The late 1990s gave us two (technically, three) fascinating filmmakers who have subsequently flamed out in spectacular fashion. One was M. Night Shyamalan; the other was the Wachowskis, Andy and Lana. Their biggest films were in 1999; The Sixth Sense and The Matrix. One film breathed new life into respectable horror (remember The Sixth Sense was nominated for Best Picture!), while the other reinvigorated blockbuster science fiction. Shyamalan has been a punch line since 2004. The Wachowskis seemed to have righted their ship, somewhat, with 2012’s flawed but wonderful Cloud Atlas. Then they unleashed Jupiter Ascending, a big-budget sci fi bust destined to join Battlefield Earth as genre cannon fodder. While Jupiter Ascending is “better” than Battlefield Earth, Travolta’s stink bomb is way more fun.
In Jupiter Ascending’s junior Dune-iverse, powerful families own planets, which they harvest for nefarious economic purposes revealed late enough in the movie to be considered a spoiler here. (It won’t be hard for smart moviegoers to figure out.) One of these powerful families, the House Abrasax (what a Dune-y name) has three siblings—Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), Titus (Douglas Booth) and villainous Balem (The Theory of Everything Academy Award nominee Eddie Redmayne)—fighting over ownership of the resource-filled planet Earth.
On planet Earth lives Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young woman who works as a maid alongside her immigrant mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) yet dreams of the stars, thanks to a dead astronomer dad. Jupiter also happens to be the genetic reincarnation of the Abrasax matriarch, who would own Earth were she alive.
Not that anyone cares about any of that political sci-fi crap. Inquiring minds want to know where Channing Tatum fits into all of this. He’s a genome-engineered soldier tasked with protecting Jupiter from all the baddies hired by her kids/ancestors to kill/kidnap her before she can ascend (get the title now?) to royalty. Through genome-engineering, Tatum’s Caine Wise is a cross between a human and a wolf; hence, the pointy ears. Maybe that explains why he looks like he’s smelling Kunis on the poster. He has also been written as a character less charming than a wolf. Tatum has proved he can handle comedy, and this role—this movie—calls for a bit more wit.
Despite that prodigious amount of story, Jupiter Ascending is narratively lazy. Why waste so much time creating a universe that so obviously “borrows” from already created ones? Just remake Dune or Flash Gordon or Logan’s Run, or better yet, adapt John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. The Wachowskis could have held out to helm the big screen version of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, a book that’s similarly influenced by Dune and Star Wars but infinitely more intellectually interesting and emotionally involving.
The characters are little better than the plot. As mentioned above, Tatum’s hero is all fight. He even looks so strange that it becomes hard to believe Jupiter would fall for him so quickly. Kunis has her own struggles with the material, but it’s poor Redmayne whom the Wachowskis hang out to dry the most. How do we know he’s a villain? He punctuates hissing his dialogue with randomly screaming it. No wonder his handlers want to distance him from this flick in the lead-up to the Oscars.
Nevertheless, the film is visually captivating, as one expects from a Wachowski movie shot natively in 3D, until you realize that Tatum’s hero is essentially roller-skating through the sky. Seriously, this movie is tailor-made for sardonic entertainment, except that it’s not the least bit fun at all. What a shame.
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