Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Cast: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne
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For a film a called Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter spends a lot time falling from things.
At the start, Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is a cleaner in Chicago who discovers that she is actually a princess – mostly thanks to the explosive arrival of former soldier Caine (Tatum), who stops a gang of aliens from trying to kill her. Part wolf and all man, he has pointy ears, a goatee worthy of Murray from Flight of the Conchords and hover boots. He’s the perfect fantasy romantic interest – except for the fact that he’s caught up in a war between the members of the universe’s richest royals, the Abrasax family, who are all squabbling over whom inherits a precious resource.
On the surface, The Wachowskis’ film appears to be impressively forward-thinking: a female lead, an anti-capitalist plot, an open embrace of inter-species relations, a surprising decision not to kill Sean Bean off in the opening act, and even a large chunk of screen time devoted to flying footwear, which is sorely underrepresented in modern cinema. Underneath it all, though, is a tale that’s old-fashioned in all the wrong ways.
The Wachowskis deliver the eye-popping array of galactic cities, impossible gadgets and swooping shoot-outs with the colour and imagination of kids at an old-school matinee. But all the cor-blimey CGI in the universe can’t give life to their script, which revolves around the biggest waste of a female character since that blonde one from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Jupiter is meant to be a protagonist to cheer on, as she claims her title and upsets the plans of evil monarch Balem Abrasax (Redmayne). But she spends almost all of her time in danger, waiting for Channing Tatum’s hero to rescue her. If she isn’t falling from a high object, she’s climbing up a ladder so she’s ready to fall from a high object – a state of perpetual peril that robs her of agency in her own story.
That lack of substance leaves you little to engage with, unless you really like people falling off things or blokes with floating trainers. Equally bad is that it leaves the screenplay with no way to develop, instead descending into a string of escalating carnage: a series of set pieces with bigger guns and taller ladders. Every scene seems to end in one of two ways: a ship crashing into something, or another ship miraculously appearing to ferry people away to the next. When it turns out that destruction on Earth can be fixed in the blink of an eye, any stakes go out the window.
Through it all, Kunis does her best to give her princess some depth, but with no impact on the events around her, her lack of dimensions leaves you looking elsewhere for fun characters and coming up short. Sean Bean’s gruff army veteran is mired in duff dialogue – “Bees are programmed to recognise royalty,” he says, with a straight face – and Eddie Redmayne’s whispering villain is hilariously awful. The only thing left to admire is Tatum’s lupine lover. And his magic shoes.
The costumes are certainly shiny and the hair suitably gravity defying, but sadly, no amount of Flash Gordon retro sparkle can make this enjoyable. It’s important to appreciate a film as the type of movie it aims to be. Jupiter Ascending, though, doesn’t aim to be dumb and formulaic: it aims to be operatic and exciting, with a female right at its centre. A brief interlude in a Kafka-esque office building gives you a glimpse of what might have been. As it stands, Jupiter Ascending is a great hover boots movie, but it’s a duff anything else movie. By the time you start picking apart the world’s internal logic (how do Caine’s hover boots work after he’s put on a spacesuit?), you realise that you’ve completely disconnected from what’s on screen.
The result is a dazzling, but painfully dated tale of a damsel in distress that has everything in reverse. If you play Jupiter Ascending backwards, it’s the story of a woman who is repeatedly abandoned by a guy in dangerous situations but finds her own way out, before ultimately deciding to make her own living as a cleaner. If you play it forwards, it’s a dull disappointment.