For the past 15 years following the success of The Matrix, the Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, have tried to make another film that leaves some kind of lasting imprint on the pop culture psyche. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions couldn’t do it, neither could Speed Racer or Cloud Atlas. Now they’re back with their latest science fiction epic Jupiter Ascending, a movie with a few special moments surrounded by a rambling, borderline incoherent story that relies on unimaginative tropes. This is a movie that feels like a second rate knock off of The Matrix.
Jupiter Jones’ (Mila Kunis) family moved to Chicago following the tragic murder of her father by the Russian mob. Jupiter herself was born on a freight ship en route to America. The alignment of the planets and stars promised great things for her future. Despite the promises of astrology, Jupiter is working as a maid with her family. Desperate for money, Jupiter agrees to sell some of her eggs for some quick cash. During the procedure, mysterious aliens attempt to kill her. Luckily, she’s saved by Caine (Channing Tatum), a half-man half-wolf hybrid called a “splice.” It is eventually revealed that Jupiter is the reincarnation of the last queen of Jupiter and the rightful heir to the Abrasax family fortune, which is just a bunch of planets including Earth. The Abrasax family is full of in-fighting. The two brothers Balem (Eddie Redmayne) and Titus (Douglas Booth) are fighting with one another over the ownership of multiple planets. Now Caine and Jupiter, with an assist from Stinger (Sean Bean), Caine’s former military commander, must ensure that Jupiter is allowed to inherit what is rightfully hers while preventing the Abrasax family from usurping Jupiter from her throne.
Jupiter Ascending is unrepentantly goofy and that wouldn’t be a negative if the story wasn’t told in such a messy, unnecessarily convoluted way. In a number of ways the opening scenes are very much reminiscent of The Matrix. It tries to maintain an element of mystery as to the how and why of what is happening. By the time they try to fill the audience in on the gaps, the story has already inundated the audience with a bunch of flashy CGI and very confusing exposition. It’s very much in line with practically all post-Matrix film by the Wachowskis – it’s too big for its own good. But unlike the Wachowski’s other films, Jupiter Ascending has very little to say about anything. While it’s certainly easy to see the film a critique of capitalism, it lacks any bite or wit to its commentary. It’s like a fan fiction crossover of The Matrix and Soylent Green. And though that may sound cool, it isn’t.
There’s no greater shortcoming in Jupiter Ascending than the character of Jupiter Jones itself. Not only do they give the character little depth or purpose by simply making her the chosen one, ordained by birth, but even as the film progresses she’s really nothing more than a damsel in distress. Jupiter must be saved by Channing the Dog-Faced Boy on numerous occasions. This was made all the worse by having her character be extremely gullible. She trusted everyone, including characters that are just short of looking her directly in the eyes and screaming, “I’m a villain!” Her gullibility knows no bounds. Earlier in the film when she’s arranging to sell her eggs, she just blindly agrees that her cousin will get $10,000 while she only gets $5,000. Maybe, just maybe, this an attempt to comment on wage disparity, yet it makes such little sense on every level that it undermines whatever point they may be trying to make.
Of all the subpar performances that populate Jupiter Ascending, none stands out quite as much as Eddie Redmayne. It’s easy to see why people in his camp don’t want Oscar voters seeing this performance. It’s really bizarre and over the top, but it is the most interesting work of any of the actors. Aside from Redmayne, Tatum can’t let loose his charms, playing more of a sullen warrior, and Kunis does little with the little she has to work with. The best performance in the film is probably the brief cameo by Terry Gilliam during the film’s bizarre turn into a Brazil homage, complete with a bureaucratic nightmare.
I really want to like an original sci-fi film, but Jupiter Ascending isn’t it. Certain artists are best suited by limitations, and I believe the Wachowskis are in great need of limitations – both in storytelling and in visual effects. Because Jupiter Ascending is overflowing with unnecessary elements right down to the 3D which seems to merely exist to extort money from undiscerning international audiences. With the lone exception of a thrilling action sequence in Chicago, Jupiter Ascending can’t keep the audience interested in the action, let alone why they should be interested. It’s such a messy work that one wonders if it will prevent the Wachowskis from making another film of the same scale in the future. But whether you cared for Cloud Atlas or Speed Racer, it’s easy to admit that neither are as underwhelming as Jupiter Ascending.