MOVIE REVIEW: Jupiter Ascending



When it comes to science fiction movies, audiences can accept, invest in, believe, and swallow most anything if the content is done right and it can connect to them, even if it is preposterous by design.  Think about it.  The overwhelming worldwide majority of the movie-going public readily loves six films about a galaxy far, far away populated by scoundrels, soldiers that run around in plastic armor, hairy wordless sidekicks, laser swords, whiny robots, a warped religion, a breathing-mask villain, and dozens of weird-looking aliens of all shapes and sizes.  Even the highest grossing domestic film in history was able to get you to accept exotic big blue alien bodies with tails and manes controlled by military-type humans through a strange and implausible mental bonding process. 

When you step back and look at the likes of "Star Wars" and "Avatar" like that, you realize how ridiculous they really are on paper.  Science fiction films thrive on dynamic visuals and the awe-inspiring sights and sounds foreign to our usual worlds.  The look and feel of science fiction films get our attention, but what separates the weird and obscure from the beloved and the classic is something bigger and more important than visuals.  To be a great science fiction film, one has to have a compelling mythology or underlying allegorical social commentary that an audience can identify with and connect to.  

"Star Wars" achieved that greatness with its own created mythology centered on the imbalance of good and evil between fledgling rebels and the opposing empirical government.  "Avatar" achieved its popularity with its timely and thinly-veiled parallels and stances on environmentalism and Manifest Destiny-style oppression.  For both films, the visuals were the easy part.  The heavy lifting was the narrative purposes built on mythos and allegories and both succeeded in spades.

The Wachowskis are in that company with "Star Wars" and "Avatar" thanks to their transcendent and ground-breaking "Matrix" trilogy.  Love or hate the 1999 original and its gaudy sequels, the Chicago-born sibling filmmakers Larry and Lana absolutely nailed that need of a bigger importance with the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of "The Matrix" that provocatively mixed a negative societal control and reliance on technology backed by the endless wonderment of finding your inner hero and confidence.  That was great science fiction that struck a chord.

When you see the Wachowski name above the marquee for "Jupiter Ascending," their first original creation since "The Matrix" trilogy, you may be drawn by the lofty hopes of rekindling a similar feeling from that great trilogy.  You know those two can make something great and maybe lightning can strike twice.  You're willing to ignore the whirling dervish mess that was "Speed Racer" and you're willing to let the grandiose hubris of "Cloud Atlas" slide.  If you do, you will be giving the Wachowskis too much credit and you will regret it.

"Jupiter Ascending" is an utter mess of missed opportunity and misguided world-building.  Just as with a majority of science fiction movies, the visual panache is present in astounding detail.  That, once again, is the easy part.  Unfortunately, none of it (and I mean none of it), is created with purpose or direction that becomes compelling and stirring to you as the audience.  None of its creative ingredients work to earn your investment, acceptance, attention, or even your basic comprehension.  This is beyond the "head-scratcher" department.  This is WTF territory.  This is "Battlefield: Earth" bad.  This is "going plaid" after only needing to go ludicrous speed.

This should be where a writer like me would segue into a brief plot summary to set the stage and wet people's beaks without spoilers.  After seeing the movie and even getting a little extra online reference afterward, I can't hardly do it.  What is here in "Jupiter Ascending" is that confusing, nonsensical, and just plain obscure.  Every movie, especially science fiction, has their own language of gobbledygook and tech jargon.  Midi-cholorians, anyone?  

I'm not going to lie.  I can't honestly remember one character name from the film other than the titular heroine played by Mila Kunis (more on her shortcomings later).  I'm serious.  I saw the film completely awake and sober.  I'm a smart guy that remembers little movie scenes from thousands of things, good and bad, for years, but I can't explain a movie I saw less than 24 hours ago without help.  That's how poorly things are handled, how weak this world-building is, and how ineffective the narrative is at explaining anything at all.  

