There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ “Producers” in which the main characters are perplexed that an intentionally terrible show, “Springtime for Hitler,” has become successful.
“How could this happen?” Zero Mostel laments. “I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?”
“Jupiter Ascending” is the “Springtime for Hitler” of science-fiction. Nearly everything goes wrong, and for that very reason it is the most entertaining film the year has offered yet. It may be the most expensive “so bad it’s good” film to date, which is truly something to behold.
This movie is a failure of the highest order at the hands of some of the most seasoned blockbuster builders in the world. It is the latest film by the Wachowski Siblings, who are most notable for the “Matrix” trilogy. “Cloud Atlas,” their previous work (a collaboration with Tom Tykwer) was memorable for its sheer narrative ambition. Where “Cloud Atlas” overexerted itself with its six storylines, “Jupiter Ascending” is a jumbled, single mess that never really finds anything to hold on to.
The plot is the primary problem. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis, and yes, that is her character’s real name) turns out to be the reincarnation of an alien queen of an intergalactic corporate empire after being rescued from her provincial life by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, gravity rollerblading expert), who is a human/alien-wolf/bionic-bird hybrid with a dark and mysterious past. Meanwhile, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the heir to the evil corporate throne, wishes to destroy the reincarnation of his mother so that he can harvest Earth. Talking alien dinosaurs and Sean Bean ominously whispering “bees never lie” are also in this movie.
The basic premise of “Jupiter” could have been great, if it weren’t so convoluted and poorly handled. The universe is interesting, but the plot is nonsensical. Each character exhales nothing but exposition and half-baked romance development as they go from objective to objective. The pacing is all over the place, and it feels like a third of the movie was left on the cutting room floor. Each action sequence is strangely repetitive as Tatum invariably rescues Kunis at the last possible moment.
The special effects are a saving grace, as they should be given that the film was delayed for half a year for the CGI to be completed. Most of the visuals in “Jupiter,” from Chicago to far more alien city skylines, are gorgeous. The aliens themselves, however, are not. Humans from other worlds are given makeup that is impossible not to laugh at, the dinosaurs look like they belong in a Dreamworks feature, and then there are characters like elephant humanoids that transcend ridiculousness. Each action sequence is also beautiful at points, but more often than not, the screen becomes too cluttered to follow what is actually happening. Viewers have to settle for appreciating the pretty lights and sounds.
The musical score is also paradoxically excellent. Michael Giacchino at times gets too close to his work in “Star Trek,” but he’s often solely responsible for making the movie watchable. Each track, with its beautiful choirs and playful beat, belongs in a blockbuster far better than this one.
At first glance, the movie has some interesting things to preach. It has a clear-as-day political message and counters the slew of blockbuster protagonists who “just want more.” It is a massively budgeted science-fiction film that happens to be an original story, technically speaking. And perhaps even more importantly, it is an original blockbuster with a female lead. At the same time, Mila Kunis’s character lacks any agency for the vast majority of the film. She relies on men (and, to be fair, one woman) to rescue her from her innumerable plights at every turn. The fact that Channing Tatum is her knight in shining armor is never subverted. And the political and social commentaries never find enough justification to be presented. Without proper character development, they feel more like forced fables than organic discoveries.
Mila Kunis does her best, but there’s nothing she can do. There’s nothing Tatum can do either, but he tries even less. Really, the only actors who are interesting to watch are the ones who play villains or the more absurd aliens. Eddie Redmayne covers both of those categories. This is a man who is two weeks away from very possibly claiming an Oscar for Best Actor for “The Theory of Everything.” Here, he speaks like Voldemort if he had swallowed a frog. In his villainy, Redmayne lounges in his golden throne, adorned with the most hideous of haircuts, and devours the scenery until there is nothing left to chew. He screams his lines at the drop of a pin only to return to his base level of nefarious, croaky whisper. Everything about his performance—every line reading, every eye roll, every line itself—filled me with joy for all the wrong reasons. “I CREATE LIFE,” he bellows to the heavens, only to continue hushedly, “and I destroy it.” This is a performance that transcends cartoon villainy; it is the nirvana of ham previously thought unattainable. When Redmayne’s character is finally vanquished (spoiler alert: The villain dies), I reached out to the screen in mourning because thus had ended the most inexplicable and wondrous performance our mortal world has ever known.
I’m really not sure what happened with “Jupiter Ascending.” It had the potential to be something truly wonderful. The Wachowskis are not an untalented duo, and they were clearly trying. At the same time, so many shots, so many cuts, and so many line readings are utterly inexplicable. It is as if the two directors were given $176 million for a movie they forgot how to make. While “Jupiter Ascending” manages to be extremely entertaining in its failures, its damage will be severe. When a rare, female-led original blockbuster bombs as badly as “Jupiter” is going to bomb, that sends a powerful message to studios to stay away from funding such films. And not even evil Eddie Redmayne is worth that.