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Jupiter Ascending – film review

February 25, 2015


An entertaining if confounding misfire.

Reviewed on Thursday 19th February 2015

mila kunis jupiter-ascending

A US-Australian co-production. Written & directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski. Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne. Running time: 127 mins.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) a young woman living in Chicago, longs for a better life. Stuck in a dead-end job cleaning people’s homes for a living, Jupiter suddenly finds herself whisked away on an intergalactic adventure where she becomes the centre of political intrigue as rightful heir to an empire with massive repercussions for the entire population of the Earth.

This visually rich, meandering space opera marks the Wachowskis’ first production since the last Matrix film which isn’t already based on an existing property. Tonally, Jupiter Ascending is the least earnest of the siblings’ films; displaying a welcome attempt at playfulness which is admirable (even though many of the light-hearted moments do tend to miss their mark). Although there are allusions to Cinderella scattered throughout, the story it most resembles is The Wizard of Oz – especially in the depiction of Jupiter’s home life (a close-knit family of Russian imigrants). As with all their films, the Wachowskis toy with some intriguing concepts here. In a universe where natural resources are infinite; the most sought after commodity is time – or, to be more precise – the rejuvination of the physical body to allow for more time. This idea is central to the political machinations which Jupiter ultimately finds herself in. Also cleverly incorporated into the mix are such earthly myths as vampirism, crop circles and alien abduction.

Aside from her supporting role in Black Swan, I’ve been mostly unfamiliar with Mila Kunis as an actor (although I have seen her interviewed; where she comes across as appealingly unaffected and down-to-earth). With her deliciously smokey voice, sassy hutzpah and tomboyish girl-next-door persona, she would no doubt make a terrific kick-ass action heroine. But unfortunately her character here doesn’t allow her the opportunity to display any of this potential. Much like Neo in the original Matrix, Jupiter is only really here to react to whatever is happening around her. She is in effect, the audience’s entry into this world – which is fine. And I do get that she is meant to be this wide-eyed disempowered innocent to begin with. But she is given     so little to do to affect the outcome of events, she really just ends up being tossed around like some political football – never given the chance to stand on her own and take charge.

Of the rest of the cast, Channing Tatum is fine as the genetically-engineered half-man half-wolf heroic love interest – but there is virtually zero chemistry between he and Mila. Part of the problem here is that while Mila’s Jupiter is clearly taken with Tatum from the get-go, Tatum’s character displays (because he is a warrior with an unwavering allegiance to the state I guess) virtually zero romantic interest in Jupiter in return. Such a one-sided dynamic between the two leads doesn’t allow for much opportunity for sparks to fly I’m afraid. As the campy chief villain, Balem Abrasax, Eddie Redmayne carries himself like a Shakespearean Roman Emperor; rarely speaking above a whisper; resulting in a truly bizarre and creepy performance. While Australian actor Kick Gurry (last seen in Edge of Tomorrow and previously in Speed Racer) struggles to maintain a Russo-American accent as Jupiter’s earthly cousin; whose conspiring with Jupiter to sell her eggs to a fertility clinic (in order to pay for     a big-screen television no less) kicks off the narrative.

The Wachowskis’ trademark virtuosity in orchestrating balletic action sequences which are involving and easy to follow seems to be oddly absent here. While the aerial dogfight amongst Chicago’s skyscrapers admitedly features what is perhaps the most effective and eye-popping use of virtual camera gymnastics ever seen, the sequence is so poorly edited it ultimately becomes a disappointingly disengaging experience. This sense of disengagement again occurs during the climactic final battle in the villain’s industrial lair – where, although the directors employ long continuous takes in an attempt to give us a sense of geography; we never really     get a clear sense of what is ultimately going on.

jupiter ascending ships

The visual effects supervised by Dan Glass are pretty to look at for the most part (although, for some reason, during a space battle sequence in the second half, the CG does seem overly pixilated – so much so in fact that it’s surprisingly difficult to tell what is actually happening at times) – but there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of internal logic in the depictions of the various worlds. The baroque settings do recall the sumptuous look of David Lynch’s Dune – but they’re not nearly as cohesively believable as in Lynch’s unfairly maligned film. And the film itself does resemble Dune in other ways too; particularly in the choppiness of its pacing. There are sequences here which are given unnecessary screen-time which ultimately add little to the overarching narrative; Jupiter wading through a Gilliamesque farce of bureaucratic red tape in order to gain her majesterial title (featuring Gilliam himself in a cameo) – being the most perplexingly bizarre example. While a sequence involving Channing Tatum’s abandonment in space and subsequent rescue seems to have been jarringly truncated with clumsy editing.

Seamless integration of exposition was never a strength of the Matrix sequels and although it is confusing here at times; with so many similar-sounding names thrown   at us all at once (an issue I also had with last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy) – it’s thankfully not nearly as much of a momentum killer (or nearly as waffly) as it was in the Matrix sequels. And to be fair, I really don’t blame the Wachowskis for the way the Matrix sequels turned out – the siblings were, after all, forced by the studio to stretch what was originally meant to be one movie – into two (an all-too familiar trend these days).

Overly complex exposition and loss of narrative focus aside, the filmmakers have again delivered another unmistakably Wachowskian piece; free from the banality and cookie-cutter formula of most large-scale Hollywood movies – which is, after all, not such a bad thing. It’s just surprising it doesn’t hold together as well as it should – especially given just how seamlessly cohesive the far more complex and ambitious Cloud Atlas was. So what went wrong? Was it unchecked creative hubris on the part of the filmmakers or studio intervention which caused this launch of a potential new sci-fi franchise to self-destruct so spectacularly? With its incoherent choppiness, it absolutely feels like a classic case of studio intervention (it was, after all, held back from release for six months). Or perhaps it was just the Wachowskis had no-one there in the creative kitchen with them to gently suggest to them their exuberant inclusion of so many ingredients was in fact killing the soup?

I know I’ve probably given the impression that I disliked this film (which I didn’t at     all – it’s still hugely entertaining). It’s just disappointing that with so much creativity and potential, Jupiter Ascending isn’t the truly great sci-fi action adventure it aspires to be.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, February 19th 2015.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


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