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Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Directed by: Andy and Lana Wachowski

Premise: A young woman (Mila Kunis) discovers that Earth is part of a series of planets managed by an intergalactic aristocracy and she is the reincarnation of a queen, making her the ruler of the planet. She must affirm her title over Earth while competitors attempt to kill her.

What Works: One of the constants in the Wachowski’s work is the way they’ve used fantasy films as political metaphors. Pictures like The Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, V for Vendetta, and (to a lesser extent) Speed Racer tell spectacular stories of sci-fi action but also incorporate complex ideas about identity and class issues. Jupiter Ascending is another political metaphor and this one is less ambiguous than some of their other work. In the conceit of the film, Earth is one of many planets that are maintained by an intergalactic industry and globes worth of human beings are raised and eventually harvested in order to nourish the oligarchical elites that run the universe. The economic metaphor here is straightforward and it is a very interesting concept. Along with the political content, the other familiar aspect of the Wachowski’s work is their love for action and epic sci-fi tales. Whatever the other problems of Jupiter Ascending, the filmmakers cannot be accused of shoddy or lazy work. The film has some impressive imagery and the special effects are on par with the best Hollywood spectacles.
What Doesn’t: Although it has a lot of impressive imagery, Jupiter Ascending is never more than pedestrian. Part of the problem is that so much of the film is derivative. There is a lot in this movie that is lifted from other science fiction films such as Dune, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Fifth Element, Brazil, and Soylent Green, among others. But if Jupiter Ascending recalls any previous sci-fi movie, it is the Wachowski’s own The Matrix. Boiling the plot down to its most essential elements, this is the same story warmed over: an otherwise normal working stiff in a dead end job suddenly has her world turned upside down when she’s finds that human beings are being bred for consumption by powerful overlords. She then discovers that she is a messiah figure who can save the human race and along the way falls for one of her liberators. The parallels between The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending are unmistakable but the new film does not do the formula nearly as well. The Matrix succeeded in part because it had a compelling hook but the novel premise was matched by engaging characters and a story that was told clearly and at a brisk pace. None of the characters of Jupiter Ascending are interesting. Mila Kunis is poorly cast in the lead role. She just does not have the gravitas to carry the movie. Kunis is paired with Channing Tatum and Sean Bean as the warriors who escort her into the outer world but they are never characterized. The chief villain of the film is played by Eddie Redmayne. His character is supposed to be an imposing and conniving master of the universe. Redmayne is a terrific actor but is in no way imposing and so the movie is left without an antagonist to push the conflict. The story of Jupiter Ascending is start and stop. The action scenes are fun but in between the set pieces the film is a long slog in which the characters talk at length about people and institutions that don’t mean anything to the audience. Jupiter Ascending ends up being the tale of an undefined group of people going on a quest to accomplish an unspecified goal while facing an ill-defined opposition. The movie never connects with the audience and it is yet another sci-fi movie that is enamored with its own mythology. That was also a problem for Marvel’s 2014 hit Guardians of the Galaxy but unlike that film, Jupiter Ascending lacks memorable characters, is nowhere near as fun, and it is crushingly self-serious.

Bottom Line: Jupiter Ascending isn’t a bad movie but it’s not very good either. It is disappointing seeing a promising concept go to waste and it’s disheartening to see the Wachowski’s—who are capable of so much more—copping their own work with an inferior imitation.

Episode: #530 (February 22, 2015)