Jupiter Ascending (dir. The Wachowskis)

Posted: February 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Jupiter Ascending” is largely silly, derivative nonsense.  Still, any film in which the villains are Incestuous Space Capitalists and where a character exclaims “Stalin’s balls” in Russian can’t be all bad.  It’s clear the Wachowski’s wanted to make a film saying something, but much of that something gets lost in a mythology that is explained too fast and too poorly, especially when the film’s pacing makes it feel both too long and too short at the same time.

I cannot go into the film further without **SPOILERS**, so reader beware beyond this point.  The set-up takes a long time for the film to explain, and some revelations are saved for a second act twist (though you see it coming), so here’s the whole thing: the universe appears to be run by a labyrinthine bureaucracy which sets up many rules which ultimately serve to promote and sustain various monarchies throughout the universe.  There is a funny montage of our protagonists being led through a sort of interplanetary City Hall that brings to mind both “Total Recall” and the works of Terry Gilliam.  Gilliam himself appears in a cameo under heavy make-up in this scene, so the homage is purposeful, though the seen feels at times completely separate from the film around it.  This government’s rules are enforced by a sort of intergalactic police force known as the Aegis, and there’s also mention made of some sort of military called the Legionnaires, but we get no real explanations as to who they are or what they do.

Within this universe, there is a royal family known as the Abrasax.  Their mother has died and her inheritance was split up between her three offspring.  We have Balem (Eddie Redmayne, who might win Best Actor this weekend for a different film, but here he is channeling the foppish bad acting of Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator”) who owns Earth and many other planets after receiving the largest inheritance.  There’s Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), the sister, who gets the littlest amount of backstory but shows the film’s only nudity.  Lastly there’s Titus (Douglas Booth) who is a scheming playboy whom the film implies has sex with his sister and possibly had with his deceased mother.

To cut to the chase, the most valuable resource in the universe is a serum, of sorts, which causes cells to regenerate and can lead to eternal youth.  This serum is made from dead humans, and approximately 200 dead humans makes one “dose” (I guess) of this serum.  The serum is produced when aliens splice human DNA with a planet’s indigenous life forms, then allow that planet’s newly created humans to evolve until their population exceeds the ability of the planet to sustain them.  At this point, the aliens (who are also human, mostly) “harvest” the humans (meaning kill them in mass genocide) to make the serum and sell it to other rich alien fucks throughout the universe, perpetuating intergalactic monarchy.  Yes, this universe takes the worse aspects of Feudalism and Capitalism and mashes them together.  When Balem gives a third act speech saying that to live is to consume, and that humans are just commodities and capital, well, it’s clear the Wachowski’s have read either Piketty or Marx.  The idea of rich people buying immortality with their wealth was dealt with much better in Andrew Niccol’s underrated film “In Time”, so we’re given another aspect of the film that feels like it came from somewhere else.

Our main character and vehicle to discovering all of this is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis).  Yes, that’s our main character’s actual name.  It doesn’t help that this role was cast with Mila Kunis who, while attractive and can speak Russian, cannot exactly hold her weight as a dramatic lead.  While she did a good job in “Black Swan” her talents, if any, lay in comedy, and she makes for a lackluster lead here.  In any case, she is the daughter of a deceased astrophysicist father and a mother who gave birth to her while illegally immigrating to the United States.  Jupiter and her family not work in a home maid service, and she hates her life.  After a family member suggests she sell her eggs to a fertility clinic to get money, she uses a friend’s name (Vanessa Kirby) to do it surreptitiously, but somehow this allows Balem to find her (not explained how or why he knew to look for her) and he attempts to have her killed by his army of cloaking gray aliens and winged, leather jacket wearing dinosaur aliens.  Okay, I’ll admit the winged dinosaurs in leather jackets looked really cool.  In any case, the assassination is stopped by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who has pointed ears and a blonde goatee and wears gravity boots.

Caine, for no real reason, is apparently a half-human, half-wolf genetic splice, and albino.  The only reason given for him being half-wolf is really so we can learn he’s a loner without a pack and that makes him sad.  This is likely told to us so we can believe he will fall in love with Jupiter even though the film gives us no reason as to why these two would develop feeling for each other besides him being lonely and that he looks like Channing Tatum and she looks like Mila Kunis.  This is one of the more forced and unbelievable on-screen romances in some time.  Anyway, Caine takes her to a former military commander of his, Stinger, played by Sean Bean.  He’s apparently half-human half-bee, though the film would never let us know this if it weren’t for dialogue since Stinger never showcases any bee-like abilities.  He seems to live with a number of bees, but that never looks anything other than silly on screen.  I was waiting for a “Wicker Man” Nic Cage to start screaming “Oh no, not the bees!”

