Jupiter Ascending (2015)

The Wachowskis made their names with an early thriller "Bound" before going onto international fame writing and directing the "Matrix" trilogy, the first of which is perhaps one of the greatest depictions of cyber-punk on screen  (although the second two films turned out to be a little disappointing.) Here they tackle a science-fiction epic along the lines of "Star Wars" or "Dune", with various rival factions, races, political intrigue and a galactic empire.

The film begins with the story of a young girl, Jupiter Jones, whose father is killed unexpectedly. Her mother gives birth to her on their way across the ocean to America, where we now find Jupiter, grown up, working as a cleaner. It is a somewhat interesting twist on the "chosen one" narrative to have someone who is clearly destined for greatness, by virtue of being the film's protagonist, end up working as a cleaner. However, on consideration it is not that exciting when you consider the numerous Fairytales where your heroine starts from humble beginnings (think Cinderella or  Beauty and the Beast). That is the film's main flaw, there are a number of interesting ideas here, but the entire thing is based on such a well worn plot that there is practically no tension throughout. It transpires that Jupiter Jones is the re-incarnation of an alien matriarch whose race of long-lived beings destroyed the dinosaurs and populated earth millennia ago. This family is now involved in a dynastic struggle and Jupiter learns that they gain their life by pureeing human beings down into a liquid that helps rejuvenate them. As one character explains, humanity has fought over resources throughout history, but when you own the entire galaxy you realise the only thing worth fighting, or killing, for is more time. I thought this was an interesting idea, but this is revealed about half-way through the film, before that it is hard to keep your interest because you have no idea what is going on, but simultaneously you know that there is a hero, a villain, and the hero will end up saving the earth.

The film is not without its bright spots. The Wachowskis obviously understand the genre of science-fiction and are great fans of it. In the same way that the "Matrix" riffed on things like "Ghost in the Shell", "Jupiter Ascending" draws inspiration from space-operas in a way that never feels like a rip-off but a loving homage. I enjoyed the few alien races that we see here (it has a flavour of "Doctor Who" in the bizarre creatures inhabiting the various planets), and the technologies and ideas present are well thought out. The idea of cross-bred races such as the human-wolf that helps Jupiter are clever, and it does seem as though time was spent considering how this world worked. Things like hover-boots, youth serum, giant spaceships, may not be original, but they are well designed. In fact the design work throughout is solid as is the cinematography which makes it a slick and enjoyable enterprise. The acting is also pretty good. I like everyone involved here, Mila Kunis is likeable as ever in her first starring role. Channing Tatum playing the half-man half-wolf protector/ love interest also turns in a good performance. Eddie Redmayne obviously enjoying his over-the-top dark lord role, with a weird croaky voice barely audible. And Sean Bean is in it too.

The film relies quite heavily on action sequences and these are well done. The problem with them is that you are never quite sure what is at stake, or when you are nothing is done to make you care about it. They might tell you that the fate of everyone on earth is at stake, but unless you see any suffering or peril it is hard to feel anything. It reminded me in this regard of "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", where the earth being destroyed is basically a plot device rather than something you should feel especially upset about.

The film seems caught between wanting to be a Cinderella story in space and a serious political thriller and the two never really seem to come together. A predictable plot, cringe-worthy dialogue that could have been written by a machine, and flat characters drag this down. A shame because there are a few interesting ideas and the production design is high. In the end it is all just empty spectacle.