Andy and Lana Wachowski know how to do epic, spectacular filmmaking. I adore their humans-as-batteries head trip The Matrix. Despite the bad press it received upon its release, I also loved Cloud Atlas, their filmed version of the supposedly un-filmable novel of the same name. So, when Warner Bros. pushed Jupiter Ascending’s release date back more than six months from the prime blockbuster territory of midsummer to the dreaded dumping ground of February, I wasn’t worried. When the film then garnered intense criticism, and even some walkouts, during its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, I still wasn’t worried. Okay, maybe I was a little worried. Turns out, I had good reason to be.
The story revolves around Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a lowly house cleaner that discovers she is the reincarnation of the matriarch of a royal family that rules the universe. If that description seems ridiculous, wait until things really get going. There’s the winged genetically spliced human/alien hybrid Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) whose DNA compels him to attack royalty. Then there is the fact that ancient humans living multiple millennia have used their countless years in existence to fine tune a heavily bureaucratic form of highly inefficient…capitalism. It’s by turns silly, bold, preposterous, stunningly beautiful, maddening, and in the end disappointingly conventional.
Let’s start with the bold and the stunningly beautiful because, visually speaking, Jupiter Ascending is a marvelous experience. The Wachowskis have created a universe that is uniquely their own. I haven’t been this fascinated and taken aback by special effects -- especially those merging human actors with CGI robotics -- since Stephen Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. As in the case with the character of Advocate Bob, the makeup and digital effects left me with a slack-jawed sense of wonder. Bob and several other android characters are like Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe from A.I., with 15 years’ worth of technological advances to help bring them to life – not to discount the performances of actors like Samuel Barnett, who play their roles perfectly. The effects team has put together an inventive world that will set an example for years to come.
Sadly, silly storytelling choices are Jupiter Ascending’s downfall. The reason for Advocate Bob’s existence is to be Jupiter Jones’ assigned case worker, tasked with helping the once and future space queen navigate the labyrinthine bureaucratic process of obtaining her royal birthright. The bureaucratic nightmare Jupiter must endure – she needs form X to obtain license Y, but form X can only be filled out with an official seal on document Z, etc. – is supposed to serve as a bit of comic relief, but fails miserably. It’s not an original or a fresh enough take to be really funny, nor is it biting or clever enough to be good satire. If you want to see this sequence, and the idea of a vast government bureaucracy run amok, done right, watch Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. That is satire with a sharp edge, and the right tone. In fact, Gilliam makes a cameo appearance in this very sequence, so I don’ t think I’m far off the mark of what the directors intended.
Tone is a big problem with Jupiter Ascending. The filmmakers don’t seem to know if they want the movie to be funny, campy, or serious, so it jarringly vacillates between all of the above. One subplot involves Jupiter’s cousin trying to talk her into selling her eggs to a reproductive clinic using a false name. He panics when he learns the deal didn’t go through, even though he’s already spent most of the money on a new TV and robotic vacuum cleaner. In one of the film’s several anti-climactic scenes, the most hackneyed Hollywood convention is forced into service: a wedding must be stopped before the betrothed can say their “I do’s.” Even more disappointing is the fact that Jupiter, our hero, only discovers her own agency in the last 15 minutes of the film. Up until that point, she is written as the damsel in perpetual distress. Countless times during the film, Jupiter is literally (and I do mean literally) falling and helpless, only to be rescued by Caine at the last second.
Jupiter Ascending is a mess, but a dazzling mess. Along with the stunning look is Mila Kunis’ star turn as Jupiter. Although her character is failed by the writing, she really holds her own, and proves she can carry a big budget action film. Channing Tatum and Sean Bean both do well considering the material they are given. Recent Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne delivers an extremely mannered performance as the villain determined to take Jupiter out of the picture for good. He goes off the deep end with scenery chewing at several points, but otherwise I found his quiet menace rather entrancing.
I wanted Jupiter Ascending to be so much better than it was. The Wachowskis are part of a very small group of directors who can craft intelligent, spectacular action movies that are equal parts thrilling and intellectually stimulating. They quickly need to figure out how to do it again before Warner Bros. shuts off the money tap. There is nothing Hollywood abhors more than box office bomb after box office bomb, and the directors must be getting close to meeting or exceeding their quota, after the financial failures of Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. They have failed here, but they’ve succeeded before. Hopefully the next time out will be both critically and financially successful. If there is a next time...