I am a Wachowski defender. I have enjoyed if not down right liked every film they’ve made. Yes, even the second two Matrix films. If you insult Speed Racer I’ll flip some tables. That movie was a kinetic and frantic masterpiece that got trashed for no good reason. Cloud Atlas was a challenging work to tackle and they did a commendable job putting it all together. Read the book and watch the film and you’ll be blown away. They are very skilled directors.
All right, calm down, Matt.
So despite Jupiter Ascending getting bumped from a major summer blockbuster to a lowly February release, and despite the terrible word-of-mouth it was receiving I was wildly hopeful for the film. It looks visually stunning and other than Channing Tatum’s eyeliner I was all in for some more Wachowski greatness.
I am no longer a Wachowski defender.
Directors: The Wachowskis
Release Date: February 6, 2015
It’s not that Jupiter Ascending is bad in concept, it’s that it is truly horrible in execution. The plot is layered, deep and complex, but not in the right ways. The Wachowski’s clearly had a world they wanted to create and it has some really cool concepts, but unlike their previous films they’re unable to establish this new world at all. There’s so much to take in and they do a messy job of establishing the universe.
Here’s the general gist of Jupiter Ascending‘s sci-fi world. Humans didn’t start on earth and have been around for ages. They’ve developed a serum that keeps them young, but it’s derived from harvesting other humans so in order to get “livestock” the original humans find inhabital worlds and blend their DNA with local inhabitants. They then let that world mature to full population and harvest it. Earth is one of those worlds and it is owned by a company run by three siblings who inherited it from their mother. Like all great space operas there is drama in the family with head son Balem Abrasax (Eddi Redmayne) leading the pack of three.
DNA and gene splicing play a big, awkward role in the film — one that could have been really interesting if it wasn’t so mired in the rest of the movie’s desperate attempts to feel like a cohesive whole. That’s where Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) comes in. Once in a while a person’s DNA is basically fully duplicated. The space humans know this and in their wills will bequeath things to them. Jones, and earthling, happens to be the Abrasax siblings mother’s duplicate and so all her belongings go to her and that includes the earth. This makes her a threat so Balem goes after her, but not before Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a fallen Legion member who is now a bounty hunter and is also part wolf, catches her for his younger brother. Cue even more complex plotting, stupid decisions and Mila Kunis cowering in a ball or screaming and you’ve got yourself the makings of a space opera catastrophe.
It’s possible you’ve read the above plot description and asked yourself what the hell is going on. That’s pretty much what the screenplay seems to be asking itself. The film implodes upon itself with illogical moment on top of illogical moment, often sacrificing the story in order to deliver a stunning visual. The Wachowski’s clearly have so much they wanted to do in this world, but not enough time or skill to do it all. If the film had been a TV show with 20 episodes to unfold it’s plot and back story then it actually could have worked really well. It’s camp, family drama and feel vividly remind one of classic 90s science fiction. Instead it’s crammed into a mess of a movie that makes characters jump from emotional stagnation to stupid decisions in the blink of an eye.
It also doesn’t help that the Wachowski’s seem to want to make the film appeal to every popular trend that exists. Tatum is basically a werewolf, the Abrasax’s are both vampires and elves, there’s an entire fallen angel bit that gets almost completely ignored, space police come in for a bit of cop show stuff and Tatum flies around on weird hover shoes without a shirt for as much of the film as possible. Let’s not forget the trope of a young woman thrust into wealth, adventure and power. It’s like a teenage girl’s check list of what she wants in a movie actually got vomited up onto the screen — “Dear Diary, Channing Tatum is soooo cute. I wish he’d play a werewolf and fight vampires and wear eyeliner and no shirt.”
Visually, which is where you’ll probably find most defenses for this movie, the film is both impressive and messy. Much like the over-stuffed plot and back story the costumes, design and look of the film is everywhere. Everything does look really cool, but it’s often at the sacrifice of the story and logic of the universe. Stunning visuals are great in science fiction when they help to hold the world that is created together, but when they’re just there to look pretty and actually create plot holes within themselves then they start to get really annoying. There’s no cohesive whole to the worlds we see. Instead it just feels like a bunch of kids sitting down and just creating whatever they thought would look cool. It is a very pretty mess.
It is in fact so messy that the movie may push itself into camp. We’ll leave that as a “time will tell” statement as it’s hard to judge where it’s going to land, but if Redmayne’s ridiculous performance has anything to say about it then it’s going to land firmly on the camp side of things. It isn’t clear who Redmayne is trying to channel here, but his whispy voice and bat shit crazy performance is either the worst thing we’ll see all year or the most brilliant bit of fun. Again, on the small screen, stretched out over a season of television, it would be an absolute blast to watch this character slowly unfold, but in this rushed mess it’s just ridiculous. Kunis and Tatum by contrast seem like pieces of wood that the Wachowski’s drew faces on and held up in front of a green screen. The truly interesting characters are the siblings, but the film doesn’t let us play with them enough since it’s so caught up in it’s redemption story arcs.
You’d think that despite all of this that the action in the movie would be good, but that might be the most disappointing part of the film. The Wachowskis have shown that they can do fights and they can do speed, but neither of these things show up well here. There’s only two major action sequences outside of the conclusion and they’re both cutting room messes. One makes absolutely no sense at all and the other could be really cool if they’d manage to pull it off, but they don’t. Instead we get far too many scenes of Tatum and Kunis pretending to be in love or Kunis coping with becoming royalty in the universe. It’s all incredibly forced and means we get less action, which although mediocre would be far more welcome.
Jupiter Ascending should have been a TV show. With a full season to actually put together their thoughts, unfold the characters and deliver on their fifty million different story lines the Wachowski’s may have created something fun if not great. Instead we get a true mess on the screen. Overblown in every possible way the movie’s only remaining value is that it can be entertaining just to watch it fall apart. There’s camp hiding somewhere in here simply because it’s very clear that the filmmakers are taking their ridiculousness very seriously. The Wachowski’s think they created something amazing and fully commit to it. Sadly, they’ve only made a joke. At least we can get a laugh out of it.