Jupiter Ascending is an all-you-can-eat sci-fi smorgasbord. Writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski provide a generous spread filled with way more than one person, or, as it turns out, one film could possible devour in one sitting. It’s a big goofy space opera serving non-stop silly names, strange creatures, intergalactic scheming, gobbledygook jargon, majestic CGI vistas, swooshing spaceships, and laser guns that go pew-pew-kaZAAp, all wrapped up in an impenetrably convoluted mythos. Unlike the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy, which invited a casual view deeper and deeper down a nutso rabbit hole, this offering is crazy from the jump. They’ve gotten so far into their worldbuilding they’ve forgotten to leave an entry point for the rest of us. I don’t mean to give off the impression that I hated it. On the contrary, I admired its idiosyncrasies, but only to a point. I felt perpetually on the outside looking in.
At least the view’s nice. It has spectacular production design, from spaceships that look like sea-creatures with throne-room interiors, to massive steam-punk factories nestled in gas giants, whirring robots, ornate gowns, glowing gewgaws and weird alien thingamabobs from gravity boots to memory wipes and high-tech paperwork. It has a sweeping Michael Giacchino score in full pa-rum-pa-pum-pum epic swelling mode, immersive bleeping and rumbling soundscapes, and a bevy of hilarious camp voices. So it looks and sounds like a great pulp space adventure. But for all its whiz-bang flash and sizzle, as clean and shiny as anything the Wachowski’s have made, it’s chintzy on a human scale, with ridiculous characters, hazy motivations, and an overcomplicated story that’s at once too much and too little. It’s both overstuffed and thinly repetitive.
What, exactly, is supposed to be happening amidst the shimmery sci-fi frippery on display? Well, you see, there’s this cleaning lady (Mila Kunis) who, after the movie's weirdly scattered and confused false starts, agrees to sell her eggs to help her illegal immigrant family. Strange place to start, but the movie doesn't seem to care. It’s just a place where she can be attacked by evil alien bounty hunters and saved at the last minute by a dashing space guy, Channing Tatum with elvish ears and a wolfish grin. He eventually takes her to space, where three wealthy warring alien siblings (Eddie Redmayne, Tuppence Middleton, and Douglas Booth) each want her captured for their individual purposes. Turns out she’s a reincarnation of their mother, a matriarch in a race of practically ageless aliens who seeded the Earth with human DNA millennia ago and are ready to collect their harvest.
They want to trick Kunis into giving up the rights to Earth, since their mother left her eventual reincarnation that very planet in her will. Make sense? It takes more than an hour to introduce all these stakes, as we head to each evil sibling one at a time in episodic encounters, each more dangerous than the last. Allegiances shift, strange creatures and rituals appear, and elaborate background is filled in, like learning Tatum is an animal-human hybrid – part dog, part man – with a complicated sketchy past. Elsewhere we see a part-bee man named Stinger (Sean Bean), armies of winged dinosaur things in trench coats, and a man-sized pilot with the face of an elephant. (When given an order, he trumpets with determination.) It’s fun, but exhausting keeping up with the free-floating oddities that never seem to connect with any real purpose. They’re laid out in earnestly campy detail, so at least some of the giggles these concepts provoke are intentional delight.
It should be a simple story of empowerment, with Kunis as a special person who discovers her alien gifts and ascends to a place of power in the galaxy while interacting with weird beasties and strange beings. Instead, she flails and falls through busy CGI spectacle, bounced helplessly from one elaborate plot point to the next. Those who erroneously claim the Star Wars prequels are only about trade routes won’t be happy to find that Jupiter Ascending is literally only a fight over the deed to Earth. Now, granted, it has energetic action, vials of youth serum, warring factions of creature-people, and nods towards usual Wachowski themes of destiny, reincarnation, conspiracies, redemption, consumption, and rampaging capitalism. And the actors are up for the mood of the thing, with Kunis and Tatum going totally sincere, and others like Redmayne going batty with affected whispery high-pitch mumbling and stiff movements.
But with only the barest rooting interest in any character’s plight, it’s hard to care about the serious craziness on screen. It’s a film of incredible sights put to use muddling through the political machinations of a galactic oligarchy, half-hearted self-actualization, and a totally unbelievable romantic subplot. Throughout, obvious apocalyptic stakes are weirdly downplayed, the main narrative and emotional thrusts drifting away. I appreciated the Wachowskis’ commitment to loony concepts. Keep in mind I think Speed Racer is their best work. But they didn’t crack this narrative open in any compelling way. There’s a fun movie hidden somewhere in Jupiter Ascending's confusion of dropped plot lines and ridiculous implications, but they didn’t quite find it. Perhaps it’s no surprise to find buried with this mess a cameo from Terry Gilliam, the patron saint auteur of fantasy follies. This movie may not work, but it’s the kind of distinctive, eccentric, personal failure I find hard to dismiss entirely.