Those Wachowski siblings certainly know what they like. Building intricate worlds, diving into stylised sci-fi, and exploring capitalism and control are at the top of their list, served up with dashes of action and a sense of humour. The Matrix trilogy, their Speed Racer manga-to-TV-to-film adaptation and the period-spanning Cloud Atlas all followed this pattern. Now, with their passion at its most dazzling, it’s Jupiter Ascending’s turn.
Once more, Andy and Lana Wachowski write and direct a tale of an innocent learning that life isn’t quite what they think. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a house cleaner unhappy with her lot yet unprepared for her destiny, particularly when a medical procedure for cash is interrupted by an attack by otherworldly creatures. Ex-military fighter and human-wolf hybrid Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) saves the day but also delivers strange news. It seems Jupiter is the key to a family feud over property and resources between wealthy, greedy, wannabe-immortal alien beings, courtesy of genetic reincarnation. That can’t be good.
If the narrative sounds a bit messy, that’s because it is. Storytelling is far from Jupiter Ascending’s strong point, despite relying upon staple themes and familiar plot points. Though they remain masters of their own universe, the Wachowskis aren’t afraid to nod to other movies and classic tales, mashing up The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Dune, Brazil, Cinderella and more. It’s an awkward mix of imitation and originality, and it shows.
The filmmakers certainly don’t take the most direct route in making everything plain, either, clearly relishing the chance to spend as much time in their brightly coloured realm as possible. In keeping with their back catalogue, they throw everything they can into Jupiter Ascending: bees that can detect royalty, an extended bureaucracy gag, an over-the-top wedding and an unrelated — but no less goofy — romance included. Narrative coherence be damned.
Of course, part of the joy of watching a Wachowski-made movie comes from seeing them run with their particular brand of indulgent, existential fantasy on a grand scale, which they do here with aplomb. Marvelling at the scenery and the style is a given, and while spectacular special effects-driven sights, chaotic choreography and more than a few frenetic flights and fights can’t patch over the clumsiness of the story, they certainly help.
Luckily, the cast knows exactly what kind of film they are in, and play their parts perfectly in tone, if not polish. Content to drift around a space soap opera, Eddie Redmayne is worlds away from Oscar nominations, but he’s clearly having fun as the pouting, sneering bad guy. Tatum does his usual beefy, brooding but slightly comic thing (sometimes without his shirt off), and though Kunis has to play it blank and straight in contrast, her transformation from doe-eyed to determined works.
Even a stern-faced Sean Bean looks like he’s having a good time — and if you’ve seen how his film and TV appearances tend to turn out, you’ll know that’s rare. Perhaps, just like the audience should be, he’s just happy going with the Wachowskis' sometimes silly, always fascinating flow.