If the words “Channing Tatum as elf-eared, half-wolf, albino space skater” don't instantly set alarm bells ringing in your head then, well, perhaps you're one of the few that will find Jupiter Ascending palatable. The latest from the hit-and-miss-and-miss-and-miss Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas), it’s a messy spectacle that’s easy on the eye (for the most part, at least) but awfully muddled in the telling of its overly complicated, cliche-filled story.
I’ve never seen as stunningly beautiful a toilet cleaner as the unlikely Mila Kunis, but that’s how Jupiter Ascending’s female lead starts the film. The daughter of a murdered star-gazing father and part of a large, struggling Russian immigrant family, Kunis's Jupiter Jones becomes the focus of a universe-wide manhunt. Why? She’s the exact genetic replica of a powerful space queen, making her the movie’s “Chosen One” by way of her scientific reincarnation. Tatum is one of the bounty hunters (and Kunis’s eventual love interest) looking to whisk the would-be royal to a galaxy far, far away to face those whose planet-sized inheritance she threatens. Throw in a plot to wipe out every human on Earth and the stage is set for a space-faring Cinderella story. Cliche, sure, but simple, right?
Hmm. Not quite. Jupiter Ascending so desperately wants to be Dune, it’s painful. From its pseudo philosophising to warring nobles to "valuable resource worship", the influence is clear. The amount that's obviously been spent on this lavish production makes you wonder why they didn't just splash out on the license to Frank Herbert's universe to begin with. After all, it can't be worse than David Lynch's interpretation of Dune, surely?
Well, it tries its best. For someone finding out that the universe is inhabited by all sorts of bizarre creatures and city-sized spaceships, Kunis is seriously unfazed. Whereas her earthly ways should be our entry point into a grand, unique universe, we’re kept at arm’s length by the way she takes it all in her stride. If I’d survived an alien abduction, been whisked off to outer space and discovered I was intergalactic royalty, my brain would probably explode.
But instead, she’s disappointingly more concerned with wooing Tatum, which is just as hard to believe as he’s as charming as a brick wall here. Cue lots of plummeting through the air, being caught at the last minute by Tatum. The Wachowskis have been excellent at challenging conventional gender roles in their previous work, but it's predictably macho stuff.
Kunis and Tatum deserve a slight reprieve as they’re both very capable of warm, inclusive performances. But the script here is full of exposition, and the pacing is wildly off, requiring a leap of faith from the audience that Jupiter Jones could have flipped her “Fall in Love” switch with little prompting between scenes.
The pair’s mutual attraction isn’t made any more believable by the fact that Tatum looks absolutely ridiculous throughout. It's not enough having him done up like a beardy, brawny Spock, the Wachowskis have to put him on hover skates too. Sorry to any rollerblading enthusiasts among you, but it's just not as cool as skateboarding, hence hover skates not being as cool as hover boards. There are some neat action sequences (the flaming finale being a high point), but all the slow-mo high kicks in the world can't make up for the fact that Tatum spends half the film looking like he is squatting for a shit in the sky.
Eddie Redmayne, Hollywood’s posh-Brit poster boy of the moment, ramps the camp up to 11 as stick-thin villain Balem Abrasax, speaking in a hushed whisper that explodes into ear-splitting rage with unintentionally hilarious effect. Redmayne’s obviously having a lot of fun, chewing up the scenery, but audience members at my screening laughed every time his anger was supposed to appear menacing.
It’s not a film completely bereft of merit though and, as ever, the Wachowskis have a masterful aesthetic eye (Tatum’s get-up notwithstanding). Taking cues from the brilliant work of Heavy Metal comic book artist Moebius, Jupiter Ascending has some astonishing science fiction cityscapes, beautifully intricate spaceship designs and outlandishly colourful fashion and costume work throughout. Interesting nods back to ancient cultures and pagan religious idolatry pepper the film’s scenes. But even some of the CGI work on key characters disappoints -- as outlandish as they are, it’s a shame that Jupiter Ascending makes flying dinosaur men in leather jackets look bad. The Wachowski’s world-building skills are without question, but their ability to coherently present it all is left wanting.
With plot holes and storyline threads left hanging by the time the credits roll, what can be the film’s saving grace? Sean Bean! Of course! As throughout the majority of his career, Bean tries his best with shocking material (I applaud anyone that has to deliver the line “bees are genetically engineered to recognise royalty" with a straight face). I had most fun trying to guess whether or not he'd be afforded the rare privilege of seeing his character survive until the end of the film.
Five stars. For Sean Bean.
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