Eddie Redmayne is likely to win this year’s Oscar for Best Lead Actor thanks to his sensational turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Whilst Jupiter Ascending will not net him any awards, his utter ownership of the screen every second that he’s on it in this film is proof enough that he is a tremendous actor. Even through nonsense dialogue and silly costumes, he manages to bring an air of much needed charisma to the latest effort by the Wachowskis. Languid to the point where even his blinking is essentially slow motion, his presence is sorely missed whenever he’s not in a scene, and you have to deal with the ambitious but incoherent mess that constitutes the rest of the film.
Redmayne plays Balem Abrasax, the owner of an interplanetary corporate juggernaut that makes its trade in harvesting entire planets for the galactic equivalent of stem cell research. Those who despised The Phantom Menace for its focus on outer space business won’t find as much to scoff at here, but you still have to get through a weird amount of business and legal jargon to access the exciting space opera stuff. Unfortunately for him, his dead mother’s exact genetic structure has been recreated on earth and, according to Space Law, that means he’s out of an inheritance, which in turn means he can’t liquidise the human race for profit. This genetic code is found in Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), an immigrant from Russia, working in America, cleaning toilets. Naturally, Balem wants her found and killed, but he’s thwarted by the efforts of the half-wolf Legionnaire Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who’s been hired by Balem’s younger brother Titus (Douglas Booth). The plot then descends into a flurry of betrayals and quadruple-crosses to the point where you have no idea who’s side anyone is on. The ‘chosen one’ story combined with the ‘humanity has been living a lie’ theme is reminiscent in concept of the Wachowskis’ modern classic, The Matrix, but, in practice, ends up being baffling as well as derivative. The chosen one here isn’t even as interesting as the infamously bland Neo, with Jupiter having almost no agency in what is ostensibly her story, instead requiring rescuing almost constantly. Anyone looking for a blockbuster with a strong female lead will be sorely disappointed.
The confusion of the plot extends into the action scenes in a really horrible way. Whilst the imaginative technology and human/animal hybrid soldiers should make for exciting fights, the Michael Bay-esque direction of these sequences makes them impossible to follow and rather tiresome. At points, the camera is so shaky that watching the film in 3D actually made me nauseous, which is an experience I’ve never had in a cinema before. It’s a crying shame, because when the Wachowskis can be persuaded to stay still, Jupiter Ascending is a truly gorgeous film. Opulent palaces, shimmering interplanetary vortexes and a base located in the heart of Jupiter’s (the planet, not the character) Great Red Spot all contribute to a unique space-fantasy vision filled with imagination and beauty. I’d love to see this world further explored, but this time with a coherent plot and a steadier hand behind the camera.
Aside from Redmayne, the leads (Kunis and Tatum) give entirely perfunctory performances, although they have not been handed particularly strong material, having to shoehorn clunky exposition into their dialogue alongside some woeful attempts at humour (a 20 second conversation about bowels goes on 20 seconds too long). For the most part, Jupiter Ascending is played with a straight face, admirable in a world where sci-fi is dominated by Marvel’s trademark snark and quippiness, but the serious tone conflicts with awful lines like ‘bees never lie’.
The whole experience is made bearable by Eddie Redmayne and his fellow villainous Brits (Booth and Tuppence Middleton) providing the camp necessary in a film about galactic empires and women who can control bees, and the genuine beauty of the universe created by the Wachowskis. There’s an exciting original vision here, but it’s lost behind a haze of poor plotting, overused shakycam, and inadvertently hilarious dialogue. If you’re looking for a visually arresting and well-written recent space opera, then just rewatch Guardians of the Galaxy and if you want to see a woman in space deciding her own fate, you’d be better off returning to the Alien franchise.