While the Wachowskis have previously found success with films like The Matrix and V for Vendetta (and an arguable, if baffling, masterpiece in Cloud Atlas), Jupiter Ascending garnered lukewarm reviews at best and vitriol at worst, following an uncomfortably long delay in post-production and an inauspicious February release. As this month saw the release of another under-performing sci-fi movie – Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – it’s time to revisit the siblings’ ambitious space opera.
With two years of hindsight, it’s evident that the initial judgement was largely accurate: the overstuffed, underbaked film looks gorgeous, but redefines the term “hot mess”. There are logic-defying plot leaps in almost every scene, the dialogue is dire, and the characters are mere sketches. That said, the entertainment factor of this fantastical epic is undiminished. The trademarks of the Wachowskis’ success – unlimited imagination, expansive world-building, and a local struggle for a larger cause – are very evident. Unfortunately, this alchemy didn’t produce the same results as before, but what filmmaker has not had a flop following a once-successful formula? It can easily be argued that Jupiter Ascending may be better than most such “flops” since its ridiculousness, rather than bogging the film down, actually contributes to its bizarre yet genuine enjoyability.
The scale and intricacy of the world-building is impressive, if overly complicated. There is a grand mythology at play here: an ancient cosmic human dynasty – the Abrasax family – created hundreds of planets, including Earth, to subsequently “harvest” the inhabitants thousands of years later to make an elixir of eternal youth. And it’s all thwarted by one janitor who happened to be born a genetic reincarnation of the dynasty’s matriarch. Far-fetched? That’s just the beginning. What follows includes half-human hybrid mercenaries fighting over said janitor; half-invisible aliens; space weddings; rocket roller skates; and an out-of-character but pitch-perfect galactic-scale homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, featuring the former Python himself. It’s a narrative fiasco, but it’s quality entertainment.
Unfortunately, the complexity of the framing device, family histories, and cosmic worlds means the majority of the film is devoted to exposition at the expense of its characters and action. The Matrix quickly dives into its central conflict after simple but perfectly adequate exposition, and the craft of Cloud Atlas stems from its concept. Jupiter Ascending, however, attempts both high action and high concept and fails to deliver either particularly well over the two-hour run-time. The dialogue suffers most of all under this burden of exposition; lines such as “Please, call me Jupe” (a nickname never once used nor mentioned again) and “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs” (uttered when – you guessed it – the space princess falls in love with half-wolf hybrid Channing Tatum) standing out as the most egregiously but delightfully quotable. Thankfully, these shortcomings only affect the plot’s credibility; not the film’s enjoyability.
A large portion of Jupiter Ascending’s appeal is down to its talented (and fully committed) cast. Everyone pours heart and soul into every gesture and line. The complete, heroic sincerity with which Sean Bean (who does not die) imbues his entire half-man-half-bee former soldier role is worth the price of admission, or at least the iTunes rental. He also gets another infinitely quotable moment: “Bees are genetically designed to recognise royalty… Bees don’t lie, they don’t question or doubt.” Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton are seductively sinister as the younger Abrasax siblings. Doona Bae is underused, but her and Middleton’s presence serve as a harbinger of the Wachowskis’ masterful Netflix saga Sense8.
The show-stealer, however, is undoubtedly Eddie Redmayne as Balem Abrasax, eldest and evillest of the space heirs. He flounces, whispers, sighs, and screams his way through his political machinations and full-on temper tantrums, kitted out in a black cape over a bare torso. But any description given of his performance – save perhaps the final sentence of Mark Kermode’s astute review – falls short of its own captivating preposterousness. Redmayne’s bombastic turn is reason enough to give the film another go, especially considering that he won the Oscar for The Theory of Everything mere weeks after Jupiter Ascending hit cinemas.
The purpose of this feature is to re-examine a maligned film in a fairer light. Jupiter Ascending does not change much upon its second watch; either it delights as a madly serious, barely coherent, laugh-out-loud ridiculous space opera or it disappoints by those same (de)merits. However, for those who avoided its theatrical run, there is never a dull moment in this intergalactic caper – indeed, the fact that it bursts to overflowing provides endless fun. Stating that a film is “so bad it’s good” is often a cheap shot, but the Wachowskis may have set a new high bar for future trash sci-fi – no mean feat and no bad thing.
There is no masterpiece here; just a film with grand ideas stuffed into an enjoyable but messy narrative. The film may not reveal any hidden treasures on its second viewing, having spilled them all so generously on the first, but unintentional comic gold is still gold, and the fact that successive viewings maintain this charm is a testament to the commitment and craftsmanship – however misguided – of both cast and crew. Jupiter Ascending is a delightful if disjointed space romp, best watched with a large, loud group of friends who are fully prepared to embrace the unbridled nonsense with the same unquestioning sincerity that Sean Bean’s bees show towards space royalty.