THE WACHOWSKI siblings have traded on ideas in an ideas-unfriendly Hollywood system for well over a decade now. Since their breakout hit The Matrix (and its critically-beleaguered sequels), Lana and Andy have never been short on ambition; 2012’s Cloud Atlas, portentous in its sprawl and endless in its running time, might have represented the crystallisation of their drive for philosophical posturing had The Matrix Revolutions not already scuppered that right up. The main thing to remember is this: They never cater to their audience.
Jupiter Ascending is the Wachowskis catering to their audience. It has all the hallmarks of a film assembled from various germs of current trends in blockbusters – young adult, sci-fi, CGI spectacle – and loosely rammed together to create a contingent whole. Their most expensive film is probably their most forgettable, the dizzying result of undercooked ideas and space opera melodrama converging into a drippy soup of meh.
The film portrays a dormant Mila Kunis as Jupiter Jones, a blinking doormat of a toilet-scrubber oppressed by her overbearing family. As she dreams of the stars, the stars come to her when half-wolf-half-dreamboat Caine (Channing Tatum) swans in on rocket boots to tell her she’s the genetic Queen of Earth, whisking her off into a surprisingly boring astral adventure.
The new Queen faces Gollum-Greys, a slumming Sean Bean and the terrors of space bureaucracy. She must also fend off the machinations of space siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth), who want to harvest Earth for production of a youth serum that keeps them forever young and hammy.
The film banks everything on presuming that Jupiter Jones is an engaging, Luke Skywalker-esque presence. The truth is she has no agency, blithely travelling from quadrant to parsec on the word of alien strangers. The amount of time she spends falling, screaming, arms flailing toward her death – only to be rescued at the last minute – is probably greater than the amount of time she makes a conscious decision or enacts a direct action.
Kunis is best as a supporting player, but even then she’s a mixed bag. Her turn in Black Swan, for instance, was a real chiller; in Oz: The Great and Powerful, she looked a little lost. As a star – at least here – she’s completely adrift, rarely mustering much more than a stammer and a stare. No doubt trying to match the irrepressible vacancy of the character as written, Kunis is simply there, with nothing to do but say things like, “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs.”
Tatum, meanwhile, plays the stoic to the hilt. Wearing a prosthetic not entirely unlike his Foxcatcher co-star Steve Carrell, he was unable to move his mouth during production. Perhaps as a result, he physically can’t speak his lines properly. There’s a lot to Tatum that belies his slab-of-man-meat appearance, but none of it is channelled here. He isn’t allowed to bring the comedic chops he’s displayed in the Jump Street films, remaining a purely physical presence and little else.
The film’s greatest strengths come not from its performances – with one exception – but from its legitimately impressive action setpieces. Caine’s hoverboot stunts, for instance, were accomplished with practical stunts and camerawork. The “Panocam”, a rig of six cameras mounted on a helicopter, filming at a near 180-degree angle, was used to capture the (unfortunately overlong) central chase scene; an astonishing achievement for a sequence that ultimately bores the audience.
The beauty of the film’s visuals are another success, conjuring incredible alien vistas that actually look alien. If you squint a bit, they even look lived-in. There’s an engaging, even amusing scene where Jupiter must file her claim for monarchy in the universe’s hub of bureaucracy, reminding us of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (including dialogue references). This is only amplified by Terry Gilliam actually appearing in a two-minute cameo that, all too briefly, lights the scene up.
Rather than latching on to the zeitgeist and introducing exciting new elements, the film is mainly reminiscent of 2000’s Dungeons and Dragons, a hilariously botched fantasy ‘epic’ released only a year before Fellowship of the Ring. Dungeons and Dragons showcased Jeremy Irons finding all new levels of top to go over; Jupiter Ascending has recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne gamely rise to the challenge of going even higher. It defies explanation.
Quite why the Wachowskis allowed Redmayne – who apparently understands the material better than they do – to go this gloriously OTT might never be known. Delivering most of his lines with a bizarre, simpering RP that drips with authentic ham, he very occasionally chooses to bellow the ends of his sentences, his face violently contorting. “I CREATE LIIIIIFE!” he screams, immediately dialling back to finish, “And I destroy it.”
He goes from zero to 11 at the drop of the hat, and much of the film’s fun comes from laughing along with him; only, he’s going to the bank and we’re seven quid down. The film is often so self-serious and plodding that his flashes of outright camp seem like thermonuclear detonations.
Rather than emulate the fun, irreverent success of Guardians of the Galaxy, a not dissimilar recent space opera, Jupiter Ascending bogs itself down in blarpy-thworps and other gobbledegook to mask its whiffiness. Supporting cast member Douglas Booth’s assessment of the film as “a mix between Star Wars and The Matrix” seems valid if he was referring to the prequel trilogy and The Matrix Reloaded – a combination, then, of bad writing and muddled tone.
Jupiter Ascending is nowhere near as bad as Battlefield Earth – it’s more boring, for a start – but it may well end up as this generation’s equivalent. It has the camp value of Flash Gordon with an overinflated budget and nothing to add to the sci-fi conversation. It doesn’t even especially work as a piece of pure escapism; the dialogue scenes are so dull and the action scenes are so overlong and explodey we end up counting the minutes until it’s over. The Wachowskis are yet to get their groove back.