At this point in the Wachowskis’ career, another hyped-up science-fiction saga about fate and humanity-as-cattle feels like less of a recurring theme and more like a lack of imagination.
Jupiter AscendingDirector: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird
Studio: Warner Bros.
UK Release Date: 2015-02-06 (General)
US Release Date: 2015-02-06 (General)
There was a time when beautifully begrimed working-class movie heroines would be delighted to discover they had royal blood coursing through their veins. While those Cinderella stories focused on the romance between girl and prince, Jupiter Ascending changes the stakes. Here, the princess must save the world and the prince has had his DNA spliced with that of a wolf.
Ah, love, Wachowski-style.
In Larry and Lana Wachowski's tremendously silly new space opera, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a grumpy young woman who hates cleaning houses with her Russian immigrant family in Chicago. Her voiceover lays out a fantastic origin story in which she’s birthed on a cargo ship bound for America after her starry-eyed astronomer father is killed by thugs back in Russia. “This is bullshit,” Jupiter concludes. One is inclined to agree after the action shifts off-planet, where a trio of royal siblings who have a thing for “harvesting” planets blithely squabble over the rights to Earth. The creepiest of the Abrasax kids, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), starts scheming in dark ways that will certainly involve Jupiter and disadvantage his brother Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). We are assured of Balem’s villainy not just because of his fey hand gestures and baroque outfits, but also his tendency to toy with his syllables like a cat with a bit of string. These are not the mannerisms of a kind-hearted galactic despot.
Jupiter is as straightforward as Balem and his siblings are opaque. Even after a logically torturous scene where Jupiter is rescued from being kidnapped by grotesque aliens at a fertility clinic where she’s trying to sell some of her eggs in order to buy a telescope (Dad was an astronomer, after all), she barely registers that anything momentous is happening. No matter that her rescuer, Caine (Channing Tatum), is a galactic legionnaire with lupine genes and super-cool hover boots who blows apart half of Chicago's Loop during the ensuing chase scene and laser-cannon fight. Jupiter takes it all in stride, even after she’s zipped off into outer space, informed that she’s royalty, introduced to the late-Roman Empire ways of the Abrasax clan, educated on what “harvesting” will mean for the people of Earth, and given a wedding outfit by Titus that would make Padme Amidala sick with envy.
This blasé reaction might be ascribed to Kunis’ performance, which might charitably be described as "reserved". But it might also have something to do with the Wachowskis' apparent impatience with the particulars of their own story. As a filmmaking team, the two have delivered stronger films when adapting someone else's material (Cloud Atlas, Speed Racer) or ransacking someone else's ideas (The Matrix trilogy).
Jupiter Ascending is the Wachowskis' first "original" work in years, but it seems second-hand in look and theme. The glowingly animated backgrounds of the Abrasax palaces sometimes look like something dreamed up by Lucasfilm for the royal palace on Naboo; at other times, like digital art-school assignments to evoke famous Spanish buildings (Gehry’s Bilbao museum and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in particular). The squabbling between hyper-powerful millennia-old royal beings feels like third-hand Greek mythology as strained through the Thor films.
Even more disheartening, the thematic focus on humanity being nothing more than fodder for the machine (Titus informs Jupiter that “Life is an act of consumption”) shapes both Cloud Atlas and The Matrix. An iron-willed humanist rejection of such a reductive predatory capitalist scheme can make for stirring drama: it worked for those films, at least somewhat. But the Wachowskis are so busy ginning up hackneyed shootouts, spaceship battles, campy dialogue for Balem, and wooden romantic moments between Caine and Jupiter that they leave themselves no time for anything else. There’s an escapist summertime space opera buried here somewhere, but Jupiter Ascending's surface is not nearly entertaining enough to encourage us to look for it.