Film Review: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

A disappointing step backwards for the Wachowskis, who lose themselves in an over-designed, underdeveloped 'Star Wars'-style land grab in space.

In “Cloud Atlas,” the Wachowskis wildly overreached while tackling the notion of reincarnation via a daring, genre-spanning nonlinear narrative that challenged the very limits of conventional storytelling. Now, with “Jupiter Ascending,” the subject arises once again, albeit in the most banal, been-there-done-that way imaginable: as a garish, “Phantom Menace”-esque space opera in which a lowly Russian cleaning lady (Mila Kunis) is born with DNA identical to that of the most powerful woman in the universe. The movie refers to this statistical improbability as a “recurrence,” which could also describe the painfully familiar feeling we get from watching the Wachowskis fail once again, this time on an unrecoverable $175 million budget, despite whatever boost Imax 3D ticket sales can add.

Originally slated to open on July 25, 2014, the Warner Bros. release slipped back more than six months under the excuse that the production needed more time to finish its elaborate visual effects — which, to be fair, are among the most stunning ever witnessed in a genre known for mind-blowing imagery. But in the meantime, the studio has made little attempt to communicate to audiences what the film is, despite what should be a fairly straightforward marketing pitch: It’s a fairy tale writ on the largest possible scale, embellished with a love story between the oblivious princess Jupiter Jones (Kunis) and the chivalrous skyjacker Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who rips her out of her dreary existence and reveals her true destiny.

One day, Her Majesty is scrubbing toilets in Chicago hotels; the next she’s being pursued across the galaxy by three greedy intergalactic royals — Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth). As the surviving members of the Abrasax dynasty, the trio is threatened by the fact that this less-enlightened human shares their dead mother’s genetic identity, thereby entitling her to claim control of the vast tracts of interspace real estate they all covet. It’s a weird loophole in conventional inheritance law: If the deceased party should happen to be reborn, all property falls to her — the odds of which are about as good as someone finding a Bombay street urchin with fingerprints that match those of the Queen of England.

But what do we know? According to the film’s own mythology, Earthlings are just entering the genetic age. Meanwhile, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an elite clan of humans discovered a way to extend their lives almost indefinitely by extracting a glowing opalescent liquid from other humans, whom they plant on conducive worlds, then wait patiently for millennia until overpopulation exceeds their allotted planet’s ability to sustain life, at which point, the Abrasax landlords swoop in to harvest the entire species. (Where are the Guardians of the Galaxy when you need them?)

Simple cloning didn’t work out so well for the Abrasax rulers, although their over-decorated homes appear to be crawling with new species (subservient lizard officers and short, gangly aliens), as well as several interesting genetic hybrids. Gugu Mbatha-Raw appears with big rodent-like ears, for example, while Tatum’s character turns out to be a Lycantant, a crossbreed of a wolf and a man. Apart from his greenish-blond goatee and ever-so-slightly pointed ears, he doesn’t look all that inhuman, though he claims to have more in common with a dog — which is just fine for Jupiter, who beams, “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs,” when the information comes out. Also, Caine once had wings, but they’ve been clipped as punishment for some previous infraction, though he makes do with his floating “surf boots.”

From their lesbian-themed thriller “Bound” to the race-blind karma inquiry “Cloud Atlas,” the Wachowskis have always been heavily politicized in their filmmaking. Here, this elaborate concept of a virtually immortal human elite seeding other civilizations throughout the galaxy functions as a fairly lazy critique of capitalism. In this alternate universe, even genocide runs on the pursuit of profit, and apparently there’s nothing more profitable to be done with entire worlds full of humans than to drain their collective life force — the aftermath of which we see on a deserted world (essentially the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao surrounded by blue sand) where the three siblings survey their most recent harvest. This, too, is a recurring motif in the Wachowskis’ work, recycling “The Matrix’s” massive system of predatory incubators in which the human race lies dormant. But that movie had a terrific villain, whereas neither pretty-boy Booth nor the physically unimposing Redmayne (who sucks in his words like some kind of space vampire) can muster much menace.

