Andy and Lana Wachowski haven’t had a good time of it since The Matrix. After re-defining the sci-fi cinema landscape with black pleather and bullet-time, they filled out the trilogy with two critical failures now viewed as the benchmark for just how far, how fast a series can fall. Try though they might, neither of their subsequent films, Speed Racer or Cloud Atlas, was able to recapture even a fraction of the magic of their most famous effort.
Now, they return with Jupiter Ascending, in which Channing Tatum is a pointy-eared space bounty hunter/dog, Mila Kunis is a long-lost space princess, and Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne chews scenery like it’s going out of style. So. Is the post-Matrix Wachowskis curse broken?
No. So much no. Spoilers follow.
Judging by the trailers, Jupiter was going to be a generic space opera, taking every genre trope known to man (long lost princess, hidden destiny, badass lone wolf–literally, as Channing Tatum’s character is genetically part dog) and not doing much with them except pairing them with fancy visuals. The Wachowskis do add some things to the forumla, but what they add are heaping bowls of WTF.
What should be a fairly basic plot–genetically engineered warrior Caine (Tatum) must protect space princess Jupiter Jones (Kunis) from forces of evil who want to kill her–is needlessly complicated by random tangents and unnecessary plot diversions that at best provide unintentional humor (the line “bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty” comes to mind, and there’s a bzuh?-inducing throwaway line about vampires) and at worst muddle the narrative to the point of incomprehensibility.
At one point a character is thrown out an airlock into space (except it’s called “the void” here, because Jupiter Ascending never says anything that can be replaced by pointless technobabble that rivals anything you’ll find in Star Trek) surrounded by portable space suits… for some reason. Jupiter Ascending has plot holes you could drive the Death Star through. It’s like the Wachowskis, who also wrote the script, just threw a bunch of stuff on-screen in the hopes that it would all somehow magically form a cohesive whole, only it never did. I’m not a fan of picking apart movies to find every single one of their “mistakes” (looking at you, CinemaSins), but when the entire forward thrust of the story relies on characters not communicating things that actual people definitely would, that’s not being nitpicky: that’s lazy writing. To wit:
Jupiter: Hey, so here’s a question: Why do you keep calling me “Your majesty”?
Stinger (Sean Bean): *goes on tangent about how aliens and dinosaurs are related*
Jupiter: Yeah, never mind, it’s probably not important.
Caine: So the people trying to hunt you down do this thing to planets called “harvesting”–
Jupiter: Wait, hold up. That sounds like something I should know about. Can you explain to me what it is?
Caine: … No, you have to be surprised when requisite smary asshole British alien* tells you in the next act.
Mila Kunis: Oh, OK.
*All space villains are British.
If you go see Jupiter Ascending (don’t), I recommend against driving yourself insane with questions like “Wait, but why can’t the space cops just…?” or “Why does Jupiter trust this guy when it’s obvious that…?,” because the answer is only ever “Look! Over there! Space dinosaurs!” And I can forgive a movie with a nonsensical plot, especially one with space dinosaurs, because space dinosaurs are awesome and this is a movie with Channing Tatum as a space elf. I went in expecting a fun, campy time, not storytelling brilliance.
But Jupiter Ascending is so convoluted that its constant bait and switch is impossible even for the main character to navigate, to the point that Jupiter spends the entire movie wandering around being confused and manipulated, making stupid decisions and saying stupid lines (Caine: “Your planet isn’t the only one with intelligent life.” Jupiter: “Wait, are you an alien?” Caine: “… I have pointy ears and a laser gun.”), and being rescued. I didn’t see the Twilight movies, but I read the books (don’t ask), and as far as female heroines go, Jupiter Jones isn’t that much better than the infamously milquetoast doormat that is Bella Swan.
Though she’s ostensibly the hero of Jupiter Ascending, the movie doesn’t let Jupiter do anything. She doesn’t get to rescue her family. She doesn’t get to save the day. She doesn’t get to save herself. She floats through the movie with absolutely no initiative whatsoever. Female or not, it’s an awful trait for a main character to have. Unintentionally or not, her ultimate message came across as “There’s a wild, wonderful world out there! But it’s filled with dangers you’ll be lucky to survive and responsibilities you’re frankly woefully equipped to handle, so you’re better off just staying at home and cleaning other people’s toilets.”
Not that the other characters fare much better. Everyone is hastily sketched–Balem (Eddie Redmayne) is the villain obsessed with power and profit (yawn), Caine is a brooding loner badass with a dark past, Jupiter spouts teenage angst cliches like “The more you care, the more the world finds ways to hurt you for it,” Sean Bean’s Stinger is just… there. At least Redmayne had the guts to do something interesting with his role, but alack, that “something” is a breathy, groany way of speaking (and occasionally shouting: “I CREATE LIIIIIIIIIFE…[voice drops several decibels] and I destroy it.“) that caused me no shortage of second-hand embarrassment. It sounds like he’s constipated.
I’m looking at the cast list trying to identify any actors who came out unscathed, and the only people I come up with are David Ajala and Cloud Atlas‘ Doona Bae, who played two bounty hunters trying to track down Kunis before Tatum does. All they’re asked to do is participate in a couple of fight scenes, look cool, and not say much of anything. They’re tolerable by virtue of the Wachowskis not trying to do anything with them. And they’re the highlight.
The duo’s next project is Sense8, a Netflix show they’re working on with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. Maybe that’ll give them their groove back, if they even still have any groove left to get. After Jupiter, I’m not optimistic.