by Jeff Walls
The Wachowski siblings have had a very up-and-down directing career, and there appears to be a direct correlation between the quality of their movies and the amount of freedom/financing they are given for a particular project. After their modestly-budged The Matrix became a popular hit in 1999, the directing pair was given carte blanche for its two sequels and the result was a couple of bloated and incoherent movies that were still financial hits, but came nowhere near the critical acclaim earned by the original. They made tons of money, though, allowing the Wachowskis the freedom to make Speed Racer, which promptly bombed.
They were reined back in for the ambitious Cloud Atlas, which they co-directed with Tom Tykwer, and which turned out to be very good movie. The critical cred they earned with that movie, however, leads to their latest, Jupiter Ascending, an ambitious and lavish sci-fi spectacle, which unfortunately plays closer to the overblown Matrix sequels than the ground-breaking original.
In the universe of Jupiter Ascending, Earth and all other planets are owned by royal families who barter them like poker chips. One such family is the Abrasax family. The matriarch of the family has recently passed, leaving her share of the universe in the hands of her three spoiled, greedy, and entitled children. These three are so vain that they think of these planets they own as gardens growing crops (read: humans), so that they can be harvested and turned into a blue potion that will grant each of them eternal youth. It’s like they have found the fountain of youth, but the fountain is powered by Soylent Green.
Meanwhile, on planet Earth, a downhearted house cleaner who is searching for something more from life is about to get much more than she bargained for. After being whisked away from planet earth by a half-man, half-wolf mercenary, she soon finds herself in the middle of the Abrasax family squabble, a squabble that seems capable of destroying the entire fabric of the universe.
The Wachowskis have created a world that could be interesting, had they made a little more effort to set it up. In a world that appears to be limitless, we are restricted to the part controlled by these bratty Abrasax children who are not interesting at all, even as villains. It also appears their sibling rivalry is powerful enough to bring down the entire galaxy. How this one family came to be in control of so much of the universe is never really explained. It is also never really explained how their mother would be reincarnated in the form of an Earthling or why the Abrasax family is so determined to bring her back and make her aware of her power.
What it really comes down to is that this universe was simply created so that the Wachowskis could stage some over-the-top effects-laden action scenes. Unfortunately, these action scenes are mired in chaos and, like the Transformers movies, it becomes a challenge to follow the action as it happens. Many of the elements also come across as more cheesy than cool. For example, the skate boots worn by Channing Tatum’s mercenary generate many more chuckles than they do oohs and aahs.
You would think that all of the special effects and chaotic action would overshadow the actors in the movie; and it would, had the acting not been so over-the-top horrible. The worst offender, ironically, is Eddie Redmayne, the man who very likely will take home a best actor Oscar in a couple of weeks for his work in The Theory of Everything. As if it weren’t already blatantly obvious that his Balem Abrasax is the movie’s main villain, Redmayne makes this painfully clear with his character’s voice, which is overly forced in its breathiness. Channing Tatum has proved over the past few years that he is a very talented actor, but he just looks bored in every scene of this movie as a human/wolf hybrid who used to have wings (wrap your head around that). And Mila Kunis just looks out-of-place as the cleaning woman who learns she is a galactic princess. Her character also accepts her new situation far too quickly.
I give the Wachowskis credit for trying to create something completely new in a Hollywood that is dominated with remakes and reboots, but Jupiter Ascending will just have to go down as a valiant, but failed effort.
Jupiter Ascending opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!