While the Wachowskis have always put their greatest emphasis on aesthetics, they allow the visual impulse to get the best of them here, investing so much attention in creating unique fashions, technology, architecture and design that they’ve blinded themselves to the huge logical gaps in their own story. Instead of serving as a lauchpad for big ideas, as their past pics have, “Jupiter Ascending” asks audiences to check their brains at the door and settle for candy-colored riffs on overplayed damsel-in-distress gimmicks. Although clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another, whether that’s being nearly assassinated during an egg-donating operation or pushed into a marriage with a two-faced Abraxas prince (the geisha-like costume for which trumps even Natalie Portman’s iconic “Star Wars” look).

Those upset by the ontological implications of “Prometheus” are likely to find “Jupiter Ascending’s” working theory of mankind’s origins even less satisfying. The movie spends hardly any time reflecting on the idea that all man’s scientific advances have been redundant (having been first discovered millennia ago), while all his cultural ones are expendable — including movies, which are nothing more than distractions for a race being groomed to fill the bathwater of the rich and powerful. Here, Kalique functions as a sort of sci-fi update on Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who attempted to extend her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins. She appears long enough to rescue Jupiter and explain the rules before disappearing for the remainder of the film. People have a way of doing that in “Jupiter Ascending,” in which characters whose allegiances were never clear are constantly switching sides, before being forgotten altogether (like the blue-haired bounty hunter so determined to kill Caine early on).

It all comes down to a problem of world-building, a skill at which the Wachowskis excelled on “The Matrix.” But their weaknesses were revealed soon after in the “Matrix” sequels, where the sheer scale of the project overwhelmed their ability to focus in on the core narrative. Here, buried under decibels of deafening score (from J.J. Abrams’ favorite composer, Michael Giacchino, working without the solid underlying musical theme of his Pixar and “Star Trek” work), the movie zips from one dazzling setting to another, back and forth between Earth and Jupiter and who knows where else. No sooner have the Wachowskis built it than intergalactic rescue dog Caine comes crashing through walls to tear it all down. Hard to believe, but for all the Abrasax’s technological superiority, it takes just one small hole in the ceiling to bring an entire refinery city crumbling to the ground, and while it all looks quite stunning, the Wachowskis really should have spent that extra six months on development, focusing on the script rather than the visuals. After this debacle, it will be a long time before the kind of recurrence where anyone trusts the duo with a budget anywhere near this scale again.

Film Review: 'Jupiter Ascending'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., Feb. 2, 2015. (In Sundance Film Festival — Secret Screening.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release and presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Anarchos Prods. Produced by Grant Hill, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski. Executive producers, Roberto Malerba, Steven Mnuchin, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Terry Needham.

Crew

Directed, written by the Wachowskis. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D), John Toll; editor, Alexander Berner; music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Hugh Bateup; supervising art director, Charlie Revai; set decorator, Peter Walpole; costume designer, Kym Barrett; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Lindsay; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Dane A. Davis; re-recording mixers, Ozanich, Tom Johnson, Juan Peralta; special effects coordinator, Jalila Otky-Rogan; visual effects supervisor, Dan Glass; visual effects, Double Negative, Framestore, Method Studios, One of Us, Bluebolt, Rodeo FX, Buf; stereo visual effects supervisor, Jared Sandrew; 3D conversion, Legend3D; stunt coordinators, R.A. Rondell, Christopher O’Hara; second unit director, Christopher Blasingame; casting, Lora Kennedy.

With

Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Frog Stone, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. (English, Russian dialogue)

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  1. Steve Talbert says:

    Sorry for typos. Now that I think about it, there are so many little things that are almost thrown away…like the way the android guide comes across another with the same face and how they both notice but don’t acknowledge to the other, but then seem bothered by it. But maybethey aren’t. Maybe that’s more the actor. But the whole interaction is scripted to be that way. .with cut shots and pacing, .yet if you missed it, it wouldn’t necessarily hurt or help your experience in watching the rest of the film. Thats what i mean about texture and why its rewatchable but not required to gsin any additional insight into a very basic story. So if you like films like that, you will definitely like this one.

  2. Steve Talbert says:

    I stumbled into this movie on HBO flipping channels, and its visual style is great. The story has been done before, but in ScFi and Action Films that is a feature not a bug.

    It provide a familiar trope as a framework to see how the edges blur. The basic plot is understandable, you dont need to know anything beforehand, the main characters are likeable, you can understand the basic ialogue, and the villians almost pitiful. I will definitely watch it again and also would pay if it came around again on a big screen. So isn’t that a sign of ‘success”?? For me yes, but there might not be 175 million of me.

