The liveliest sequence in Jupiter Ascending comes near the middle of the film. We’ve already met Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Chicago cleaning lady who everyone is convinced is some kind of intergalactic royalty. She’s being protected by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a man-wolf hybrid who used to have wings but who now gets around on a pair of boots that allow him to rollerblade through the air. They’ve arrived on an alien planet, and Jupiter—who informs us in a voice-over at the beginning of the film that she is an undocumented Russian immigrant—has to become documented as space royalty. So she and Caine wait in line to receive her official papers. The bored bureaucrat at the end of the line sends her somewhere else because she doesn’t have the proper tax forms. It goes on like this for a while, with Jupiter and Caine being ferried from one line to another by a chipper android that slowly becomes disillusioned with the paperwork process. (Terry Gilliam makes a cameo as an office clerk, in case you didn’t already recognize the Brazil references.) Yes, in a movie packed with spaceship chases, intergalactic battles, a royal space wedding, and an exploding alien city, the part of Jupiter Ascending that feels the most fun and organic is a five-minute scene about the familiar aggravation of dealing with bureaucracy.
Jupiter Ascending feels too big and too pretty and too awkward to simply give an up-or-down, see-it-or-don’t binary seal of approval or stamp of disapproval. The Wachowskis’ post-Matrix career as writer/directors has befuddled many thousands of moviegoers and delighted a small handful (the cult of Speed Racer is tiny but mighty). I expect the reaction to Jupiter Ascending will fall along similar lines: If you loved Cloud Atlas, you’ll love Jupiter Ascending. If you thought the Matrix sequels were completely irredeemable, you’ll probably think Jupiter Ascending is an immense load of steaming bullshit.
As for me? Well, it’s complicated. The sci-fi nerd in me, the guy who really liked John Carter, desperately wanted to love the space fantasy in Jupiter Ascending. But the rest of me couldn’t get past the film’s terrible clichés, bad acting, stultifying exposition dumps, and vapid reflections on true love. You’ve seen huge chunks of this movie a million times before, with its uninteresting chase to protect the unsuspecting secret royalty, and its evil prince with absolutely no regard for humanity.
And Eddie Redmayne—an actor who is nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything—is shockingly bad as the evil Balem Abrasax. He speaks in a bored whisper like an asthmatic fashion model, and he sweats menacingly at the protagonists, but he never really conjures up any real threat. He’s too busy overacting to bother interacting with the cast, not that the rest of the cast is any prize, either. Tatum and Kunis are both overwhelmed by this movie. They’re each charming actors given the right material, but these roles—the predestined princess and her faithful protector—are way too bland. And Sean Bean is about as Sean Bean as Sean Bean gets, playing the tough old military guy, like he always does.
The two elements that work perfectly here are the score and the production design. Michael Giacchino’s orchestral score is perfectly hammy, flourishing seemingly every few seconds in an effort to overwhelm your eardrums. If the rest of Jupiter Ascending were as campy as its score, it would be a masterpiece. And holy shit, is this a beautiful movie. Hugh Bateup combines homages to 1970s paperback sci-fi novel covers with weird S&M touches, anchoring them with visual cues from comics greats like Jack Kirby and Moebius. Great swaths of Jupiter Ascending, especially the bits where nobody speaks, are pure sci-fi porn, and the background characters—the bondage-masked storm troopers with stumpy Gatling-gun arms, the elephant-like pilot—are all designed in such a way as to suggest a life beyond the frames of the film. All those visual elements are shot beautifully by cinematographer John Toll, who manages to make even the cheesy lizard-men who accentuate the letter “sssssss” whenever they ssssspeak look intimidating.
But let’s be honest: A lot of this movie is a total mess. Does Caine really need to swoop in and save damsel-in-distress Jupiter a half-dozen times? Do we really need two nefarious prince characters, when they easily could have been merged into one? Why do so many side characters have weird little moments that are never resolved? At one point, the daughter of Sean Bean’s character is introduced. She coughs rather ostentatiously and then reassures her father that she’s fine, in the way that alerts filmgoers to the fact that this character is going to become very sick later. She never appears in the movie again. Same with the chipper android that guides Jupiter and Caine through the bureaucracy mentioned above. A whole ensemble full of characters that are more interesting than Tatum or Kunis completely disappear from the film with no warning. Even though it’s based on an original screenplay, much of Jupiter Ascending feels like an adaptation of a much longer work—a weird Scientology-and-cocaine-fueled sci-fi novel from the 1980s, say—that got butchered in the cutting room.
Most of Jupiter Ascending is a feverish battle between two opposing elements—the gorgeous and the ridiculous, the stupid and the savvy. Ultimately, though, it feels like a failure. Up until now, the one thing even the most vitriolic critics of the Wachowskis would have to give the pair is that they never compromise their vision. Love them or hate them, a Wachowski film is the undiluted stuff. But Jupiter Ascending feels in parts like it’s a movie that too desperately wants to please the general movie-going public, even if it can never quite decide exactly how intelligent the movie-going public is. The talk about finding your true love, with Kunis’s painful whining about repeatedly falling for “Mr. Wrong,” doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Wachowski film. It feels like it’s there because the Wachowskis really need America to love the movie. They swapped out some of their trademark earnestness for a more cynical sort of pandering. It doesn’t look good on them.