Here’s the thing. When planning your big budget, space-set action/adventure, maybe you should choose a stronger inspiration than the likes of 1984’s Ice Pirates. (And I say this as someone who truly enjoys Ice Pirates.) Because when a movie best-remembered for featuring “space herpes” can boast the same degree of world-building competence as your $200 million, star-filled, wannabe blockbuster that’s probably a bad sign.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) hates her life. It’s understandable – she lives in cramped quarters with her immigrant family, she cleans rich people’s homes and toilets for minimum wage and she has terrible taste in men. Everything changes though when a gaggle of alien creatures attempt to kill her before being thwarted by the universe’s only hairless werewolf, Caine (Channing Tatum) – he’s a genetic splice of human-ish and wolf-like DNA with pointy ears, a keen sense of smell and a habit of making the girls go “awww.”
It seems Jupiter is the reincarnation of a deceased galactic queen who wisely planned ahead and bequeathed a fortune to herself, and that newfound wealth includes ownership of the Earth. The Earth! Some other members of the the royal family have cried foul on the inheritance as our planet is home to a highly sought after resource with vast commercial value, and now different factions are fighting over Jupiter’s fate. Some want her property, some want her life and one just wants a shot at humping her leg. (It’s Caine. Caine is the one who wants to hump her leg.)
Jupiter Ascending – so named because of the astrological conditions under which Jupiter was born *and* because she rises from maid to queen *and* because she goes up into space – is a sci-fi action/comedy more akin to the likes of Flash Gordon or The Fifth Element than the film (The Matrix) that made the Wachowski siblings a powerhouse film-making duo. That’s not a criticism as those films are fun, campy space adventures, and this one so desperately wants to be the same. The problem is that the Wachowskis seem incapable of turning away an idea once they’ve pictured it, and the result is an incredibly messy, tonally incompetent, poorly-written, mildly miscast jumble of CGI-based shenanigans… with some admittedly fun and campy moments throughout.
It starts promising enough – well, after a dull and unnecessary narrated flashback about Jupiter’s parents and how they got her to America – with an early, exhilarating chase/fight above the streets and between the buildings of Chicago. It’s a visually-exciting thrill ride highlighting better than ever before the Wachowskis’ love of swooping, multi-dimensional action. Our first warning comes at the end of the scene though when we’re told that all of the structural damage will be repaired and all of the witnesses will be “blanked” – we don’t see it, there’s no real explanation, and instead it’s simply made clear that this is a film with little interest in the details.
The film’s inconsistent stew is represented throughout its visuals, side characters and script. The designs of ships and species seem fueled entirely by a “this looks cool” mentality with no concern for what makes sense in the world (although Nesh, the excitable humanoid/elephant hybrid, did bring a smile to my face). A five-minute long Brazil-inspired montage about the frustrations of bureaucracy is good fun (and features a welcome cameo) but it doesn’t belong in this movie or this world. Caine’s one power (beside being able to lick his own genitals) is a mastery of his anti-gravity boots, but none of his captors ever take them. The old queen named the Earth nearly a hundred thousand years ago… and coincidentally humans also called it Earth.
We’re introduced to a trio of bounty hunters (including the always wonderful Doona Bae) who seem relevant until they’re not. The royal family offers an incestuous pot of villainy, but while the eldest (a constantly on the verge of angry tears Eddie Redmayne) is designated as the film’s main bad guy he disappears from view for long stretches that serve only to make us forget him and his desperate whisper. Sean Bean plays a man named Stinger whose home is covered in bee nests and who says with a straight face when his bees start responding to Jupiter – “Bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty.”
Jupiter appears from the beginning as a familiar trope – the One – aka the normal person suddenly revealed to be the key or the savior or the necessary hero, but she brings absolutely nothing to the story. Like a human MacGuffin, she’s of no real value as a character, and instead she’s left to become a damsel in distress awaiting rescue from her heroic male savior. We’re told early on that she’s very smart, but we never see it. And after experiencing a ton of craziness – aliens, space ships, flying boots – it’s a statue of the queen possibly made out of butter that leaves her most surprised and in shock.
Kunis adds to Jupiter’s descent by playing the role as if the entire film was straight comedy. It’s understandable as she’s always been at her best in comedies, but her she deflates every serious moment with a smirk or a casual dismissal. At no point does she feel like a girl who’s just discovered she owns the planet. Tatum occasionally looks a little uncertain about the life decisions that landed him here, but at least he commits to the dog-boy’s sincerity in addition to his more humorous side.
Jupiter Ascending’s over-stuffed nature is unfortunate because there’s a tighter, more enjoyable narrative buried within it struggling to breath. There are some fun ideas too including an alien base hiding behind the roiling eye of Jupiter (the planet, not the maid) and the very Douglas Adams-like suggestion that Earth’s fate may come down to business transaction, but we just don’t get enough time with the elements or characters that work here because there’s always something new and ready to pop in our face. It’s inconceivable to suggest the problem is too much imagination – so instead I’ll simply say that this is a case of imagination in desperate need of harvesting and corralling.
The Upside: Fantastic CGI; Chicago-set chase/fight scene in particular, but other aerial actions scenes too; some laughs; some character design
The Downside: Mila Kunis feels miscast; over-long; convoluted; dumb script; messy; action rarely feels distinct from cartoon goulash
On the Side: Natalie Portman was originally cast in the lead role but dropped out before production began. She also dropped out of the Wachowskis’ previous film, Cloud Atlas.