Andy and Lana Wachowski haven’t been able to match the brilliance of their cultural touchstone movie The Matrix with anything else they’ve done. Not with the increasingly banal sequels to the film, and certainly not with the visual f/x abomination Speed Racer. The recent Cloud Atlas was their closest effort, a thoughtful, engaging but ultimately overreaching film based on a twisty book by David Mitchell. Into this troubled oeuvre comes their latest movie, Jupiter Ascending, a science fiction film with epic intentions. And it’s not bad.
The story revolves around Russian emigre Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), whose father is inexplicably killed by Russian mobsters before she’s even born. He was an astronomer fascinated with the wonder of the heavens, particularly the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. As with all great dramas, Jupiter is more than she realizes and in a nod to both Harry Potter and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, she turns out to be a quite important person in the intergalactic world: She is an exact DNA match to the queen of the House of Abrasax. this means she’s darn important in the order of things, to the manipulative delight of the three heads of the House, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton).
The rough-around-the-edges hero of Jupiter Ascending is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum channelling his inner Wolverine), a genetically engineered hunter who is Jupiter’s defender when she’s unexpectedly assaulted by weird shape-shifting aliens, then throughout the film as the action unfolds and their relationship blooms in a rather predictable way.
The Earth turns out to be one of many planets that have been genetically seeded by the House of Abrasax to produce a powerful youth serum that lets the rich live for hundreds of years. That production isn’t so good for us Earthlings, however: 100 humans are killed for each vial of the serum, in a method more reminiscent of the horrific sequences in The Matrix than anything else. There’s dissent in the House of Abrasax between the siblings too, though it’s never really clear why they hate each other so much.
In fact, that’s the core problem with this interesting and certainly visually lush movie: It doesn’t really entirely make sense. The first 30 minutes in particular feel choppy and rushed, and given that the studio delayed release of the film at the very last minute, it’s quite possible that preview audiences complained the original cut was too long and the resultant edit ends up being overly short in the interest of getting quickly into the action. The result really is a bit baffling, notably the first time we meet the three leaders of the House of Abrasax as they wander through an abandoned futuristic city and debate family politics.
And then there are the fight and chase sequences, first with alien spacecraft that can reconfigure themselves (very cool) as they zoom through Chicago, then an extended scene later on a gorgeous serum processing facility hidden within the “eye” of the planet Jupiter. While they start out exciting and as terrific eye candy, all of these sequences quickly become boring: too much ends up being, well, too much. Think of the epic fight sequence in the otherwise okay film Man of Steel and you’ll understand the problem.
My first reaction to the film was that it felt like a lot of “cutscenes” for a big budget video game, that it didn’t all really hold together as a seamless, logical story sequence, but that goes back to my earlier comment about it being a bit of a hacked edit job. The obvious solution, as we’ve learned in these modern DVD-release times, is the Director’s Cut. That just seems like it’s going to have an extra 30-45 minutes of footage and all the jarring, confusing transitions are going to make a lot more sense. Hopefully.
The Wachowskis have a really good visual sense and the alien cities, the space stations, even the bee-infested home of Stinger Apini (Sean Bean) are all fascinating. The problem is that the storyline itself — written by the Wachowskis — doesn’t flow and doesn’t really make sense. They’re trying too hard to make a Major Science Fiction Epic and rather lost the fact that all great epic films are based on small, simple stories with heart, whether it’s Harry Potter (Dan Radcliffe) rising to his surprising destiny, Neo (Keanu Reeves) trying to figure out his reality in The Matrix or Luke (Mark Hamill) trying to find a purpose for his life in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Still, the more I think about Jupiter Ascending, the more I find myself appreciating the sheer scope of the story. Sure the elements have been inspired by other movies like Soylent Green (well, maybe To Serve Man, perhaps the most famous of all Twilight Zone episodes) and there are definitely elements of Cloud Atlas that show up (notably the distinctive character actor Doona Bae, this time as The Asian Mercenary Woman), but if you can overlook the flaws, there’s a lot to appreciate in Jupiter Ascending. Definitely enough to justify the price of a movie ticket so you can enjoy the spectacle on a big screen.
In fact, I might just go see it again…