Jupiter Ascending Dir. The Wachowskis

[Warner Bros.; 2015]

Styles: space opera
Others: Dune, Flash Gordon, The Matrix

I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m a fan of The Wachowskis’ films. Yes, all of them. I’m the guy who thinks Matrix Reloaded is still a great film, that Revolutions only needed one more pass at the script or a little tighter edit, that Speed Racer is the perfect realization of a cartoon come to life, and that Cloud Atlas is a near masterpiece. So it pains me that the directors have fallen short on this, their return to “original” filmmaking — as opposed to adaptations. What The Wachowskis’ new film Jupiter Ascending gets right, it really gets right; where it falls short, it becomes irksome and unfortunate. The space opera does so many interesting things well that its shortcomings are all the more apparent, and they end up dragging down what would otherwise be a great piece of original sci-fi.

Of course, with The Wachowskis, “original” comes with an asterisk: they proudly wear their influences on their sleeves. Jupiter Ascending pulls from material like Frank Herbert’s Dune, the 80s Flash Gordon film, various comics by Moebius and other Metal Hurlant artists — all to create a unique blend of massive world-building. What makes it work is how intricately it’s woven together, never feeling like the world exists only to launch a franchise or spawn a video game tie-in.

The story concerns Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant who spends her days bemoaning her lot in life cleaning up toilets of the wealthy. She is suddenly beset by other-worldly creatures intent on killing her before being saved by a man-dog hybrid named Caine (Channing Tatum). Caine then informs Jupiter that she is the genetic match for the former Queen of the Universe, and that the queen’s petulant children aren’t too happy about it and are scheming to gain control of the queen’s property, specifically Earth. Why Earth? Because it is teeming with life, and life is converted into a substance that comes close to immortality by reversing the aging process for its lucky recipients. Soon, Jupiter finds she has become a game piece played by the three heirs to the throne, thrust into the true universe she never dared to believe existed.

Here’s what Jupiter Ascending gets right. The world(s) building in this film is elaborate and well thought out, never confusing or convoluted. Information is parsed pretty easily with exposition that’s never forced, as Jupiter is a novice to all the new worlds and factions. And the design of the film is truly remarkable, with breathtaking vistas right out of an old Tor sci-fi paperback cover. The action is particularly varied and well-staged, allowing for one of the most tasteful acts of disaster porn in recent memory as an aerial dogfight occurs above and around the streets of Chicago, showing off the city as it’s torn apart. The score by Michael Giacchino is suitably epic and sweeping, and John Toll’s cinematography adds to the production design’s ability to distinguish each faction purely based on appearance and framing.

The problem, unfortunately, lies not with these details, but with the very center of the movie: Jupiter Jones. Mila Kunis does a fine job in the role and has excellent chemistry with Channing Tatum (does anyone ever have bad chemistry with the guy?). But by the fourth or fifth time she is falling from something, screaming before Caine rushes in to save her, the fear creeps in that she is not anything more than a damsel in distress. From a storytelling perspective, this makes sense: she’s the object that everyone else is manipulating to get what they want, while also being an everyday person completely out of her depth. But from a progressive standpoint of wanting to see a heroine kick ass and rise to a challenge, it becomes tedious to watch her constantly depend on a man to rescue her. Even Neo got a cool fight scene in which he showed he knew Kung Fu before he transformed into the ultimate badass in the third act of The Matrix. With so many bizarre ideas like transhumanism, gene splicing, and reincarnation/transmigration of the soul — plus arch criticism of capitalism literally being sustained by the lives of the less powerful — it’s sad that the most revolutionary idea in Jupiter Ascending would appear to be a competent heroine who doesn’t require being constantly bailed out by a man.

And because she’s a bit of a cipher, and audience surrogate who is constantly being saved, some of the action scenes suffer as the stakes never feel real. Once the pattern of Caine swoops in — literally, on anti-grav skates that are pretty dope — to save Jupiter becomes entrenched, it’s hard to be worried about the outcomes of these otherwise dazzling displays of aerobatics and firepower. Jeopardy is never really part of the equation, although the Wachowskis do their best to bring tension to a lot of close calls despite the predictability of the outcome.

There’s a lot to recommend in Jupiter Ascending. It’s rare weird sci-fi movie that’s not based on a young adult novel, comic book, or video game. It doesn’t seem poised to launch another franchise. It builds up beautifully rendered worlds complete with castes and rules that are clearly evident and spectacular to behold. There’s still, even, some thrill in the action scenes despite their predictability. If only that same daring and innovation of the film’s world-building had been brought to its central character, Jupiter Ascending might have been more than a pleasantly imaginative diversion.

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