On the Silver Screen – Jupiter Ascending
Once upon a time the Wachowski Brothers -as they were known at the time- gave us a sweeping ambitious sci-fi film called The Matrix. It was so influential that it’s still talked about today as one of the most important sci-fi films ever. Fast forward a few years and the Wachowskis -as they are now known following a gender realignment from one of them- have failed to live up to the brilliance given to us by that film. Jupiter Ascending is their latest attempt to capture that thought provoking sci-fi magic and unfortunately falls quite short.
The basic premise is that Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an unassuming, well adjusted girl who works as a cleaner with her family. She dissatisfied with her life and wants to look to the stars to give her some sense of hope. As coincidence would have it she turns out to be the reincarnation of some sort of cosmic royalty which basically makes her queen of the known universe.
Apparently Earth and other inhabited worlds are all part of some great economic plan to seed planets with human life, wait until it gets to the point where the population grows to the point where the world can no longer sustain it and then harvest the population for profit. It’s apparently a process that has existed for quite a long time and will apparently exist for a long time to come.
Upon realising her cosmic importance, Jupiter is given the opportunity to potentially save her planet and all the people on it. Standing in her way is the powerful Abrasax family represented by the three sibling heirs to the dynasty played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton.
So far it sounds pretty standard. We’ve all seen the character from humble beginnings called into a much larger world that they happen to be important in. In fact, this premise basically reflects that of The Matrix where Neo was identified as the special character destined for greater things.
These stories have existed for a long time and aren’t going to go away anytime soon. There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea of normal people finding out that they’re important in some profound way that means a lot to a large group of people. There’s a reason that Cinderella has endured for so long because it reflects that desire for people to become more than they are and be lifted out of their life situation. Isn’t that why we play the lottery?
Anyway, enough of that and back to the film. Jupiter Ascending was delayed for around 6 months reportedly so that they could finish the post production aspects of the film but it has also been suggested that the relative under-performance of Edge of Tomorrow financially made some people nervous about giving this a summer release so here we finally have it.
Was it worth the wait? Well, not really but I was never eagerly anticipating it in the first place. The only Wachowskis film I actively enjoy is The Matrix with the rest of them being underwhelming to terrible -Though Speed Racer wasn’t actually all that bad- but I did think the trailer looked cool from an empty action spectacle standpoint so I thought I’d check it out. I do enjoy empty action spectacle from time to time, especially if it’s well done.
The best way I can describe this film is that it tries but never quite manages to pull it off. There are shades of extensive world building and the idea of making a commentary on the concepts of human greed and overpopulation but it never really dives into the detail required to truly explore these concepts. It’s a shame really as they are very relevant in today’s world and if done correctly would absolutely have got people talking long after the end credits roll.
To look at it the film is beautiful with some really amazing production design and great looking aliens. The vistas on display are a beauty to behold and the universe feels functional and lived in with practical technology that looks like it is useful and intuitive. It was a great sandbox to play around in.
It seems that somewhere along the way the film was changed from something more substantial to what it is now. Any discussions of big issues seem to be holdovers from an earlier version of the script where they were more prominent and the action sequences are so abundant that they start to seem a little dull after a while. Not that they don’t look great because they do but I was getting a little fed up at one point. Probably because I wasn’t as invested in the story or characters as I needed to be.
I can’t stress enough how much potential this had to be really engaging. Mila Kunis seems to be the perfect choice to play a character who comes from humble beginnings and suddenly finds herself part of something that completely overwhelms her. She’s good at portraying someone meek and unassuming -despite the standard Hollywood glamour- before later exhibiting confidence and authority when she is in her true role. Her character development started off really well with a strong opening that really lets us get to know her while exploring the mundanity of her life situation. It’s even cleverly juxtaposed with the cosmic scale of the film’s main story that goes on in the background. Instantly the world seemed relatable to ours with something incredible going on in the background.
Once the film gets to the point where Jupiter finds out who she really is things start to get a lot more messy. She is whisked away after an attempt on her life by a human/canine hybrid named Caine (Channing Tatum) who serves as her protector and love interest for the rest of the film. Tatum does a good enough job with what he’s given but seeing him try to talk through the prosthetic fangs and wandering around looking like a bulked up Mr. Tumnus made any dramatic moments difficult to take seriously. Tatum and Kunis also have a remarkable lack of any kind of chemistry which really makes their romance hard to get behind. This could also have something to do with the fact that he tells her that he has more in common with dogs than humans making it all seem really offputting. It’s also worth noting that Jupiter takes this all a little too well when she finds out the truth of the situation. It seems like she should be in more disbelief.
Eddie Redmayne who gave such a landmark performance in The Theory of Everything really struggles to hit the mark and make it believable here. This might have something to do with my theory that this film has been butchered into something else which means that his stronger material probably never saw the light of day. Based on what he had to do here he really wasn’t very good.
Sean Bean does an alright job as far as exposition characters go. His screen presence gives the material some credibility but not much. At times he feels like something of an unnecessary addition and he is given some of the most ridiculous dialogue this film has to offer. Believe me that is saying a lot.
It’s all very oddly paced with some of the film moving along at a decent clip with other parts grinding to a halt. There were so many scenes of Galactic exposition that put the Star Wars prequels to shame and lots of ludicrous terms thrown around with a straight face. Things like that are to be expected from Space Opera as the film has to build its own universe but the actors weren’t quite able to sell it. It’s a shame because original sci-fi films like this aren’t all that common right now. It was nice to see something not adapted from some other work but it’s a shame that it didn’t turn out to be better than it did.
A film filled with potential that it never quite manages to hit despite some very strong attempts to do so.
I do genuinely feel that this film is trying to be something profound and provide commentary on major issues that people can relate to but somewhere along the way it feels that these aspects were excised in favour of more action spectacle.
Action spectacle is no bad thing if done right but this film definitely overdoes it in many ways. There’s not enough time spent on the characters to really become invested in them during the action scenes so it all feels a little empty.
Mila Kunis was a good choice for the main role as she manages to put across the humble beginnings aspects of her character as well as the cosmic importance. She tows that line effectively even if she does seem to take it all a little too well.
Channing Tatum does the best he can with what he has. There’s not much to his character and it can’t have been easy to emote through prosthetic fangs. He’s pretty much a typical tough guy, action hero love interest type who exists to protect the girl while falling for her.
The supporting cast are a mixed bag with Eddie Redmayne turning in a really sub par performance. It could be due to his lack of decent material or maybe his character was butchered by so much cutting but either way he wasn’t great. Sean Bean does a capable job of providing exposition despite that feeling like his only purpose.
Pacing is a significant problem here with some of the film moving along at a decent clip with other parts grinding to a halt to deliver long political speeches that would put the Star Wars prequels to shame. I do have to give the film some attention for being an original sci-fi concept that isn’t adapted from any other work but in general it’s more or less a misfire that should have been better given the potential it clearly has. Unfortunately the gorgeous production design and lived in universe isn’t enough to salvage this.