As of this writing, Jupiter Ascending has a pitiful 22 percent Tomatometer. I knew that this might happen, and I was completely aware that the film might suck. But I was always going to review it anyway.
After all, the film had been moved at the last minute from a prime summer slot to the February dumping grounds, and the trailers all looked like total garbage. On the one hand, these are all classic warning signs. On the other hand, we’re talking about Warner Bros., the same company responsible for Pacific Rim and Edge of Tomorrow. Quick tip for anyone out there with an idea for a new, exciting, geek-friendly project that doesn’t have an established fanbase: You might as well hand it over to Kris Jenner. She’d be just as clueless about what to do with it and the results would be no less catastrophic.
Moreover, this is a Wachowski Siblings jam. There’s a lot to say about the Wachowskis, and it’s hard to deny that their films are loud, flashy, pretentious, wordy, and so on. But no one can ever say that the Wachowskis are boring. They are among those rare, blessed few filmmakers out there with the courage to bring huge ideas to the screen in ways that no one has ever seen before. And for better or worse, when such filmmakers put something together, attention must be paid. Even if the film turns out to be bad, at least we can be sure that it will be an interesting kind of bad.
And sure enough, that’s exactly what we got.
It won’t be easy to describe the plot or premise, but I’ll try and do the best I can before I start to black out. To start with, our male lead is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a bounty hunter with wolf DNA and flying roller skates. It makes sense because he’s an alien. Caine was sent to Earth on a mission to find Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who works in her family’s house cleaning service. Why was he sent to find her, you ask?
Well, Jupiter doesn’t know it, but she won the greatest goddamn genetics lottery in all the cosmos. See, it turns out that the universe and all of its myriad sentient species live under the rule of House Abraxas, whose matriarch passed away a few thousand years ago. And by one hell of a cosmic anomaly, it so happens that Jupiter’s combination of nucleotides is exactly the same as the fallen queen’s genome. She’s not even a clone, this just happened by chance, apparently. So as far as cosmic royalty is concerned, Jupiter is basically the queen reincarnated and entitled to everything the old queen had in life. Including Earth. And that’s a huge deal because Earth was one of the many planets seeded with life by House Abraxas and now they’re just about to kill everyone for harvest becaalsk;eurkjaesdfmnllllllllllllllll…
…What? Oh, right. I blacked out. And my nose is bleeding a little. And my hair’s falling out.
Imagine if an eight-year-old kid on a sugar high tried to read a copy of Dune, scratching out words and doodling monsters in the margins as he did so, and then wrote a book report based on what he thought he read. Reading that book report would be like watching this movie. The Wachowskis tried their damnedest to cram everything into this universe that they created. Genetic manipulation, cybernetic enhancements, monsters, aliens, space fights, you name it. Hell, they even threw in little grey men, crop circles, and other bits of UFO imagery. Then they wrapped it all around an escapist messiah fantasy and flavored it with a few statements about class inequality.
Pretty much everything about the movie comes down to this: The Wachowskis were obviously far more interested in building a universe than telling a story. And don’t get me wrong, I completely respect their ambition for building a universe this huge and detailed, packed with so many wonderful things. But taking us through all of that without a compelling story — or even a story with the slightest hint of a structure — was foolish. And doing it with only two hours’ runtime was utter madness.
Because the film has so much to get through in so little time, the movie really only has two speeds: Action and exposition. There’s really not much of anything in between. The film bores us to death with long and dense stretches of explanatory dialogue, then it thrills us with spectacular high-flying action, don’t bother rinsing, just repeat.
The rule of “show, don’t tell” is a crucial one for any film, but it’s absolutely imperative with regards to world-building. Take Star Wars, for instance. More specifically, let’s say, Han Solo. We’re introduced to this guy in the movies, and in next to no time, we want to know more about him. How did he get his ship? How did he meet Chewbacca? How did he get on Jabba’s bad side? What is a “Kessel Run,” anyway? All of these are examples of questions that aren’t necessary to the story at hand, but they could potentially be answered in future installments. Thus we’re motivated to keep exploring this world and we’re rewarded with more great stories for the effort.
