In a recent discussion hosted by DePaul University, Lana and Andy Wachowski bragged about their love of Blade Runner when everybody else in the country was swept away by E.T. It’s an odd proclamation but appropriate given that the Wachowskis want badly to make both films at once with Jupiter Ascending. There’s a specific sentiment among modern directors for popular genre films released between 1977 and 1982 — Star Wars, most popularly. Christopher Nolan repeatedly talks about Star Wars as an influence. J.J. Abrams now gets to make Star Wars. That movie, that franchise, has become the “Marcia Marcia Marcia” of cinema: universally adored and resented, never quite imitated.
Keeping that in mind, it’s no surprise that Jupiter Ascending comes from a wholehearted and yet misguided place of affection. The film is an obsessive love letter in space, exploding with rainbow debris, outlined with bronze chic. It has the murky colors and helmet-clad design of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, the wishful awe of Close Encounters, the artistic density of Ridley Scott (or Lisa Frank, for that matter), and of course, the operatic grandeur and sympathy of George Lucas. It’s like an anthology of past glories geeked up to the point of exhaustion. But what is Jupiter Ascending, exactly?
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the plain Jane with the laughable name. (This is a $175 million mega-production with a lead character named Jupiter. Just wanted to point that out.) She’s an undocumented immigrant (she has the stereotypical Russian family to prove it) living in Chicago. Jupiter cleans homes, has a bummer of a life scrubbing toilets and dreaming of the world outside her own. She just wants to buy a telescope.
Through a lengthy and convoluted series of events, it’s revealed that she may be space royalty. She might just be the second life or clone or heir or whatever in an intergalactic dynasty that owns, engineers and destroys planets. Jupiter may have the title on planet Earth, and a preening trio of siblings wants her claim, proving that even in space villainous characters have bad British accents.
Jupiter must come to terms with her unwitting destiny, and here to help her navi-guess the known universe (in countless over-decorated spaceships) is Caine (Channing Tatum with elf ears and a Velveeta-crusted goatee). He’s a pure, good space warrior, the product of genetic engineering, with lycanthrope parts thrown in. Together, Jupiter and Caine will visit planet after planet, get into roughly half a dozen action scenes, and wear a lot of black rubber and leather (after all, this is a Wachowski jam).
It’s amazing how small a film about the universe can feel when it relies on the most basic archetypes and plot points. It can’t be stressed enough: This is Star Wars, over-cooked. A princess fairy tale and a hero’s redemption are truncated beyond belief as Jupiter Ascending lets effects and dialogue problematize a simple story. It’s all pomp, as though the Wachowskis are so excited to try and allude to past sci-fi works in the hopes of creating their own aesthetic that they forget to mind their story. Or characterization. Or careful photography (every shot is jammed, not framed). Or writing in a comprehensible fashion. Even in loquacious sci-fi of this kind, the proud and frequent use of the word ‘abdicate’ will make you resent thesauruses. Ultimately, this is distended space opera from The Wachowskis – you can see their cinematic orchestra crashing all over itself.
Look at the film’s best possible chance at hooking the audience. There’s this dogfight over the city of Chicago. Caine and Jupiter must evade fang-toothed, multi-jointed aliens in these pointy, black jets all over the city skyline. It’s a neat idea, blending the fantastic with the familiar as a warm-up for grand things to come. Yet no shot lasts for more than a few seconds, no camera setup is stable, and it’s just hard to look at. What we’re left with is bewilderment, and the knee-jerk amusement of seeing Trump Tower get laser blasted. The whole movie follows this mold. What are we supposed to connect with here? How do we respond when there’s no room to breathe and immerse ourselves in story or even aesthetic? Why wasn’t this more fun?
The Wachowskis went from whiz kids to problem children so naturally that only now have we begun to notice their mess. With Jupiter Ascending, we see that they’re the Star Wars fans that left their toys strewn about the floor for us to step on.