Right off the top, the thing you care about most: No, this won’t “Norbit” Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar chances because it has far bigger problems than his relatively small performance, but make no mistake: Eddie Redmayne is profoundly terrible in Jupiter Ascending. He gives the most baffling, distracting, ABSURD performance. Every decision he makes as an actor is wrong, but a fair portion of the blame must rest with his two (TWO!!) directors, both of whom failed him terribly in letting him commit to this ludicrousness. It’s even worse than whatever it was Neill Blomkamp was letting Jodie Foster do in Elysium. So it should really tell you something when I say that Redmayne isn’t the worst part of Jupiter Ascending.
I was prepared for this movie, the latest from The Matrix’s Lilly and Lana Wachowski, to be bad, but I was hoping that it would be bad in the way that The Fifth Element is bad—silly, but still entertaining and enjoyably camp. Jupiter Ascending is neither of those things. It is VERY silly, but it’s not remotely entertaining. I tried to determine exactly where this movie went wrong, because the mechanics of the filmmaking are top notch. The Wachowskis know how to make cinematic spectacles, so it’s not like Jupiter Ascending is hobbled by bad camerawork or poor production values. But all of that effort didn’t even result in something interestingly weird, it just amounted to a boring, borderline insane story about bee people.
The Wachowskis understand what has to happen in a sci-fi movie: There have to be rules governing the world depicted, and at some point, you’re going to have to explain some stuff to the audience. They’re good at the first part—the rule making—but they fail to execute their core concept clearly. In this alternate reality, Earth is a farm that will one day be “harvested” so that space people can live forever. That’s all you need to communicate to the audience. Earth is a farm, people are the crop. Done. But the Wachowskis get bogged down in rival companies harvesting planets early to screw with someone else’s profits and the complicated inheritance laws governing space people—the conflict in the movie boils down to a dead mother leaving a rider in her will that screws her kids out of part of their inheritance.
Enter Jupiter Jones (a confused-looking Mila Kunis), the “chosen one” reincarnation of the dead space mom. Once she’s discovered on Earth, the disenfranchised space people start trying to kill her in order to claim her inheritance. One of them wants to marry her and then kill her, and no one ever mentions how goddamned weird it is that he wants to marry the reincarnation of his mother. Instead of being about this totally unprepared space queen learning how to defend Earth, Jupiter Ascending is about the various manipulations of the space people trying to take Earth from her. The Wachowskis get too invested in the minutiae of their universe. The movie should have been Jupiter learning to command a space army, not Jupiter learning about intergalactic taxes. (There is actually a scene in which she fills out forms for five minutes. It’s meant to be funny but it is not.)
There’s a third thread in Jupiter Ascending that never goes anywhere revolving around Channing Tatum’s character, Caine, a wolf-human hybrid bred for combat because space people are incurably weird. There’s an intimation that Caine has been genetically programmed to attack the “entitled” space royalty, like Jupiter Jones, but he gets over this aversion quickly in order to advance the chemistry-defunct love story with Jupiter. So that’s just an interesting idea that leads to nothing. At least his wolf-like traits factor into his abilities, as he’s shown to be a good tracker. Because she’s space royalty, Jupiter Jones has some special bee power that allows her to control bees. Do all of the royal space people have bee powers? Should they have bee-like character traits? And why is Sean Bean letting bees colonize his house like a goddamned lunatic? I have a lot of questions about the bees.
Original genre properties are rare these days, so I feel bad sh*tting on Jupiter Ascending when its failure means we’ll be seeing even fewer original ideas at the movies. But this is a movie that’s equal parts boring and confounding. There are some good concepts here, especially in the hybrid space/animal people and the idea that the different animal influences could create conflict, but we spend too much time talking about inheritances and taxes and filing forms. Basically all that happens in this movie is that Jupiter Jones learns there are other inhabited worlds in outer space but decides not to visit them because outer space is a silly place.