On the surface, Jupiter Ascending looks like just another summer popcorn flick. It has all the right elements: action sequences saturated in CGI, two charismatic leads with simmering sexual tension, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. It’s fun, visually spectacular and feels a lot shorter than its two-hour run time.
However, Jupiter Ascending manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Beneath the CGI porn and occasionally cringe-worthy dialogue there’s a surprisingly thoughtful deconstruction of escapism fantasy. Though not that surprising, as this film is the work of writers and directors Andrew and Lana Wachowski, the siblings behind landmarks like The Matrix and V for Vendetta.
The premise is an unapologetic mess of science fiction clichés. A beautiful but unappreciated cleaner named Jupiter (Mila Kunis) discovers she is the genetic reincarnation of a space princess or ‘Royal’ and the only thing standing in the way of an evil galactic corporation bent on consuming Earth. Dedicated to protecting her is the inhumanly attractive and frequently shirtless man/wolf splice Caine (Channing Tatum).
Jupiter is like every other overworked protagonist from Cinderella to Harry Potter; she hates her life and fantasises about escaping into a world of luxury and privilege. The discovery that she is a Royal could seem like the ultimate fulfilment of that wish, but, as Jupiter painfully discovers, the reality is nothing like the fantasy. The wealth and immortality seductively dangled by Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), is built on a horrific foundation, the handsome prince Titus (Douglas Booth) is working to an agenda of his own, and the responsibility of protecting Earth from the ruthless Balem (Eddie Redmayne chewing the scenery like there’s no tomorrow) means that Jupiter has to make an appalling choice.
Small wonder the poor girl is feeling a little crushed and defeated by the film’s three-quarter mark. Being a space princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If Jupiter Ascending teaches you anything, it’s that fairytale castles and gorgeous ballgowns come at a price. With this storyline, it would have been very easy to end on an aesop about not striving for more than you have, lest you get abducted by psychopathic intergalactic rulers that make Darth Vader look reasonable by comparison. Instead, it manages a subtle, quite nuanced message about making the most of what you have. As Jupiter takes to heart, there’s nothing more tragic than a wasted life.
The villains are really what elevate this film above the standard space opera. Clearly the Wachowskis were taking notes from Game of Thrones, because the villains’ stylish scheming and quasi-incestuous manipulation (not to mention their casual disregard for human life) are the best parts of the film. Watching them lead Jupiter around by the nose was far more entertaining than any of the action sequences, which despite being visually impressive, had little emotional investment.
The weakest parts of the film were the unfortunate moments when it was clearly trying to do something fresh and bold, but couldn’t quite carry it off. Caine’s ‘gravity skates’ were the worst offender, being an idea that probably looked good on paper, but in practice came off as slightly goofy. Even more disappointing was the wasted chemistry between the two leads, Kunis and Tatum. The few humorous lines between them showed they could carry off great banter, making it a mystery why the script didn’t exploit this and insisted on bogging them down with tired, soap-opera worthy dialogue.
Ultimately however, none of that interfered with either the film’s ability to entertain or its deeper meaning about embracing the life in front of you. It had imagination, put real effort into developing its world and characters, and boasted a very talented cast. Special mention should go to Sean Bean, who was delightful as Caine’s gruff ex-commander Stinger, and his on-screen daughter played by Charlotte Beaumont, who had one of the driest lines in the film.
If you’re looking for a fun movie that whole-heartedly and affectionately embraces science fiction clichés, you won’t be disappointed. If you also want a movie doing more than going through the motions, you’ll find that too. Despite its showy veneer, Jupiter Ascending is a film with a lot of heart.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10