How Bad Is…Jupiter Ascending (2015)?
After watching Mila Kunis’ latest flick, I strapped in for Jupiter Ascending, perhaps her most notorious film. The result was a pleasant surprise.
The Wachowski siblings seemingly live and die by the sci-fi sword. They rose to acclaim for their visionary Matrix films. A follow-up success adapting V for Vendetta seemed to cement their place in geek culture. Then came Speed Racer. And Cloud Atlas. And Jupiter Ascending. With each entry, critics and audiences grew colder towards a style that seemed to rely on visual overload to cover for messy story telling and baroque plot-lines. This was particularly the charge leveled against Jupiter Ascending, a space opera that couldn’t seem to get its instruments to play in harmony.
I have to say I regarded this film as a epic disaster based on reputation and the muddled promotional material. The trailer promised a mindbogglingly silly story, overblown acting, and a glut of glossy but hollow visuals. Instead, I was treated to a modestly ambitious fantasy space opera that was better than average in most categories. Go figure.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the daughter of immigrant parents, and is having a rough life. Her parents were intellectuals who explored the heavens back in Moscow, but when her father was murdered by thugs, the family fled to the US – where they now scrub toilets for a living. Everything changes when Jupiter is discovered to be the reincarnation of the Queen of the Galaxy, who was murdered ages ago. A loyal warrior (Channing Tatum) is sent to safeguard her from the schemes of the royal family, all of whom want to deny her ascension to the throne.
What Went Right?
- Two Charming Leads. Despite the early half of the film trying to smash Tatum and Kunis together as a couple, the two leads develop a down-to-Earth and affable chemistry. Kunis works as a commoner thrown into the double whammy of high society and extraterrestrial society. She’s brash and funny in places, over-awed and terrified in others, and generally pleasant to be around.
Tatum starts the film a mostly beefcake action fodder, but has a good backstory that provides motivation for him as well as a linchpin upon which many of the other character’s stories turn. He’s able to act as a tour guide for Jupiter and the audience in a way that doesn’t require large exposition dumps. He has a nice chemistry with Kunis; while it doesn’t sizzle, it does feel natural.
- Pretty. Shiny. The Wachowskis do tend to overdue their CG work…but they also do tend to make some pretty grand spectacles. The big battle sequences get too busy, but many fine action sequences in between are riveting and beautiful. The space half of the space opera formula is well served as each planet is memorable and unique. The alien species are mostly cartoonish in concept but ably pulled off in practical terms. Wide, sweeping panoramic shots of gigantic ships sinking into the atmospheres of gas giants are gorgeous. All in all, a visual treat.
- Out of this World. Hand in glove with the visuals is the world building. While I wish more time was spent on certain elements more than others (i.e. a whole lot less Eddie Redmayne), I finished the film with a sense that I knew my away around this galactic milieu and understood the players. It almost felt like three films crammed into one, since each royal faction has such a well developed brand, sensibility and visual style.
What Went Wrong?
- Too Many CGI Swarms. As nice as the small-scale fight scenes are, the big battles are emblematic of the Wachowski’s tendency to toss a bunch of CG doodads at the audience. The weakest fights in The Matrix series were the computer generated mob of Smiths; the weakest part of Jupiter Ascending’s fights are the aerial dog fights. They are garish, over-saturated, and crammed full of junk. It looks like an N64 barfing all over itself trying to run a game of Starfox64.
- Our Princess is in Another Castle. I would have enjoyed the fantasy princess story of Jupiter Ascending more if Mila Kunis had been allowed more agency. She flashes a few formidable moments, such as when she stymies a bureaucrat with her understanding of royal policy. I would have loved to see that be a character trait. Perhaps drop a line about how she’s studying law surreptitiously while cleaning rich people’s homes. Have her pull out legal jujitsu to save her butt more than just once. Instead, she’s relegated to mostly falling and screaming and waiting for Channing Tatum to swoop in and save her. Gross.
- Whatever the Hell Eddie Redmayne Was Doing?! Seriously. WTF was going on here? Eddie Redmayne – Oscar Winning Best Actor Eddie Redmayne – is literally incomprehensible in this movie. Not only is he not a very threatening fit for the bloody-minded eldest royal sibling, but he’s also mumbling half of his dialogue. His entire modus operndi is to utter a few throaty lines before petulantly screaming the final line. It sounds like what Al Pacino must have been like as a toddler. A toddler with asthma.
The incongruence of the performance is compounded by the fact that the other two royal siblings are so much more interesting. The middle daughter wants to indoctrinate Jupiter; turn her head with lavish pomp and get her to agree to the status quo. The youngest son wants to cheat Jupiter; sell himself as an ally in her plight, trick her into a sham marriage and dump her out the airlock. They’re both more devious and interesting than Mr. Scream-and-Threaten. He’s a cheap villain that would look shabby on an episode of Scooby Doo.
How Bad Is It?
Not that bad, actually. I dreaded the 2 + hour run time going in, but found the film well paced. If anything, I wanted more time with the lesser factions and their plots. The cast is capable, minus a miscast and poorly directed Eddie Redmayne. While the story can veer from simple fantasy to obtuse sci-fi in places, it’s an engaging concept that shows hints of a deeper complexity. I came away feeling that it was a decent space opera, but that it would have been much better served in a long form. A TV series would have given all of the players room to breathe, and the restraint of a smaller budget may have served to curtail the Wachowski’s penchant for overblown spectacles.