“You are royalty. I’m a splice … I have more in common with a dog than I have with you.”
“I’ve always loved dogs.”
Jupiter Ascending, the $175 million space opera written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski, has a few moments of intentional humor. It has several more moments of unintentional humor. And it has moments of humor—such as the exchange above—that defy categorization altogether.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), an ordinary earthling thrust into the middle of a cosmic conspiracy, has just declared her love for Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an extraterrestrial human-wolf hybrid with a knack for rescuing her from trouble. He rebuffs her affections on quasi-bestiality grounds, and she responds with a declaration of canophilia. The entire audience with whom I saw the film erupted into guffaws. But I’m not sure any of us quite knew whether we were laughing with the movie or at it.
There are moments of charm, or almost-charm, scattered throughout Jupiter Ascending, and with a lighter touch it might have worked as a whimsical space fantasy—a kind of third-rate Guardians of the Galaxy. But the Wachowskis lack such a touch (as they have their entire careers) and instead strive for a parable about love and class that eludes them utterly. Jupiter Ascending is too self-serious a movie to offer silly escapism, and too silly a movie to take at all seriously.
When the story begins, Jupiter is a young Russian immigrant living with her extended working-class family in Chicago. Every morning, her alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m. and she, her mother, and her aunt begin a long day cleaning the homes of rich folks; Jupiter’s specific task is scrubbing the toilets. Until one day, when her shiftless cousin persuades her to sell her eggs to a fertility clinic for $15,000 so that he can buy an entertainment center and she can buy a telescope. (Her father, murdered during a break-in before she was born, was an astronomer. Hence: Jupiter.) When she visits the clinic, however, she is set upon by murderous aliens and saved by Caine.
It turns out that the human race extends far across the galaxy, and Earth is but the tiny colony of a vast empire. Worse, it is slated for imminent “harvest.” (I won’t say precisely what this means, because it is the subject of a Big Reveal late in the film. But if you haven’t figured it out within the first 20 minutes, it's probably because you've fallen asleep.) Unbeknownst to her, Jupiter is the exact genetic duplicate of a deceased interstellar matriarch and, as such, the lawful inheritor of the Earth itself. Unfortunately, said matriarch had three children (played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton), none of whom are inclined to let Jupiter keep her prize. Trouble, predictably, ensues.
Kunis is perfectly solid as the decent, ingenuous, dog-loving Jupiter, though the character makes for a remarkably feeble heroine. Her principal function in the film is to be hoodwinked, in sequence, by every one of the movie’s astro-schemers, and to require rescuing by Caine approximately once every 15 minutes for just over two hours. One would be hard-pressed to find a less capable female protagonist in contemporary cinema. Moreover, despite the film’s aspirations of intergalactic (and inter-species) romance, she and Tatum have no discernible chemistry.
Maybe it’s the ears? Befitting his genetic heritage, Caine’s are tall and pointy, and accompanied by a lupine goatee and elongated canines. He is also predisposed to theatrical sniffing and, on occasion, snarling. Picture a burlier version of Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf from Into the Woods and you won’t be far off. It’s worth noting, however, that whereas Depp’s performance was a self-parodying cameo, Tatum is the male lead. Woof.
The rest of the cast fares little better. Sean Bean shows up as an old colleague of Caine’s described as a “Han Solo-type character,” which is always a bad sign. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights) has a small role as a functionary sporting ears that look like flattened sweet potatoes. (I had to look online to learn that this is because her character was genetically spliced with a deer. Why? I have no idea. The film is mercifully devoid of sleighs.) And one can only imagine how dearly Best-Actor-nominated Redmayne must hope that no one casting an Oscar ballot catches his performance here, which consists of one long, wheezing whisper punctuated by occasional, Pacino-esque barks.
Visually, the movie has its moments—for $175 million, you’d hope it would—notable among them the gravity skates that allow Caine to slalom through the air. But more often than not the effects and production design feel openly derivative and already slightly out-of-date. There are conspicuous echoes of Stars Wars, The Fifth Element, Transformers, Men In Black, Brazil (Terry Gilliam has a small cameo), Signs, and at least a dozen more. And don’t even get me started on the aliens, many of whom would have been turned away from the cantina door in Mos Eisley. A rat hybrid played by Edward Hogg seems to have wandered in from a 1980s production of Cats, and the winged, leather-jacket-clad Lizard Men heavies look as though they should probably find some Ninja Turtles to menace.
The plot of the movie is cursory at best, with a narrative coda so insipid it made my head hurt. The dialogue is comically bad (“Bees are genetically designed to respond to royalty”; “In our world genes have an almost spiritual significance”), and the action sequences are repetitive to the point of redundancy.
It’s been a long time—arguably more than 15 years—since the Wachowskis made a good movie. But the one trait for which they deserve genuine credit is their tenacious commitment to an independent vision of blockbuster filmmaking. Despite its many, many flaws, Jupiter Ascending is not a sequel, prequel, reboot, spinoff, or “pre-sold” property of any kind, and these days that is no small thing. Hollywood’s risk aversion and franchise addiction are a real, and worsening, problem. Alas, Jupiter Ascending is unlikely to persuade anyone of the virtues of originality.