Let’s get this out of the way right now, Jupiter Ascending is not a good movie. Fact is that it has a lot of problems, a lot! Most people will probably walk away impressed by the effects while laughing at much of the dialog and either baffled or unmoved by the story. Nonetheless, there’s some pleasure in Jupiter Ascending as evidence that the original, serious, science fiction film is still something which exists in cinema.
Granted, Jupiter Ascending may be the exact reason why such movies are becoming a rarity. Unlike films based on novels, comics, television shows, or other movies, there is no built-in audience for the Wachowskis’ newest would-be franchise. Sure, The Matrix was a big hit (despite having the same obvious flaws as Jupiter Ascending) but that was 16 years, two awful sequels, and one more horrendous movie ago. Even those people who still make “blue pill” references have moved on. Jupiter doesn’t have an established lore to fall back on like Riddick does (not to mention Star Wars and Star Trek), nor is there the cinematic and scientific credentials that drive such projects as Gravity and Interstellar.
As a massive, logic-defying spaceship adventure, Jupiter Ascending follows the tradition of Flash Gordon or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, yet lacks the campy dumbness that often makes such films into instant cult classics. There is none of the winking self-awareness that post-modern sci-fi comedies such as The Fifth Element have balanced so nicely. If anything, Jupiter Ascending‘s closest recent predecessor would be Avatar, another case of billion-dollar effects with a five-dollar story. If 3D technology were still a fascinating new element and not the played-out cash-grab it’s become in the last several years, Jupiter might have had a chance at making a profit. Instead, Jupiter Ascending is a sincere but ultimately futile attempt at creating a spectacular new universe, the budget of which is exactly what makes such films an extreme risk.
Like the space-faring adventures of the past, Jupiter Ascending wastes no time on subtlety as the story launches into space even before establishing itself on terra firma. There’s a bit of backstory on Jupiter (Mila Kunis) and a very shallow attempt at social commentary with her character being an “illegal alien.” Then only a few minutes later begins the universal sibling rivalry which sets Jupiter on her inevitable path from toilet-cleaning maid to intergalactic queen… or whatever she’d be named since there’s no actual royalty and the whole story is on a power struggle for real estate and business ventures… yet she is still called “your majesty” so… yeah… the story is not strong. Although the premise becomes clearer as the film moves from one of the battling siblings to the other, there are still so many holes that after a while a reference to bees being bred to detect royalty becomes one of those things that you just kinda accept as the type of laughable absurdity inherent to the bizarre universe on-screen. This isn’t one of those “story” kinda movies. It’s the kinda movie where the male hero literally swoops in to save the princess no less than three times.
The film does include a surprisingly interesting take on the beauty industry and the measures people go to in order to remain young, but between the sheer glut of sci-fi tropes, with everything from genetic engineering to cloning to brainwashing making an appearance, even a rather astute observation gets washed away. It doesn’t help that the concept of humans serving as a product for consumption is the exact same premise as used in The Matrix. So thorough is the Wachowskis’ survey of sci-fi cliches that they even rip themselves off. Meanwhile the romantic sub-plot which serves as the heart of the film is just awful. I mean, romantic subplots are often awful, but this one still stands out. Even Eddie Redmayne, nominated for an Oscar for The Theory of Everything, baffles in the way he alternates from a hoarse whisper to SCREAMING TEMPER TANTRUMS which are both equally ludicrous.
This all sounds pretty awful, and it would be if not for the simple fact that Jupiter Ascending is ridiculously pretty. It’s abundantly clear that all the attention which wasn’t given to story, character, subtext, or any of that other artsy crap was devoted entirely to making huge cities, cool spaceships, interesting weapons, and blowing things up real good. An early spaceship battle over Chicago provides the kind of giddy fun that has been so often absent from any big budget special effects film not produced by Marvel.
Once off Earth the setting opens into enormous palaces and space depots and banquet halls, all of which are detailed, pointless, and beautiful. Yet despite the excess displayed on-screen, the most enjoyable sequence follows Jupiter and her escorts through a claustrophobic, bureaucracy of steampunk-esque antiquity that appears to have been lifted from a Terry Gilliam film. In fact, this one sequence has such an intricate lunacy that it actually does feel like it’s part of a completely different movie. Perhaps if the Wachowskis had given dialog the same care as was devoted to the Rube Goldberg-style file system or Caine Wise’s (Channing Tatum) gravity surfing boots then Jupiter Ascending would be a much, much better movie. Hey, if they’d just given more thought to Caine Wise’s name the movie would be better.
So yeah, Jupiter Ascending is pretty bad, exactly as expected to be. With flaws almost as huge as its effects budget, the movie will probably go down as a near complete disaster. But that doesn’t mean it also isn’t enjoyable in the way that mindless sci-fi voyages have always been enjoyable. Funny thing is, I can’t possibly recommend this movie to anyone even though I actually liked it in a certain way. If nothing else, it’s just fun knowing that films like Jupiter Ascending still exist. Now let’s hope they can also be good.