Film * The Wachowskis * Cosmic Revelation * 2015
So close! This film was just so, so close to being the spiritual successor to The Fifth Element that I’ve been waiting for since 1997. What I’m looking for, to be a touch more specific, is a quirky, fast-paced sci-fi movie that takes place in a bright, whimsical world and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jupiter Ascending certainly gives it a good shot, but in the end the film wants to do too much in too little time. I understand that world-building is extremely difficult, especially in film where you only get a couple of hours to get your work in. Not only do you have to construct a believable world, you have to populate it with relatable characters and also tell a compelling story. That’s hard! It’s no wonder most science fiction and fantasy films don’t bother and deal strictly with known quantities. Why attempt something difficult and risk failure when you can use a pre-existing property and ace mediocrity? So I give all the credit in the world to the Wachowski sisters for giving originality a shot. After all, they’ve done it before and it turned out great. It’s a true shame that this film didn’t work out and just fully cratered at the box office.
Jupiter Ascending begins on Earth with a little flashback action to set up our heroine, Jupiter. She’s an immigrant from Russia whose father was murdered before she was born. Now she lives in Chicago with her enormous silly family and works as an unappreciated housekeeper with her mother. Scrubbing toilets all day doesn’t seem to impact her hotness at all, but whatever. This introduction takes a little bit, to the point where I was wondering if I was watching a science fiction movie or a romantic comedy, but then the story flips, and the galaxy opens up. The introduction to the wider world of the universe is actually quite stunning, because this is a beautiful movie. It has a vast, bright style. I like the enormous fish-ships. The various planets all look amazing. The costumes are well-realized and yeah, Jupiter Ascending has a look to it. The contrast of Chicago to the more fantastical elements of the movie absolutely sells the basic premise of the world.
The idea here is that humanity is much, much older than our history here on Earth. Instead of randomly evolving on this planet, we were actually planted by ancient, galactic humans who have a vast empire throughout space. The elite ruling families are extremely long-lived, because they use farm-planets like Earth to extract human-juice to extend their lives. Or something. Meanwhile, sometimes these galactic rulers die, and since they live for so long and there are so many people, sometimes genes line up juuuust right and people are essentially reborn. Jupiter, unknowingly, is one such person. Turns out, she’s the genetic reincarnation of some galactic Empress, and now her children are after her to secure her assets.
Suddenly, Jupiter is being hunted. Some dude shows up with sick hover-boots to protect her, and they fly around the galaxy and have adventures while Jupiter slowly pieces together how all of this is supposed to work and tries to figure out her role in the (suddenly much larger) universe. That’s all well and good, but none of the pieces fit together particularly well, and that’s disappointing. All the cool shots of fantastic other worlds, and the aforementioned huge fish-ships, and the weird creatures, and all the bright, whimsical, almost-Fifth-Element-awesomeness just doesn’t quite work together. There’s no cohesion. I’m not exactly sure what happened, so let’s look a little closer.
This is a film about revelation, and yet the impact of this revelation is limited to a single person in the film. The world, as in the planet Earth, is utterly unchanged from the beginning of the film to the end. There’s an exciting chase sequence between Channing Tatum Rocket Boots and a bunch of aliens that blows up half of Chicago. Ordinarily, one might think this would cause some alarm, but the aliens have a lot of practice covering shit up so nobody is the wiser. The effect on the audience is having to really work at suspending that disbelief. This is a film about one person discovering that the world is not what they thought it was, and that their role in the universe is extremely important. All of a sudden, this galaxy-spanning space opera has become The Matrix.
It really is. While I give the Wachowskis points for originality when it comes to how the movie looks, it’s thematically pretty much the same as their previous, much better film. The only difference is that instead of evil machines using humanity as food, other humans are doing so. The entire population is still utterly in the dark about the true nature of the universe, save for a single chosen one. Also props for having The Chosen One be a woman this time, I guess (parenthetical aside: sure Channing Tatum Rocket Boots comes to the rescue an awful lot, but it was nice to see Jupiter mostly take care of herself. She gets credit for offing the main baddie, after all). This special human has trouble accepting their true nature at first, but after a series of traumatic events they’re able to embrace their destiny. That said, humanity still must be kept in the dark because no way could they handle the truth.
So why does Jupiter Ascending fail where The Matrix succeeds? I think it comes down to cohesion. After all, nobody likes the two Matrix sequels, which is where the world expands and can’t really hold together the ideas of the first movie. Likewise, Jupiter Ascending seems like it wants to really spread out and explore these themes that the Wachowskis are so drawn to, but can’t quite figure out how to be efficient at it. They try to explore the backstory of other characters, but don’t really have the time or the grace to tell those stories so that they feel like they matter. I still don’t know what’s going on with Ol’ Rocket Boots. He’s like a werewolf or something? Further, I didn’t see any reason whatsoever for Jupiter to fall for that guy. I mean, okay, he’s a superfox and all, but other than chiseled good looks that character has no real charisma or charm. To her credit, Mila Kunis manages to be both attractive and charming… but she gets nothing in return from the other characters to the point where her quirky performance becomes a tonal disconnect from the rest of the movie.
All and all, Jupiter Ascending is a mild disappointment. I don’t consider my time wasted, because the film is truly great to look at. The story, alas, doesn’t really satisfy. That’s what happens when most of the antagonists are largely two-dimensional villainous caricatures. Not to harp on the comparison, but really go back and watch The Fifth Element. Gary Oldman is fantastic as the villain. He’s menacing, yet he still manages to fit in with the light, whimsical tone of the movie. Here, the trio of bad guys are just kind of wheezing meanies who don’t really bring anything of their own to the story. Now that I think about it, only Kunis invests her character with any real personality, to the point where it’s almost jarring sometimes. It’s would be like Bruce Willis showing up and started doing Bruce Willis stuff and everyone else is trying to take him seriously. It’s a tonally weird movie, and it’s this unevenness that undermines everything else. Which is a shame, because I had high hopes that we’d get a new, original sci-fi world to enjoy. That’s even more unlikely now, since this failed so hard. So enjoy 18 new Star Wars movies, I guess.