If you like your space operas to be serious and deep and clever and meaningful then as far as Jupiter Ascending goes you should probably look elsewhere, because this sci-fi is light, frothy and often quite bonkers. It’s also relentlessly busy and as camp as a C-3PO convention, the combination of which makes for a viewing experience that is slightly – slightly – amusing and often exhilarating. It’s also worth watching to see the actors gamely attempting to keep straight faces while delivering the kind of lines even George Lucas wouldn’t dare to write: there’s one scene in which Sean Bean – prior to making a proclamation that the best chance of survival is to ‘Start the jump drive in order to go to the Danphibian world Ulaqra, near the moon of Spandex’ (or words to that effect) – even looks like he is close to gruffly asserting ‘you can type this shit but you sure as hell can’t say it’.
Lana Wachowski and brother Andy, writer-directors of the Matrix Trilogy and Speed Racer, are the indulged forces behind this big budget space oddity. Presumably they must have felt the need to cut loose after the restraint of their previous film Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel co-directed with Tom Tykwer that saw the splurging of a mere $100 million on its ensemble cast and the depiction of six connected stories covering a period of around 500 years. Cloud Atlas polarised critics, with many using phrases like ‘ambitious folly’ in a negative sense and just as many using it as a positive, but it made plenty of money regardless (partly because some who enjoyed it or were left bamboozled by the plot went to see it more than once). Despite the fact the Matrix Trilogy ended on a bum note and Speed Racer bombed it seems that audiences are still drawn to the Wachowskis’ big, bombastic cinematic spectacles: Jupiter Ascending received more than a few savage notices and was shunted from a planned summer 2014 release to the no-man’s-land of February 2015 but still managed to find an audience upon its release.
It’s overblown and preposterous, with Mila Kunis implausibly starring as Russian-born American toilet cleaner Jupiter, who discovers that she has a similar genetic structure to the recently deceased matriarch of one of the most powerful alien dynasties in the universe and, unbeknownst to her, is the rightful owner of Earth. As an unwitting pawn in an intergalactic chess match she is targeted by three squabbling siblings of the House of Abrasax, the powerful dynasty in question, and is protected from a variety of strange creatures sent her way by Channing Tatum’s rocket boot-wearing Caine Wise (the actor sporting a look of deep concentration throughout that suggests he, like the viewer, is wondering why Wise is a human that has been genetically spliced with a dog).
There’s more: Bean’s character Stinger Apini (yes, really) is half man, half bee and all Yorkshire, though the actor’s professional enough to carry out his work as Caine’s former soldier colleague with a po-faced seriousness that even Tatum cannot match. Eddie Redmayne, an Oscar winner just the other month, is accidentally hilarious as the camp villain of the piece, the actor’s ludicrous perma-whisper suggesting that he decided to play the malicious Balem as a cross between a stereotypical theatre luvvie on his deathbed and Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor from Star Wars. The rest of the cast is populated by a variety of actors playing a variety of alien figures, some with unfortunate haircuts, some with pointy ears and some with a look of blind panic that suggests they believe that working with the Wachowskis is not the career fillip they first thought it might be.
The film quickly falls into a pattern of repetition: Caine saves Jupiter from an abundance of enemies as the pair move from one planet or spaceship to the next but there’s enough absurdity in the detail to hold your interest, and the Wachowskis fill their film with intriguing technology, lavish sets and extravagant costumes (with set designer Peter Walpole and costume designer Kym Barrett making the most of their share of the huge budget). It’s the production design and special effects that catch your eye, more so than most of the actors, and you can see all of the money that has been spent up there on the screen (the reason given for the delay in release was that more than 2,000 effect shots were unfinished). Additionally the self-indulgent touches, such as the obvious, bureaucracy-filled Brazil homage that ends with a guest appearance by Terry Gilliam himself, tend to add to the overall sense of fun. It’s a silly film that actually takes itself quite seriously at times, but there’s a certain charm in Jupiter Ascending‘s loopiness, and it’s a pleasant change to see a studio take a punt on a female lead in an expensive sci-fi blockbuster to boot.
Directed by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski.
Written by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski.
Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Booth, Gugu MBatha-Raw.
Cinematography: John Toll.
Editing: Alexander Berner.
Music: Michael Giacchino.
Running Time: 127 minutes.