There’s a moment in the Wachowski siblings’ latest epic film where the main character realises bees respond to her and protect her. It’s quite tender and touching. A quieter moment in an otherwise epic – and thoroughly bonkers – sci-fi action film.
To say Andy and Lana Wachowski have been getting weirder of late is an understatement. Either that, or they’ve got to the point where they can now – as Sinatra once said – do it very much their way. A couple of years ago they tackled a book widely considered unfilmable (Cloud Atlas) and did a commendable, perhaps even brilliant, job. They delved into some big themes, jumped across time zones and dealt with constant shifts of tone, all whilst keeping the focus on the human side of things. And of course we all know just how good the first Matrix film was. Great concept, great story, with some exhilarating individual moments and scenes.
And so on to their latest… Jupiter Ascending. One of their hits or a giant misfire? Well the truth is it’s somewhere in-between. Plot wise it’s utterly ludicrous. Although perhaps no more so than other sci-fi films, so maybe it’s the way it’s told and the performances, which we’ll come to in a bit.
After a bit of setup backstory we quickly meet Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), living out her life as a cleaner. We jump between her grim life and also get introduced to ‘the bad ones’ of the film, three siblings from the Abraxas family, a bunch of power-hungry, rather mad intergalactic royals; Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth).
Through certain events the Abraxas lot discover Jupiter is the descendant/reincarnation (or something like that) of their family line, and she actually stands to inherit the earth ahead of all of them. Earth being the most profitable planet in their collection in terms of ‘mining raw materials’ (see the film to understand those quotation marks).
Obviously Jupiter has no idea about any of this until handsome splice (part human, part wolf) soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) walks into her life. He thens whisks her into space for further adventures (with his top off a lot, naturally). Let’s leave it there plot wise, shall we? Beyond that it starts to go off the wall and then some.
Getting a handle on a Wachowski film is the thing. With most directors you’ve got an idea of their style and material they get drawn to. With these two, the best you can say is they like characters that are fluid in terms of their sexuality and gender and race and colour and all that stuff. They love sci-fi and pushing the limits of what special effects can do. However, this does not make a good story, it just augments it.
I think, what it looks like they’re going for with Jupiter Ascending, is a fun thrill ride. A space adventure – and a bit of a love story. In that respect it delivers. It is fun, and thrilling and adventurous. It has funny moments and a few really odd ones (a sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy/Brazil moment in the middle of the film is, tonally, very confusing and kills the pace of the movie dead). On the plus side, it looks gorgeous. The sets are beautifully detailed and stunningly realised. And the effects are thoroughly immersive (particularly Caine’s rather fetching anti gravity boots).
By and large, the characters are not vastly fleshed out. They probably suffer in that respect due to the vast amount of world building the Wachowskis have to do in the film’s first third. Kunis and Tatum are compelling enough leads (albeit largely lumbered with some particularly clunky, soap opera-esque dialogue, particularly Kunis) and Redmayne, after the emotional heavy lifting he did as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (which recently won him an Oscar), is clearly having the time of his life as the big baddie, really cutting loose going full out Emporer Palpatine. With his creepy, withered voice you half expect him to say something like, ‘Oh, I’m afraid the Death Star will be fully operational when your friends arrive.’ It’s that sort of performance.
His siblings, Titus and Kalique fare less well. Or just have a lot less to do. Each gets a scene or two, but it’s not much, after which they’re pretty much forgotten. You half wonder if the Wachowskis overcomplicated it having three siblings. Why not just have Redmayne’s Balem as the main antagonist and give him more scenes facing off against the strong and silent Caine? Actually, come to think of it, the same happens with Sean Bean, he turns up for a few scenes as Caine’s buddy Stinger (half man, half bee… keep up), then he bows out for an early bath and an easy pay cheque.
Tonally, the whole thing feels like it sits quite well with the first Star Trek film of recent years (the J.J. Abrams’ one) or a slightly more melodramatic (less funny) Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly, it’s no Matrix, but then what is? However, if you judge it on its own terms as a bit of a caper in space with some fun action set pieces, you’ll probably enjoy it.
So, get in the popcorn, leave your ego at the door and sit back and take it all in.