Compare that to this movie’s male lead. Roughly 40 minutes in, the movie comes to a full stop so that we can hear a monologue about Caine’s entire life story. We don’t need to know this stuff, especially when merely teasing such information might have enticed the audience to buy the novels, video games, sequels, prequels, etc. Instead, the plot stops dead in its tracks to unload exposition when that time could have been used to develop the universe or its characters in a more compelling and organic way.
This movie fails to draw the audience in the way good world-building should do. Instead, the audience is aggressively pulled into the story, dragged along at light speed, unable to do much of anything except do as we’re told, look at all the pretty pictures, and scream. You know, like Jupiter does.
It breaks my heart to see Mila Kunis trying so hard in this picture when she’s got absolutely nothing to work with. It doesn’t even matter if she’s supposedly the most powerful being in the universe, Jupiter is a character who doesn’t know anything about what she is or how to use whatever powers are at her disposal. Right up until the very end of the climax, she’s entirely dependent on the other characters, with virtually no personality or agency of her own. I have no idea what happened with this character, considering that the Wachowskis have such a strong track record of crafting incredible female protagonists.
Of course, it’s not like Channing Tatum fares much better. Again, the guy is putting in so much effort, but he’s just not enough to salvage this role. The character is pitifully two-dimensional, with absolutely nothing to contribute outside of the typical “hero” archetype. Oh, and his chemistry with Kunis is non-existent, which certainly doesn’t help.
Conversely, we have Sean Bean, who’s easily the standout of the cast; his character is just as flimsy, but at least Bean has enough talent and gravitas to make it work. The cast also includes a wasted Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Douglas Booth, still annoying and punchable as ever; some up-and-comer named Tuppence Middleton who barely leaves an impression; and Eddie Redmayne… yeah, let’s get to Eddie Redmayne.
I’ve never been a fan of Redmayne. My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables were not enough to convince me that this guy had earned his reputation as the next big up-and-coming actor. I mostly changed my tune after seeing his phenomenal turn in The Theory of Everything, and I didn’t begrudge his Best Actor nomination for that movie.
Except that now I do. After seeing Redmayne in this movie, I want to take back every nice thing I ever said about him as an actor.
Redmayne’s performance in this movie has to be the most bewildering, pitiful, godawful performance I think I’ve seen since Manos: The Hands of Fate. And at least the actors in that movie had the excuse of getting their voices dubbed. I want to compare his acting to John Travolta in Battlefield Earth or anyone from Showgirls, but even that would be too generous: Some of those line deliveries were lucky enough to be unintentionally funny. No, this performance is like Redmayne whispering his lines of dialogue while shouting words at random every now and then. It doesn’t look like a badass tyrant who deserves to be taken seriously. It looks… hell, it just looks embarrassing, I don’t know what else to say.
Incidentally, Terry Gilliam pokes his head in for a neat little cameo, and James D’Arcy gets a very sweet yet brief role at the start of the film. Both of these two are among the better actors in the cast.
All that’s left is to talk about the visuals, which are of course amazing. The production design, makeup design, cinematography, editing, and visual effects were all done at least in part by Cloud Atlas alumni, and it really shows. That movie is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and this one is more of the same, which is no bad thing.
Jupiter Ascending is an example of how a potentially great world can be ruined by poor world-building. The movie focuses on quantity over quality, spending so much time showing us every possible detail in the space of two hours that nothing has the time or development to stick. It’s a damn shame, because the Wachowskis seem to have created a vast universe that — with more care and intelligence — could have brought forth characters and stories so much more compelling than what was delivered here. The actors are all trying their hardest, the visuals are gorgeous, and the action is very impressive. But all of that means very little when the script is so bogged down in exposition, the characters are so thin, and the plot is loaded with side routes that no one cares about.
Is it a fun movie? Sure. Is it a good movie? FU-HU-HUUUUUCK no!