    I think it will hold up better than Matrix over time and cultures. I liked Cloud Atlas, but once you’ve seen the pattern, it is BORING the 2nd time.

    What makes this movie interesting is BECAUSE of the unexplored parts. It seems you are only seeing parts of a complete world that is going on now, before, and continues. …just like in life where people come and go with unknown motivation, things thst seem important disappear, and random events have a pattern in hindsight. That kind of texture in this film makes it easy AND interesting to rewatch.

    It can be eye candy or deeply philosophical or both. That’s rare in action and most sci fi out there. A great gamily and date film, but also good for preteens and old people who cant follow some newer styles that jerk around too much. Just some comments from a non professional movie watcher.

  3. If you live long enough and you have a real memory, you find that all these Sci-Fi stories are borrowing little “KEY”concepts from each other , movie after movie, book after book, going all the way back to Jules Verne, “First men on the Moon” Theres no way that i agree with the reviewer that Jupiter ascending is any less fallible than any-other SciFi movie. Peter Debruge-Chief International Film Critic, hasn’t lived long enough too remember and his criticism acts like these stories are all original writing, which there not! somehow he gives himself , a special observational power certificate. Where were the critics when George Lucas movie: ” Star wars”, ripped off Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars (1912). or Disney movie; “John Carter” simply changed the title and merged a 1912 story with a 1964 story.
    Since most modern movies make their money in World Wide Box-Office, DVD sales, also TV rights of all sources of income, too say this movie LOST money is NOT the final truth and a obvious untruthfulness, Hollywood has always sort to keep hidden, from the general public. Truth is this movie has great CGI, good acting, Great filming and just continues and peaks the interest of a new generation of young people to follow the story lines as mankind has always done in the last Four-thousand years.

  4. Amos Batto says:

    After watching the movie, I would say that the movie feels disjointed and needed to be longer with less action scenes and more dialog to develop the characters. However, after you start to analyze the film, it starts to get much better. The movie feels disjointed because you only see characters for a short period of time in the film. Each of the three siblings have something interesting to say about how Capitalism works. If you look at this film as a critique of Capitalism and see the protagonist as a hero of the proletariat, then this is a fascinating film. The protagonist is not a superhero. She is an ordinary girl with no superpowers and is not a GI Jane with insane fighting skill. She is a working-class girl who dreams of escaping, but once she sees how royalty lives off the lives of the lower-classes, she rejects being part of the 1% and she returns to living as a ordinary cleaning woman who has working-class solidarity and loves her family despite all its faults. We hardly ever see a big-budget movie which critiques the destructive and hedonistic tendencies of the 1% and extols working-class people as heroes. The film also is a critique of the US immigration system and its beauracracy. It is full of references to past movies (Wizard of Oz, Brazil, etc.). The movie takes longer to understand than most Hollywood films and you probably have to watch it a couple times to fully understand it, but in my opinion, it is far better and has much more to say than 99% of the films in the theatres. Critiques of the film should at least evaluate the film on an intellectual level and try to understand its deeper themes.

    • wiles11 says:

      You sound like a teenager who just figured this shit out. Everything it took you multiple viewings to figure out was right there on the surface all along. This is not a deep film. It’s an OBVIOUS one. Dazzling to look at, but NOT very deep. Critiques of capitalism in science fiction and horror shows — especially the haves using the have-nots as food/energy/blood — are a dime a dozen. The Wachowskis only make it MORE obvious with all the references to OTHER MOVIES that use the same trope.

  5. Robin says:

    The movie lacked coherence at the beginning of the movie similar to some other recent sci fi movies that have relied on book readers to understand the plot ( example ” The Giver”) but lacking a book to give the coherence to interested sci viewers. Once the plot is understood because it simplifies to simplistic unsuspecting female gives in twice to overpowering evil males requiring saving by hero male it lacks any great improvement on any other more simplistic male dominated sci fi theme.

