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New Release Review - Jupiter Ascending

A girlish housekeeper discovers she is heir to a galactic empire.


Directed by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, James D'Arcy, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Gugu Mbatha-Raw


So, the return of the Wachowskis! This reviewer personally enjoyed their last film, Cloud Atlas, adapted from the novel by David Mitchell, for its scope and ambition, and I was more than happy to forgive imperfections in execution or any mawkishness. I especially admired their determination (thwarted at the distributor level) to create an independently financed blockbuster epic with an unconventional (for blockbusters) narrative structure. We got to see Hugh Grant as a savage marauder and Hale Berry as a Caucasian good-time gal from the twenties. Don’t see that everyday.
So it was with fingers crossed and an open fanboy’s heart that I attended a screening of Jupiter Ascending, curious to see what the siblings had made of the space opera genre. The premise is that Jupiter Jones, daughter of a widowed Russian immigrant, lives in Chicago with her family, toils pointlessly as a housekeeper, and wishes she didn’t hate her life. Unexpectedly one day, she has what seems to her a chance encounter with bizarre creatures (your classic Grey aliens), an encounter which is subsequently wiped from her memory. The next time she encounters them, a mysterious ™ dark stranger comes to her rescue and her adventures begin in earnest. She discovers that the Earth is not the only inhabited planet in the solar system, let alone the galaxy, and that she is the scion of a vast and ancient business Imperium. Imagine finding out your grandfather was Paul Atredies…
In films like these, execution is everything, as we are all very familiar with how the plot is likely to go, so it saddens me to tell you that this film fails to deliver almost completely. To start with, given what the audience are likely to know going into the screening, the movie has a painful opening line, delivered in narration by Jupiter. She gives a cursory account of her personal (terrestrial) origins and then ceases to narrate altogether for the rest of the film, except I think when they need the odd segueway between scenes. The film then leaps from Earth to somewhere else in the universe to introduce the trio of antagonists, the Abrasax siblings Titus, Kalique and Balum, played by English actors (of course!) Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton and Eddie Redmayne. Their introductory exchange is clunky, unnatural and lacking in subtlety. The movie then leaps back to Earth to pick up Jupiter’s story.
This leaping about right from the get-go undermines any attempt to establish the scale of the movie's events. It has long been a bugbear of mine that sci-fi films rarely bother to distinguish between interplanetary, interstellar or intergalactic scales, even in cursory dialogue. In a movie like this, largely set between Earth and Jupiter (coz, subtle!) and which tries to sell you on the premise that its anti-gravity tech works by some application of differential calculus, it doesn’t help that the orbital space around the great gas giant seems to be somewhere in Illinois.
The little research I did on this film before watching made me cross my fingers: the Wachkowskis have a pronounced streak of New Age mythology running through their filmography – The Matrix was heavily influenced by Grant Morrison’s occult spy-fi classic The Invisibles – and Jupiter Ascending features such David Ickery as Lizard men, Grey Alien surgeons, human alien hybridization and Ancient Astronaut theory. Even the name Abrasax is borrowed from ancient pre-Roman forms of Christianity. Rather than provide a comment on this legendry, the movie slaps it in as window-dressing and spits out plot point after plot point by means of earnest dialogue, failing to provide a sense that the events of the story are driven by decisions the characters are making.
Mila Kunis’ Jupiter – the Russian girl without a Russian accent, raised in a family of cartoon Russian stereotypes, not one of whom seems to be played by a Russian or even an Eastern European – acts with bemusement and occasional self-pity on discovering that she is the Queen of a billion year old Imperium that franchises out entire planets and species. Channing Tatum’s Caine Wise (ugh) is the lynchpin of the whole film, and his performance is dutiful and commited. Eddie Redmayne, as archvillian Balum Abrasax, seems to be having a ball, pitching his character as cosmically sociopathic, but you could put your headphones in while watching and guess his every line of dialogue.
The art design of the film is somewhat generic, and weirdly self-defeating. The most compelling and original designs – Kalique’s courtiers and Balum’s Imperial guard- are totally marginalised, while the Hunters and the space ships look decidedly ‘90s. Too many hands on deck in the production design, I suspect, have fragmented the aesthetic.
Jupiter Ascending is overstuffed and under-imagined in a way which makes me wonder if it wasn’t panel-beaten into shape by studio notes, so as to resemble a Hunger Games or Divergent style “girl of destiny” movie. If a sequel to this is greenlit, I hope the Wachkowskis go for a more streamlined and considered approach to wrapping up the plot threads they have left dangling.




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