During this January’s Sundance Film Festival, for some curious reason, festival organizers arranged a secret, invitation-only screening of Jupiter Ascending, the latest special-effects extravaganza from the Wachowski siblings. Why the epicenter for low-key, art-house cinema would preview a loud, frenetic, $175 million film remains a mystery. Considering that Andy and Lana Wachowski premiered Bound to critical acclaim at the festival in 1996, the movie’s bizarre Park City presentation could have been a warning to any indie filmmakers that happened to be in the audience. Caution: this is what happens when talented writer/directors get too much clout, too large a budget and too few voices to rein in their pretensions.
Jupiter Ascending is an ambitious space opera that looks gargantuan and yet fails to absorb much interest for more than a few minutes. It looks like a film that took longer to storyboard than to scribe. Without characters to care about or a coherent plot to follow, it whisks around from sequence to sequence, dazzling the eye but sedating a mind unable to figure out the dimensions of the central science-fiction universe.
There are many energetic moments throughout, delivered with the siblings’ visual imagination and propulsive, swooping set-pieces. What the film needs though is a nuanced emotional hook, an intriguing character, or a refreshing parallel between the planet politics in the plot and our geopolitical reality at home.
For the curious, the Jupiter from the title is not a reference to the colossal planet, but to a Russian-American immigrant with that name. (She is played by Mila Kunis, an actor who ought to be intelligent enough to refuse the part of a woman often reduced to being in distress.) At home in Chicago, Jupiter is a twenty-something who dreads getting up before dawn to clean the toilets of the rich and famous. We get some slight, very trite characterization about Jupiter imagining herself wearing fancy dresses and finding a man. Soon after, a buff, pointy-eared, often shirtless being, Caine (Channing Tatum), saves her from a near-death experience.
Caine, an outlaw and hunter, has the job of protecting Jupiter from pesky, translucent critters, a blend between the ghosts from Ghostbusters and the creature from Splice, that want to capture her. See, in some convoluted way, Jupiter is a reincarnation of a leader from a distant yet populated planet. Now that the ruler of this cosmic kingdom is gone, the three fair, youthful heirs to the throne from the Abrasax family – Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) – are thirsty for power. Each of them wants control over Jupiter so they can be the eventual heir over Earth.
Although nearly every line of dialogue from Jupiter Ascending is exposition about how the multi-faceted story universe works and what the motives of the three Abrasaxes are, not all of the plotting is clear. By the time we start to grasp the heady sci-fi concepts and the various political gains and misses that are at stake, the Wachowskis jump to another setting. The jumps between the different spaces in this cosmic environment feel scattered, as if the Wachowskis had a lot more material about the daily life of this universe but had to cut back to fit a two-hour running time.
Instead of coherence, we get a vague outline of the back-stories and backstabbings that led to the current moment, which dulls our investment in the second half of the adventure. Meanwhile, the bits about the Abrasaxes’ quench for power and its comparisons to systems of human capital on earth seem cribbed from better sci-fi works.
Unfortunately, the performances do no favor to an already complicated story. Tatum and Booth restrain their lines to quiet mutterings and deadpan stares, lagging the energy needed to keep our attention. A gaunt Redmayne, weeks away from a possible Oscar win, does his campaign few favors with a gloriously kitschy antagonist part. Moving from snivelling with glee to hollow Don Vito-like gasps to bellowing in anger, Redmayne is the best part of the film – if only because he attains a level of camp that the Wachowskis really should have aspired toward. (The next best performance in Jupiter Ascending actually comes from a noted director who pops up in a quick cameo, during a sequence that features a few nods to one of that filmmaker’s fantasy masterworks.)
The fortresses and cityscapes of the planets envisioned by the Wachowskis look marvellous, like the metropolises from Star Wars basking in more dusky colors. The costumes, make-up and surplus of prosthetic pieces, however, range from Oscar-worthy to distracting. Perhaps the siblings realized the best way to get viewers to quit noticing Tatum’s wolf-like ears was to paste enormous ones on the sides of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s head. (Those prosthetics just make us feel embarrassed for the terrific English actor, who truly deserved a bigger, better role.) It also doesn’t help the Wachowskis’ claim to being visionaries that the sets and wardrobes look as if they were raided from Lucasfilm soundstages.
There are several action-packed sequences throughout the film, often underneath a triumphant Michael Giacchino score that is sometimes threatened by a screaming choir. At a few moments, the weightless, elastic flight of the characters and some noisy sound effects almost careen Jupiter Ascending into resembling a first-person shooter game. Regardless, these frenetic moments are not frantic. Even if you do not understand all that is going on in the story, the room within and length of the shots ensures that we can always see what is going on.
Surprisingly, the most eye-popping visual from Jupiter Ascending appears two-thirds of the way through the closing credits. Those who stick around to watch the names scroll by may be stunned by three long columns of names flowing down the screen for about a minute. The names are of the film’s chief visual effects artists. There are likely more people who worked on the aesthetic spectacle from one FX company for this film than the number of people on an entire crew for your average Sundance premiere.
While the Wachowskis’ newest effort is an indulgent and soporific mess, it enlightens one to know that there were hundreds of crew members working at their most optimal. It feels odd to completely pan a film where so much of the crew aced their role. If only Jupiter Ascending’s plotting had anything near the success rate as the work of its craftspeople and digital artists behind the scenes, this could have been a worthwhile adventure.
Both bland and bombastic at once, Jupiter Ascending shows just how far the Wachowskis are descending as storytellers.