Desperate to rekindle their Matrix glory days, The Wachowskis return to the big screen with a grand-scale space opera which has lofty ideas and impressive visuals but precious little else.Commissioned by Warner Bros. to come up with an original new franchise – not just one movie, but the first of many – the Wachowski siblings have delivered a wonderful new universe rich for mining, full of epic worlds and stunning architecture, wondrously futuristic vehicles and strange new species. Yet their far reaching narrative gets bogged down in unnecessary bureaucracy; aiming ever towards the classic Star Wars trilogy, but more often drawing parallels with their frustratingly flawed prequels. Seeking to recapture the magic, the siblings stir into the pot the ingredients of a dozen other familiar features.At its best, it rides high on Star Wars scale fantasy and Matrix-style worlds-beyond-worlds, whilst also injecting more than a little Dune and Flash Gordon into the costumes, settings and mysterious alien-fused population. It then seems as though the Wachowskis threw all these elements into a mixing bowl and dropped acid. They even dabble in a bit of Teen Wolf and The Princess Diaries when it comes to the Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis headlining act, who commit to the action with verve but struggle to carry the weight of sheer exposition that the directors burden them with.
The story has a bored, impoverished young Chicago janitor, Jupiter Jones, catapulted into a brand new universe courtesy of the wolf-infused Caine, an off-world warrior hunter. He's been sent to retrieve her and take her back to a new space kingdom, under whose laws she may just well be the heir to... well, Earth. Struggling to become accustomed to the news of her true heritage, and to the vast universe far beyond anything she had previously known, Jupiter has – unbelievably – even bigger things to worry about. Things such as finding herself in the midst of some murderous sibling rivalry, as she finds that she was not the only potential heir to the throne, and that the other siblings have much more nefarious intentions for the planet Earth and its population... and, of course, for her.
It’s strange to think that one of the things that the Studios compelled the Wachowskis to do when it came to the original first Matrix movie – take their idea for a trilogy of movies and compress it into one single story – appears to be the exact reverse logic to what they applied here; here they wanted the Wachowski’s to merely introduce us to a brand new universe and deliver the first of a potentially lucrative franchise. And the ideas are simply too grand for a single two hour outing, which seems intent on bombarding us with information and exposition, at the complete expense of delivering any compelling characters or a decent story at the heart of it all.
Indeed, nobody here appears to have learned from the Star Wars prequel debacle: the story at the centre of this vast and magnificent universe is actually woefully simple, and strangely mundane. Much like Phantom Menace's treaties and trade embargoes, Jupiter Ascending brings us little more than a legal dispute - wills, inheritance, probate, land deeds and family squabbles surrounding who gets what. It’s an odd concept upon which to found an entire space opera (but not the first time) and, despite the desperate attempt to give it a far bigger, grander impetus (again, like Phantom), it struggles to escape the rather small scale narrative that restricts the otherwise epic scale framework.
Visually opulent, the world of Jupiter Ascending is undoubtedly magnificent, it's just a shame that this is the story we get from within it.
Nevertheless, despite the increasingly universal critical panning that the film appears to be receiving, there’s one thing that appears to be commonly appreciated – the Wachowskis’ visual eye. From the architecture (ships or buildings) to the technology (those jet boots practically steal the show), the sheer visual opulence of this experience makes it something to behold. Indeed, it makes the action sequences – which vary from impressively and innovatively staged to blandly repetitive – colourful and creative at least to the eye. There’s undoubtedly plenty of classic Wachowski excellence in this bloated, overly-complex feature, but where it shines through the most purely is in the visuals.
Strangely, despite how easy it appears to utterly pan this latest effort for the now-clearly-more-miss-than-hit Wachowskis (although I still contend that Cloud Atlas was one of the most criminally underrated movies of recent time), there is plenty of silly, stupid but utterly unpretentious fun to be found within this flawed mess. And, crazy as it may seem, it would actually be good news if it survived the critical response and became at least a break-even success. Because we actually need more movies like this.
We need more original films. We need more Interstellars, Oblivions and Edge of Tomorrows. And we need to keep the filmmakers who are prepared to still make them in business. At the heart of it all, Jupiter Ascending may well be one big, pretty, but silly mess. It may go down as a monumental misfire of epic proportions, but you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it before and, without filmmakers prepared to take a risk on crazy stuff like this, you may never see anything like it again.
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