Jupiter Ascending

 

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean

Director: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


On the level of pure escapism, Jupiter Ascending is one of the most monumentally silly films to come out of a Hollywood studio, since, well, Cloud Atlas. If that last ambitious, genre-hopping fiasco from The Wachowskis (with help from co-director Tom Tykwer) was dabbling in gender-bending/sociopolitical themes and heart-tugging universality, their latest sci-fi fantasy mashup is much more charming for being brazenly ridiculousness without self-seriousness weighing it down. Delayed from it's earlier release date in which it would have gone head-to-head with Marvel juggernaut Guardians of the Galaxy, Jupiter Ascending seemed dead upon arrival, at least if one believes the majority critical consensus. But the thing about The Wachowskis, even at their most sincere, is that they don't seem to care about pleasing audiences on a traditional level. In a way, they are filmmakers with big ideas who have been granted massive studio money to allow their imaginations the freedom to run wild. 

Surely, much of what transpires throughout Jupiter Ascending probably shouldn't have gotten past a first draft, but sometimes it's this holy shit, I can't believe they are going there! mentality that gives the film a measure of ingeniousness that glosses over the numerous narrative flaws. To be fair, Jupiter Ascending at times feels like a much larger story crammed into it's 2-hour running time; with extraneous characters, subplots, and world building coming in waves, almost as if The Wachowskis had several editions of a graphic novel series lying around and decided to simply film the first chapter. The story is actually pretty simple, following a doe-eyed Russian immigrant named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) living in modern day Chicago who comes to realize, through the aid of wolf-man hybrid soldier Caine (Channing Tatum), that she's actually a queen of some foreign planet. Unfortunately, this relative simplicity is sometimes camouflaged by The Wachowskis' need to overburden their post-Cinderella fairytale with clunky dialogue, confusing shits in the plot, and elaborate pageant-like costume design. It's a big, loud, clanging mess of a movie, but because of the narrative's wobbly nature, it's also one of the more daftly entertaining big-budget fantasy spectacles to come down the pipeline in years. It's basically a throwback to the 40s/50s space opera; a genre George Lucas drew on heavily for Star Wars and has been in the DNA of nearly every sci-fi epic every since, including The Wachowskis' own Matrix trilogy. In Jupiter Ascending, however, there's a definite sense that the over-designed, bombastic qualities that have been a part of all their work (including Speed Racer) is more attuned to this particular type of story. Since it's a universe of their own making (despite liberally curbing from other properties like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Thor, etc), the Wachowskis make up their own rules and as an audience member, you either go with it or you flee in embarrassment. In it's simplest terms, Jupiter Ascending is like watching Flash Gordon on cocaine; and if that sounds like an absolute blast through the cosmos, then this will likely stroke your specific itch.

In terms of classic Wachowski themes, there's class warfare, capitalism, the have vs. have-nots mentality; not to mention a post-Matrix vision of reality as a formal construct, but most of these ideas barely scan. Instead, we get Kunis' Jupiter Jones coming off like an offensively old-fashioned reworking of fairytale tropes; a meek lower class immigrant caught up in some royal inter-planetary intrigue. Not only does Jones have very little female agency, but she's also constantly falling off buildings only to be caught at the last moment by Tatum's genetically-engineered ex-military rogue. While this is obviously a throwback to the kind of damsel in distress model for old-school space opera, it's downright reductive in 2015 when there are so few strong female roles available. Kunis, meanwhile, looks lost amidst the swirling digital overload and gaudy sets; never quite finding the right balance between bafflement at her predicament and the tenacity needed to buy into all of the cosmic silliness on display. There's also zero chemistry with Tatum, who plays Caine with a light twinkle in his eyes, but very little actual charisma. The supposed romance that develops between them is both predictable and dispiriting, but honestly, none of that really matters. In fact, one could make the case that connecting to the characters or caring about the eventual outcome of the story is also fairly irrelevant. What matters here is seeing Tatum wearing elf-like ears, a bleached goatee, and anti-gravity boots; Eddie Redmayne as the villian clutching his soon-to-be Razzie Award purring, cooing, and screaming at the top of his lungs like a poor man's Emperor Ming; and Sean Bean showing up as some guy housing a ton of bees who harness the strange power to recognize royalty.

It's this kind of daringly goofy sensibility that saves Jupiter Ascending from stretches of boring, expository dialogue and loud action sequences that go on far too long. To that end, there's one chase early on across the Chicago skyline that's thrilling insofar as transforming alien spaceships in pursuit of an air-rollerblading Tatum carrying a helpless, toilet-scrubbing Jupiter Jones on his back can be thrilling. But it also points to a problem with Wachowski films in general; in that they contain awe-inspiring visuals and imaginative takes on traditional action beats, but just as often don't know when to quit or give audiences a sense of momentum building up to such moments. Still, this is worlds away from the brain-dead masturbatory filmmaking of Michael Bay or the Ryan Reynolds dud Green Lantern. The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a very distinct vision and whose ambition cannot be faulted, and even though it's hard to claim that Jupiter Ascending is qualitatively good, it does work on the level of dorky space-opera entertainment. It's also much more fascinating than Guardians of the Galaxy, for which it will be unfavorably compared. While that film was more cohesive, with memorable characters and self-aware humor, it ultimately followed the dull template of the Marvel franchise, complete with a villain searching for a shiny orb and a race to save the world. Jupiter Ascending, on the other hand, isn't beholden to anything other than The Wachowskis' imagination, and on those grounds, it's a loopy escapist romp about a woman with a genetic signature that could affect the future of the entire cosmos. Plus, it's got that Tatum goatee, those anti-gravity rollerblades, and a vamping Redmayne chomping down on a galactic ham sandwich.