Originally published on Candid on 5th February 2015.
Things start badly in Jupiter Ascending – and not just because Jupiter’s (Mila Kunis) dad is murdered in the first five minutes. Partly it’s because of some voiceover waffle about Jupiter ascending at the time of our heroine’s birth – geddit? Partly it’s because of some painfully cheesy flashbacks to Jupiter’s parents’ meet-cute. But mainly it’s because her father is murdered trying to stop robbers stealing his prized telescope when his pregnant wife is also two feet away. Priorities.
After such horror-show acting and leaden writing the Wachowskis push in a different direction, with an intriguingly left-field domestic unit of Jupiter and her Russian immigrant extended family living in Chicago. Compared to most blockbusters this takes an almost fairy-tale approach, familiar from the siblings’ previous films. Michael Giacchino’s excellent score is a key part of nailing this lighter initial tone, as is Mila Kunis’s comedic experience. The most appropriate parallel is The Matrix (1999), with its story of an average person in a humdrum job, suddenly discovering the world around them is nothing like it seems. And boy is that an understatement!
In The Matrix, Neo discovered that ‘reality’ was a computer program designed to occupy the enslaved human race and harvest their bodies for energy. In Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter discovers that the universe is ruled by an immortal race of gene-splicing humanoid aliens who first populated earth and now want to harvest our bodies to sustain immortality. The parallels are obvious, but Jupiter Ascending is no half-baked Matrix knock-off. Instead it demonstrates the Wachowskis’ continued fascination with ideas of enslavement, reincarnation, bodily modification and most importantly, really really cool slo-mo fight scenes.
The blissful carnage they wreak on-screen contains some of the most stunning action sequences made in years. Key to this is their invention of a kind of hover boot for Cain (Channing Tatum), a half-man/half-wolf gene splice sent to kidnap Jupiter. He ricochets around alleyways and glides through cityscapes under frequent hails of laser fire, but the Wachowskis’ excellent direction never loses a sense of each character’s movements and motivations in any given sequence. Most thrilling is the chase after he first meets Jupiter, which ends up decimating half the Chicago skyline but never feels like destruction for destruction’s sake.
Equal credit should go to their long-time production designer Hugh Bateup and everyone who helped create the film’s visual design for their frankly jaw-dropping realisation of several endlessly inventive alien civilisations. Some locations evoke the feel of a golden-hued Blade Runner (1982), others the red forests of Nibiru from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and some the classical and oriental influences of the Star Wars prequels. If that final comparison has you worried then rest assured that this is very much a good thing.
In fact, Jupiter Ascending is reminiscent of the best aspects of Star Wars in many ways, particularly the Wachowskis’ daring implementation of an alien universe that the audience is thrown into without a second glance. For example, the gene-splicing idea is pushed to both mind-bending extremes and domestic mundanities, making this world feel emphatically real and lived-in. Alien technologies are explained just enough to let you suspend disbelief and everything the Wachowskis have created inspires a kind of adolescent excitement.
Sadly, Jupiter Ascending is also reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of Star Wars. Lots of the dialogue is trite and on-the-nose, often suffering when it tries too hard for symbolism. Pity Sean Bean who has the dubious pleasure of uttering the laughably bad line: “bees are genetically disposed to recognise royalty” by way of an explanation when they start buzzing around Jupiter. The Wachowskis also fail when trying to conjure an emotional connection out of thin air. They shoehorn in several awkward romantic flirtations between Jupiter and Cain, which jump from casual chit-chat to come-get-me lamentations about always picking Mr. Wrong in the flutter of an eyelash.
Tatum fares better than Kunis in these exchanges, but both are generally excellent, as are most of the cast, including Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sean Bean in full Yorkshire accent. Stealing the show though, is the incomparable Eddie Redmayne as the psychotic intergalactic royal, Balem Abrasax. He’s either whispering out a delicious drawl, full of menace, or screaming abruptly in someone’s face in a fit of rage, but at all times he’s captivating and a joy to watch.
It’s great to see a blockbuster with something to say, and although Jupiter Ascending’s themes can get a little muddled, the intention is laudable. The effect of simply using a female heroine instead of the typical male is quietly revolutionary. Seeing Kunis hold her own in combat against Redmayne, or being rebuffed after coming onto Tatum is a novel situation and it really makes you wonder how the standard blockbuster story beats have become so ingrained. There is also a powerful thread of anti-capitalist, republican thinking in how Jupiter reacts to the treacherous dynamics of the ruling Abrasax siblings which throws some fascinating ideas into this alien scenario.
Cinema comes in many forms, and there’s no shame in recognising that a blockbuster can be just as worthy as an obscure arthouse film. While some types of filmmaking prioritise tone or direction, others gleefully offer up a riotous palette of explosions, ideas and respected thesps hamming it up in alien prosthetics. Jupiter Ascending is most definitely the latter and visually the Wachowskis and their team have created a vivid world, teeming with life. Compared to that success it’s a shame the script becomes so muddled and cheesy, particularly in the half-hearted and unresolved machinations of the Abrasax siblings. It’s not often that you hear a call for more sequels, but Jupiter Ascending is a world so vibrant and full of potential that it deserves to be explored more.