by Philip Price
There is something oddly charming to the outright oddity that “Jupiter Ascending” is trying so hard to be. It is in this pushing, this trying to separate itself that the Wachowksi siblings, Andy and Lana, perpetuate their inherent “weirdness” while what they are actually trying to do is paint a mind of possibilities in a way that feels illogical when first introduced, but makes greater sense as a greater understanding and deeper contemplation are taken into account. As written by The Wachowski’s it would seem likely that “Jupiter Ascending” once had a greater amount of substance to it than what the final product delivers. As the credits began to roll what I was left with was the incessant nagging of my brain questioning what exactly the directing duo were trying to say with this film. There is always a stream of consciousness to The Wachowski’s films hinting at an overarching theme, but it seemed all I was left with here were a few cool ideas, some exceptional visuals and a solid piece of entertainment value, but little to actually ponder. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with making an outright spectacle that delivers large scale thrills in spades with little to no substance, but what makes “Jupiter Ascending” not that type of movie is that it’s clear that wasn’t the original intent of its creators. Throughout, there are consistent hints of a much larger, much stronger narrative existing within this well-developed universe The Wachowski’s have created, but unfortunately much of it is lost in the barrage of frequent action scenes that take us from point A to point B. It’s also true that the plot becomes a little too convoluted and tiresome by the time it reaches the third act yet I was never bored either with what I saw unfolding in front of me or what might be staged next. In this regard, while “Jupiter Ascending” is certainly strange to the point it will immediately off-put some and may be The Wachowski’s most outright weird production to date for others familiar with their work it is also their most commercially accessible given the style over substance mentality it has seemed to take on in its delay. Despite it not living up to what I’d hoped it be, there is still plenty of fun to be had here and more than enough to marvel at.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), born to a Russian mother in the middle of the night on a cargo ship, is nothing to take note of. Her father, who is inexplicably killed in the first scene, was a lover of the stars and destined his daughter be stuck with that horrible name. In all honesty, that opening scene seems to exist solely to justify the name of the titular character and therefore the title of the movie while also, I guess, setting up the unenviable lifestyle Jupiter and her mother fall into once in the United States. Jupiter along with her mother and aunts work as maids for the wealthy, cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors all day. Naturally, Jupiter dreams of something more, something her destiny feels more in line with, but when she becomes the target of an intergalactic dynasty intent on getting Jupiter on their side for reasons of inheritance she gets more than she bargained for. If you hadn’t guessed already, we’re not alone in the universe and in fact, it is one big booming industry anchored by a product that us mere humans don’t think of as product, but rather an unobtainable commodity we cannot gain more of: time. It is after the matriarch of what we come to learn is the House of Abrasax dies that her children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth), go to war over a small planet called Earth that happens to hold a being who shares their mother’s genetic code. This somehow makes Jupiter the heir to the throne (after essentially going through immigration and becoming a citizen of the galaxy of course) and the owner of the universe if she so chooses. As spoiled kids do, Balem and Titus begin fighting over who rightly owns Earth and in turn, Jupiter, while Kalique sits back and watches while delivering a bunch of exposition. Titus attempts to coax Jupiter into joining his plight while Balem simply puts a bounty on her head. To avoid the bounty hunters, Titus sends out the genetically engineered interplanetary warrior Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who is referred to as a “splice” as he is half dog, half man. One can see what angles will be played here as Caine is regretful of his past and feels inadequate as a human while Jupiter, coming to realize the extent of the Abrasax dynasty’s intentions, has to save her world.
