You don’t have to be an aficionado of science fiction to recognise that the Wachowski’s latest production, Jupiter Ascending, draws inspiration from countless sci-fi forebears. Oh, sure, it’s an “original” property, but as with the Wachowskis’ output from The Matrix and beyond, it’s an unabashed pastiche.
Jupiter Ascending’s setting is classic space opera, galaxies ruled over by the three “Abrasax” siblings, each more evil than the last (it’s sort of a King Lear situation, except without the King or the Lear). Their intergalactic economy runs on ‘harvesting,’ a charming euphemism for planetary genocide and an entirely unsubtle metaphor for the selfishness of late capitalism. This will be familiar to you from films like Soylent Green, Dark City and, of course, The Matrix and its sequels.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is launched into this complicated cosmos; she’s an unassuming young cleaner who is, of course, destined for greatness thanks to her royal gene pool (much like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars or John Connor in Terminator or Harry Potter in, uh, Harry Potter, Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy – hell, it’s harder to think of a fantasy/sci-fi franchise without this classic spin on the Hero’s Journey). She pairs up with an albino half-man-half-dog soldier (yes) played by Channing Tatum, who’s called Caine Wise and appears to be the result of an experiment combining Han Solo and Chewbacca then carefully extracting all elements of charm and humour. Together, they save the universe because what else were they going to do?
The film looks a bit like Guardians of the Galaxy, a bit like The Fifth Element, a bit like Flash Gordon. Gugu Mbatha-Raw wears giant mouse ears. Sean Bean lives in a farmhouse encased in honey. The bad guys look like the Imperial Guard from Star Wars wearing Mexican wrestler masks, with the exception of a couple human-sized dragons. It’s all very ostentatiously weird, and I’m totally predisposed to love this sort of movie; while I wouldn’t regard the Wachowskis’ previous couple films (Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas) as underrated masterpieces, they were pretty damn good and, hey, I love Lucy, which has roughly the same silly tone that Jupiter Ascending is going for.
So, if you’re on the same wavelength as me when it comes to ridiculous movies, your reaction to the last three paragraphs is probably somewhere in the vicinity of “Awesome.” Yet somehow, these absurd elements create not a sense of exhilaration, or wonder, or disbelief but of…boredom. In fact, the sci-fi film that Jupiter Ascending mostly reminded me of wasn’t Star Wars or Avatar but David Lynch’s ignominious third film, Dune. Much like Dune, Jupiter Ascending’s extravagant world-building and ridiculous costumes are stuffed into a film that’s both too long for mainstream audiences and too short for the epic tone it strives for. Much like Dune, you sense there’s a bigger, better story here that’s been hacked into palatable size by a studio and stripped of all flavour in the process.
Jupiter Ascending’s first problem is the story. The specifics are too intricate to fit neatly into its sub-130 minutes runtime, meaning that it squanders its initial momentum with clumsy exposition before launching into a borderline incoherent second act. By the time we get to the climax, even Mila Kunis’ character seems unclear on the details of what she’s achieved. Not that she gets to do that much; her hitherto-unknown royal heritage doesn’t come pre-packaged with any special skills, so despite being the film’s putative protagonist she’s largely reduced to a damsel-in-distress, rescued at the last minute by Tatum at least a half-dozen times (note: not an exaggeration).
I can forgive a muddled plotline if there’s a sense of excitement – if you’re having fun, it’s easy to strap in and forget the particulars of the story. But Jupiter Ascending, outside of a pretty decent opening half hour, operates as a series of awkward anti-climaxes. Tatum swoops in past a legion of Mexican-wrestler-guards to save Kunis from Kalique Abrasax (the female baddie played by Tuppence Middleton), but Kunis shrugs and is like “No, it’s cool,” then the scene just …ends. A few minutes later, Kunis and Tatum’s loving embrace (oh, right, I forgot to mention – there’s a love story. It’s about as convincing as Attack of the Clones) is interrupted by an ally shuffling up and noting that he’s betraying them. No-one seems surprised. No-one ever seems surprised, or amazed, or wondrous – stuff just happens.
Kunis and Tatum are somewhat to blame here. Each delivers dead-eyed performances absent any kind of emotion or engagement. If you look deep into their eyes you can see the word “paycheque.” This is true of the majority of the cast, actually; only Eddie Redmayne’s deeply unhinged, utterly weird performance as the baddest Abrasax keeps your interest. Sure, it’s probably a bad performance, especially from someone about to win an Oscar – he’s been roundly and probably rightly ridiculed – but he’s about the only person in the cast achieving the campy tone the Wachowskis seem to be going for.
Even the visual style that the Wachowskis are renowned for is diminished by some egregiously poor editing choices on the part of Alexander Berner (odd, given his exemplary work on Cloud Atlas). It’s not just the uncomfortable pacing that contributes to that lingering sense of anticlimax, but how the action scenes are constructed. These should be the bread-and-butter of the film, and despite the preponderance of CGI there’s plenty of interesting compositions on display. But Berner cuts the film much like a twelve year-old fiddling with the ‘change camera position’ button on a videogame, switching between close-up, shot from behind, shot from in front, long shot consistently every second or so. It erodes any sense of spatial coherence or rhythm and renders what should be exciting exhausting.
So it is with the majority of Jupiter Ascending; a collection of familiar bits and pieces assembled into something far less than the sum of its parts.