RECAP: Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending (2015): The Wachowskis
What happens when two acclaimed directors get a little too much leeway? You get a spectacle like Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowski siblings, creators of The Matrix, got free reign to make this movie, and the result is a confused mess. It has its high points, and its low ones.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Born on a container ship, Jupiter Jones ascends to the throne of the most powerful family in universe, the owners of Earth.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) was born without a country, without a home, and without a father, on a cargo ship on the Atlantic days after her father was shot to death in Russia. Her family is big into astrology, and they believe Jupiter’s birth coincides with a portentous future. Jupiter calls that bullshit.
She grows up cleaning houses of the very rich folk in Chicago, waking each morning at 4:45 to the refrain of “I hate my life.” Well, it’s about to get a lot worse.
Jupiter catches sight of aliens trying to kidnap one of her rich bitch clients, one she doesn’t completely hate. Later, some aliens come for Jupiter, and eventually they snatch her and send her to a planet called ___, where she learns that she is an exact genetic match for a galactically powerful woman who lived 91,000 years until she was murdered.
In this universe, a genetic match means you are actually the same person, sort of like reincarnation. So the three Abrasax children treat her as literally their mother. It’s a lot to take in, but Jupiter handles it well. She’s aided by a warrior named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who is partly a dog.
One Abrasax child tells her the truth, another tries to marry her and then kill her for her inheritance, and the third just wants her dead. Jupiter learns all this across a couple of days.
Kunis is grounded and game enough to let us climb on her back and enjoy the ride. That’s important, because it’s a crazy ride in Jupiter Ascending that leaves little time to comprehend why aliens and mutants and genetic experiments are riding hover bikes and run-flying over Earth.
What was Eddie Redmayne doing? That’s all I could think during his whispered onscreen appearances. Redmayne plays Balem Abrasax, current owner of Earth the Gene Farm, and one the three primary Abrasax heirs. Currently involved in an inheritance dispute, the three Abrasax siblings all want Jupiter for different reasons.
Balem is the worst of the three. He kidnaps Jupiter’s family to force her to abdicate her birthright so that he’ll get it. He wants Earth to continue to help his single goal in life, the single goal of life, to him–to consume. “Life is an act of consumption,” he says. “I create life,” he shouts, “and I destroy it.”
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Redmayne sucked. He decided to whisper all his dialogue, making his scenes excruciating, except for the rare moments when he screamed an order. His role was shocking. Also, he appears constipated for half his screen time. This guy’s an Oscar winner. Again, what was he doing?
Jupiter Ascending shows its chops in an early attack sequence above Chicago.
Jupiter and Caine float above the Willis Tower, slowly ascending to Caine’s cloaked ship hovering above the tower’s antenna. Suddenly five enemy ships streak in and blow up the ship, knocking the pair loose from the tractor beam.
Chaos reigns as Jupiter descends. Caine, wearing gravity boots, runs down through air to catch her. Together they zip around Chicago’s skyscrapers, surfing (relatively) above windows as the five chasing ships blast everything to try to kill them.
You get plenty of wide shots, establishing the characters’ positions relative to each other and the staunch concrete jungle towers in Chicago’s downtown. The Wachowskis won’t let you be confused.
Caine blocks laser blasts with a green energy shield as Jupiter clutches him. She doesn’t have gravity boots. Caine’s give off white light, which they surely wouldn’t in a tactical sense, but the filmmakers knew we needed to see Caine skate on air.
The chase slows around the Chicago Temple steeple, a building that was once the tallest in Chicago, no mean feat in the city that invented the skyscraper. An enemy ship blasts the steeple with a red bomb.
The explosion knocks Caine and Jupiter down onto a L track, a train barely dodged by the air-skating Caine. All this in slow motion and in a single shot. Beneath the track, Caine catches a lift on a truck cab. The ships tear apart vehicles on an iron bridge over the Chicago River.
Next comes the pair surfing on an enemy ship, Jupiter dangling behind, holding only Caine’s hand. The ship barrel rolls. It’s like watching a stunt flying competition. Caine threatens to shoot the alien pilot, so it bails out the ship.
Caine flies the pilfered ship over and into the Chicago River as three enemies chase and can’t hit. Caine gets control of the ship and uses its advanced piloting systems to shoot down the enemies as they fly amongst the towers once again.
Again the camera pulls back several times to let you see what’s happening and where: downtown Chicago. A better aerial tour of the city probably can’t be found, and in the early evening light the city looks immaculate, like a city an alien culture might build.