    • Robin says:

      Further comment credit writers for trying to portray highly suspicious heroine- but suspicious females do not give in to pressure so easy and women who give in so easy are not as suspicious – usually caught way off guard so have no option but to give in…she was a mixture of two different types that did not play right…

  6. David says:

    I’ve kind of scanned the reviews and I have to say, I doubt most of the people writing reviews watched the movie. They all have one thing in common, they don’t like something about somebody involved in the movie so they write a bunch of garbage…You want the truth, this is a good movie, go get it on VUDU and watch it. Then come back here and take a minute to tell it like it is and shut these morons up.

  7. FM Talks says:

    The trailer looks bad. Channing Tatum look sillier than usual. It’s hilarious how some team is intent on making him happen. Looks deserving of a bad review.

  8. Mindy says:

    Wow, what did they do? Take a splicer across multiple movies and TV shows. “human elite seeding other civilizations throughout the galaxy” this is right out of The Stargate TV shows. IE- the Ancients created devices “SG-1 episode about Dakara” that seeded a galaxy with human life. In turn the Ancients / Alterrans shed their human bodies to become energy – essentially becoming immortal. I supposed the argument could be made that ‘it’s all been done and said”- the difference is in the perspective and presentation. Never the less, I’ve been wanting to see this film and despite the negative reviews, I still will.

  9. David Young says:

    Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man… instead of reviewing the movie.. looks like you are reviewing Wachowskis … i guess you are seeing this film in the same way you see all those Sundance films… Both are different and targeted for different audience … Apples and Oranges man…

  10. whoopsie says:

    This movie defies logic and reinforces the myth of whiteness as all powerful. Whiteness cannot produce color. It can only reproduce after it’s own kind. So the chances the “most powerful” peeps in the universe would be melanin free seems illogical and frankly stupid. On this planet called Earth, pale skin and climate change do not mix well. With the ever increasing hole in the ozone layer we see an increase in deadly skin cancers among the tanless, e.g. “white”. Tanless skin also has a short shelf life. White women start wrinkling and graying in their twenties. It seems more like a weak link than the enduring DNA of a “master” human race. I’m gonna have to pass on this one even though I loved the Matrix trilogy.

  11. JJ says:

    Who keeps giving these guys so much money to make movies? I think they’d fare better on a tight budget.

  12. neillbert says:

    Seems a bit harsh to say that it will never make it’s money back. I hate it when before a film has even come out, critics and media alike, all start labelling something a flop. State your views on the film and leave it at that.

  13. harry georgatos says:

    The Wachowski’s have to move out of the sci-fi genre for a while and move into different material. The trailer was a massive disappointment as it seems tiresome with STAR WARS cliches and a high level of blandness. Maybe the can do a contempoary spy movie, but definitely something different. The only two good films they manage to pull off was the first MATRIX and BOUND. CLOUD ATLAS has good moments with dull moments. If the MATRIX sequels go ahead Warners should look elsewhere without the Wachowski’s.

  14. guest says:

    or the whole genre is finally becoming tiresome…I hope!

  15. just looking at channing tantum with the elf ears is enough to make you shrug. what the hell were they thinking? the main characters look laughably silly. i never really thought the matrix was a fantastic piece of science fiction but i can appreciate what it did for filmmaking- but nothing has even come close that level of fun (anyone remember road racer? lol).

  16. Joel says:

    Wow, this is a really well-written review. Thank you. Seriously, thank you.

    Still looking forward to seeing this, despite assumptions that the female lead’s sometimes-shrill voice could be a disservice to the film.

  17. Liz Calvario says:

    Best line, “The Wachowskis really should have spent that extra six months on development, focusing on the script rather than the visuals.” Visuals are extraordinary and the costume design is so intricate and the best part of the film for me. But yes, it lacked a narrative.

    • matteobject says:

      There’s no way they were actually spending those six months tarting up the visual effects, I can’t think of a single film where that’s actually been the case.

      “The visual effects weren’t ready” really means “this film is testing horribly and we need massive reshoots”.

      See also: Monuments Men.

  18. JimmyFitz says:

    What a waste of money. It’s going to go in the toilet.

