REVIEW: 'Jupiter Ascending'

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If you follow movies as much as I do, you may have heard the expression “directed by committee”. It’s often used to describe big, studio-driven films that feel like the product of a boardroom of executives; these movies often try to please as many people as possible, and they often lack a clear narrative or consistent voice. A recent example was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – the studio effectively crushed a potentially touching story about Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy by forcing in three major villains and an overloaded plot (likely to boost merchandise possibilities and overseas ticket sales).

For the most part, directing by committee is a bad thing. But in the case of Jupiter Ascending, the new space opera film by Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix trilogy), I’m torn. I can’t tell whether the film needed more studio involvement (to temper some of the directors’ wild ideas into something more manageable) or less meddling (to leave in some material that will surely appear in a directors’ cut).

As it is, the film is an impressive feat of production design, and the Wachowskis deserve some credit for developing an original universe and a set of characters, not based on any previous works. Jupiter Ascending is also a bit of a mess – it’s crammed with generic characters, repetitive sequences and enough expository dialogue to sink a star cruiser. It also re-uses several key ideas that pop up in many of the Wachowskis’ movies, a flaw that eventually undermines the fanciful visuals and makes me long for the kind of ambition the directors displayed in their last film, Cloud Atlas. The film never reaches a Transformers level of soullessness, but it’s definitely missing the creative spark it would have needed to kick off a franchise.

Channing Tatum as the wolf/human hybrid bounty hunter Caine Wise

We’re introduced to Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young woman who emigrated to Chicago from Russia with her family. She works as a housekeeper alongside her mother, and spends long hours scrubbing toilets and wishing for a better life. Wouldn’t you know it (the movie seems to say) Jupiter is actually the genetic “recurrence” of an aristocratic matriarch from outer space - a queen (or maybe corporate executive, or both; it’s kind of unclear) who lived for dozens of millennia.

As a result – apparently – Jupiter is heir to a vast fortune, which includes whole planets (and all their inhabitants) and stockpiles of a glowy liquid that grants eternal youth. Naturally, she then becomes the focus of a power struggle between the children of her predecessor. And the love interest of wolf-human hybrid. And potential savior of the galaxy. Yikes.

If it’s not clear already, Jupiter Ascending is one of those movies that’s in such a rush to define its internal mythology and build its world that characters and drama fall through the cracks. It’s not helped by a runtime slightly north of two hours, which means the plot barrels along at an ever-increasing speed, and answers to crucial questions go unanswered. Another annoying development are characters who disappear entirely from the story, like two of the children of Jupiter’s predecessor (Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton) and the sick daughter of the space cop played by Sean Bean. Even the main villain of the film, the current head of the Abrasax Corporation (Eddie Redmayne) goes largely forgotten until he’s required to reappear for the climax.

Keeping track of all this information isn’t made easy for us, since most of the characters and organizations have alien-sounding names (Balem, Kalique, Caine, Apini, etc.) that sometimes blend together when they’re being rattled off by someone unloading some background information. Even that I could get around, if it weren’t for the structure of the movie, which repeatedly relies on Jupiter being captured, threatened, or forced to sign something/marry someone, and then having Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, as the aforementioned hybrid bounty hunter and love interest) swoop in on his hover-skates to save her. On at least two occasions, I could’ve sworn I was watching a sci-fi version of The Graduate.

Eddie Redmayne as Balem Abrasax, the aristocratic villain of the film

The film’s construction aside, Jupiter Ascending raises a more important question about the Wachowskis as filmmakers. The main resource, or currency, that drives the action in the film is that serum that prolongs youth. It turns out the stuff is made from harvested humans, and that’s why the mega-corporations in the film measure their value in planets – the more people they own, the more serum they can manufacture.

The idea is meant to inspire a certain amount of body horror in the audience, and possibly carry a cautionary message about what humanity might become in the future. The problem is that variations on this idea are one of the central themes of nearly all of the Wachowskis’ work. Like the human-powered battery farms run by the machines in the Matrix films, or the clone servants that are fed to each other in the Neo Seoul segment of Cloud Atlas, the idea of humans as a resource has already been done by the Wachowskis, and it only makes Jupiter Ascending feel even more like a re-tread of better films.

The one element of the movie that saves it from being a complete disaster is its production design, which fuses concepts from Renaissance art and Gothic architecture with futuristic spacecraft and technology. At times, the film gives itself over to glamour shots of intricately detailed ships and locations, visuals that push Jupiter Ascending far closer to a Star Wars-style space opera than to the hard sci-fi the directors are known for.

We actually don’t see many films in this sub-genre, and so on a purely visual level, the film is worth a look – just be prepared for the chaos of the story that lies below. Without knowing it, the directors actually hint at the nature of their movie in the many shots of the planet Jupiter they include: it’s beautiful on the outside, and a furious hurricane beneath the surface. Jupiter Ascending gets two stars out of four.

Two Stars

What did you think about the Wachowskis’ latest effort? Is it simply a low point in their career, or could it find new life as an extended cut for Blu-ray and streaming? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!