Caine kills the last ship by slicing his wings into it, but as a soon as he does that the back of his ship breaks off and takes Jupiter with it. Caine falls out of the ship and tries to wrest control of the twirling chunk of metal as it careens into the side of a skyscraper, snatching Jupiter from it and flipping off the wreckage before it explodes, all in a single, spectacular take. Caine slides to a halt on the asphalt, Jupiter riding piggy back, as the piece of wreckage pokes a 4runner.
The Chicago sequence is an example of an expertly plotted sequence the Wachowskis mastered in The Matrix. Wide shots, long takes, terrific scenery, cool weapons–these directors know how to craft action spectacle. I don’t know if their directing chops are up to snuff any longer, but give them a second unit and you’ll have an audience screaming for more.
Jupiter Ascending never lets character development get in the way of an action sequence. In the first hour we see Caine fight people outside a medical clinic, attack aliens in an egg harvesting clinic, fly above Chicago in a long sequence, repel the same hunters in a corn field, and fight palace guards on ___. Again, that’s in the first hour. That doesn’t leave much time to explain this bat shit sci-fi universe. No problem if you like crazy effects, because damn does this movie have ’em.
Caine carries a laser shield and flies on gravity boots. The weapons fire on display looks beautiful, though the guns are bulky like mastodons. Aliens cloak easily and convincingly. Ships and people fly through portals. It all looks immaculate.
Caine Wise is the best skyjacker in the realm. Or he was, until he went psycho and laid some teeth into a royal one day. Released by Titus Abrasax, Caine has one goal, to find Jupiter and bring her to Titus in exchange for a pardon.
Caine does as he’s told, without knowing Jupiter is basically a queen. Once he learns that, he reluctantly calls her “Your Majesty” like a whimpering dog, which he sort of it, because this guy is part lycanthrope.
Without a pack of his own, Caine turns to fighting, and he’s the best in the business. That’s why Titus hired him. Caine has a laser shield, terrific fighting skills, and, uh…GRAVITY BOOTS.
No doubt, this was the coolest part of Jupiter Ascending. Caine roller skates around the skies on his boots. The boots leave white trails somehow (to help us keep track of them?).
Caine once attacked a royal, because he’s part dog, and it’s in his nature. For that he had his wings clipped. I mean he literally had wings and they were literally clipped from his back. He spent some time in lockup until Titus released him and tasked him with finding Jupiter Jones.
Caine does, despite other hunters and hired guns chasing him. Caine brings Jupiter to Titus, but is double-crossed and re-imprisoned.
Caine and Jupiter are the budding love interest of this piece, but it’s all on Jupiter’s side. Caine shows no interest in Jupiter, before or after discovering she is a royal. At least for most of the movie.
What Caine does do to Jupiter is save her. At least three times he swoops in at the last moment to save her ass, twice when she’s actually falling. Caine is a highly trained warrior genetically engineered to bad-assery while Jupiter cleans toilets all day, but the distressed damsel saving in Jupiter Ascending was a little much for me.
Tatum is as hunky dory as ever, despite pointed ears that almost, almost evoke Barf from Spaceballs. Tatum’s comedic skill, which is great, nearly surfaces here, as if he knows this role is a farce, but no one else does.
Alien creatures will look weird to us, obviously. Balem has a team of talking flying lizards working for him, torturing people who get in his way. His number two is a mouse man with a strange accent. Titus Abrasax looks like a makeup pack come to life. There’s plenty interesting things about these henchmen, but not much to frighten.
The coolest stunt is the flip kick Caine does a few times, thanks to his gravity boots. Caine does a 360, rotating around his torso, turning heels-over-head before landing on his feet. I call this the Vitruvian Kick for its visual parallels.
Jupiter’s late-movie run through the planet Jupiter involves lots of climbing on crumbling platforms and leaping from platforms and landing on platforms. Hey, they looked cool.
With Jupiter’s Earth family in trouble, Jupiter nearly signs away her rights to ownership of Earth. Her mother is nearly eviscerated in Balem’s horror chambers. Jupiter, her hand hovering above the document that will affirm her abdication, stops just short. There’s a problem with the gravity hull protecting Balem’s factory from Jupiter’s maelstrom, as it’s just been breached by Caine.
The complex is starting to destruct, and there’s Caine in the room below, fighting dragon bastards with his laser shield and gravity boots. And don’t forget that awesome Vitruvian kick.
