First of all, I hadn’t meant to go quiet for quite so long. I started teaching part-time at Central Piedmont Community College in October of 2012 and it has kept me HOPPING. Since my last post, we’ve bought a house and gotten pregnant (coming June 2015). I’ve been freelancing with CLTure, a local marketing/events firm, to write movie reviews, but I should still be posting them here too. So here goes!
I went to see Jupiter Ascending (opened last Friday, 2/6/15) last week at a sneak preview and, sadly, wasn’t impressed. Despite being a Wachowski fan, I just couldn’t get into it. For more information, keep reading.
Jupiter Ascending was originally set for a release this past July but was held back to work out kinks in structure and special FX. Now ready for release, the latest Wachowski sibling sci-fi adventure hits theaters this Friday, February 6th. The writer/director duo, notable for having written and/or directed some of the most visually interesting films between 1999 and 2012 (The Matrix series, V for Vendetta, the highly underrated Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas), pulled together a cast of Oscar nominees and action-star notables as they set their sights on creating an original story that places Earth, once again, as the battle ground for a larger war. While the Wachowskis never shy away from trying to ask bigger questions in their cinematic works, the question remains – in an industry full of sequels and sci-fi features, do audiences want to see something new and can the Wachowskis pull it off?
All of the fanfare leading to the release – the trailers, promos, toys, etc. – promoted a sci-fi adventure in which the “duck-out-of-water” Jupiter Jones goes on a space adventure. If this had merely been an action film, it would have been much stronger as this is where Jupiter Ascending excels. Each of the sky-fight scenes are entertaining and fun whether it’s futuristic fighter planes engaged in maneuvers or dive-bombing a planet or Jupiter falling from a tower. You know our heroes are going to make it out ok but the sight is still thrilling to behold. The shots are tight, the effects are a nice mix of real-world elements and CGI, and each shot is designed to bring out an intense emotion in the audience. Additionally, having viewed this picture in 3D, I found myself blown away. Here, the 3D actually enhances the visually impact of the striking sets and CGI ships, while bringing a fantastical realism to the futuristic gadgets the characters use to fly, escape, or generally engage with the intergalactic universe. Not to mention that the standard motion blur I’ve come to expect from 3D films is nearly non-existent. This meant I could really feel myself being drawn into the action and forget that I was in a theater. Sadly, this actioner over-reached and tried to add intellectual thought and bureaucratic commentary into the picture. While this can and has been done well previously by the Wachowskis, here it feels underdeveloped and clunky.
The titular character Jupiter (Mila Kunis) spends her days as a maid in Chicago, dreaming of a life that doesn’t start at 4:45am. Quickly, she finds herself the pawn in an interstellar game of family politics between the Abrasax siblings – eldest Balem (Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne), middle child Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and youngest Titus (Douglas Booth) – who are fighting for control of their late mother’s estate, which includes the planet Earth. Jupiter, it seems, is a genetic recurrence of their late mother and, by the bureaucratic laws of their race, she is therefore entitled to Earth and all the resources that it contains. Enter Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically-enhanced soldier hired to find and retrieve Jupiter, who has motives of his own. Confused yet? That’s how I felt.
Let’s begin with the “The Harvest” teased in the trailers. What should be a focal point of the story, and intended to be a “he-was-dead-the-whole-time” style reveal with major implications, is instead mentioned, explained, and then left virtually completely alone. It becomes neither a driving point in the finale nor a truly resolved issue, but is left as this thing just hanging. Another underdeveloped plot point are the family dynamics within and between the Abrasax family and Jupiter’s family. Balem, Kalique, and Titus are introduced, but are never seen on-screen together beyond the initial introduction. They talk about each other, but the audience never knows what aspects of their dialogue are true and which are designed to move their own plans forward. They squabble and move Jupiter around to fit their own ends, but they may as well have been business partners. Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re meant to believe that they have lived so long that any familial attachment is gone or perhaps they are merely more interested in maintaining their wealth, but we, as an audience, don’t really know. Beyond the commonality of grieving over their mother, none of them are developed into fully fleshed characters. Rather, Balem is the successful one, Kalique is the beautiful one, and Titus is the I’ll-get-by-on-my-charm one. In Jupiter’s case, she is s an adult woman who shares a room with her mother and aunt in a house run by her older cousin and his family. As the head of the house, her older cousin dictates who gets what cleaning job and what you get paid. When she tries to ask for an advance in pay, he berates her until she acquiesces. It’s only when we see pictures of celestial bodies strewn across her walls that we’re given glimpses of who she might be beyond this life. It turns out that she wants money to purchase a telescope, but we never know why. Is it because her father spent hours staring at the stars or because she believes in something larger than herself? Since we only know that she wants more from life than being a maid, when she’s given that life as an Intergalactic princess, we expect her to rise into a secret strength. Instead she reverts to the damsel-in-distress trope, because, based on what we’ve seen from her when faced with adversity, what else would she do? We’re not shown any more than this throughout the entirety of the picture.
While Mila Kunis is underserved in this film as the damsel versus the kick-ass heroine she has played in the past, she still provides a believable performance. Repeatedly, her character is placed in continually strange and odd surroundings and she takes in stride. Additionally, the performance is honest. She asks questions, but as she accepts the reality around her, she becomes bolder and more confident. She couldn’t fight her way out of a paper bag, but she’s capable enough to recognize that she’s in danger. Similarly, Eddie Redmayne delivers a strong performance as Balem. His character is clearly precise, calculating, and used to getting everything he wants, so he spends the majority of the film using a measured tone. However, as events escalate and things move further beyond his plans, his tone and appearance begin to show their wear, building to an oedipal-like outburst that seemed to be years in the making. My largest surprise was Channing Tatum. I enjoy him as an action star and I’ve become impressed with his comedic timing, but his approach to the majority of his performances has always given me a “lunk head” feeling about him. Here, as Caine, he seems to disappear into the character. No accent, no typical swagger, and no self-awareness. I found myself forgetting that I was watching Channing Tatum and focused on the character. Unfortunately, even with the bulk of the film falling on the shoulders of these three, it just doesn’t work as a whole.
In the end, Jupiter Ascending suffers from being highly derivative of the Wachowskis prior work. It uses the FX splash of Speed Racer, the impressive make-up applications of Cloud Atlas, the political intrigue of V for Vendetta, the philosophical diatribes of The Matrix, and with all the leather of Bound. The result ends up visually stunning but an otherwise unremarkable mess. We watch virtually the same rescue sequence twice, the female lead is nothing but a damsel in distress, and any significant ideology is forgotten as quickly as it’s introduced. Somehow the Wachowskis have lost their groove by trying to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. While the exquisite detail and thoughtfulness of the special FX that make the film memorable and worth seeing on the big screen, there is little else to save it. Though I look forward to their next release, this is one that, sadly, I encourage you to miss.
Final Score: 2 out of 5