“Jupiter Ascending” Review: It’s Phantom Menace All Over Again
Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a young girl leading a very ordinary life who is suddenly thrust into the center of an intergalactic conflict she didn’t even know existed. Could she be the reincarnation of a powerful galactic queen? The late queen’s children seem to believe this is true, and their feud over control of the planets is about to threaten, as well as drastically change, Jupiter’s life.
What has always been impressive about The Wachowski siblings is their ability to dress up thoughtful, introspective science fiction in slick blockbuster costumes. The Matrix, for instance, is like Philip K. Dick cosplaying as a John Woo kung-fu bullet ballet. That’s not to say that it always works, Speed Racer still exists after all, but even in failure, these visionary filmmakers have been able to package something interesting within something dazzling.
That streak has sadly, and soundly, been broken.
Jupiter Ascending is beautiful to behold, but it’s a beautiful mess. It proceeds to jam thirty hours of world building into a two-hour avalanche of clumsy, unbalanced exposition. One can hardly fault The Wachowski’s for being ambitious, in fact that ambition has, in the past, motivated their best and most groundbreaking work. But in Jupiter Ascending, they try to keep so many narrative plates spinning at once that eventually things begin to come crashing down.
As painful as the comparison may be, the film Jupiter Ascending most closely resembles is George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace. Much like that first Star Wars prequel, Jupiter Ascending hurls fistfuls of unwieldy exposition at the audience in the moments typically reserved for trivial things like character development. Also, much like Episode I, Jupiter Ascending is menaced by cumbersome spectacle that supersedes substance. There is no attempt to plumb any philosophical nor is there even the pretense of subtext, apparently fearing it would get in the way of overripe space battles and sky-skating.
There are also moments in Jupiter Ascending that pack all the guffaw-inducing idiocy of the inception of the midi-chlorians in Episode I. Move aside, Nicolas Cage, we just may have a new champion in the arena of hilariously awful bee-movies. Somehow Mila Kunis’ only power as Queen of the Earth is the ability to telepathically control bees because they can evidently recognize royalty in all species. It’s yet another superfluous layer of exposition that is only passably relevant to one moment in the film and then is never spoken of again. In that moment, however, it serves to elegantly crystallize why this film cannot be taken seriously. Wait, does that mean the Queen of England also controls bees?
Finally, what makes the comparison to The Phantom Menace painfully apt is the preponderance of intergalactic bureaucracy that functions as a major plot device. It’s obvious that the extended fantastical red tape sequence is a playful nod to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Gilliam himself making a cameo. However, what works as satire in Brazil is played as legitimate drama later in Jupiter Ascending with antagonists screaming about obtaining signatures on space paperwork. It is preposterous to the point that it dilutes any actual tension. If nothing else, “transfer of title” may supplant trade embargoes as the most woefully pedestrian plot device in a big budget space opera.
And let us not forget our titular heroine, although minutes after you exit the theater you might just forget her yourself. Mila Kunis was a bizarre choice for the anchor of a studio sci-fi blockbuster. She’s a competent actress, but still light-years from leading lady status. Still, she does not shoulder all the blame here. The character of Jupiter is inexplicably written as a perpetually weak damsel in distress even long after we’re told that she is the reincarnation of the queen of Earth. Not only that, but despite her being the offspring of two brilliant academic professors (one of whom was an astronomer, by the way) she is given dialogue that reveals she barely understands gravity.
Her romance with Channing Tatum’s Caine—aka Sci-Fido–isn’t just forced, it’s embarrassingly desperate. Within hours of their meeting, she’s quivering as she asks the half-man-half-dog hunk to bite her. Kinky. Is she Queen of the Earth or did we just slip into Fifty Shades of Gravity? It is infuriating how weak and flat Jupiter is written, and by the end of the film we wonder if we will ever see the promised ascension to anything greater than the lovesick, ineffectual damsel that we are introduced to. We needed her to be the vessel for the deeper meaning, perhaps the metaphor for the human experience that would facilitate some sort of subtext, but that spark is not present. It would appear from the poor construction of our eponymous lead that Jupiter is in retrograde.
Credit where credit is due and unsurprising for a Wachowski property, the visuals are magnificent if at times distractingly busy. The anti-gravity star skates worn by Tatum allow for some unique battle sequences but are not well served by the underwhelming 3D. Again, however, the spectacle takes so much precedence over sincere engagement or compelling character arcs that ultimately Jupiter Ascending never gets off the ground.
How It Stacks Up
Jupiter Ascending vs. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Again, it is deeply upsetting that a Wachowski film would warrant comparison to The Phantom Menace, but since we have to live on a planet where that’s an evident truth, let’s break it down. Both films have parsecs and parsecs of plot while still somehow being absent a compelling story. Both films feature moments of such ill-advised silliness that we have to wonder why no one mentioned it to the writers; midi-chlorians vs. telepathic bees. And both films seem to believe that the most boring, bureaucratic nonsense constitutes drama. Oh wait, Jupiter Ascending has no Jar Jar Binks.
Advantage: Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending vs. Dune
There is an extravagance to the established aristocracy of Jupiter Ascending that hasn’t been executed to this level since David Lynch’s Dune. Unfortunately, where Dune gives us rich, interesting characters whose stories we happily follow for up to three hours—if you happen to be watching the extended edition—Jupiter Ascending’s characters are so one-dimensional and stale that it becomes a chore to follow them for a run time that is actually ten minutes shorter than Dune’s theatrical cut.