Since dazzling the world with The Matrix, Lana and Andy Wachowski have had a mixed career, full of inventive, bold projects that haven’t quite managed to re-capture the critical and commercial success of that project. With that said, all of their films have been interesting, colourful, and ambitious, and I’ve personally never regretted the time spent with any of them. Their latest movie, Jupiter Ascending is just hitting home streaming and is due out on physical media shortly, and it’s with some anticipation that I found myself fortunate to review it.
But first, the official description.
“Channing Tatum (“Magic Mike,” “Foxcatcher”) and Mila Kunis (“Oz the Great and Powerful”) lead an all star cast that includes Sean Bean (“The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy), Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Douglas Booth (“Noah”), Tuppence Middleton (“The Imitation Game”), Doona Bae (“Cloud Atlas”), James D’Arcy (“Hitchcock”) and Tim Pigott-Smith (“Alice in Wonderland”).
From the streets of Chicago to the far flung galaxies whirling through space, “Jupiter Ascending” takes you on dramatic journey across the stars. The story follows cleaner Jupiter Jones (Kunis) as she discovers her true destiny as an heiress of intergalactic nobility. With her fate realised Jupiter soon finds herself thrust into a sibling war, where she must learn to fight to protect the inhabitants of her beloved Earth from an ancient and destructive industry.
Written and directed by the talented Wachowski duo. Award-winning producer Grant Hill, with whom they have collaborated since “The Matrix” Trilogy, produced the film, together with Lana and Andy Wachowski.”
So that all sounds reasonably straightforward, at least by the standards of big space-opera plots. A central “ordinary” character catapulted into an extraordinary adventure, tinged with the fairy story “secretly a princess” trope. It certainlydoesn’t capture how utterly bonkers JupiterAscending actually is. It starts with one of those voice-overs that are apparently obligatory for films with sprawling new universes, although it’s really just the back story for Jupiter, a story of the tragedy of her father’s death, and how her family came to America. Like a lot of the movie, it’s never really relevant again.
Jupiter, you see, it’s so much an “heiress” so much as a genetic “recurrence” of an alien noble, although they’re not aliens, because humans were seeded onto the planet, so we’re the aliens. Presumably the rest of the eco-system was seeded too, as the galaxy is full of wolf-humans, elephant-humans, owl-humans and human-humans, and some really cool Space Lizards who don’t seem to be human at all, unless I missed something. I suspect I missed a lot as there is a lot of exposition and I wasn’t taking notes. Being a “recurrence” means that Jupiter gets to inherit the Earth – literally, rather than metaphorically – which is important because multimillion year seeding projects on backwater worlds is how nobles get their hands on vital resources that that need giant space factories to profit out of. It all makes the setup of The Matrix feel solid and grounded and plausible.
On the other hand, Jupiter Ascending doesn’t really want you to think too much about this. Every time a character spends more than a few minutes trying to get out exposition, one of several factions kicks the door in and starts blasting, leading to shootouts and chases a very regular intervals. It’s here, and in the visual design generally, that the film really shines. There are hints of the Neon-heavy equipment of the Mass Effect series, character designs from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Metabarons and David Lynch’s Dune, and floating Cathedralships from Warhammer 40k. There are moments when the camera is too frantic to appreciate all this, especially in a chase through Chicago’s airspace, but at other times it slows down enough to allow real moments of grandeur.
I think the real problem – one that the Wachowski’s have had before – is that there is just too much they’re trying to take on here. The world they are presenting is bonkers, really, totally high space-opera stuff, and the “normal woman” lead character doesn’t act so much as an accessible entry to that but as something that throws out your suspension of disbelief. When a wolf-alien is rollerskating on thin air and fighting space lizards, and Eddie Redmayne is vamping it up in the background, it all works somehow. When that reality is pushed up against Russian Immigrants living in a basement, it really doesn’t. The plot is very silly, and has huge narrative leaps because people seem to just do what the plot demands they do, not from any character motivation that makes any sense. You can get away with that too, if your through-lines are clear enough, but again, everything is too cluttered. Oddly, I feel it’s probably all making sense deep down, somewhere, it’s just lost in the mix with so much else.
In the end I think I would mark down Jupiter Ascending as an interesting failure of a movie. There is too much that doesn’t work, too much that doesn’t hang together even given the high pulp milieu the film is operating in. But it’s got some fun, well pitched performances, a good pace, and I really can’t overstate how distinctive and interesting it looks when it really wants to. To be honest I could happily recommend watching it just for how it looks, so long as you have adecent tolerance for the craziness going on around it!
Jupiter Ascending is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Disc from 29th July and is available on digital streaming platforms now.