To get a sense of how Jupiter Ascending exists, think back to 2010 when it was being developed. The Twilight series was still going, Avatar made pulp sci-fi and 3D cool again, and Alice in Wonderland launched the whole fairy tales reenvisioned trend that’s still going to this day. A young adult romance with outer space action and shades of Snow White must have sounded like a sure thing to the execs at Warner Bros, a guaranteed return to blockbuster success for the Wachowski siblings.
Jump forward in time to the present, and Jupiter Ascending no longer looks like a sure success. Part of this can be attributed to a climate where studios are increasingly hostile to films without brand recognition; Warner Bros. couldn’t sell Edge of Tomorrow last summer, and that was a good sci-fi action movie! Jupiter Ascending, unfortunately, has the extra burden that it’s not good. It’s kind of a trainwreck, its worst qualities reeking of a desperation to please everyone from filmmakers who seem more comfortable being niche.
It wouldn’t be a Wachowski movie if it weren’t visually stunning, and the alien worlds and post-human menageries are beautiful to behold. Yet where The Matrix and Speed Racer contained sights unlike anything seen before in live-action cinema, Jupiter is lacking in visual innovation. It’s more lavish than Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s nowhere near the narrative ambition of Cloud Atlas either; it’s the same Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey story we’ve seen a million times before, Matrix remade and dumbed down for the Twilight crowd. I guess we’ll have to wait for Sense8 on Netflix for true Wachowski experimentation.
There’s enough bits of strangeness on the sidelines to avoid being a bore. One villain has an orgy with fairies; one hero is half-bee. There’s an attempt to layer in a commentary about capitalism. The scenes with Mila Kunis’ Russian extended family feel like they’re coming from real experience. Those looking for camp absurdity will relish Jim Broadbent turning into a grey Roswell alien, and Eddie Redmayne giving a Nic Cage-level bizarre performance as the main bad guy surrounded by dinosaur bodyguards. There’s an unusually effective extended homage to Brazil, and a climax that seems like it might be an intergalactic repurposing of the Princess Bride script the Wachowskis tried and failed to sell in the ’80s. Yet as awesome all this strangeness sounds, the movie is ultimately a disappointment for its failure to provide its central lovers (Mila Kunis’s universe queen Jupiter Jones and Channing Tatum’s space-werewolf Caine Wise) any chemistry. When the closest thing to a connection they share is Jupiter saying “I love dogs”, your emotional backbone is lacking, and when the emotional backbone is lacking, the extraneous confusing details that could have been enticing end up frustrating. In the end, Jupiter Ascending feels like a badly truncated adaptation of a book that doesn’t exist.