Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending

Rating

Director
The Wachowskis (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)
Screenplay
The Wachowskis (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)
Length
127 min.
Starring
Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity.

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Review
In the battle for which director (or directors) can make the most miserable destruction of their own careers, The Wachowskis have only their insanely bountiful style to keep them from utter mediocrity. Jupiter Ascending is the perfect embodiment of their rise and fall in the film industry.

As with all of their films, the Wachowskis use a plethora of fantasy elements to drive their narratives. Ostensibly set in modern times, Jupiter Ascending follows a young maid and her immigrant family who are drawn into a universe-spanning plot to harvest the Earth and turn human civilization into age-reversing tinctures controlled by a ruling family of ruthless capitalists.

When it’s discovered that Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the reincarnation of a member of this family, the three siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) compete to see who can either garner her favor or kill her to prevent her inheritance of the planetary tract that includes Earth itself. To protect her from harm, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is sent to Earth with all his sci-fi accouterments intact, attempting to convince Jupiter that she’s a queen and that she’s in danger.

This is the pair’s third sci-fi outing after The Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas and it has as much in common with those cinematic accomplishments as it does with their fourth feature Speed Racer. Steeped in lore and backstory, Jupiter Ascending spends far too much time explaining its complexity to the audience while injecting the intervening moments with countless visually stunning action set pieces.

Were it not for the gorgeous design work, it would be difficult to categorize the film as anything close to a success. Oscar winners Michael Giacchino and John Toll respectively created a musical and visual landscape that pulls the audience into its vibrant, richly detailed environment. Aided by production designer Hugh Bateup, set decorator Peter Walpole, and costume designer Kym Barrett, Toll’s cinematography evokes a lush sense of place and purpose. Giacchino’s score is lively and dense even if it doesn’t entirely fill the void where a credible story should be. It also ratchets up to bombastic at the Wachowski’s direction even when it should be scaled back.

The Wachowskis love grand dramatics and if they have to shoehorn an outrageous story into that world to tell a great story, they are more than ready to do so. Jupiter Ascending has some compelling things to say about class struggles in the world today. The Abrasax trio stand in for megacorporate greed, believing human life is there for nothing more than to ensure their eternal survival. This concept is a bit heavy handed at times and without a subtle or credible delivery by the actors, it gets lost in the process.

Kunis and Tatum, the two actors who are least likely to scale back their performances in any film in which they star, have surprisingly reduced their brazen theatrics. Almost taciturn in their handling of situations, the two give surprising humanity to their characters even when the outlandishness around them threatens to engulf them.

On the other end of the spectrum, Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne takes those years of subtle nuance as an actor and flushes them down the outrageous toilet of exuberant excess. Balem may be conniving, but he throws tantrums like no one ever has before. It doesn’t give his character any added depth, we could have gotten the spoiled child routine without the grandiloquence. He’s a fine actor, deserving an Oscar nomination for Les Misérables and coming close to deserving his Oscar for The Theory of Everything, but when you toss out subtlety for bombast, you get a character that the audience loses interest in too quickly. Villains should have some depth and an overzealous performance gets in the way of that.

There are always two flaws to any Wachowski Siblings film: performance and plotting. These characteristics are embodied in a film like Jupiter Ascending, an impressive high concept is muddied by a raft of uneven performances and a lot of narrative excess. While the excess might fit in perfectly with their visual panache and stylistic superiority, they ultimately make the film feel meandering, inconsistent and underdeveloped. That they cannot seem to make any money off their post-Matrix features is testament to why these flaws need to be controlled.

If you’re going to throw money at a filmmaker or team of filmmakers to make something outlandish, exuberant and bombastic, it’s better to give that money to people like the Wachowskis than someone who is entirely devoid of cinematic talent like M. Night Shyamalan. Jupiter Ascending may be heavily flawed and frequently frustrating, but at least it’s inventive and competent filmmaking.

Review Written

September 3, 2015

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