Introduction: This was a case where the trailers impressed me but the movie left me feeling ambivalent. Though the trailers don’t give too much away in terms of story, they do set the stage for what looks like an epic space opera tale as well as another grandiose cinematic entry for the Wachowskis. However, Jupiter Ascending‘s end result is less than stellar. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Jupiter Ascending (2015) introduces us to Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a seemingly ordinary young woman who begrudgingly contends with a mediocre life working as a maid. Little does she know that she’s actually a critical piece to a large interstellar puzzle that will land Earth on the brink of global catastrophe. When Jupiter is rescued from alien assassins by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetically-modified solider, she discovers that she’s actually a member of a galactic royal family who lays claim to planets which they use to make eternal life-giving youth serum. When Jupiter learns of a plot to take Earth and harvest its people, she must decide which path to follow – claiming her royal birthright or protecting the people she loves.
My Take: With every film the Wachowskis create, I hold on to the hope that something will be as good as The Matrix films, which are tied with The Lord of the Rings trilogy as my number one all-time favorite movies. However, I just haven’t been deeply impressed or urged to watch any of their other films, from the colorful but cheesy-looking Speed Racer to the seemingly convoluted Cloud Atlas (I read the book and couldn’t finish it, so I don’t dare check out the movie!). However, Jupiter Ascending‘s trailers ignited my interest. Granted, the film is a take on the idea of having a down-to-Earth (no pun intended) protagonist and giving her a destiny theme, but there are numerous directions in which to take that basic plot. And Jupiter Ascending seems intent on taking as many directions as possible.
One feather in this movie’s cap is that it is ambitious in terms of story and it’s an original idea (meaning it’s not a sequel or a reboot). While it borrows elements from other science fiction works and concepts, it can’t be accused of being linear and simple as it at least tries to explore interesting ideas. However, it explores a little too much, which becomes it’s biggest flaw. Personally, I think Jupiter Ascending would have made a better novel than a movie. In a novel, you can have extensive world-building and allow for side stories and plots that expand upon multiple ideas. But in a film, time is of the essence. You only have space to work with one (maybe two) big concepts lest the story becomes overstuffed. Jupiter Ascending, while it had some cool ideas, just had too many cool ideas and none of them got fully developed.
For instance, the concept that genes have a spiritual significance to the Abrasax clan, the royal family of whom Jupiter belongs, was a very interesting idea and I would have liked to have known more about it. Exactly why are genes held in such high regard by the royal family? How does this impact the way the Abrasax view themselves and the people on the planets they harvest? Is this part of their religion? Does their religion/spiritual beliefs tie into their beliefs about science? Those are questions that popped up in my mind and I was hoping they would be answered. Instead, this concept is waved away to make room for the next action set piece and never brought up again.
Yet another example is the idea that bees are genetically wired to detect royalty, which highlights one of the trailer’s (and the film’s) coolest moments when bees suddenly gravitate around Jupiter for no explicable reason.
That was such a neat idea! So I really wanted to know what in bees’ genes makes them able to detect someone of royal blood. Does this make them servants to royalty? Can they carry out tasks, transmit messages, etc.? This was one idea I think the writers could have really had fun with; instead, it, too, was cast aside, nary to be brought up again. Other ideas this film juggles but never expands upon are alien races, the concept of “harvesting,” the purpose of the youth serum (beyond the obvious avoidance of death), the rearrangement of genes, genetic modification, etc. That’s a lot of concepts and world-building to bring into a story, and, sadly, much of this is spouted off without context or assumed as just a fact in the story and nothing more.
This tends to be an issue for me in most of the Wachowskis’ films – they love to introduce cool or smart ideas but never finish them. The Matrix (the first film), for example, focused on one big idea – the concept of AIs enslaving humanity – and it was played out masterfully. While the sequels got a bit convoluted at times (case in point – the Architect’s speech from The Matrix Reloaded), they still managed to stay on track. Again, I will credit the Wachowskis for being ambitious and at least trying, which is better than being lazy and penning a simple, linear narrative. But an attempt is only worthwhile if it has a good payoff, which Jupiter Ascending does not and, instead, ends up like a half-baked cookie – nice to look at, fun to enjoy, but ultimately underdone.
Concerning the characters, they were just okay and weren’t very memorable. I’m not familiar with Mila Kunis as an actress but, seeing with what she had to work with here, her portrayal of this character was fine. Jupiter Jones is a kind, humble protagonist whose gentle sense of humor and wide-eyed wonder of the world are admirable (though she tends to accept other characters’ info-dump explanations a bit too quickly). She is totally new to this whole royalty business and, in the end, she doesn’t let it change her. This has both a good and a not-so-good aspect to it. It’s good in that Jupiter doesn’t become stuck up and think she’s better than everyone else. However, it’s not so good in that Jupiter essentially stays the same in terms of character and personality throughout the film.
Granted, she learns to be brave, have a better appreciation for life, and makes some tough choices; but other than that, the film ends with Jupiter being the same lass we met when the movie opened – complete with seeing her go back to her old job as a maid. So what did Jupiter really learn through it all? She was already humble, so she didn’t need to learn how to harness her pride. She already loved and cared for her family, so she didn’t have to realize that family meant everything to her. The fact she was someone special is actually downplayed by the fact that Jupiter does nothing special with it. She just goes back to her ordinary life and at least has learned not to hate it. But did she really have to go through all of that just to learn not to hate her life? I think it would have been more impressive if her outcome was different, perhaps making her the new leader of the Abraxas family; otherwise, the story plays out as if this is just another day in her life.