It is clear very early on what The Wachowski’s hoped this film might be. Like “The Matrix” and “Cloud Atlas” before it, these guys don’t simply make movies to serve as distractions for a couple of hours, but rather they create templates for conversation. They strive for visual-think pieces. They like to create experiences from which we can take away what might be a fresh perspective and apply them to thoughts we might have already considered giving way to what might be an even more original idea. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of “Jupiter Ascending” as it has all the ambition in the world, but leaves a strangely barren feeling of not making a statement outside of the somewhat standard thoughts on money, family, love and the level of importance we place on each. Given the level of detail included in fleshing out the rules of this universe one might expect greater metaphorical or analogical implications, but besides some of the more obvious correlations concerning Tatum’s character and his fallen angel status as well as the clear commentary on the level of bureaucracy present in our culture that serves as a means to need to classify and organize everything to the point there is no point anymore, we don’t have much. While much of bureaucratic registration sequence could be relegated to The Wachowski’s attempt at humor outside of their rather serious-minded film it does bring to mind the level of corporation brought to the galaxy as it is approached as a large company. In these details one assumes the filmmakers are attempting to elicit a mirror of our own race for how little our actions and attempts at this kind of organization mean in the face of the vastness of the universe. More to the point, these kinds of ideas feel like something that should only begin to scratch the surface of what The Wachowski’s are alluding to and what topic they want to put on the table with their latest. Instead, this is all I’m able to come up with and that is after seriously sitting back and taking a moment to consider what weight this movie might hold outside of its spectacle.
Despite all of this it would be a lie to say I didn’t have a blast watching this movie. While there are certainly a number of disappointing facets to the film, as I’ve touched on prior, the fact it is immensely enjoyable on a pure entertainment level is not to be taken for granted. If anything, the straight-up entertainment value of “Jupiter Ascending” will promote the re-watchability of it that will in turn allow me to hopefully garner more substance from the going-ons of what I initially saw in front of me to what The Wachowski’s intended for me to take away from it. Besides the tone and scale of the picture, it is clear this is a massive universe of governing systems and dynasties and all sorts of avenues they would be keen to explore further given the opportunity and I wouldn’t mind it a bit given more films in the series would likely only add more flesh to the bones “Jupiter Ascending” has presented us with, but I somehow doubt we’ll ever see those adventures.
There is no denying the ridiculousness of something as inherently dorky as what we see on screen here, I mean, Channing Tatum is basically a Werewolf with Elf ears that sprouts wings (spoiler alert!), but there are enough genuinely cool ideas thrown in to justify the idea that general audiences will dig what this film has to offer. Despite it being chock full of fantastic action sequences there is the appeal of the popular cast to be considered. Tatum is a draw regardless of what he’s wearing (or not wearing) and while he certainly has the most to overcome here, he wears it well and never once did I catch myself snickering at his appearance, but more appreciating his willingness to play it straight and subdued rather than making the attitude of Caine match his outlandish appearance. Kunis, on the other hand, is fine, but like in “Oz the Great and Powerful” she feels miscast as her reputation for her comic work doesn’t lend well to this kind of material where the audience doesn’t need to be laughing, but might be easily tempted given some of Kunis’ mannerisms will certainly invoke a few unintentional chuckles. Finally, I just can’t get on the Eddie Redmayne train as here. Just as in “Les Misérables,” he is trying too hard to camp it up and the effort bleeds through the actual performance making it feel as forced as it is.
What gives the greatest inclination to what The Wachowski’s wanted this film to be though is the score from Michael Giacchino. It is superbly epic and even overpowering in some scenes, but it makes its point. It adds a grand gesture to the sweeping visuals we are watching and creates the almost unattainable scope and theory behind what the writer/directors are trying to capture on film while being undermined only by the lack of depth in that theory. It is the issue with many a science fiction films or films in general that intend on hooking the viewer with a mystery in that they often can’t deliver on the promises of that intriguing hook. “Jupiter Ascending” is an achievement in that it was made in the first place and the battle over the skyline of Chicago is one of absolute wonder and an experience I will cherish getting to see play out on an IMAX screen and maybe one of the best of the year, despite the rest of the film feeling pieced together from a grander film we will never be privy to screening. We’re told the difference between the human race on Earth and those able to understand the existence of intelligent life outside our small sphere is their knowledge and technology. “Jupiter Ascending” wants to convey this higher intelligence level through a display of originally extravagant costumes and tech while deluding the more uncomfortable suggestions of its content through the action we’re bombarded by. It makes me wonder what we might have been given were The Wachowski’s not granted a $175 million budget and what insight we might have taken away from that film. Maybe this presumed financial failure will lead to a more subtle, less extravagant success in the future as their minds (and hearts) are clearly in an interesting place.