  19. Paul Nash says:

    You know, I plan to watch this film on the weekend, and what I expect is a retro 1920’s to 30’s pulp scifi extravaganza, which I will enjoy for what it is. Critics are quick to jump on the fault-finding bandwagon, but not all of the criticism is warranted. Jupiter Ascending is meant to be fun, and I expect it will be. The previous film by the Wachowski’s, Cloud Atlas, was a wonderful film as far as I am concerned, and I watched it several times to pick up on all of the synergistic threads. Its ideas were a serious exploration on many levels (though it also helps to have previously read the book by David Mitchell, and to view the first segment — a future post-apocalyptic Hawaii where folks speak in a strange dialect — with subtitles). I also really liked the film V for Vendetta, for which the Wachowski’s wrote the screenplay. Rather than come down on two very creative and interesting filmmakers, I would just like to glean the best aspects of their movies, whether or not there are any apparent flaws, and look forward to their future efforts.

    • Daryle says:

      It appears from some of the other comments that a fair number of people really didn’t like Cloud Atlas, but I agree with Paul Nash that it was actually a pretty good movie. It’s length almost did me in (at a late evening showing at the theatre), but I thought it was a film that really made one think. Thus, I think Mr. DeBruge may be overly harsh on the Wachowski’s, at least with respect to that film. Unfortunately, it seems he may be right as far as Jupiter Ascending goes, and it’s also too bad, story-wise, that Jupiter ends up to be a damsel-in-peril/distress role. What do so many moviemakers and writers have against women as strong protagonists? That said, it doesn’t look like the other roles are well-written either.

  20. Alexander says:

    It’s never a good signal when a movie that was planned for summer ends up in February.

  21. irwinator1992 says:

    Between this and the ticking time bomb “Seventh Son”, I would choose neither and flock to the new Spongebob movie instead (I have been a Spongebob fan since childhood). Kingsman is next on my wishlist after that.

  22. J. Paul Christian says:

    Here again we see the failed premise of money plus controlling power causing film makers to lose their way. We really did not need another example, but such is the industry run by blind, superficial egos and frantic-guess pursuit of profits. If Cloud Atlas was not disappointing enough for you, just wait until you see what the blind leading the blind has cooked up this time.

  23. jcdbrown says:

    I’d pay $14 just to see Douglas Booth alone.

  24. Jonathan Karate says:

    It’s time for the new paradigm in sci-fi action film to appear and take hold, just as “The Matrix” did in 1999 when it arrived with a thunderclap that rocked the genre (and the industry). The Wachowskis’ attempt here to chase the over-produced, over-recycled 3D midichlorian mythos will hopefully be their last mega-budget film before a a more manageable return to story.

    And “Cloud Atlas” is unwatchable. Why anyone likes that film is beyond me.

    • Guy Benson says:

      Couldn’t disagree more. For all its faults, “Cloud Atlas” offers far more wonderful, thought-provoking moments than most sic-fi films I’ve watched. It does require several viewings to pick up all the threads, but I found it well-worth the effort. As for “Jupiter Ascending,” I’ll go see it for what it is, popcorn space opera.

  25. Fre says:

    Well… then I’ll go in with no expectations other than feasting on some meaty visuals.

    If they don’t hit the target this round… no more .357 hello .22 caliber when it comes to budget, control and most everything else.
    Hope it’s good and if so, does well.

  26. Alexander says:

    The only thing consistent about the Wachowski’s work now is that it gets consistently worse with each successive film. And their choice of actors goes with it. I fail to see how it can much worse than Tatum.

  27. David says:

    The Wachowskis appear to be following the Shyamalan approach to filmmaking: impress with a thoughtful, inventive first movie and then spend the next 15 years making self-indulgent dreck. Perhaps there will come a point where they return to a focus on storytelling.

  28. Mr Furious says:

    What made the Wachowskis so good at world building for ‘The Matrix’ was the fact that they were ripping off other people’s already built worlds.

    • aaron says:

      Oh, that old, consistently disproven internet hoax again?

      • Guy Benson says:

        Oh please, stop with the protests about The Matrix be wrongfully accused of being derivative. Anyone who has read sci-fi for any length of time can see just how many tropes they threw together with a ridiculous dose of mish-mashed pseudo-religion. I didn’t care for any of the Matrix films, although number 1 did do some cool things for the genre. A better film of that type was the one that came out the same year as the Matrix, but got overshadowed by it, “Dark City.” As for Cloud Atlas, I thought it was brilliant and thought provoking.

      • nerdrage says:

        Nah, anyone familiar with sci fi literature could see for themselves all the tropes they ripped off. But you would have to actually read.

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