I saw The Fifth Element during it’s opening week in the theater, and unlike the relatively small crowd who were also there in the cinema to watch, I got it! I read critical reaction and saw the box office returns. Words like “train wreck,” “flawed,” “overblown” and “misfire” were thrown around, but none of that sounded like the film I had watched and enjoyed from beginning to end. Was I crazy? It turns out I wasn’t so much because almost 20 years The Fifth Element – like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Blade Runner – it’s got more fans than detractors now. Time, as John Lennon once said wounds all heels. Does the same fate await Jupiter Ascending? I don’t want to speak too soon, but I would argue that it’s not as bad as everyone is letting on.
Now that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its problems. But first, let’s give credit where credit is due and praise the Wachowskis for producing something new. One may walk into Jupiter Ascending without any idea of what to expect because there’s no comic book it’s based on, no young adult book series, TV show, board game, video game, toy line, or previous movie series with which to compare to or bank on its familiarity to drive box office. All it has really is the Wachowski name, which, granted, is not what it once was.
This may shock you, but I am one of those weirdos that didn’t think the second and third Matrix were all that bad. True, The Matrix Reloaded has no gravity or stakes, and spends a lot of time on new characters that we just don’t give a damn about, but there is something to that payoff in Revolutions, with the gargantuan epicness of the final Neo/Smith fight and the philosophy to the end which sees peace declared between man and machine rather than the total destruction of one or the other. I haven’t watched Speed Racer again since that one time in theater, but it has its cheerleaders which is fine. Cloud Atlas, meanwhile, was a challenging film, and I mean that in the best possible way. Much more successful than it had any right to be given the source material.
That brings us to Jupiter Ascending, which also has its challenges, but also some rich rewards. The Wachowskis, who wrote the script as well as directed the film, once again leans mighty heavily on the “Chosen One” trope, and if comparisons to The Matrix come easily it’s only because the hero of the story is a menial drone in a dead end job dreaming of something more only to be taken to a fantastical and impossible world where they are the most important person in creation. Except in Jupiter Ascending, the hero is a woman.
Mila Kunis is the titular Jupiter, named for the gas giant by her astronomer father who was killed before she was born. She spends her days cleaning houses with her Russian mother and aunt, long days that start at 5 am where she’s taunted by pretty things that she will never own and the upscale living that she will never have. Naturally, it turns out she’s the reincarnation of the Queen of the Universe, and holds title over the Earth, not to mention several other planets. And like any one percenter, Jupiter is about to be rewarded thanks to the prudence of smart and thorough estate planning.
But this isn’t just some galactic Beverly Hill Billies. Behind the purposefully elaborate fashions, hologram tattoos and awesome spaceships is the battle between the Queen’s children over their inheritance: Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). They all want Jupiter dead, or at least penniless and divested of her inheritance. There is a hero in this story though, a former soldier named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who arrives on Earth as a kind of bounty hunter looking for Jupiter on behalf of Titus, but soon becomes Jupiter’s white knight, protecting her from all three of the trio of siblings that want their reincarnated mom to stay dead.
If I told you that was as simple as I could make the plot, would you be surprised? The biggest problem with the film is that you don’t know who to trust, whose motivations are true, and who is saying what they’re saying just to gain Jupiter’s trust. This is like Reservoir Dogs with prosthetics at times, as Jupiter bounces back and forth from one alien to another telling her that they’re the one she can trust the most. Then there’s a betrayal and we’re onto another spaceship and another would be savior. It should bother me more, but I’ve watched The Fifth Element 20 times and damned if I can figure out what the big evil fireball’s endgame is or why Rich Texan Gary Oldman is working so hard to appease it.
Basically, the plot is a convenient tool that the filmmakers can use to show off the worlds of Jupiter Ascending, which are all amazing, but perhaps they could have been shown off by only having Redmayne as the villain instead of watering it down with two equally selfish, though less matricidal siblings. Redmayne could have used the extra time to flesh out Balem some more because the character traits he uses to make it known that Balem is evil involves talking in a strained whisper and sitting on a throne like he’s constipated. Considering that Balem’s evil empire includes talking, flying lizard men in leather coats, as well as a super-villain base inside Jupiter’s eye (the planet, not the girl), the character should be having more fun, and not seem vaguely bored by the goings on.
Redmayne’s laid back villainy lays on one extreme end, on the other, the film gets so busy you can’t follow along with what’s going on. It’s impossible. The Wachowski’s camera is so obsessed with the idea that it captures every square inch of the action at times, it feels like you’re watching a pinball game from inside the game and the ball’s point of view. Like a lot of blockbuster movies, the production design sometimes gets preoccupied with how cool something looks that practically speaking it makes no sense. The busy camerawork and the extravagant production design converge in an action scene early on when Chicago, once again, gets fragged by transforming aliens, or rather their ships.
Well that all sounds like I hated Jupiter Ascending, but really they were hiccups. Blips that made my mind stop the enjoyment and jump to more analytical places that I think the movie really doesn’t want you to go. If this were an intergalactic version of Brewster’s Millions, the film could have been free to have fun, but I guess the Wachowskis and/or the studio felt that space opera needs life and death stakes rather than just being cool with an Earth woman and her half-dog/half-man protector dealing with a Vogon like universal bureaucracy.
There are times when Kunis looks a bit in over her head, especially against big budget action veterans like Tatum and Sean Bean, but I think she holds her own in the end. Tatum, meanwhile, proves he can do anything with Caine, executing all the demands of the script from the silly “I have more in common with a dog” lines of dialogue, or looking as if he really was running across the skyline of Chicago in gravity boots. In those scenes, as Caine uses what can only be described as “space parkour” to outrun the other bounty hunters out for Jupiter, the directors’ skill with combining practical stunts and effects work really shines. In fact, the film does an excellent job overall of combining practical props and effects with computerized worlds, and the 3-D accentuated the film nicely while not being overwhelming. (I’ll admit though I rarely indulge in 3-D anymore so my palette in regards to the technology may be way off.)
The point I’m trying to make is that Jupiter Ascending is fun, despite not being perfect. Since something like it, a huge studio action movie not based on anything, is such a rare creature these days, I think we’re of the opinion that it’s life-altering because how could anything less make it past the censors and the bean counters. But maybe someone just thought this was going to look awesome, be kinetic and full of spectacle, and given the Wachowski’s track record that wasn’t exactly the wrong thing to expect. If that’s all you’re expecting than Jupiter Ascending is a treat. If you just want to kill a couple of hours, much on popcorn, and get swept off into a space adventure, then the Wachowski accomplished what they set out to do, I think.
Let’s all come back in 18 years and decide once and for all what this movie really means. For right now, let’s just enjoy the ride.