This was also my first exposure to Channing Tatum as an actor, who I know that (at the moment) seems to be the Hollywood go-to guy for a young male lead. I’ll be honest – I don’t get it. I wouldn’t label him a bad actor but he just seemed stuck in one of two emotional modes in this movie: quiet/brooding and angry/shouting. It’s a bit dull and did nothing to encourage me to see any of his other films. I also don’t get the focus on him being good-looking. I know this is a matter of personal taste but I don’t find Tatum attractive.
(Insert collective gasping here. I know, I know. But it’s true. I don’t find Channing Tatum attractive and it truly baffles me as to why so many ladies do. Guess I just have a different genetic makeup. Maybe I am an alien, too. If so, then I need to change my name to Saturn or something.)
The chief villain here is Balem, who is also the black sheep of the royal family, played by British actor Eddie Redmayne, whom I’m not familiar with at all. Balem could have been a fun character but he ended up being too much of a contrast for me to enjoy. His personality waivers between being a soft-spoken, calculating dictator (in which he truly emitted a creepy, sinister air) to a screaming drama queen with no balance in between or consistency. At times he was so over-the-top, it was comedic and I don’t sense that was the intent for that character. I’m all for over-the-top characters, but they have to fit the tone of the story as well as possess a good balance of calculating and sympathetic, meaning you know you’re supposed to root against them but you feel sorry for them just the same. Likewise, having a villain be comedic when he’s clearly not supposed to be reduces him to a filler character and not someone worthy of further development.
Yet another issue for me was the action sequences. I love a good extended action sequence as much as the next action movie fan, but the set pieces in Jupiter Ascending were too frequent and too long. An overdrawn action sequence is okay but that’s the key – just one sequence, two at the most, with the rest of the movie’s time spent in quieter moments where character development occurs. Yet in Jupiter Ascending, nearly every chase or action scene is close to ten to fifteen minutes long, even longer. When you only have one or two large action sequences to engage, they’re easier to take because you’ve not been watching set piece after set piece the whole movie through. However, in Jupiter Ascending, nearly every action scene is overdrawn, which actually gets boring after a while and makes the climatic battle less interesting.
Despite its flaws, two elements in this movie’s favor are its design and costuming. The cinematography is fluid and possesses good light and color schemes that are neither too bright and sunny nor too dark and gloomy. There is a good balance of light and dark and it’s always appropriate for the scene at hand. Likewise, even the CGI-rendered environments possess a sense of realism, and even though you can tell they’re not real, they don’t look cheap. This was clearly a film that took a great deal of time to polish and it shows – the end result is a sleek-looking movie that has some very cool sci-fi settings and backdrops. Likewise, the costuming fits the overall mood of the movie as well as the tone of each scene. Jupiter in particular gets some very gorgeous gowns and accessories:
Overall, I really wanted to like Jupiter Ascending and it does have good elements to it, namely its design, production work, ambitious attempt at ideas, and a likable female lead. However, its overdrawn action sequences, underdeveloped world-building, and mediocre characters weigh it down, making it just another sci-fi action flick as opposed to a smartly-crafted sci-fi film.
Content Breakdown: Jupiter Ascending was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Minimal but not pervasive, with the sh-word being the most frequently used.
Violence – Most of the violence is of the typical sci-fi/action variety (including scenes of peril) with minimal blood and no graphic violence or gore. Granted, most of the movie’s fight sequences are lengthy; so persons who have little patience for overdrawn action scenes might feel the need to skim past these portions.
Sexual Material – It’s obvious there is sexual tension between Jupiter and Caine though they do nothing more than share a few kisses and flirt. Elsewhere, one of the Abrasax siblings is fondled by numerous clothed women in a sensual merry-go-round of sorts. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit of skin in this film though it isn’t within a sexual context nor is it pervasive: Caine is shirtless throughout an entire long fight scene (as well as other isolated moments); there is a fleeting glimpse of subdued, naked Human-like people in liquid-filled chambers (though no sensitive body parts are visible); and two Abrasax siblings in two separate scenes stand in or emerge naked from a bath, revealing their backsides for a few seconds.
Thematic Material – ***THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS!***
Jupiter gets her name from the planet though her naming does, according to one character, harbor astrological significance (though astrology isn’t heavily relied upon in the movie). Also, the concept behind the realignment of genes is akin to reincarnation though the parallel between these two concepts is slight. Lastly, Jupiter is, genetically, the “mother” of the Abraxas siblings, one of whom agrees to wed her in order to save Earth. While the marriage is never finalized, some viewers might not be comfortable with the idea of a son marrying his “mother” (though Jupiter is not his biological mother but his “mother” in genetic form only).
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Jupiter Ascending stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. This film is too long for children to sit through and really has nothing to offer them. Likewise, the scenes of tense action might be frightening to younger viewers who can’t follow the story’s plot.
Older Children & Teens – I’m a little on the fence with this one: I think the edited version that is sure to air on television would be fine as it will probably omit the nudity and harshest profanities though most older children, I would venture to guess, probably won’t be attracted to this movie for its convoluted plot.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, provided you like the genre, the directors, and/or some of the cast.
Overall, Jupiter Ascending is just okay. It comes nowhere close to being even half as good or insightful as The Matrix but I wouldn’t call it a cinematic train wreak. The acting is passable albeit the chief villain is weak and unintentionally comical. Its sets sport some cool designs and the overall look of the film is very sleek and elegant, yet the story itself is burdened by unduly long action sequences. Lastly, the plot is certainly ambitious and tries to incorporate multiple concepts, but these attempts at world-building result in incomplete ideas that make the story as a whole seem unfinished.
In the end, fans of the Wachowskis will probably check it out as well as action movie lovers. However, it’s worth noting that Jupiter Ascending is heavy on the action, erratic on world and character development, and weak on space opera. So if you go into this movie with the hopes that it will be a space opera romp, you might come away disappointed.