Writer-Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski are visionary filmmakers whose ambition and flair have lately outweighed their innovative storytelling skills. The auteurs have had their fair share of hits (BOUND and THE MATRIX), but suffered from more misses (THE MATRIX RELOADED, THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, the undervalued SPEED RACER, and CLOUD ATLAS). Unfortunately for us, they seem stuck in a rut somewhere between mediocrity and cliché with the sci-fi, CGI extravaganza JUPITER ASCENDING. At first glance, this could be the feature length MOONQUAKE LAKE we’ve all been dreaming about since ANNIE. The sad reality is that it’s so much less. Filled with frequently-explored themes and tropes, the Wachowskis have created something visually beguiling but narratively tired.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) was born of a Russian immigrant in a shipping container in the middle of the ocean on a dark and stormy night. Her father was murdered (because Russia) and her mother immigrated to the States to find sanctuary with Jupiter’s Aunt and rest of the family. Named after the “biggest and most beautiful planet in the solar system,” Jupiter was told she was destined for great things. But for now she’s stuck cleaning toilets for rich Chicagoans while yearning for – ugh – love to save her. All of this changes (because she’s the chosen one and we’re not done with that yet) when she’s rescued from the clutches of evil by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a lycanton (or, in English, a “splice” between a human and wolf) warrior from space. He’s been sent to find the reincarnation of the owner of Earth, the recently deceased mother to three spoiled intergalactic royals – business-brained Balem (Eddie Redmayne channeling Gary Oldman in THE FIFTH ELEMENT), beauty Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and soft-hearted failure Titus (Douglas Booth). Turns out the trio have some unfinished business (cough, cough, mommy issues) with their mother for which they need Jupiter’s genes.
Not only is this a recycled mish-mash of the Wachowskis’ favorite tropes (Christ metaphors, “the chosen one” storylines, “soylent green” prop devices and dumb, nonsense language for things), it’s also an incredibly lazy, non-subtle commentary on economic disparity – how the rich (in this case, intergalactic royalty) take from the poor (anyone they find inferior). There are also messages about illegal immigration, stated in the prologue’s narration and then demonstrated with its melting pot characters Jupiter and Caine, who’s a literal mutt. Sean Bean plays the film’s Basil Exposition, Stinger, who’s there for info dumps and a lukewarm “shocking/ not shocking” betrayal. Kunis and Tatum have little to no chemistry so we never quite feel their romantic burn. Those aren’t even the film’s biggest problems. Nope. Jupiter is put in pole position as being that “strong female character” Hollywood execs love but rarely get right, and yet she never saves herself. If it’s not Caine coming to the rescue, it’s a pillar falling, sending an evil nemesis tumbling. Or it’s an even worse deus ex machina getting her out of harm’s way. Plus, she ends the film as a far less interesting character than when we’re introduced to her – a cardinal sin in terms of crafting the perfect “strong female.”
In terms of production design and scale, this echoes FLASH GORDON and DUNE. This may sound like a bad thing, but it’s one of the few positives. With its Frank Herbert-esque grandiosity and scope, the Wachowskis’ vision is ambitious and unparalleled. Action sequences are not the same generic grey visual noise – there’s color (specifically orange and blue) and energy to these scenes that make it palatable eye candy. At least there’s that. Wisely, the Wachowskis explain how humans never notice alien forces damaging property – something Marvel completely fails at (I’m looking at you, THE AVENGERS). At least there’s that. There’s an entire sequence that takes place on a bureaucratic planet, all about filing paperwork, with a cameo appearance from director Terry Gilliam as Jim Broadbent (not really, but you can’t prove me wrong since they don’t say his name), ending on an obvious zinger about the DMV. Magnificent. At least there’s that. Perhaps the most comedically subtle thing the Wachowskis did was scoring Cousin Vlad’s phone call with the soundtrack of a video game someone is playing in the background. At least there’s that.
Unfortunately, none of those minor positives save the movie from its too-familiar story and weak heroine. Rather than Jupiter, it makes one think of Pluto – which, like the Wachowskis, has seen its reputation downgraded in recent years.
2 out of 5
JUPITER ASCENDING opens on February 6 and is rated PG-13.
Courtney Howard is the Senior Editor/ LA Correspondent for VeryAware.com. She also is a contributing writer for ReelVixen.com, ThatsItMommy.com, and RockinMama.net. She resides in Southern California with her husband and perfect little dachshund.