From what I can piece together, the aptly-named Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is the daughter of a Russian immigrant and a deceased novice astronomer.  She's a dreamer and a modern-day Cinderella living in Chicago as a lowly housekeeper.  As fate would have it, Jupiter is the exact reincarnated genetic descendant to the matriarch of The House of Abrasax (had to look it up), a powerful human family of alien royalty living across the universe.  For some reason, she can control bees too.  The Abrasax are part of the original human race that seeded Earth with humanity millions of years ago with the intent of "harvesting" it when its planetary resources are expended.  Yeah, that's her.  Mila Kunis.  Get hyped!  Oh, who am I kidding?  

Naturally, she is completely oblivious to that fact, as are we, for about an hour of unexplained chases involving competing alien factions of hunters that want to cease her line of royal lineage.  Let me tell you.  Mila Kunis can play oblivious with the best of them.  Ever since her peak of "Black Swan" and "Friends with Benefits" in two roles that actually fit her strengths and appeal, Mila has regressed back to being a part of what I have always called the "That 70's Show Curse."  For the uninformed, every core alumni actor from "That 70's Show" ruins their movies and roles.  Take a look at the careers lowlights of Ashton Kutcher and Topher F'n Grace and you will learn what I am talking about.  For Kunis, she just can't convincingly play period or fantasy roles.  Just look at "Oz the Great and Powerful."  What happened there, happens here in "Jupiter Ascending."  Every line-reading falls with a thud and echoes her Jackie Burkhart/Meg Griffin ditziness.  The central role requires a gravitas to go with the damsel-in-distress that she simply can't deliver.  

On the brightside (I think), "Jupiter Ascending" isn't all on Mila Kunis to lead.  There is a heroic one-man-show named Caine Wise, played by top-billed Channing Tatum, that has been sent to protect Jupiter.  He has off-putting blond hair, elf ears, a vaguely explained origin of tattoos and brandings, and gets around by surfing across the sky inside a pair of anti-gravity boots that work like roller skates.  Caine is here to tell Jupiter the truth about Earth and deliver her across the solar system to asssume her rightful place as an elite ruler.  

As cliched as can be, Caine carries your stock "redemptive-mercenary-hero-looking-to-regain-his-credibility" playbook and is saddled with a weak smolder so bad that even Flynn Rider from "Tangled" can't make fun of properly.  He thinks his line deliveries of "your majesty" can melt hearts and drop panties as good as Wesley's "as you wish" from "The Princess Bride."  Get out of here, Caine Wise and Channing Tatum.  Stick to stripper movies and that one Ginuwine song that works.  Gee, I wonder if the alien Kyle Reese wannabe will fall for the "woman-of-greater-importance" in his charge that comes from a forbidden higher societal class.

In the protagonist corner, sitting in an IKEA throne looking out the window and wavering between loud yelped orders to his underlings and dastardly whispered mantras of evil to his peers is Balem Abrasax, the son of Jupiter's ancestor and head ruler of all things harvest.  Balem is played by current Best Actor Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne from "The Theory of Everything."  Gosh, poor Eddie Redmayne.  He is god awful in this film, but given so little to work with of substance.  He's tremendously miscast and can't help but overact to compensate.  I'm sorry, but I can't take an evil villain seriously if he has freckles.  Freckles!  It's like being shamed by Howdy Doody.  Nobody is going to get scared.  No peril is created.  Like the rest of the movie, Balem is directionless, underdeveloped, and one-dimensional in every way.  It's a good thing the so-called "Norbit Effect" that supposedly cost Eddie Murphy an Oscar is a Hollywood myth or Redmayne's Oscar chances would be swirling down a toilet.  

All of the same, except the Oscar ramifications, could be echoed for audience favorite Sean Bean.  He plays Stinger, an old confident and ruffian former military friend of Caine's who helps him from being outnumbered in his rescue mission.  His character has even less history and purpose other than to help Tatum explain expository facts that he's probably not smart enough to say out loud with a convincing or straight face.  We've all seen "21 Jump Street," "22 Jump Street," and "Foxcatcher."  The less Channing Tatum says, the better.  Still, Bean too deserves better and is pissed away.

