Starring: Mila Kunis (Black Swan), Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Sean Bean (Game of Thrones), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Douglas Booth (Noah)
Writers/Directors: The Wachowskis (The Matrix)
Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes
Release Date: 6 February (US, UK)
Over fifteen years later, The Wachowskis still owe their entire career to the success of The Matrix. Other than their criminally overlooked debut Bound, it is their only consistently good film. The Matrix sequels were enveloped by the worst aspects of the original and became convoluted philosophical nonsense, Speed Racer was an admirable attempt to bring an anime to life but ended up being sickeningly trite, and Cloud Atlas was a muddled mess of tones that never melded together cohesively. But despite these constant failures, they still seem to get funding for their elaborate projects. A Matrix fan myself, I really want the Wachowskis to make another good movie and I was hoping desperately that Jupiter Ascending could be the one to restore faith to their name. But once again I find myself leaving the cinema disappointed, and I don’t think I can keep it up any longer.
Jupiter Ascending’s plot is simple at first glance: yet another hero plucked from obscurity to realise they are destined for something greater and must go on an adventure to save the world. However, despite the straightforwardness of the narrative (which I have no problem with if told effectively), the film feels the need to bombard proceedings with endless scenes of expository dialogue that spoonfeeds every minute detail of the universe it inhabits. It never becomes impenetrable like some of the dialogue in The Matrix Reloaded, but it does have the banality of what you might find in the Star Wars prequels; lots of talks about inheritances, contracts, profit margins, and all sorts of other needless details that bog down a lot of escapist fiction these days. However, it’s that same tiresome exposition that holds up the limp narrative. Despite the amount of detail that has gone into creating this world, Jupiter Ascending doesn’t do anything new on a storytelling level. There’s not a single plot reveal or character moment that doesn’t feel worn or strained, and the film’s lack of awe and wit despite the bizarre surroundings just make it feel that much more dull. I get the strong impression that a lot of material was cut from the movie considering the rushed storytelling and hanging threads (for example, what was the point of Sean Bean’s daughter and where did she disappear to after her two scenes?), but even with those scenes restored I doubt the film could be any less engaging.
In terms of performance, I cannot fault the cast of Jupiter Ascending. They do well with what they are given, but that material does reflect excruciatingly badly on them. Channing Tatum comes out of this the most unscathed, managing to inject a lot of his natural charm into a character that completely lacks any on the page. Sean Bean also manages to keep his head high, but he’s not given enough screen time to leave a lasting impression and is mostly there for expository purposes. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis tries hard but the character of Jupiter Jones is a terribly ineffective protagonist that, whilst I wouldn’t class as sexist, doesn’t reflect well on the role of women in film. For most of the film’s crushingly stretched runtime, she completely lacks any strong motivation or urgency; she is merely dragged from scene to scene to have the plot explained to her. She is constantly thrust into situations that she never does anything to get out of, and is always (and I mean ALWAYS) reliant on Tatum to rescue her at the last second. I get that she’s a fish out of water, but a little more of a take-charge attitude would have alleviated this issue. By the climax she does become a little more proactive, but otherwise you could replace her character with a very important teapot and the plot would make about as much sense. Kunis’ chemistry with Tatum is dreadfully forced, mainly because their relationship is sporadic and unnecessary, and like the film itself she also lacks the right amount of wonder considering her bizarre predicament. The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable or extraneous, but current Oscar frontrunner Eddie Redmayne is a complete and utter embarrassment here. Tasked with playing one of the most unthreatening villains in recent cinema history (who doesn’t even meet our heroine until the story’s climax), Redmayne reads every line in a comically raspy whisper that I guess is supposed to be threatening, occasionally mixing it up by bursting into a shouting fit like a wimpy Al Pacino. Again, I think the problem lies more with the Wachowski’s direction that Redmayne himself, but it is a sadly sour note for the actor in the midst of what may be the defining moment of his career.
Whether the film is good or bad, you can always at least rely on the Wachowskis to make a visually striking film, and in that respect they don’t fail. Jupiter Ascending does look very impressive on a technical level with vibrant cinematography, impeccable visual effects and a fantastic orchestral score by the great Michael Giacchino. There are some cool concepts on display like boots that let you skate on air or instant spacesuits, but I do have to question the bizarreness of the production design. Everything from the sets to the props to the vehicles looks unnecessarily garish and overly busy, with more attention being paid to whether it looks cool over whether it makes aesthetic sense. Even more outrageous are the costumes, which would make those seen in The Hunger Games seem subdued. I get that it helps separate these alien worlds from our own, but too often I found myself questioning why any sane person would design these things this way. The Wachowskis do have a strong love for anime and a lot of that spirit can be found here, but after Speed Racer you think they would have learnt that not all of its odd embellishments translate to live action effectively.
Jupiter Ascending is sadly another mess of a film from the Wachowskis. There are redeeming qualities here and there, but the core components of story and character just don’t work. The narrative is riddled with intricately dull dialogue and predictable plot turns, our protagonist is essentially a prop in her own story, and all the supporting roles are either underdeveloped or laughably overplayed. At this point, the Wachowskis have seriously dipped their toes into Shyamalan territory and it’s going to take something really impressive to get them out of this rut.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/10