I’m “biast” (con): science fiction isn’t treated so well at the movies these days
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Oh my god, hooray! A space adventure with a woman at its center! And it’s Mila Kunis, who is awesome! She’s gonna be like a new Luke Skywalker, whisked away from a boring life on Tatooine– er, Earth for more exciting interstellar horizons beyond! Woo-hoo!
Yeah, not so much, as it happens. What happens is more like: Kunis (Annie, Blood Ties) gets drugged, attacked, chased, menaced, threatened, rescued, kidnapped, chased some more, rescued again. Rinse and repeat for a good hour and half. At which point she finally makes her first authentic decision… though it isn’t even one that has any impact whatsoever on the story. At this important juncture in what she now knows to be galactic affairs of enormous import, Kunis’s ordinary 21st-century Chicago gal Jupiter Jones, suddenly finding herself on a spaceship in, like, outer space and everything, decides to change her clothes.
To be fair to Jupiter, two previous wardrobe changes were affected by others upon her person while she was unconscious. Two! So this is a big step up for her agency and self-determination.
Welcome to the movie with the weakest protagonist pretty much ever. Jupiter doesn’t drive the story here: she is yanked around by it. That’s not fun, and it’s certainly not interesting. She’s like a rag doll in the hands of writers and directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (Cloud Atlas, Speed Racer). Luke Skywalker wouldn’t stand for this.
Now, arguably, it was the very first “decision” Jupiter makes in Jupiter Ascending that sets everything in motion, but damn, is this one icky. She lets her cousin — her male cousin — coerce her into agreeing to donate her eggs to a fertility clinic. Because he wants the money. Wait, what? Jupiter herself asks the idiot why he gets two-thirds of the $15K this donation will bring to the family, and he offers her a bullshit answer… which she just shrugs and accepts.
So right from the beginning, it’s clear than Jupiter is not going to be a very gutsy or formidable sort of person. So why should we hang out with her for two-plus hours, then?
(Oh, and while Jupiter and her idiot cousin might not realize how involved egg donation is, the movie should know better than to depict it as simplistically it does. It doesn’t pay that much either. But these are the least of the movie’s problems.)
But Jupiter making un-thought-out decisions on the spur of the moment sets the stage for the course of Jupiter’s story in Ascending: the few times she gets to actually chose a path for herself (beyond the wardrobe change), she will need to be rescued from the results of her choice. For, as it transpires, the fertility clinic is how the Aliens, who aren’t really aliens at all but humans too, find out that Jupiter is basically a princess of their people, which makes her a target because Reasons, which necessitates her being rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum [The Book of Life, 22 Jump Street] with Spock ears), who is a for-real, legit, actual lone wolf in a way possible only in overly literal SF that thinks it’s being clever and sees no need to engage metaphor or dispense with cliché.
Later, Caine will rescue her from becoming a princess bride, because Jupiter’s decision — pretty much the only other decision she gets to make in the movie — to marry a dude out in space goes bad, too. But not before we get to behold Jupiter in her wedding gown! Thanks so much, Wachowskis, for confirming Hollywood’s supposition that the only possible reason a woman might be at the center of a story is if she’s a princess and has a wedding. (I suspect the Wachowskis might think they’re subverting clichés. Except they aren’t.)
Ascending hasn’t even gotten off planet Earth before it goes from seen-it-before — a standard SF dogfight all over downtown Chicago — to some genuine risible WTFery; oh, how I scoffed at alien-soldier-on-Earth Sean Bean (Mirror Mirror, Game of Thrones) informing us that if you’ve never been stung by a bee, you’re galactic royalty (I wish I was making that up). Then there’s some overdesigned and bloated space gothic stuff padding out the middle bits, complete with Lucas-esque vistas crammed with so much crap you don’t know what you’re looking at, a “soylent green is people” shock-not-shock, and Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables, The Other Boleyn Girl) camping it up as a space prince. (If the people voting for the Oscars see this before they get to the Best Actor category, he can kiss his Theory of Everything win good-bye.) There are some big reptilian guys whose dialogue it is impossible to understand, which isn’t as fun as it sounds. There’s not a hint, in fact, of charm or intentional humor. Until, that is, the movie takes a weird detour into another movie entirely, a Terry Gilliam retro satire on bureaucracy that doesn’t work at all in the larger context of the universe the movie is trying to create. And yet the Wachowskis think this is so clever that they actually cast Terry Gilliam in it; Gilliam reenacts a scene that was apparently left over from a fan mashup of Brazil and Life of Brian. (Again, wishing I was kidding.)
Just about when your brain has come to terms with the fact that this detour is really happening, it’s over, and everything reverts to deeply solemn, deeply terrible galactic soap opera, and it is never spoken of again. It’s as if the movie is embarrassed by itself. As it should be.