‘Jupiter Ascending’ Review: The Wachowskis Descend Into Sci-Fi Silliness
Episode 415 of ‘Seinfeld’ was called “The Movie,” and it ended with Jerry delivering a monologue about the guy in every group of friends who can’t follow the plots of films and invariably spends them whispering confused questions to their seatmates (“Why did they kill that guy? I thought he was with them? Wasn't he with them? Why would they kill him if he was with them? Oh, he wasn't with them. It's a good thing they killed him!”) ‘Jupiter Ascending’ turned me into that guy. If you can explain the plot of this baffling movie in all of its intricacies, you are either a genius or one of the Wachowskis who wrote and directed it. It’s hard to believe that a movie that contains this much exposition could also be this confusing, but it does and it is. Something went horribly wrong here.
In its broad strokes, it’s about a young woman named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), “an alien,” as she puts it in an opening voiceover, who was born as her mother immigrated from Russia to the United States. Now she lives with her extended family in Chicago, where she works as a maid. But, it is quickly revealed, Jupiter is more than a simple toilet scrubber. She is also the reincarnated matriarch of a family of wealthy intergalactic aliens—actual aliens, in this case, not the kind from other countries.
A tracker and bounty hunter named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is hired by one of the matriarch’s sons to retrieve Jupiter and bring her into outer space. Caine’s DNA has been spliced with wolf genes, which is why he has a hideous blonde dye job and Spock ears just like a real wolf. He looks pretty silly, but luckily for him Jupiter digs his style, even after he insists he’s more dog than man. (“I love dogs,” is her come-hither reply.)
Before Caine can deliver Jupiter to his boss, the pair are attacked by other extraterrestrials who want her for their own vague but nefarious purposes. Cue 90 minutes of shootouts and space battles and conversations where characters show up and explain their motives and actions to a clueless Jupiter, who spends most of the movie asking Caine one of three questions: “What’s that?” or “Who’s that?” or “Why are you doing that?”
Anyone who watches this movie will know exactly how she feels. Many of Jupiter’s questions get answers, but they’re spewed out so quickly in monologues thick with invented space jargon that they’re just about worthless. The confusion amidst this dense web of characters and allegiances may have been deliberate; Jupiter has been thrust into the middle of an interplanetary land she hardly understands, and the Wachowskis might have wanted the film to mimic her disorientation. After all, The Wachowskis’ biggest hit, ‘The Matrix,’ was about an ordinary guy who discovers his extraordinary destiny after he’s suddenly dropped into the middle of a massive war he can’t comprehend, and that worked out pretty well for all parties.
The difference here is that ‘The Matrix’ followed Keanu Reeves’ Neo as he went from confused computer hacker to gravity-defying superhero, while Kunis’ Jupiter goes from confused maid to slightly-less-confused maid who coincidentally happens to have royal space blood. She learns stuff but never picks up any fighting skills, which means she needs constant rescuing by Caine, who has an energy shield that repels bullets and rocket boots that allow him to defy gravity and basically rollerblade through the sky. Imagine a ‘Matrix’ where Neo was repeatedly told he was destined for great things and then never learned kung fu or fought Agent Smith, and you begin to see the primary problem.
The film isn’t so much bad as enormously frustrating. There are things in it that are impressive. The Wachowskis remain as good at merging the real and the digital as anyone in Hollywood, and there are some astounding interactions between computer effects and human actors. Eddie Redmayne, as one of the greedy heirs to Jupiter’s fortune, is a hoot in all his scenery-chewing glory. And that scenery—the character, costume, and set design—is incredible. But like the exposition, they’re all raced through at lightning-quick speed. Incalculable amounts of money were spent designing spacecrafts and planets that barely get a couple of seconds of screen time. The movie feels like it was projected at fast-forward speed.
As a result, ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is never boring, but it’s also never coherent. Andy and Lana Wachowski invented this rich, bizarre universe, then raced through it like a tour guide trying to get their guests through a museum in the last 15 minutes before it closes. (If there’s a longer, more lucid director’s cut out there that slows things down, deepens the characters, and straightens out the story, I’d be interested.) The Wachowskis deserve kudos for using their ‘Matrix’ clout to follow their creative impulses rather than easy financial windfalls, an ethos that’s actually reflected in ‘Jupiter Ascending’ and its bleakly cynical view of capitalism (attentive viewers will spot other recurring Wachowski themes, like reincarnation, a supernatural world hidden in plain sight, and characters who can break the rules of physics in cool ways). I enjoyed ‘Cloud Atlas,’ but after two ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Speed Racer,’ and now ‘Jupiter Ascending’ that clout might be completely spent. Jupiter may be ascending, but the Wachowskis look like they’re in free fall.