Stinger does give us some exposition on Caine’s backstory and explains that aliens seeded Earth after killing all of the dinosaurs.  Then we’re back in space as first Kalique kind-of kidnaps Jupiter to explain eternal youth.  We also learn the reason the royals want Jupiter is because she is a randomly created 100% genetic match to their dead mother. I’m not sure an exact genetic match can ever come about randomly, otherwise people would have random identical twins many generations in the future from different parents, and my understanding of genetics indicates that has happened zero times in human history.  Even if it could happen, this wouldn’t be “reincarnation” as the supposedly more intelligent aliens claim, but really more like having an identical twin, as identical twins are genetically the same person but, as any of them can tell you, still two different people.  Also, they have different fingerprints.  So the royals want Jupiter because, as the “reincarnation” of their dead mother, she is entitled to the dead mother’s inheritance instead of the three children she had.  The focus on inheritance rights in this space opera further leads one to believe the Wachowski’s have read Piketty.

Later, Titus also kind-of kidnaps Jupiter and tries to trick her into marrying him. His ostensible claim is that this would keep Earth from being harvested, but he really just wants to kill her and earn a larger portion of the inheritance than he got when his mother originally died.  This man wanting to marry his mother is already a bit creepy, but his explanation of marriage being little more than a business contract was a fun throwback to centuries earlier when royals were married off often to form alliances or join the wealth of multiple royal families.

Eventually this all leads to a final confrontation between Jupiter and Balem, and an orgy of special effects.  The special effects are often well done, but nothing special.  I enjoyed some of the sets, which combine Egyptian and Roman influences along with an unusual amount of candles.  It struck me as odd that space royalty would still use melted wax when they have massive spaceships at their disposal, but whatever.  The alien creatures that are completely digital are also cool, though many creatures that are made with practical make-up effects look silly or like bad cosplayers.  My main complaint with special effects action films nowadays is that with so much digital animation flying around the screen, you lose track of the human actors and the characters and stop caring, leading one to simply politely wait for the visual lava lamp to end so you can get back to the story.  I felt this way during the action sequences here; they were pretty, but boring.

The story, as I mentioned earlier, is derivative.  Harvesting humans comes right out of the Wachowski’s own “Matrix” films.  There are even human memories being erased after alien-caused destruction, which is pretty much a direct rip-off of the central conceit of the “Men in Black” films.  The film tries to be original in creating its own universe and mythology, but the look and feel and details all call back to earlier, and often better, films.

The message of the film is also pretty weird.  The film is very much against capitalism, as is made obvious from Balem’s very pro-capitalist monologue in the third act, but we still have a universe run by royalty, where the “good guys” beyond our main characters is a police force set up to enforce the laws of the universe, all of which are set up to ensure property and inheritance rights of royals.  That the royal with the most wealth at the end of this is Jupiter doesn’t undercut this.  This film argues against Capitalism in favor of a benevolent form of Feudalism.  It’s bizarre as all hell.  As long as a queen is nice and treats her property (including people) well, it’s okay?  Plus, even if Earth isn’t harvested, that wealth was still largely accumulated off of the genocide of countless planets.  Does Jupiter stop this process all together?  If so, one assumes she continues to hold onto her intergalactic property thanks to the rate of return on that slavery and genocidal capital, no?

Giving Channing Tatum’s wolfman angel wings at the end of the film is way too hilarious.  Tatum certainly tries his best in this film.  He clearly wanted to be an original action hero, but the film gives his character almost no personality, and we just have him flying around in gravity boots with a silly hair color shooting special FX aliens for the whole damn movie.

The film’s not all bad.  I did like a lot of visuals, I enjoy an on-the-nose critique of Capitalism as much as the next Marxist, and some of the creatures were genuinely cool to look at.  I know the Wachowskis are smart and have a lot to say in their work, but I wish they found a way to harness their message better so that we didn’t have such a jumbled and nonsensical mythology, one which has no understanding of how genetics works, and a film which doesn’t in the end argue for benevolent Feudalism.  They haven’t gotten past action sequences that are spectacle just for spectacle’s sake, and they try to shoehorn a romance in when we have no reason to believe the characters would ever be in love, and the actors have no chemistry with each other.

Still, the movie’s a fun and sometimes funny bit of nonsense, and even when a film strikes out, it’s nice when a movie swings for the fences.  Most movies these days just take an easy bunt.  You can’t blame a film for trying something new, big, and bold when most films just settle for the easiest thing they can do.  It’s just that this swing did, indeed, miss.

Grade: C

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