Written and directed by the “Matrix” siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski, “Jupiter Ascending” was made on an obnoxious budget of $175 million. The film was first supposed to hit theaters last year as a summer release. Official word was that effects needed to be completed, but what they should have focused on was the writing. The story is flat and lacks any sense of import appearing cheap and derivative. And after the complex story-telling promise of the collaborative effort that produced “Cloud Atlas” in 2012, I hoped for something truly special. Instead, we get a schlocky movie that has more in common with “The Ice Pirates” than “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Jupiter Ascending” is about the princess who scrubs toilets, call her Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis). To be fair, when the movie opens, she has no idea that she is a princess—that bit comes along abruptly. In an extended voice over narration, Jupiter tells us that she’s a Russian immigrant living in the US. Her British father was killed, and her mother gave birth to her aboard a cargo ship literally in a shipping container. One day, while selling her eggs at a black market clinic she is attacked by alien creatures, only to be rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum). Naturally, her life changes forever. With the fate of planet Earth hanging in the balance, this one time cleaning lady must negotiate with intergalactic royalty to prevent a deadly harvest. A madcap race to secure her royal credentials and claim her genetic birthright unfolds. And expect a lot of gunplay and space battles leading up to the fiery conclusion.
There is certainly nothing wrong with a cheesy space opera, but these days, the small screen is usually the best place for such stories. On television (or its streaming equivalent), creators have time to develop story elements and, frankly, to fail—some episodes can be misses while others redeeming hits. Therefore, the theatrical handling of such sweeping material can be problematic because in about 2 hours or so, an entire universe must be created and a story concluded. Readers should seek out director Steven Soderbergh’s controversial re-cut of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which 51 minutes were edited out of the Kubrick masterpiece. Good story-telling ain’t easy, even if you are a genius.
But maybe the problem is that there are too many characters in “Jupiter Ascending.” Unlike, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the writing isn’t hip enough to manage the difficult balancing act that introduces key protagonists and makes us care about them. It isn’t fair to blame Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, the stilted writing is clunky. For example, Tatum has to deliver some pills to Kunis in one scene and says something like “take this, porting can be rough on the royal bowels.” And then, I kid you not, Kunis actually follows up with a discussion of her “bowels.” The concluding events are rushed almost comically. Then there is this character with the body of a human and the head of a tiny elephant. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and is so frustratingly dumb that I thought immediately of Jar Jar Binks. At least in “The Ice Pirates” the goal was to acquire water, you know, because you need it to stay alive.
“Jupiter’s” story is awfully derivative. Whether they are borrowing from “Star Wars” in creating a series of nutty looking characters or goofing with a wink and a nod on “Hitchhiker’s Guide” or even “Brazil,” the meaning of it all is hallow and comes off as a pale imitator. And with all the money involved, why try to recreate the wheel. There are plenty of Hugo Award winning stories out there ripe for the picking.
Finally, one of the subversive narrative threads concerns gene splicing. Just this week in the UK there was a debate concerning a law permitting a modified version of IVF to combine the DNA of two parents with the healthy mitochondria of a donor woman so that three people can “parent” a healthy baby. In “Jupiter Ascending,” Tatum plays some kind of “wolf-boy,” calling himself a “splice” who laments having his wings cut off as a punishment for some earlier wrong. Do wolves have wings? Maybe pigs can even fly? No matter, we’re just supposed to buy into the fantasy and just play along. I’m betting that after this terrible misfire, it will be some time before financiers again let the once visionary Wachowskis play with millions of their dollars.
Note: The villain in “Jupiter Ascending” is played by gifted actor Eddie Redmayne, who is nominated for best actor this year playing Dr. Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Hopefully, Oscar voters miss this one, because it is just about his “Norbit” moment.