The Wachowskis have been getting blank checks from Warner Bros since pulling off The Matrix in 1999 and with Jupiter Ascending have likely made their last boundless blockbuster. In 2012, Cloud Atlas turned a budget north of $100 million (though no official budget was ever released) into a pitiable $27 million domestic return, a figure almost as bad as the lowly $43.9 domestic box office cume from a $120 million investment on 2008’s Speed Racer. With their latest, they’re about to pull off their biggest magic trick yet, making a $175 budget disappear into thin air. To say the bloom is off the rose is a lie by degree. This movie’s gonna get crushed.
And rightly so. The Wachowskis have always skated by on their awesome sense of spectacle, often at the expense of a cohesive story, but Jupiter Ascending is not just their latest but their most egregious offender of complete and utter style over substance. In their defense, the style is often blindingly cool, if only for a brief moment. No scene better utilizes their captivating handle on big budget pageantry than a first act escape scene, one that reportedly took upwards of six months to film. The issue remains: why dump so much time and resource into a glorified stunt and so little into plot, character and general story cohesion? The answer is mindbogglingly unaddressed.
With Jupiter, one established Wachowski mainstay remains in their FX-driven manipulation of gravity. Bullet time has been replaced by gravity boots and Keanu Reeves’ wooden acting is subbed in by a frequently shirtless and rarely compelling Channing Tatum. Tatum plays the role of a warrior “splice” – a genetically engineered part-man, part-dog. He once had cyborg-enhanced wings but got them hacked off Maleficent-style when he bit the wrong rear end. Or was it ear end? His is a lackluster bit of back story that’s never explained or accounted for in a movie full of lackluster bits of back story that are never explained or accounted for. But such is Jupiter Ascending.
Tatum’s effortlessly seductive (or so we’re told) Caine Wise is tasked with retrieving an Earthling woman at the center of a galactic land grab but in a guns-blazin’ fix gets mixed up and ends up with the wrong chick: a Russian toilet-scrubber by the name of January “I Like Dogs” Jones (Mila Kunis). The maid mix-up winds up COMPLETELY forgotten about as it turns out our heroine is actually an heiress of the highest order – the reincarnation of an interplanetary Tzar and somewhat recently deceased head of family to the Abrasax clan. With a hefty sum of a birthright (including, ya know, the Earth), the rest of the Abrasax fam-damily tries to win over the pea-brained January with various schemes and assaults of paperwork. You can almost hear Wachowski’s whine, “Bureaucracy’s a bitch.” After a few queues to get the ol’ inheritance files in order, many things explodes and Tatum’s dog-boy is called to the rescue – like Lassie with a six pack – more times than I’d like to report on.
In a pinch, Kunis’ Jupiter Jones is as compelling a female lead as Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones and just about as believable as Richards’ is as a rocket scientist. She’s a perma-damsel in distress, haplessly entering herself into laughably dumb situations and finding herself subsequently incapable of getting out without being rescued by her half-canine prince. It makes me wonder why the Wachowskis even bothered making a film with a female protagonist when they’re just going to make her so pathetic and pitiable. It’s an asinine step backwards in an industry that demands two forward. The gross lack of chemistry between Kunis and Tatum doesn’t help either, nor do the odd bestiality undertones.
And just as Channing Tatum is a dog genetically spliced with a human, Jupiter Ascending is The Princess Bride genetically spliced with Star Fox, a bombastic video game of a space-set fairy tale that feels like it needed something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue in order for the studio to marry it to a budget so high. The result is a rip-off by assault; kitchen sink FX hogwash laid upon tired narrative tactics.
What is truly visionary in terms of set production, lavish costumery and creature design results in something totally and tonally defunct in the story department. As Eddie Redmayne greedily dismantles everything great about his work in The Theory of Everything as a necky, whispering, totally bratty villain, the Wachowskis make a mockery of their own legacy as storytellers. Even when they haven’t been firing on all cylinders, the sibling filmmakers have been able to provide dazzling, heady escapism. Jupiter Ascending though just makes you want to escape the theater.