A common complaint about modern sci-fi/fantasy films is that they rely too heavily on special effects than telling a good story. On the other hand, some films like Avatar allow you to sit back and appreciate a world-building experience even if the story is par for the course. Even if you don't think it has an inventive story, you can still consider a movie as an overall great experience for its commitment to audience immersion. Jupiter Ascending is unfortunately not one of these films.
In Jupiter Ascending, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, the daughter of a Russian immigrant who makes a living as a housekeeper. Like many female fantasy characters, she is tired of her boring life and dreams of something more. In this case, it's learning more about the universe. One day, she gets her wish when she finds out that she's a reincarnated interstellar queen destined to take possession of the Earth. In the process, she will also control the intergalactic trading business of a youth serum made from the extraction of life from other planets. Channing Tatum plays Caine, a half-wolf/half-human who wants to protect Jupiter from the many people who want to kill her for the right to own the Earth. What seems like an already complex story ends up lending itself to a slew of world-building and exposition that honestly overwhelm its two-hour runtime. To put it simply, Jupiter Ascending lays WAY too many cards on the table.
Throughout the whole movie, minor characters come and go and new ones are introduced just as quickly. One minute a trio of colorful bounty hunters are trying to capture Jupiter and the next a flamboyant half-human-cyborg is getting Jupiter registered at an intergalactic DMV. All of these admittedly creative minor characters disappear halfway into the movie and are never brought up again, so they can easily be forgotten.
With so many ideas for how the movie's universe works comes an excessive amount of exposition. The fact that Caine is half-wolf, how Caine's anti-gravity boots work, the process of reincarnation, how the youth serum works, the way that aliens can hide their collateral damage on Earth, the process of getting registered in the universe, Jupiter's past life, and many more story elements all feel like a television-series-worth of backstory crammed into a two hour film. None of these numerous plot elements are given enough time to be truly memorable, and trying to fit them all in the script just slowed the film down. It's like an adaptation for a series that nobody has ever seen.
An even greater mistake the movie makes is having two villains with the same basic motive instead of just one. Both Balem and Titus (played by Eddie Redmayne and Douglas Booth respectively) want Jupiter to sign over the rights to rule Earth. Both of these villains' motives lead to two strikingly similar climaxes in which Caine has to stop them from making Jupiter sign over the Earth. Having two of the same essential climax makes the ending climax seem repetitive when it should be the highlight of the whole film.
The performances, for the most part, are nothing really to write home about. Sean Bean definitely gives the best performance in the film, playing a no-nonsense Han-Solo type character that is partner's with Caine.
Meanwhile, Mila Kunis does her best at the role, but the character would have been much stronger if it was written better. With all of the spectacular, intergalactic environments surrounding her, the most Mila is allowed to react is by nonchalantly saying "holy crap," and staring into space.
Channing Tatum is on auto-pilot throughout the film, giving a rather stoic performance interrupted by a few moments of humor. He seemed rather bored and confused with the production, almost as if he was doing it on a whim. Pair this with the often cringe-worthy dialogue and it wasn't exactly Tatum's best role.
Eddie Redmayne gives his all to create a psychopathic, mesmerizingly campy villain, but the problem is that much of the time, it clashes with the tone of the scene. In a serious scene, his character abruptly switches between passive-aggressive mumbling and shouting at the top of his lungs. While the movie does have its moments of campy humor, Redmayne's character is supposed to be played straight. With all of his melodramatic mumbling and screaming, I could easily see Redmayne's character being played by Will Ferrell on a Saturday Night Live sketch. On the bright side, Redmayne doesn't give a wooden or boring performance, but his tonal shifts are destined to draw a few laughs from audiences.
Honestly, the tonal shifts were a problem I had with the film in general. In one scene, the characters could be playing it straight, discussing subjects like how big the universe is and how love can sometimes not be explained. In the next scene, the film could be trying to be quirky with an admittedly charming scene referencing Terry Gilliam's Brazil. I was never quite sure if this film wanted to be serious or campy.
To be fair though, the film is absolutely stunning on a visual level. Instead of generic sci-fi scenery, this movie features wonderfully surreal scenery filled with blooming red flowers, candles and utopian architecture. There is a great variety of alien species to marvel at as well. There are anthropomorphic lizard men, elephant men, classic big-headed martians, rat-faced men, cyborgs, and many more than I can count. If you are looking for a visual experience unlike most modern sci-fi tales, than you will certainly get a kick out of this.
As for the set pieces, they are certainly top-notch. Caine's anti-gravity boots lend themselves to memorable fight scenes with light-trailing acrobatics. The fight between Caine and Balem's lizard-like henchman was honestly a thrill to watch.
The Wachowski siblings certainly put a lot of effort into making Jupiter Ascending. A story with this many ideas and elements would have definitely worked better as a comic book series or video game. Conversely, they may have wanted a film-scale budget to properly represent their vision. In that case, they could have scaled back on the exposition and made the film a bit more straight-forward to satisfy audiences with a concrete foundation to build a franchise on.