As I alluded to before, what does work about "Jupiter Ascending" is the visual palette.  The concept artists clearly worked overtime on this one designing spaceships, gadget, planets, palaces, locations, and aliens of astounding creativity, artistry, and detail.  Those efforts, despite being stuck in a terrible movie, are extremely noticeable.  Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll ("Braveheart" and "Legends of the Fall") masterfully sculpts camera shots from both frenetic action and wide spectacle where he can.  Oscar-winning film composer Michael Giacchino ("Star Trek" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") tries to pump a little juice into the deadness with a brassy musical score that is suitable on paper for a space opera such as this.  That was the easy part, but that is it.  This is what gets the film its one star.  

Where all this culminates and fails for "Jupiter Ascending" and the Wachowskis is that cardinal importance of having a compelling story to back up your visual creativity.  "Jupiter Ascending" thinks it has that, but it doesn't.  We're supposed to wonder and amaze at how original and detailed it is, but the result is vacant, repetitive, and predictable.  The film tries to talk about a bigger picture of grander ideas and takes time to try to explain what's going on, but all of what it is selling is so random, boring, and downright strange that you just can't grasp it.  

"Jupiter Ascending" truly does "go plaid" and fly right over your head.  I don't even think repeat viewings would help.  When so little is explained with any clarity, the engagement level drops precipitously in a hurry.  Combine that with terrible acting and you've got nothing to sink your teeth into.  The film offers nothing compelling to demand and grab your emotional investment.  There is zero buy-in because the nothing is understandable.   "The Matrix," "Star Wars," and "Avatar" earned your buy-in because it took simple and relate-able themes and ideas and translated them to an excited new setting.  They did so with swagger and confidence, not neurotic and excessive hubris.

When you boil "Jupiter Ascending" down to its attempted themes, all you will find is royalty meddling and squabbling with each other over planetary inheritances, immortality, and class control through complete ambivalence and entitlement (with a dash of class struggle and Cinderella again).  None of that constitutes anything interesting or moving that people are going challenge their thinking over and revisit for personal enjoyment or character-building.  None of that are the mythos that become gravitas. 

LESSON #1: APPARENTLY, GENETICS ARE A BIG DEAL-- Oh dear.  I have to actually write life lessons for this?  Oh boy.  "Jackass 3D" and "Bad Grandpa" were easier than "Jupiter Ascending."  Well, in this movie's world, you're either genetically superior and near-immortal royalty that wears decadent costumes and consumes the most high-end life-sustaining drink ever devised (don't ask) or you're the faceless masses of everyone else that the movie never shows.  Gene pools are where class warfare begins.  Just ask the Nazis.

LESSON #2: THE SELFISHNESS, ENTITLEMENT, AND AMBIVALENCE OF ELITIST PEOPLE SUCK-- "Animal House" taught me that fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.  Oh yeah?  So is carrying on and acting with entitlement and ambivalence.  The selfishness of rich people and upper class people sucks.  They wouldn't have their riches without the little guys doing all the work, enabling them instead to argue over petty things.  At least, that's what "Jupiter Ascending" taught me.  For the last two lessons, I'll pull some gem quotes that personify the weirdness of these near-immortal characters.

LESSON #3: LIES ARE WHAT MAKE BELIEF AND MEANING POSSIBLE-- Huh?  As opposed to truth?  OK.  I guess you can't have the thesis without the antithesis, but dang.  Keep it simple, stupid.  You're just talking backwards, Eddie Redmayne, for the sake of sounding cunning.  It's not working, dude.

LESSON #4: TIME IS THE SINGLE MOST PRECIOUS COMMODITY IN THE UNIVERSE-- No s--t, "Jupiter Ascending."  Come on.  "Interstellar" did a better job with this and made it a key plot device with some science in there and not some arbitrary quote.  What do you have to worry about, House of Abrasax?  You all said you've lived for triple-digit millennia.  Time is nothing for you guys.  I only get to live maybe 90-something years and I wasted two-hours wrapping my head around your wildly stupid BS.  Give me my two hours back!