Jupiter Ascending is a dazzling and sumptuous visual feast for the eyes. It’s a wildly imaginative, unapologetically insane space opera from The Wachowski siblings.
It also happens to be a complete mess.
Combining the galactic economy-driving royalty aspect of Dune; the glitzy opulence of the costuming and set design of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie (not to mention a bit of its erotica); the pew-pew-pew aerial dogfights and laser gun battles of Star Wars; the thematic template of the Wachowskis’ own Matrix saga; and aesthetic elements from a veritable grab bag of sci-fi fodder like Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, John Carter, The Chronicles Of Riddick, The Mass Effect and Halo video game series, Jupiter Ascending wants to be a spectacle-laden, crowd-pleasing blockbuster (it was actually supposed to be released last July) but unfortunately it will go down as yet another ambitious misfire from the directing tandem.
One of the best things about Jupiter Ascending is its unwavering brashness; the Wachowskis may have sensed their cache in Hollywood and patience from financiers coming to an end after a string of under-performing films, so Andy and Lana likely said, “fuck it, let’s just throw everything we ever imagined into this thing and go down laser guns a blazin’!” C-Tates as a Human/Wolf hybrid? Why not? Space roller blades? Strap ’em on! Cybergoth raver bounty hunters? In! An elephant man named Nesh and an entire menagerie of human/animal gene-spliced freaks straight out of The Island Of Doctor Moreau? Hell yeah! Hulking dragon henchmen? Of course! Hell, there’s even a scene in the movie where the main baddie, played with whispery creepiness by Eddie Redmayne, lounges on a chariot with a human head and torso attached to the front of it. This is a movie that wears its unabashed nerdiness and outlandishness on its sleeve like a badge of honor; it’s just unfortunate that the film’s two leads can’t add any dimension, emotion, or life to compliment all of this visual creativity.
For all its convolution (the plot involves a trio of squabbling royal siblings vying for control of Earth in the wake of their mother’s death, and the dispatching of various mercenaries and creatures to capture and/or kill Jupiter Jones, who is the genetic reincarnation of the Queen), the narrative drive of Jupiter Ascending ultimately depends on the audience giving a shit about the coupling of Channing Tatum’s grim lone wolf warrior Caine Wise and Mila Kunis’ downtrodden dreamer Jupiter. While Tatum is serviceable as the single-purposed ex soldier looking for redemption, his character could have used a dose of the humorous side he’s tapped into in recent years. He also has zero romantic chemistry with Kunis, who continues to be dreadful and dead-eyed in just about every role she takes on.
Perhaps it’s the fault of an unfocused, sloppy screenplay, but when a series of characters dump loads of life-altering, mind-shredding exposition on her, like how Earth was “seeded” thousands of years ago for eventual harvest by a vast, intergalactic dynasty, or that she is actually a reincarnated space queen, Kunis’ Jupiter just shrugs it all off like it’s no big deal, whereas other, more nuanced actresses might have shown layers of wonder, confusion, and existential fear. Kunis just passively floats from scene to scene, accepting the bizarre locales, creatures, battles, and scenarios enveloping her like it’s just another day of cleaning houses with her Mother and Aunt.
The only times she shows any signs of life is when she’s interacting with her loud Russian family and during her big moment of defiance at the climax, which unfortunately shines a light on another of Kunis’ shortcomings — action sequences. Any time she attempts to run, throw punches, or perform any kind of stunt work, it’s laughably ineffectual. She’s slow, awkward, and looks as if she is straining to remember simple choreography, or where to turn to avoid a controlled flame burst on set. I can’t help but think of what an actress with a spark of life behind the eyes and some agency when things get physical like Emma Stone could have done with this part. It’s a baffling bit of casting by the Wachowskis.
The editing also doesn’t do Jupiter Ascending any favors. Overall it’s disjointed and at times difficult to tell which team of bounty hunters or aliens are working for which of the Imperial baddies, or what planet characters are supposed to be on. There’s also a deviation into some pseudo-Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy satire regarding bureaucracy that’s entirely superfluous, and the film could have trimmed a solid 15-20 minutes off of its run time.
Jupiter Ascending isn’t an utter disaster. If you’re looking for an eye-popping, wild space fantasy with endless—and I do mean endless—chase sequences, spaceship battles, last-second saves, and lots of familiar tropes and visual cues from the Wachowskis (yes, there’s plenty of S&M gear and C-Tates executes a Matrix-dodge), it will satisfy your cravings for a fantastic visual experience at the cineplex. Just don’t expect any cohesion, emotional depth, or much originality, because it’s basically The Matrix in space.
2.5 stars out of 5.