Both of the following are true: Jupiter Ascending (2015) is a giddy, sweeping adventure filled with interesting characters and stunning visuals; Jupiter Ascending is a frustrating experience, filled with dead ends, vanishing subplots and too much exposition. Perhaps, coming from the perennially ambitious brother and sister duo Andy and Lana Wachowski, writer-directors of The Matrix (1999) and the divisive Cloud Atlas (2012) – co-written & directed with Tom Tykwer – this is to be expected. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an undocumented Russian immigrant living in Chicago, cleaning houses with her mother and aunt.
In a staggering cosmic coincidence – which does not go unacknowledged – her DNA sequence is an exact replica of that of a deceased member of the intergalactic 1%, causing Jupiter to become a cog in the machinations of the dead woman’s three scheming children: Titus (Douglas Booth), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne). Her protector on this adventure is a former soldier, named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). Kunis and Tatum both turn in decent performances, but their romantic chemistry lacks spark; Redmayne, meanwhile, steals the film, alternating from strained whispers to full-throated roars as he delivers a villain halfway between Gary Oldman and classic Disney. The world around them is richly imagined. Caine – along with galactic cop Stinger (Sean Bean), Titus’s assistant Famulus (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and others – is a ‘splice’, meaning he an engineered human-animal hybrid (in Caine’s case, wolf).
There’s a whole complex legal system that Jupiter and her allies have to navigate alongside the conflicting plots of the three Abrasax heirs. It can be challenging to keep up with, particularly when certain elements that would benefit from further explanation do not get it. Jupiter Ascending doesn’t just require repeat viewings: it rewards them. Little details that slip under the radar on first viewing reveal themselves. As convoluted as the story appears to be at first, a second go at the film clarifies most of the questions raised about character motivations. The structural irregularities remain, but take on a new aspect: rather than seem like a failure of convention, it appears more like throwback to an older style of fairytale narrative. The tone of the film may be off-putting to many – there is camp and humour, but no irony – and it’s also extremely self-indulgent. Dated clichés of angst-ridden warriors, lizard men, and little grey aliens with saucer eyes rub shoulders with a metaphor condemning the seeming invincibility of the super-rich making their fortunes on the suffering of others. The flaws are jarring, but the pleasures of Jupiter Ascending are manifold.