Film Review: Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter-AscendingThe Wachowski siblings’ latest visual feast is purely proficient space opera, marrying inventive world building and production design with the most perfunctory of hero’s journey storylines. In this case, the story of one Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a janitor in a family of janitors, living a life of endless drudgery, who also happens to own the Earth.

jupiter-ascending-aliensCreating a world based on genetic tinkering and the favored Wachowski theme of the danger of consumption, the filmmakers have set the grandest stage of their careers, filled with aliens and robots and space ships, incredible costumes and grand vistas against which they can set explosions and chases and all the other bubblegum material this sort of thing is required to have. There is a lot of inherent silliness baked in – spaceships piloted by elephants, wolf man who surf on gravity and bees instinctively bowing in the face of royalty regardless of genus – but that’s the nature of the beast.

Saying a space opera is ridiculous is like saying a red delicious apple is red, and it’s about as useful as a point of criticism; go with it or find a different film to watch. It’s even less of a concern for “Jupiter Ascending” which, beneath its outré exterior, refuses to remove its feet from the ground, clutching instead to completely conventional characters and plots.

Jupiter-Ascending-Trailer-2-01Plots plural, one for each of the Abrasax children (Redmayne, Booth and Middleton) who have put Jupiter in their crosshairs after learning she is their genetically reincarnated materfamilias and can potentially take back their ill-gotten inheritances. When intergalactic bounty hunters show up in Chicago, “Jupiter” quickly takes to the stars, opening up a world as lush and inventive as has ever been put onto the screen.

The breadth of the adventure has allowed production designer Hugh Bateup (taking over for frequent Wachowski collaborator Owen Patterson) to experiment to his heart’s content, from Roman baths to clockwork bureaucracies and classic big navy space ship and everything in between. They’re filled to the brim with an elegant assortment of bondage outfits and over the top gowns from “Speed Racer” and “Matrix” alum Kim Barrett and lit with élan by “Cloud Atlas” photographer John Toll who uses the excuse of the unreality of it all to cover everything in turquoise and gold light.

The final effect is both original and believable, an incredibly difficult feat, and somewhat disappointing as none of the craft or authorial hard work which has self-evidently gone into the creation of the world appears anywhere within the film’s heart. Like most other space opera creators before them, the Wachowski’s seem have approached the genre as a wheel only half in need of reinventing, leaving us with one of gold and one of wood. It makes for a bumpy ride to the say the least.

With danger fast on her heels, Jupiter does the sensible thing and heads directly for the galactic police with the help of half-man/half-wolf mercenary Caine (Tatum), around whom the siblings have chosen to set the lynchpin of their film. It’s a loose fit at best and leaves “Jupiter” permanently discombobulated, though to be fair it’s not particularly Tatum’s fault. He plays a flying albino space wolf-man about as well as you can reasonably expect, with moments of humor and occasionally compelling sincerity. Like most of its ilk, the heroes tend to fall on the bland side – at best trying and failing to mimic a Harrison Ford like roguery (Bean in particular is the worst recipient of that here) in lieu of actual characterization.

Jupiter-Ascending-Official-Trailer-3They’re generally better served than Jupiter, however. Though she benefits from the decision to allow only her innate will to get out of scrapes – no secret magic powers and melodramatic starring/pointing combination to stop the villain here – most of her non-plot oriented conversation revolves around her completely uninteresting romance with Caine which is impossible to invest in because the individuals as characters are not developed enough to make it work.

Conceptual problems at “Jupiter’s” core make this impossible to avoid, unfortunately. The necessary world building being the introductory story requires, and the cornucopia of villains the Wachowski’s have built their plot around, has necessitated an extremely episodic narrative. Among other things it keeps a primary antagonist from developing, leaving the villains themselves just a few minutes here and there to chew the scenery rather than inhabit it, though Redmayne has some interesting moments as channels the world’s oldest man through a young man’s body.

It keeps things moving crisply and offers plenty of opportunity for inventive set pieces (mostly involving Tatum spinning and kicking) but it keeps tension from rising steadily to a climax, instead offering an irregular flow of peaks and valleys. Worse, it turns Jupiter into a passenger in a travelogue, watching the story go past her when information dumps are required, rather than the center of her own story. It does have the benefit of removing her from Caine’s side so that she is free to expound on her own thoughts about achieving sudden mind-boggling wealth and whether it’s worth the trouble – particularly once she discovers the horror that lies beneath the galactic economy – but it doesn’t take long before she’s back to wondering about her broken man-compass instead.

JUPITER-ASCENDING-International-TrailerFor the Wachowski’s fans there’s plenty of the usual to give them what they expect: lush design, inventive action beats and the irony of millionaires warning about the dangers of capitalism via big-budget Hollywood confections. And for space opera fans it’s the same: strange creatures and stranger worlds with hints and more of both somewhere out there. And for Hollywood executives, a nice safe well-tested formula of a story easily embraced by the target audience. The Wachowski’s have seldom disappointed but frequently bewildered with their varied choices and willingness to experiment within the Hollywood big budget formula which makes “Jupiter” their strangest concoction yet – a purely conventional one.

6.5 out of 10 stars

Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw

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