Balem chokes Jupiter, but she kicks his tiny, tiny balls. He screams and releases her. He’s about to have her shot when she falls through a hole Caine made in the floor. Caine gets her a gun and a kiss, “In case I don’t get the chance.”
Caine shoots and blocks and kicks the dragons as Jupiter carts her family into a safer position. She runs around looking for an exit as Balem chases her. He meets her, but it’s Jupiter who gets the next laugh, shooting him in the leg. He dared her not to. And when someone dares you, you gotta.
Meanwhile, Caine’s having it rough. A dragon finally tackles him, the first shot anyone lands against him. He nearly escapes, until a tail whips around his neck and drags him along. Then starts a terrific sequence of the dragon flying around and Jupiter falling through blue slipstreams.
Caine stabs his kidnapper in the tail. They grapple. Caine does another Vitruvian kick. He’s bit in the neck but gouges the dragon’s eye for revenge. Caine is flipped into the floor, and then he uses his dog smarts to outwit the other guy’s lizard smarts. Caine crawls toward the portal hole he made in the floor, acting like he’s a whimpering dog. The dragon fool’s about to get got. Caine kicks him into the hole and closes the portal on the dude’s neck.
Jupiter does some more floating and running, having mastered the blue tractor beam system in short time. A sequence follows tracking Jupiter running and leaping across crumbling infrastructure, and it looks really good.
Balem pops in from nowhere to swing a pole at Jupiter. He bashes her good in the back a couple of times, until Jupiter gouges his leg wound where she shot him earlier. Balem is a good yeller.
Now is the part where Balem, inevitably, admits that he murdered his mother. He says she begged him to kill her because she hated her life. Did Balem ever consider that he was a large part of her life, and thus a large reason that she hated it? I doubt it.
Jupiter, who stands above the supine Balem, about to beat him to death, says, “I am not your damn mother,” and tosses the pole away. A good line better served in a better movie, but delivered well by Kunis. Balem falls from a platform to his death, and Jupiter nearly does, until Caine, once again, flies in to save her.
Back on Earth, Jupiter has made peace with her family. They bought her a telescope, which is nice of them. Also, Jupiter owns Earth. though she’s trying to keep that under wraps. The only thing she took, so far, are Caine’s gravity boots. That’d be enough for me.
Jupiter Ascending‘s triumphant spots are its space settings. Jupiter is a whirling storm planet, but it’s also the home of Balem’s massive genetic harvesting factory, occluded by the Great Red Spot and survivable thanks to the same gravity engineering that propels Caine’s boots.
The filmmakers do all they can to avoid jogging the viewer’s memories of Dune, and they don’t quite succeed. The Abraxas plant is Art Deco steam punk, and, God help me, I liked it.
And what advanced sci-fi movie would be complete these days, post-Interstellar, without a visit to a midwestern corn field?
Jupiter Ascending posits a future in which humans will mine genes to prolong life. “Today it’s as easy as changing a light bulb.” Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton; seriously her name) says. Earth, and many other planets, are part of an industry to grow genes. These genes help replenish cells in bodies to give humans more of the “only…resource worth fighting over: more time.”
I liked this idea a lot; it was my favorite aspect of the movie. These rich aliens (actually humans) live for tens of thousands of years, taking a gene bath every so often to keep that skin as clear as their first thousand years. It seems that only murder can actually kill a person, otherwise they are immortal. (Suddenly the Rivendell comparison makes more sense.)
Earth is described as a world that is in its first throes of gene worship. The aliens who seeded Earth 100,000 years ago understand that genes are everything, and they are harvesting them from Earth, when that planet matures. Could be now, could be a millennium.
Jupiter Jones, a sea-borne Earth woman who cleans toilets, actually owns Earth and is the most powerful life form in the galaxy. Dig it.
- I enjoyed the explanation of Little Green Men (though in this case gray) being genetically engineered watchdogs.
Summary (28/68): 41%
Dazzling special effects can only carry a movie so far. That’s the lesson of Jupiter Ascending. Eddie Redmayne nearly tanks the movie on the weakness of a camp acting role. He seemed as if he got high off his own supply (of rave reviews from two straight Oscar-nominated performances).
All the other actors put their best feet forward, but they can’t ascend the barrage of action sequences. I enjoyed Channing Tatum’s gravity boots, but how many times do I need to see them?