Wachowskis' admirably ambitious, ostentatious 'Jupiter Ascending' doesn't have the story, writing or characters to match
Jupiter Ascending Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Screenplay: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Maria Doyle Kennedy
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 7 minutes
February 6, 2015
(out of four)
Allow me, if you will, to recall one of the funniest moments from Jim Abrahams' 1991 spoof Hot Shots!
Charlie Sheen's archetypal Complicated Loner has just sternly, categorically cut himself off from his fellow pilots. "Don't get too close," he says. "Let me handle my own affairs." At which point Jon Cryer's character enters the frame, in close-up, and, with an air of fascination, dramatically proclaims: "He's so complex."
I bring this up because there's a moment just like that in Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis' latest wildly expensive, wildly ambitious sci-fi effort. Our Complicated Loner this time is Channing Tatum, and his love interest - a beautiful young woman, played by Mila Kunis, who's about to discover she is in fact royalty, whose inheritance is, well, Planet Earth - is discussing him, in all his mysterious and contradictory glory, with an old friend of his played by Sean Bean. As Tatum leaves the room, Bean turns around, face squarely in the foreground as he stares intensely off screen and utters, "He's very complicated."
I couldn't help but laugh out loud at that moment - first because it reminded me of the Hot Shots! scene, and secondly because it exemplified a certain lack of self-awareness throughout Jupiter Ascending that I'm still unsure whether to applaud or mock. Probably both. The film is nothing if not earnestly intentioned, an old-fashioned space opera adorned with all the romance, action, betrayal and over-the-top villainy that always comes with the territory. But what's curious about this one - from a filmmaking team usually so confident in their vision, and with a vision that is so vastly different and more idiosyncratic than anything else currently in the marketplace - is that it never figures out how to be itself. You'd think that, in a movie with immortal intergalactic family dynasties, human harvesting, giant lizard men, and half-man/half-dog space cops, the problem would simply be harnessing it all so it wouldn't spin wildly out of orbit. You could easily imagine an outrageous mess along the lines of the filmmakers' previous effort, Cloud Atlas (which I really liked, by the way). But that's not actually the case here. If anything, it's too harnessed, and oddly lacking in personality or energy.
Pass or fail, the Wachowskis always seem to land somewhere specific and unique. With Jupiter Ascending, they've got all the imagination and decoration and special effects, but none of the visceral drive. For a film this fundamentally imaginative and offbeat, it's strangely lethargic, as if its simple, conventional narrative is trapped by the excesses of the cinematic universe that encompasses it. Instead of feeling like part of this wild creative vision, it seems conspicuously separate from it. I couldn't help thinking that, of all the things to explore in this fantastic, galaxy-spanning world, the romantic drama and the power struggle at the center of the Jupiter script have to be the most dull. I wanted to leave everyone behind and go explore different corners of the universe the Wachowskis and their various departments took such pains to imagine and create.
The absence of self-awareness I mentioned earlier is really only a problem because of the blandness of the story and its two central characters. Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, daughter to a slain astrophysicist father and Russian immigrant mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who now makes an altogether unremarkable living as a cleaning woman alongside her mom and Aunt Nino (Frog Stone), and surrounded seemingly at all times by a boisterous extended family. What she doesn't yet know, but will soon discover, is that she is a perfect genetic replica of the matriarch of an extraterrestrial family dynasty that seeded Planet Earth a long, long time ago. As the quite unexpected heir to a planet rich in resources, she is, naturally, the prime target of those who would profit from her absence - namely the other (virtually immortal) members of the House of Abraxas, the principle villain Balem (Eddie Redmayne, in a wretched performance) and his siblings Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton).
Jupiter is an almost entirely passive lead character, spending most of the movie confused and looking for answers as various other characters try to kill, rescue, manipulate, marry or protect her. She has little to do otherwise, which is perhaps why the film feels the need to shoehorn in a romantic entanglement with Caine Wise (Tatum), a genetically modified super soldier who saves Jupiter from mercenaries and transports her to the central planet of a distant galaxy the Abrasax clan calls home.
That there is virtually no heat between Tatum and Kunis is problem enough, but there's also something disjointedly straightlaced about the way both characters are handled. Take Caine, for example. He's part-man, part-wolf, and has a tortured backstory that involves the forced detachment of his wings (yes, really). But that character description is a lot more interesting than the actual character, and the film doesn't really utilize Tatum's skill set as an actor. Even the design of the character seems off - we're told he's half-canine, and yet the only physical characteristic that seems out of the ordinary is his slightly pointy ears. (This is just speculation, but I have to wonder if this is in part a result of the studio not wanting their leading man covered in too much weird or elaborate makeup. In any case, I'd love to see the concept art for the character and make a comparison.)
Kunis is passable, but unlike past Wachowski protagonists who unwittingly discover they are the centerpiece of a grander story - Keanu Reeves' Neo in The Matrix, Doona Bae's Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas - Jupiter doesn't actually have much of an arc. She's pushed and pulled by the whims of the screenplay, but an actual person never fully forms. After one viewing, I can't tell if that's the root cause of Jupiter Ascending's failures, or merely a symptom of them.
The film's best sequence is also its most out of character. Once Jupiter has been acquainted with her new reality, and gotten to size up her various new friends and enemies, we get an extended absurdist setpiece as she tries to officially claim her inheritance - a process that involves going from one department, to the next, to the next. Signing this form, signing that form, getting this authorization, getting that clearance. (Even highly advanced civilizations, it turns out, are susceptible to bureaucratic red tape.) It's such a brazenly Gilliam-esque sequence that it comes as no surprise when Terry Gilliam himself shows up for a delightful cameo role as some sort of official intergalactic notary public. (There's also a "27B-stroke-6" reference.)
But that sense of humor is missing from most of the rest of the movie, which never finds a proper tone or a proper point for any of its sci-fi posturing. Part of me will always love this movie simply for the fact that it exists, and for the fact that the Wachowskis were somehow allowed to make it. But as it's probably the last time for a long time (perhaps ever) they'll be allowed to play in such a huge studio sandbox, I badly wish the result were better and more interesting than it turned out to be.