What’s Wrong With Jupiter Ascending?

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Photo: Warner Bros

You’re going to hurt me, aren’t you, Jupiter Ascending? It seems increasingly certain that this movie will be terrible (and a financial catastrophe for Warner Bros.), yet I simply can’t get my hopes down for it. In fact, I’m not sure there’s ever been this wide a gap between the high quality of an ad campaign and the abysmal advance word about the movie itself. I’m still trying to figure out what’s missing here.

Although the Wachowski siblings’ $175 million space opera comes out in just a week, practically no one outside the studio has seen it — and the few people who have say it’s awful. It had a disastrous “surprise premiere” at Sundance this week, in which festivalgoers went to a mystery screening and found out they were going to see the flick in 3-D. Critics were not invited. Audience members reportedly left during the screening. There was silence when it was over. A reporter for Variety got a majestically blunt (and anonymous) review from a Sundance volunteer, who simply declared, “I hated it” and “It’s just ridiculous.”

But if you just look at the posters, trailers, and TV spots, that ridiculousness is quite appealing! Unlike January’s aborted franchise-starter Mortdecai, the pitch for Jupiter Ascending seems pretty straightforward in all the promotional materials: Normal Earth resident Mila Kunis finds out she’s the heir to an intergalactic empire and, with the help of space warriors Channing Tatum and Sean Bean, fights evil Eddie Redmayne for control of Earth. They fly around in pretty spaceships and wear pretty costumes. Kunis is named Jupiter.

Sure, it’s a little out there, but far less so than past Wachowski outings like Cloud Atlas or The Matrix. Even the ad campaign for Guardians of the Galaxy was more confusing than this. The movie seems to have a classic premise — one in debt to pulp sci-fi tales of the first half of the 20th century, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon strips — while also being the rare big-budget movie that’s wholly original and not just an adaptation or a sequel. The posters reinforce those allusions, depicting a stoic beefcake and a tough lady in front of a lot of space stuff. It’s got a decent, simple, descriptive tagline: “Expand Your Universe.”

It also looks gorgeous. Just watch the second U.S. trailer for it:

In the first 30 seconds, we get a late-dusk cityscape, a gang of exotically dressed space bounty-hunters, evil doctors, and Channing Tatum beating people up while wearing hover shoes. Then come spaceships in downtown Chicago, world-size cities, and dogfights against backdrops that look cribbed from the Hubble telescope. (I’m sure if you’re into costumes, you’ll find the actors’ duds appealing, too.)

That said, the Wachowskis have left a string of pretty failures behind them in the past 15 years. But they’ve usually flopped because they were as dull as they were baffling. Jupiter Ascending, however, looks fun and accessible! I’ve seen the third trailer in two different theaters, and both times, the audience erupted in laughter at the final bit of banter, in which elf-eared Tatum tells Kunis, “Your majesty, I have more in common with a dog than I have with you,” and an understandably lovestruck Kunis replies, “I love dogs! I’ve always loved dogs!” Sure, that’s one section of dialogue taken out of context, but it indicates a light and nimble approach.

However, even before the surprise premiere, bits of industry intel suggested there was something rotten at the core of Jupiter Ascending. Rumors circulated that the effects were taking forever to finish, that it was being reedited to change the focus of the story, and that test audiences were left scratching their heads. It’s extremely unusual for a studio to push a movie’s release back by seven months. The movie’s rocky road to release is littered with red flags.

So what’s the problem? Perhaps the cosmic palace intrigue gets too intricate? Maybe there are too many conversations between Eddie Redmayne and the lizard people who seem to travel in his retinue? Could it be that there are dozens of plodding subplots that have been edited out of the trailers but are unavoidable in the full narrative? No matter what happens, let’s give a little round of applause for the folks responsible for marketing Jupiter Ascending. As it turns out, their trailers may be better movies than the movie itself.