Jupiter Ascending isn't just a mediocre film. It's also self-indulgent, and in love with its own excesses. It's like the sick love-child of Zardoz and Fifth Element. But what's really odd about Jupiter is that it wants to criticize opulence and selfishness, and yet it's a movie that thinks "more" is always "better."
I went into Jupiter Ascending with low expectations, and this movie somehow slid underneath them. My highest hope for this film would be that it would be "fun but dumb" — which is no bad thing, at all. A fun, dumb movie is a wonderful thing, and I'd always rather see a fun, dumb movie than a pretentious clunker.
Unfortunately, Jupiter Ascending gets too excited about its own flaky ideas, and is too intent on chasing the elusive whippoorwill of its plot, to settle down into being a fun ride. And if you need to care even a little about the characters or stakes in order to have fun watching a movie, then you're in for a disappointment here.
Speaking of the plot, here it is. Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a young house-cleaner who hates her life — until she finds out she's actually the exact genetic duplicate of an alien queen. These aliens seeded Earth with life, along with countless other worlds, and according to their law, Jupiter is basically the reincarnation of their matriarch. So she has to claim her inheritance, or else the Earth will belong to the evil Balem (Eddie Redmayne).
Helping Jupiter to claim her throne is Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered half-wolf, half-human enforcer guy whose wings were cut off after he bit a member of the royal family. (Don't ask.)
A Random Story Generator on the fritz
Honestly, a lot of this movie felt as though co-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski wrote a bunch of ideas on index cards, which they then threw up in the air. (And then half the index cards accidentally went out the window.)
Jupiter Ascending is probably partly the victim of a terrible editing job. The characters frequently reference plot points as if we're supposed to have heard of them already, but we're hearing about them for the first time. The "romance" between Jupiter and Caine feels threadbare, as if some key scenes of their relationship are missing. Some big emotional beats are cut short, somewhat randomly.
But the problems with Jupiter Ascending go much deeper with any editor could account for. Jupiter herself is like a masterclass in how to create an unsympathetic protagonist — she's kind of a doormat, who is selling her eggs and letting her slimy cousin keep most of the money (because "shit rolls downhill") when we first meet her. Later, she spends most of the movie needing to be rescued, over and over, sometimes from the results of her own weak decisions. Caine, meanwhile, has a certain long-suffering charm.
And this movie goes out of its own way to undercut any sense of urgency or stakes. There's a line, that's included in all the trailers, where Redmayne's villain says, "Before I let her have the Earth, I will harvest it tomorrow." That's a pretty good ticking clock, right? He's going to harvest the Earth in 24 hours, if she doesn't claim her inheritance! Except that this threat is never followed up on. Maybe he was just speaking rhetorically.
Speaking of which, the film has an incredible cast, who mostly do their best — except that Redmayne seems intent on declaiming every line of dialogue in a slow, gnashing hiss, as if there are some cheap seats that he needs to reach. And meanwhile Sean Bean, as a beekeeper named "Stinger," mumbles his way through a lot of exposition, as if he really doesn't want anybody to understand the nonsense he's spouting.
The squandered potential in this anti-Matrix
In the Wachowskis' most famous movie, The Matrix, Neo discovers that the world he knows is a pleasant illusion, to keep him from the ugly truth — that he lives in a post-apocalyptic world where most humans are being kept in a kind of farm by artificial intelligences. The secret at the heart of Jupiter Ascending is equally nasty (the mentions of "harvesting" should be a clue) but this time, instead of discovering a grungy, dark world, the secret world that Jupiter discovers is gaudy, beautiful and lavish.
So in a way, the Wachowskis have substituted a rags-to-riches Cinderella fantasy (albeit with a dark underside) for the "Lotos-Eaters" narrative of The Matrix.
This has a lot of potential as a story, as a means of critiquing our own fantasies about being lifted up to wealth and power in a world where the wealthy few hold sway over the rest of the human race. It also offers a lot of potential for asking some fascinating questions about identity and character, seeing a woman who was scrubbing toilets suddenly offered the chance at becoming a space-queen with servants and insanely beautiful clothes.
All Jupiter Ascending needs to do is play out this story with a tiny modicum of focus and emotional honesty, and you'd have something silly and fun, that also leaves you thinking as you walk out of the theater.
Which brings me back to the central problem here: This is a movie that apparently wants to be about that rags-to-riches fantasy, and incidentally comment on the dangers of having too much of a good thing. And yet, "too much of a good thing" is basically the entire aesthetic of Jupiter Ascending.
Don't get me wrong — there is some splendid eye candy here. The big fight/chase scene early on in the film is a thing of pure wonderment, and some of the later fight scenes are also incredibly inventive. The flying boots are bitchin. Plus this movie has some of the most beautiful space and spaceship imagery I've ever seen. Nobody has a better eye for light, or a more creative use of color and texture, than the Wachowskis, and they've surpassed themselves in terms of pure beauty here.
But the movie feels overstuffed, both visually and in terms of story elements. Part of the reason why certain parts of the film feel rushed is so that we can spend the requisite amount of time lingering over the insanely beautiful outfits that Mila Kunis gets to wear after she becomes fancy. And gazing upon the beautiful people having polymorphous space orgies.
Meanwhile, there's no idea that the Wachowskis won't toss into their stew. Psychic bees? Sure! Owl people? Why not! An elephant-headed guy who's named Mr. Nesh? Sounds great. Hey, let's go to the planet of the Lucha Libre people! The movie also tosses in "grey" aliens, and vodka-commercial robots. Oh, and awesome lizard people, who really are straight-up awesome. At times, the idea confetti feels joyful and thrilling — but after an hour or so, it starts to get just tiresome.
At one point, just when the movie should be starting to get into high gear, it randomly turns into a drawn-out Terry Gilliam spoof — and Terry Gilliam has a cameo! It's sort of wonderful, but also just confounding, especially as it sucks all the urgency out of the movie.
I guess the real problem with Jupiter Ascending is that its commitment to "whatever seemed like a good idea at the time" doesn't feel silly or frenetic enough to work as goofy insanity. It's probably a pretty good Midnight Movie, and I could see some liver-destroying drinking games springing up around this movie, but it's not fun enough on its own terms.
And in the end, this movie doesn't have the courage of its convictions. It may pay lip service to rooting for Jupiter, with her humble background and her determination to remain herself even after becoming royalty, but its sympathies are firmly with the self-indulgent royals who want to kill her. (They, after all, are the ones who've most completely taken the "red pill" in the context of this film.) In its heart, Jupiter Ascending is on the side of the bad guys.