Film Review | Jupiter Ascending

It's loud, brash and messy, but the Wachowski siblings' attempt at a grand scale space opera has wacky scale and ambition, and plenty of eye candy. 

Gravity Falls: Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis in the Wachowskis's intergalactic bonanza
Gravity Falls: Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis in the Wachowskis's intergalactic bonanza

The Wachowski siblings, having ushered the blockbuster into the new millennium with gusto following the release of The Matrix (1999), have certainly not shied away from ambitious projects since. However, the Matrix sequels and their subsequent projects, namely Speed Racer (2008) and Cloud Atlas (2012) – met with a lukewarm reaction at best, enraged fanboy ire at worst.

Most of this is down to the Wachowskis’ insistence on never doing anything by halves… of striving to make epic cinematic collages out of what are sometimes tawdry pop culture lemons. And if the bloated and bonkers space opera Jupiter Ascending is anything to go by, it looks as though they remain entirely undaunted by any critical and commercial backlash.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) was born under a night sky, in the wake of a tragedy that left her astronomer father dead, but with signs that she’s destined for great thing. Now grown, Jupiter’s stargazing is tempered by the hard reality of a day job that involves scrubbing toilets after 4am wake-up calls.

 

After her cash-strapped cousin Vladi (Kick Gurry) convinces her to donate her eggs to a fertility clinic, her life is turned upside down. Aliens step in to kidnap her while she’s strapped to the hospital bed, and only fail to complete their mission after Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track Jupiter down.

He reveals to her that her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an inheritance that could alter the balance of the cosmos. But in order to claim it, Jupiter has to negotiate through the Abrasax siblings, an aristocratic trio with eyes on the prize. While Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) try to ease her into the process – while having ulterior motives of their own – the nefarious Balem (Eddie Redmayne) isn’t that keen on compromise.

Though the Wachowskis’ stab at space pulp of the Edgar Rice Burroughs and Star Wars ilk has been pummeled by the critics for the most part, it remains a flawed but welcome shot of craziness into a Hollywood landscape that is becoming inundated by a uniform spate of superhero films, reboots and remakes. That’s not to say that its erstwhile ‘innovation’ excuses it of any clunky plotting and clunkier dialogue.

We’re plunged into an interplanetary world crammed with baroque spaceships and peopled by inventively grotesque creatures, which also plied by what looks to be an admirably convoluted back story – of the kind you’d expect from this sort of project. But also feels cobbled together and rushed, leaving us floating in a story that’s going too fast. This isn’t helped by a ham-fisted approach to the script, which dishes out gobbledygook-exposition with the same abandon as it does cringe-worthy lines.

But if it’s a mess, it’s a colourful and compelling one. The Wachowskis’ decadent mise-en-scene recalls celebrated genre forebears like the French sci-fi comic book pioneer Moebius. Leagues ahead of the CGI-bleached and Dubai-like cityscapes of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), they always give you something interesting and cool to look at – imagine of St John’s Co-Cathedral was turned inside-out and put into orbit.

Cosmetic delights aside, there is an upside to the slapdash approach to plotting. Unlike the over-polished – and predictable to a fault – blockbusters from the Marvel stable and the like, the story has a mad kinetic rush to it, which feels invigorating.

Squeezing in worldly domestic spats alongside the goings-on of an interplanetary family dynasty, the Wachowskis also find time for a convoluted back story involving genetics and a clumsy but charming allegory about capitalism.

The film should also be commended for its inclusion of a scene in which royalty is tested through a soul-crushing bureaucratic process. Sure, it’s a direct nod to Terry Gilliam’s cult classic Brazil (1985) – even allowing Gilliam to bookend the scene as its arch-bureaucrat – but juxtaposing it slap-bang in the middle of what is otherwise a fairy tale ‘hero’s journey’ amounts to admirable inventiveness.

After all is said and done, the film is nothing if not rich, even if it threatens to tip over into incoherence.

While Marvel Studios and their DC-Warner Bros compatriots steam ahead to continue colonizing our screens with pre-fabricated and carefully processed slices of comic book mythology, the Wachowskis attempt to take the genre back to its roots, when the rules were still unclear and you were allowed to colour outside the lines. The result is far from perfect, but they make a decent hash out of a noble ambition – and right in the lion’s den of mainstream cinema too. 

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