Jupiter Ascending is bloated sci-fi cheese, an intergalactic and extravagantly over-the-top saga that simultaneously wows and confounds. We can see every cent of a $150 million budget on the screen, but that’s not always a good thing.
Written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy), the story centers on Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a woman destined for great things and true love but, as the movie opens, she’s cleaning toilets. Even Chosen Ones have to make a living. Soon her life is saved by good guy half-man/half-wolf Caine (Channing Tatum); we know he’s good because he’s unfairly ambushed by three space goons and heroically/inexplicably fights his way through the attack.
Then comes all the space drama, and it feels like a soap opera. Interplanetary siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) control planets throughout the solar system. Earth belongs to Balem, though Titus covets it. Knowing that the rightful heir to own Earth is Jupiter (the person, not the planet), Titus sends Caine to protect her from Balem’s henchmen, but they’re captured. Complications ensue.
Even when they’ve struggled to tell a story, the Wachowskis have always been great at wowing us with action, and they do so again here. The first major set piece starts high above the Chicago skyline and plummets in, around and sometimes through the high rises, only to plunge into the Chicago River and then high atop the city again. As we hear Michael Giacchino’s pulse-pounding score, we watch the scene in IMAX 3D; the aerial action is superbly shot and combined with visual effects to render a truly breathtaking sequence. This, in addition to other solid but not spectacular action, showcases the Wachowskis at their best.
The metaphysical high-mindedness the couple brings to the story, however, reveals them at their worst. As much as one appreciates their creation of their own Star Wars-inspired mythology, the surplus of characters, betrayals, and family drama both on Earth and in outer space gives the film a heaviness that makes it harder to appreciate. The Wachowskis are operating on an epic scale here — reports say one draft of the script was 600 pages — and one gets a sense that they tried to incorporate so many elements that the finer points got away from them.
Here’s something else to consider: Going into the Feb. 22 Oscars, Redmayne is the favorite for best actor (for The Theory of Everything) and Julianne Moore, whose fantasy adventure film Seventh Son just opened, is the favorite for best actress (for Still Alice). Neither new release is going to earn them much regard with Academy members, who have until Feb. 17 to cast their votes. But will it actually cost Redmayne and Moore votes? It’s possible. In 2007, Eddie Murphy was the favorite to win supporting actor for Dreamgirls, but the abominable Norbit opened and dashed his hopes (he lost to Alan Arkin for his work in Little Miss Sunshine). Similarly, in 2013, Jessica Chastain was nominated for best actress for Zero Dark Thirty but likely slipped in the Academy’s esteem with the release of Mama shortly before the ceremony (she lost to Jennifer Lawrence for her turn in Silver Linings Playbook). How this may affect Redmayne and Moore — if at all — remains to be seen, but I’m curious to see if anyone points to these films in case either loses.
Back to Jupiter Ascending. It’s a popcorn summer movie in the dead of winter and, once more, we’re left yearning for the Wachowskis to be great again.