Like the disappointing Seventh Son, Jupiter Ascending looked like it could have been just the sort of movie I love: cheesy, fun impossible adventure. It seemed to fit right into the mold of beloved (at least by me) films like Star Wars, Flash Gordon and John Carter. In some ways it is. In the moments when Jupiter Ascending shines it does so with a brilliance that is hard to match. No idea seems to have been excised. Space battles, palaces on gas giants, immortal humans and genetic farms; everything is thrown in in a jumble. It makes for a movie that is occasionally beautiful, occasionally terrific and almost always a little muddled.
While the Wachowski’s certainly deserve their reputation for making stylish movies with deeper themes than your average blockbuster, I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed more than one of their films before this. I liked the original Matrix; it is amazing. However, its sequels, Reloaded and Rejected Revolutions, left me cold. Hell, not just cold, angry. They are among the worst movies I’ve ever paid money to see in a theater. After V for Vendetta was simply not for me I kind of checked out on them. (I really should see both Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer at some point) Still, even in the movies I didn’t like their actions scenes were entertaining and coherent. Plus, that engaging style had clearly not abandoned them. Despite my misgivings, I was plenty excited for Jupiter Ascending. It just looked so weird, so out there that couldn’t help but be intrigued.
In many ways it lives up to that. It follows poor Russian immigrant Jupiter Jones who finds out that she shares her genetic code with a Space Queen of some sort and finds herself entangled with the murderous heirs of a space empire and protected only by Kaine, a former soldier with some dog DNA spliced in with his. She must navigate complicated family drama and figure out how to save Earth, which it turns out is little more than a gene farm.
The action scenes are great, kinetic but also highly readable. The numerous weird and wonderful things put on the screen are beautiful, reminiscent of Star Wars in their variety and imaginativeness. Channing Tatum’s Kaine is an excellent hero, and Sean Bean is fun as the conflicted Stinger. The highlight is Eddie Redmayne as the villain Balem, who seems almost perpetually overcome with ennui, except for when he bursts out with uncontrollable rage. He makes for an enjoyably hateable villain. Mila Kunis, while adding almost nothing to the action parts, is largely enjoyable as Jupiter, who despite being the focus of the plot is shockingly passive. Like the viewer, she is given no clue as to what is really going on and spends her time listening to other people explain things or being saved by Kaine. I really did by the romance between those two characters, but otherwise she is given little to do.
Really, that lack of explanation is the real flaw here. Some details are eventually eked out, but for most of the movies runtime what exactly is going on is hidden from the viewer. Titus, one of the fighting Abraxas siblings, apparently plans to marry then murder Jupiter. Why is never made a particularly clear. Exactly how power family Abraxas is is never made clear. How the government of this space empire is set up is not clear. Nothing, outside of the two brothers wanting Jupiter dead because she is messing up their inheritance is made clear. While the everything else is beautiful in its excess, the plot lacks the clear through line of something like Flash Gordon or Star Wars. It doesn’t help that movie spends a lot of time on asides that don’t seem to add anything at all. There is a Gilliam-esque scene dealing with space bureaucracy that, while amusing, seems to be from another movie entirely.
As unfortunate as some of Jupiter Ascending’s missteps are, though, I can’t bring myself to dislike it. Seeing Tatum fight a space dragon while flying around on rocket boots is just too entertaining. Or watching Redmayne pulled along on a chariot with a living woman’s torso for a masthead. Or seeing Mila Kunis fall from so many high places, only to be saved at the last minute. It is highly entertaining, but the plot is way too overstuffed to be called genuinely good. Jupiter Ascending is full of great ideas, but they do not come together to form a cohesive whole.