Escape to the Movies
Jupiter Ascending - Tries But Fails

Bob Chipman | 6 Feb 2015 12:00
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Jupiter Ascending feels like something was left on the cutting room floor.

Released February 4. Stars: Mila Cunis and Channing Tatum, with Sean Bean and Douglas Booth. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Almost two decades ago, Warner Bros took a chance on The Wachowskis; more specifically on an insanely ambitious, bizarre, high-concept sci-fi pitch called The Matrix that turned out to be one of the biggest game-changing blockbusters of all time. Since then, "high-concept" pitches have been the siblings stock in trade; and while they've never exactly landed a Matrix-sized smash since then, what they've offered has been consistently bold, brave, brilliant and BIG.

Jupiter Ascending is their latest offering in that vein, a big-budget, galactic-scale space opera that's finally coming out after a six month delay. All that time, I've been anxious to see what these mad geniuses have come up with this time; and having now finally seen it... I'm still anxious to see it.

What I mean is that its extremely clear that - regardless of why it took six extra months of work - the film now playing as Jupiter Ascending does not represent the whole of what it was intended to be.

What happened isn't clear, but whether by mandate of the studio or by resigned decision of the filmmakers, it feels very much like something that's been mercilessly trimmed down from a film of big ideas and meticulous worldbuilding to mainly focus on the action setpieces. It's gorgeous looking, inventive and fun in its current form; but one can't shake the sense that we were meant to have - and are being denied - something more in every respect.

The premise finds Mila Kunis' Jupiter Jones as the adult child of a large Russian immigrant family who is discovered to be the exact genetic reincarnation of, effectively, the Queen of The Universe; which entitles her to leadership of a galaxy-spanning industrial empire that involves (among other things) ownership of Earth and thousands of other, similar "primitive" planets. The three feuding children of the deceased queen, in no mood to lose portions of their inheritance, all have separate plans to strip Jupiter of her birthright by treachery; which leads to her being protected by Channing Tatum as a human/wolf hybrid space-soldier named Caine.

The "big idea" at play this time - apart from the human-animal hybrids, robots, rocket-boots and other sci-fi ephemera tossed into the stew - is that our space-lord big-bads here called "Abrasax Industries" are effectively God... and God is a galaxy-scale industrial farming outfit. Abrasax is in the business of "seeding" habitable worlds like Earth with human populations, which they let grow to the point of overpopulation and then wipe them out in order to harvest biological material used as life-extending biotech currency among more celestially-aware worlds - and with Earth teetering on the brink of unsustainability as it is, Jupiter finds herself in position to possibly prevent her homeworld's culling.

And, yeah... you'd be right to assume that this sounds very much like a deliberate updating of the Matrix premise, once again involving an otherwise ordinary person discovering that Earth and everyone on it are just an unwitting supply of clueless, ready-to-slaughter cattle except for themselves who is actually unique and destined for glory and awesomeness; the difference being that this time these revelations are filtered through the viewpoint of a mostly well-adjusted (if jaded) grownup rather than an angsty self-involved teenager: Unlike Neo, who had already always suspected that he was a special-snowflake surrounded by mindless sheep who didn't know or care that they were just cogs in The Machine and couldn't wait to be told exactly how and why he'd manifest as the most important and meaningful person on Earth... Jupiter has no pretense to exceptionalism or interest in royalty and mainly wants to protect her family from planned extinction.

The other difference is that action scenes are clearly of secondary concern: There are fistfights and gunfights and chases, and they feel pushed to the foreground in this version, but they're perfunctory: The real interest was clearly in building an original universe that owes a heavy debt to everything from the 80s FLASH GORDON to BRAZIL to FUTURAMA and digging into a broad metaphor for industrial capitalism as a (literally) dehumanizing consumptive machine... but, like I said before, it feels like the film released has flipped those priorities in reverse...

...which means we get action beats that are cool and pretty but not especially involving breaking up dramatic, comedic and even occasionally satirical scenes that feel gutted of their intended weight and stripped from their connective tissue. There's an extended riff on bureaucratic absurdity that's a genuine delight but doesn't seem to fit with anything else anywhere else in the film, tonally. Jupiter's family are meant to be core to our understanding of her personality and decision-making but we barely spend enough time with them for them to be more than broad sitcom caricatures. Everyone from Jupiter to Caine seems to get onboard with big reveals, character-revelations and even major double-crosses way too quickly.

This is best illustrated by the film's confounding story-structure, wherein Jupiter is introduced to an Abraxas sibling, taken on a brief tour of their side of the operation, almost tricked or forced into signing some kind of bad contract only to be rescued by Caine at the last possible moment on three separate occasions, one right after the other. The repetition is too blatant not to have been intentional, perhaps part of a rhyming set of sequences meant to represent the gradual but deliberate reveal of both narrative and message in a tone-poem sort of way... but without any meat on the bones of the movie, none of it really sticks.

In the end, Jupiter Ascending just doesn't work... and it's the hardest kind of "doesn't work" to acknowledge because so much thought and attention went into it, even as something clearly went wrong along the way. You can't say it doesn't try, but sometimes effort just isn't enough.

Bottom Line: For die-hard Wachowski fans and visual-design aficionados who can overlook a nonsensical plot only.

Recommendation: Hope for a Director's Cut on Blu-Ray.

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