I like the Wachowskis. I appreciate that, even when they fail, they’re trying to do something interesting: something with a vision. I’m also among the few willing to stand in defence of The Matrix Reloaded. Their last project, directed alongside Tom Tykwer, was Cloud Atlas, a film that infuriated some viewers to distraction, but which others, including myself, felt had a real soul beneath its seemingly impenetrable layers of ambition.
Cloud Atlas divided audiences and was hardly a financial success, but Warner Bros. has stuck by the director siblings and given them a whole heap of cash – reportedly $175m – to make Jupiter Ascending, a film which, I’m afraid, is less likely to cause such division.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones (stop giggling, there’s a serious reason for that name), an ordinary girl working as a cleaner in Chicago who, it transpires, is actually the legal owner of the entire planet. This is possible because the universe, we learn, is actually full of intelligent life – most of it more advanced than us – and that great dynasties of borderline immortal humans actually wield our planets around as playthings in their intergalactic familial squabbling. The basic gist of the plot is that three siblings of the Abrasax family – Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) – are fighting over Jupiter because she is actually the rightful heir to the planet, for reasons we need not discuss here. As Jupiter is kidknapped and re-kidnapped by the siblings, she is protected and guided by Caine, a warrior with both wolf and human DNA who is played by Channing Tatum with added pointy ears.
The story, it has to be said, is a bit of a mess. The warring siblings at the heart of it all are presented rigidly in order, and then disappear, meaning that the drive for the story rests on the shoulders of Kunis’ oddly passive Jupiter. It’s not her performance that’s the problem, per se, but the character; she’s oddly trusting of her (repeated) captors, and just seems to submissively go along with everything that happens. She even has to have the big reveal explained to her twice, such is her bland acceptance of everything that’s happening. There are other occasions when the plot machinations are just silly, for instance when Caine is booted out of an airlock filled with handy space survival suits, or flies through a hurricane shield in a single, tiny ship which then proceeds to blow up what appears to be an entire planet, rendering said shield completely redundant. I understand that questioning the logic of action films is a pointless endeavour, but come on! Fundamentally, I wasn’t involved enough to overlook the silliness, which is a problem.
And what silliness. Recently Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne’s performance is pitched somewhere between howling Shakespearean villain and scenery chewing b-movie schlock. It’s impossible to tell if he’s acting really well or really badly in this film, but whatever it is, the role is pure pantomime. “I CREATE LIFE”, he screams into a CGI backdrop as the audience unintentionally smirks. Performance-wise, Channing Tatum comes out of this best. Opposite Kunis’ mostly bland lead character, Tatum at least gives the film some charisma, even despite the fact that his gravity boots require him to run awkwardly in mid-air through half of the film’s incomprehensible action sequences. Even when the performances are decent, though, the film’s inconsistent script labours its actors with lumpen dialogue that nobody could’ve delivered well. Frustratingly, there are also times when the script really flickers into life; it’s not that there aren’t ideas in here (if anything there are too many), it’s just that the script can’t get a handle on them, or decide on an interesting through line.
On a technical level, the film is proficient enough (with the exception of a few edits which felt like they had been made to cut down the runtime). The worlds created are impressive in their own way, but if the story isn’t strong enough to bind it all together, it just feels like a succession of bits. Michael Giacchino’s score, meanwhile, constantly aims for grandiosity, which is fine for most of the runtime, but not so much when played erroneously over, for example, a Kafka-esque bureaucracy sequence (which also works as a nod to the director who briefly cameos at the end of it).
In Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis’ ambition was clear for all to see, but all the strands added up to something, even if that something was amorphous and took three hours to make sense of. That this film cost $75m more, looks significantly worse, and has hardly an ything to say, is a real disappointment. I hope this noble failure doesn’t see the Wachowskis deprived of future funding, because ambitious failure is at least worth talking about.