The Wachowskis’ JUPITER ASCENDING
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
This review will not be popular.
I really enjoyed Jupiter Ascending. I had a similar positive reaction to another movie I also enjoyed, John Carter.
Given all the negative reviews, in both cases I found myself wondering, “Why so much hate?”
In the case of John Carter I think we had a movie that was a bit too true to its novel’s roots, written at a time when swashbuckling and sense-of-wonder science-fiction were still serving very traditional concepts of literary adventure, heroism, and culture clashes. Maybe John Carter just didn’t feed modern tastes for edginess, antiheroism, and putdowns the way, say, Guardians of the Galaxy did.
Jupiter Ascending shares some of the same characteristics as John Carter. We also have a “fish out of water” story here as Jupiter explores the implications of her “heritage.” There’s a clash of cultures. As with John Carter the vehicles and special effects are amazing. There are creatures aplenty here that seem to mask too well the actors underneath; who knew that Tim Pigott-Smith was in there somewhere, hidden the way that Willem Dafoe was in John Carter? In both cases we have an undercurrent of societies built on subjugation and — especially in the case of Jupiter Ascending — planetary genocide.
So, why such a negative reaction to Jupiter Ascending?
I think some of it goes back to a grudge held by many that the Wachowskis have never topped the Matrix trilogy for stunning originality. That may be true but that type of lightning strike is rare. After all, how often do movies like the Godfather, 2001, or Seven Samurai come along?
Another possibility is that the conflict between good and evil is fronted by good characters who are basically, well, good. There’s little guile here as we get to know Jupiter and her backstory as it plays out against the horrific conflicts swirling around her. I also admit liking both Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum here. Are their motivations and behaviors a bit on the bland and predictable side? Admittedly, yes.
But I guess it’s back to a comparison with John Carter and the fact that I rather enjoy, now and then, a basic meat-and-potatoes good versus evil story where the good guys aren’t foul-mouthed, edgy, or wisecracking all the time. Such characters have their place, of course, but they have become perhaps all too common and predictable thanks to the Marvel Universe.
Another possible complaint about Jupiter Ascending is its occasional incoherence. For example, I found myself wondering where exactly everything was taking place once we left Earth. As long as we have faster than light travel, how should filmmakers illustrate where we are at any given point? That’s why in the beginning of David Lynch’s Dune we get a tour of the major Houses and their respective planets, courtesy of Princess Irulan’s voice-over. I admit it might have helped to have something like that here.
Too many characters? Given the scope of the story I don’t see that as a major problem. The physical extravagance of individual characters based on the confluence of multiple alien lifeforms and genetic engineering is very well handled and comparable (or superior) to what George Lucas has done while churning out Star Wars characters over the years.
I don’t think you can fault the special effects in this movie. We come to expect great things and what’s on display here is gorgeous. The flying boots are extremely well done both over Chicago and in close combat. Spaceships are beautiful and gothic. The planet Jupiter is on the level of Saturn in Interstellar.
I think what it boils down to is the degree to which one is able to engage a playful sense of innocence against a backdrop of massive conflict without succumbing to cynicism and crudity. Maybe that’s asking too much of today’s movie-going public which might find Christopher Reeves’ iconic Superman simply too old-fashioned. My guess is that today’s audience would also respond negatively to a true-to-the-book presentation of the classic novel Treasure Island with its “simplistic” themes of adventure, greed, loyalty, and friendship.
That’s too bad. There should be markets for all kinds of entertainment, not just appeals to raw modern in-your-face sensibilities. But maybe I’m just being old fashioned.
Review copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald