I wrote an article earlier in the week reviewing the directorial careers of Andy and Lana Wachowski, the minds behind “The Matrix” franchise. In short, I wrote that the Wachowski’s are hit and miss in terms of quality, but that it was worth the risk to help promote the success of original ideas in today’s Hollywood; one need only consult a list of 2015 releases to see the overwhelming amount of sequels and remakes currently being processed. With this in mind, I sat down to watch “Jupiter Ascending.” Successful, original sci-fi is rare, and so I entered the theater with an open mind, receptive to the outlandishness of the plot and characters, wanting in vain to enjoy myself and recommend to people a movie that, despite its flaws, was fun.
And it was fun—just not in the way the writers intended it to be.
“Jupiter Ascending” is a fascinating mess. I couldn’t look away. It’s as if it were a car crash, the gruesome spectacle too much to handle. I left the theater, not mad or disappointed, but confused. It is simply mind boggling that the same people made “The Matrix” and “Cloud Atlas,” two films I enjoy very much and would call “great.” Where those movies succeed, “Jupiter Ascending” hopelessly, tragically, laughably fails. It feels as if it was conceived, written, cast, and shot in a matter of days. Almost nothing works. I say all this as someone who was desperate to like this movie. As I write this I am straining to find a silver lining, something of note, proof that this film was not a complete and total disaster on nearly all fronts.
The protagonist is one Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a cleaning woman who lives with her mother and relatives in Chicago. She is unsatisfied with her life and she yearns for a greater purpose, for some magic and adventure, and to not clean toilets. Desperate for money she needs to buy a telescope (we’ll get to that), she agrees with her cousin’s plan to sell her eggs and split the profits. While waiting at the clinic, however, she is taken away by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a hunter from another world. She learns that she is the rightful heir to the galaxy, and she quickly becomes a pawn in a game of sibling rivalry, falls for her dog-man protector, and learns that there’s just no place like home.
I spoke with a friend after seeing the movie, and our conversation consisted primarily of “Do you remember when…” and “Why did…” and “Who was that character where…” and “Where were they going?” and “What was the significance of…” We tried to put together the plot, only to remember a particularly hilarious detail and become hopelessly sidetracked. To call this movie “sidetracked” would be an understatement. Of its many failures, its most blatant offense is the story, the progression. In most movies, one can connect the dots: one thing leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. But nothing feels important or significant. There’s no weight to anything because the film isn’t allowed to build. Everything moves quickly, jumping from place to place, nameless planet to nameless planet.
There’s an action scene toward the beginning where Caine and Jupiter are flying through Chicago, trying to outrun a band of nefarious aliens. They escape the would-be captors, but not before destroying a good amount of the city. The next day, as they drive to meet Caine’s old friend Stinger (Sean Bean), Jupiter worries about the damage they’ve done. Caine tells her not to worry, that the city will be repaired in minutes. True to his word, the buildings are repaired; smoke plumes and hunks of burning metal disappearing. “Everyone’s memories will be erased,” Caine says. “No one will remember.” If this seems like an insultingly dumb plot device, don’t worry. It is.
Jupiter Jones, our hero, is fairly uninteresting and bland. She is far too objective a presence; her actions rarely affect the outcome of the film despite her being the heir to the universe. A basic scene in “Jupiter Ascending” goes as follows: Jupiter is taken somewhere, a character spouts exposition at her until someone points a gun and takes her to another location, and someone is taken prisoner. The scenes add no depth or perspective. They exist to move the plot forward. Her motivation for most of the movie is just “I want to go home.” She’s a bystander, an impartial observer, doing what others tell her to do. It doesn’t help that she has to feel her way through a muddled, half-baked love story with Caine when she has no reason to like him in the first place.
As bad as the script is, the actors do little on their part to rise above the less-than-stellar material they’ve been burdened with. “Foxcatcher” proved that Channing Tatum can act, but here he dips too far into mind-numbing lug, mumbling through his lines and switching between “angry” and “dumb.” It is dumbfounding to think that Jupiter would have any reason to fall for him; one can find as much warmth and affection in a pet rock. Kunis does what she can, but Jupiter Jones is just too poorly written for her to do any real acting. Sean Bean is given little to work with and is merely serviceable. Eddie Redmayne, as great as he was in “The Theory of Everything,” is dreadful in this film. Every line is delivered either in a raspy whisper or an overdramatic shout. It’s one of the laziest performances I’ve seen in some time, so much so that his agent tried to downplay his role in the movie, fearing it would sabotage any chance at winning the Oscar. He’s truly terrible, yet he goes so far almost as to come back around and be hilariously entertaining. During slower scenes I kept hoping for him to show up, if only to have something funny happen. I don’t know whether the directing was completely off or Redmayne didn’t care and intentionally hammed it up. Either way, it was great entertainment.
It seemed ridiculous to me that the people who made “Bound,” “The Matrix,” and “Cloud Atlas” made this. The vision behind the movie is so unclear and without significance that I refused to believe Lana and Andy Wachowski were responsible. The entire movie is just so absurd. The prolonged bureaucracy scene/”Brazil” homage (complete with a bizarre cameo by director Terry Gilliam) is absurd; the opening scene where her father is brutally shot minutes after his introduction is absurd; Caine’s mechanical wings are absurd; Sean Bean’s cross-double cross is absurd; lines such as “Bees are genetically bred to detect royalty” and “I’m more dog than man” are absurd. It’s so relentlessly absurd in fact that I was entertained enough just by trying to figure out why certain choices were made. It felt so much like B-action schlock that I couldn’t help but smile. If that’s your thing, I’d say go see it. It’s not so-bad-it’s-good, but it’s not boringly, horrifically bad either. I can’t recommend it but I can’t dismiss it either. In this way, the Wachowski’s have succeeded: “Jupiter Ascending” is one of a kind.
Review by Lucas Dispoto