Jupiter Ascending has at last reached theaters. Initially scheduled for a release last summer, the new Wachowski movie was delayed ostensibly to finish the flick’s mountain of CGI, although word on the street was that that distributer Warner Bros. just didn’t want to release a film that didn’t live up to its expectations during the lucrative summer season. So now it’s February and we’re left to answer the question: Is Jupiter Ascending the train wreck that was foretold? Maybe, but probably not quite in the way you were anticipating.
The story follows young protagonist Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), daughter of a Russian immigrant and ill at ease with her life working for her family’s maid service. Things get interesting when aliens start trying to abduct her, and she soon learns that she’s the reincarnation of a wealthy intergalactic business mogul who recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Powers beyond her apprehension vie for her life and allegiance, or alternatively her death and inheritance, and her only protector is a disgraced part-wolf soldier, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), whose motives aren’t initially clear, either.
If upon hearing that you immediately began thinking of either Dune or Game of Thrones, you’re not far off, and considering the roughly 40 hours of runtime the latter has already seen on TV already, you might begin to guess at one of the most immediate problems facing Jupiter Ascending. I’ll bet Andy and Lana Wachowski, who wrote Jupiter Ascending in addition to directing, had some fun coming up with all the ins and outs of this new sci-fi universe. Supposedly Warner originally wanted to make a franchise of whatever Jupiter Ascending turned out to be, and that influence is readily apparent: the movie is not lacking for good ideas, and in fact is so stuffed full of them without a clear idea of what story is most important to this movie that it trips over itself trying to touch on them all. There’s an inspired bit of visual design in a sequence near the midpoint that’s essentially what you’d get from a mashup of Star Wars and steampunk, but the sequence itself serves next to no narrative purpose. This is a disconcerting pattern, with the movie playing fast and loose with its style (jumping from MIB-style aliens-on-earth shenanigans to Star Trek-ish military adventures to the political backstabbing philosophical musings of the aforementioned Game of Thrones), characters (several of whom are plot-critical for about ten minutes before disappearing altogether), and narrative/thematic focuses (which would take too long to really explain here, but suffice it to say there’s WAY too many different threads, unified only very loosely through the importance of the genome on several aspects of intergalactic life).
As for our constants, Jupiter and Caine, neither emerges as a very compelling character. Caine is a little stronger because of his backstory as a genetically spliced human and dishonorable discharge from what amounts to the space Navy SEALs, not to mention his antigravity boots, which are sure to inspire the envy of little boys (and some not so little) everywhere. Still, he lacks enough motivation or personality to garner much attachment. Jupiter, meanwhile, is never anything but a stereotypical damsel in distress who goes the whole movie being controlled by those around her and never establishing her own goals beyond the most generic “keep my family safe” type goals imaginable. I’m hesitant to lay too much of the problem at Kunis’s feet, because the script is always shooting along too fast for the overwhelmed Jupiter (not to mention the audience) to catch up, but the role is not flattering for her in the least. Eddie Redmayne, Douglass Boothe, and Tuppence Middleton fare no better as the children from Jupiter’s previous incarnation, and Sean Bean is never more than set dressing.
As uninspiring as most of the characters were, though, the overall visual design of Jupiter Ascending is top notch. If you get a little scared by the appearance of flying lizard men in the trailer (and they are the least impressive part of the movie), don’t fear. In addition to that space-steampunk sequence I already mentioned, there’s a strong current of classical art and architecture running through Jupiter Ascending. Buildings are reminiscent of renaissance cathedrals, though opulent beyond imagination. It veers a bit close to Thor territory at times, but the real-world inspiration gives Jupiter an edge and a tangibility Asgard can’t match. The visual design is the one place where a degree of variance works in favor of the production. Nothing feels completely out of place, but there’s enough variety to suggest a universe working well beyond the corner we’re exposed to.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
It wouldn’t have been hard to create about five different, or even five sequential, feature films out of all the material Jupiter Ascending tries to cram into two hours, and to make some pretty darn good movies as you went. Jupiter Ascending is packed full of promise, with the potential (whether the idea gives you shudders of delight or terror) to spawn a sci-fi universe full of stories ranging from universe-changing political maneuvering to personal tales of shootouts in seedy back alleys. It’s even got some ideas which would differentiate it from similar sci-fi universes like what’s found in Star Wars or Mass Effect. This particular movie, however, capitalizes on almost none of that potential, wasting away story beats as a series of weak links in a mostly insignificant plot with characters so vacuous they’re barely characters at all.