They’ve flirted with disaster before. Like a pair of Icarii with wings made of cutting-edge CGI and proto-mythic structure, the Wachowskis have consistently flown for the sun; it was only a matter of time before flew too close and took a tumble.
I desperately wanted to like Jupiter Ascending. It’s a unique vision from two of the boldest filmmakers we have, a space opera actioner featuring ornate world-building, dragon-men and a camped-up Eddie Redmayne as the heavy. But for all its carefully-crafted design and ambition, Jupiter Ascending never rises to any satisfying narrative level, getting lost in the details of its own world and never quite managing to make any of the conflicts work, resulting in haphazard characterizations and a muddled structure.
It’s especially frustrating because, if the Wachowskis have a handle on anything, it’s how to structure a story. Let’s return to The Matrix for just a moment, shall we? That movie opened with an engaging action scene that set the tone, before we met Thomas Anderson/Neo and experienced the rest of the story and the reveals therein through his eyes. We learn of the film’s world as he does, and the story never slows as a result. Jupiter Ascending traces a similar arc to the Wachowskis’ earlier film, with a main character leading an ordinary, dull existence being thrust into a fantastic adventure. But while The Matrix allowed its main character to be vessel to carry the audience through each world-building reveal, Jupiter Ascending stumbles through prologue after prologue before we even get to the meat of what the film is trying to say. It would be like if The Matrix had a ten minute prologue explaining Thomas Anderson's backstory, another fifteen minutes in Zion meeting Morpheus and his crew, another scene taking us through Anderson’s day-job… All before we ever get to Trinity taking out the cops in the tenement building and thus properly starting the main action of the story. Ultimately, Jupiter Ascending is narratively inert in a way the Wachowskis usually aren’t *.
This haphazard structuring leads to several confusing scenes that ramble aimlessly from one event to the next, seemingly ramping up to something interesting before devolving into what can only be described as “anti-drama.” As a result, the characters become lost in the shuffle, with our main heroine Jupiter Jones doing little more than be dragged scene from scene by either the hand of her alien rescuer/lover Cain Wise or the three feuding siblings after her genetic code that makes her the Queen of the Universe (or something). It’s a structure that needlessly complicates a story that need not be so complicated. It takes at least twenty minutes before we get to the inciting event, a lame attempt at comedy that sees Jupiter and her cousin trying to sell her eggs at a fertility clinic for some quick cash, only for the clinic to be revealed as a front to harvest Jupiter’s genetics. It’s way too complicated a set-up to get Jupiter in on the action, and each successive plot point features similar unnecessary baggage that drag the whole affair down.
I might have been willing to forgive the overall clunkiness of the narrative had the film had the usual virtuoso action the Wachowskis are known for, but the siblings fail pretty miserably in that department, as well. There’s a lot of neat visuals to employ, such as Cain’s rocket boots or the spaceships with floating parts or those wicked-ass dragon-men, but all the elements get lost in the shuffle. The previous cleanliness and elegance of their camera is all but gone, replaced instead by furious editing and overcrowded frames. There’s a scene near the end where Channing Tatum and Sean Bean’s characters engage in a space dogfight with thousands of grid-like drones, a scene that at first appears to be the video game Space Invaders on crack, but that is so muddled and overstuffed with CGI nonsense that it actually becomes headache-inducing.
You have to give the Wachowskis credit for trying something new, but although it looks pretty, Jupiter Ascending just never manages to rise to the level of anything approaching interesting.
* The haphazard structure may not actually be solely the Wachowskis’ fault - JA was pushed back six months from its original release date, and it’s easy to see how much of the film could have suffered from studio-madated reshoots.