host of other relatives in a way-too-small house with no prospects for change in sight. But change does indeed come in a big way when she’s rescued from death by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetically-engineered soldier-hunter with a checkered past hired to find Jupiter, keep her alive and bring her to the stars she’s dreamed about all her life in order that she might learn of an inheritance beyond anything she could have possibly imagined.

That inheritance makes her a target of one Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything), the eldest of three siblings each with an interest in Abrasax Industries, an intergalactic corporation whose primary product, immortality via genetic manipulation, is harvested from hundreds of worlds throughout the cosmos, one of those being Earth. Balem currently controls the company, but his brother and sister — Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), respectively — would like nothing more than to change the balance of power among them, each for their own reasons. Jupiter, as she discovers, is a direct threat to that balance due to her natural genetic composition, and so once her genetic makeup is verified beyond doubt, she becomes, depending on the Abrasax sibling in question, either an asset to be controlled or an obstacle to be eliminated.

To keep Jupiter safe and make sure she has an opportunity to realize her true destiny, Caine will need the help of his former mentor and commander, Stinger (Sean Bean), who has plenty of reason to want nothing to do with him. He’ll also have to deal with other bounty hunters and assassins with far more lethal agendas, leading to battle after battle waged everywhere from deep space to the planet Jupiter’s Great Red Spot to the skies above Chicago. Meanwhile Jupiter, reeling from all that’s she’s learning about the galaxy and the true history of the human race and its place in the stars, must figure out who, if anyone, she can trust, and decide whether or not this inheritance is something she even wants, wealthy, power, and a life as far removed from scrubbing toilets as possible notwithstanding.

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After adapting material created previously by others in their last two big budget features, 2008’s Speed Racer and 2012’s Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending marks the Wachowskis’ return to crafting original science fiction material of their own and bringing it to the screen. To execute their grand vision of a unique and original conception of life and society beyond Earth, they’ve brought back together many of the talented creative minds that have helped them bring to life the worlds they’ve previously imagined, a grouping that includes Oscar winners for cinematography (John Toll, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart), visual effects (John Gaeta, The Matrix), and music (Michael Giacchino, Disney’s Up).

As far as crafting the setting and the atmosphere goes, the results are as remarkably breathtaking as you might expect them to be. Thanks to the efforts of this crew, the universe and mythology the Wachowskis attempt to draw audiences into has tremendous storytelling potential due to the variety of spacefaring ships, otherworldly cities and planetscapes, and colorful species co-existing with humanity among the stars that get little attention or back story. The film’s many chases and laser blaster-fueled battles are all orchestrated beautifully; in particular, the film’s aerial chase sequence around and through Chicago’s nighttime skyline is a thing of art, and would make a tremendous theme park ride, given the chance. And as George Lucas once did decades ago with Star Wars, the Wachowskis populate just about every non-action scene with walking, talking story possibilities whose names and origins will probably only ever be known to the production and make-up designers, unless there are sequels in the works or there are Jupiter Ascending action figures on the way (both highly unlikely).

Sadly, all that window dressing proves to be far more interesting than the story of the humans (or mostly humans) featured front and center. For all the innovation in the imagining of the film’s backdrop, in the main story they fall back on territory they’ve already trod to death in their work with The Matrix Trilogy: a chosen one who discovers they have a grand destiny tied to a universe unseen and unknown by everyone else around them, the concept of humanity as a resource to be manipulated and used at the discretion of a malevolent higher power, and the viability of such a system being based on humanity’s egocentrism and base drive as consumers. It’s puzzling and frustrating that such ambitious and thoughtful writers and film makers would, once they went back to writing their own material as opposed to adapting the work of others, go back to the well yet again with themes they’ve previously built their stories around, and it should go without saying that they did it more compellingly the first time around.

And then there’s the casting. For all the credible, acclaimed acting work Channing Tatum has turned in of late, most notably in last year’s Foxcatcher and 2013’s Side Effects, that might garner him attention from casting directors looking to land him for roles with more gravitas, and for how much inner turmoil and checkered back story Caine is shouldered with, the fact that he spends so much time in the film with those shoulders and sometimes his entire torso bared to show off those Magic Mike abs tells you exactly why he was cast: to be eye candy meant to lure female viewers to a film they might otherwise avoid. He’s simply not credible as an otherworldly space warrior, not the way they dress him up and parade him out here. And Kunis, as the Dorothy figure in this spacebound Wizard of Oz tale, is about as bland and misplaced here as her Black Swan castmate Natalie Portman was in the Star Wars prequels. Her “romantic” scenes with Tatum are stiff and lack any discernible chemistry, so that very important element of the plot, which contains just about all of Caine’s motivation for continuing to be the hero, just falls flat. Complete the ensemble with Eddie Redmayne’s weird portrayal of Balem — pale, gaunt, wound way too tight thanks to some serious “mommy” issues and delivering almost all his lines in an anything-but-menacing whisper — and you’ve got all three of your leads more likely to make your audience laugh during pivotal scenes than anything else. It might have helped things along if the other Abrasax siblings had more to do in the story and shared more of the weight in terms of being the film’s villains, but both Booth and Middleton drop out of the proceedings surprisingly early, leaving Redmayne to do all the scene-chewing, to the film’s detriment.

If only they’d given Sean Bean more to do here, too. He’s the only member of this cast that doesn’t look or sound out of place in this production, and he’s relegated to stock character territory. Enjoy the onetime Eddard Stark and his gravelly presence while he’s on screen here, if you bother with this one, and also watch for a rare and rather enjoyable brief appearance in front of the camera by director Terry Gilliam, who himself has crafted more than his share of sci-fi feature film oddities. Maybe that’s why he agreed to do it — he saw in the Wachowskis’ vision the same fearlessness that characterizes his approach to film making, the fearlessness that allowed him to bring forth such oft-misunderstood or underrated classics as Brazil and Time Bandits — or maybe it was that the role he was offered might certainly remind more savvy sci-fi fans of characters found in his films.

Regardless, his work here and Bean’s are not enough to recommend rushing out to see Jupiter Ascending in theaters, or even rushing to the Redbox to get it in six months. For all its visual beauty and whiz-bang special effects fun, just about everyone involved here, the Wachowskis included, have been involved in something better that you can watch at home, instead.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending
Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth. Directed by The Wachowskis.
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity.