Jupiter Ascending

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/06/15 17:20:27

"I Love Dogs"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Jupiter Ascending," the latest sci-fi epic from the Wachowskis, is a film that has arrived in theaters with the stench of disaster all over it. Originally it was supposed to be released last summer but was yanked from the schedule at the last minute and stuck into a dead-of-winter slot usually reserved for movies that studios are trying to dump--a move that is generally considered a signal of trouble for any movie and especially for a potential tentpole property carrying a budget running upwards of $175 million. The trailer was a mess that offered up a lot of flashy imagery, weird romantic banter between stars Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis ("I love dogs") and the sight of Oscar front-runner Eddie Redmayne hamming it up but failed to explain what the hell it was supposed to be about. After a surprise screening at Sundance failed to enthuse the crowds that once venerated the likes of "Happy Texas" and "Like Crazy," the knives were officially out and the critics, for the most part, have slaughtered it--even those who gave "Transcendence" a four-star rave have gone after it like it was spreading measles or something.

There is only one minor problem with this particular scenario, at least from my humble perspective, and that is the inescapable fact that I kind of liked "Jupiter Ascending" Yes, it is an incomprehensible mess for the most part and it will almost certainly fail to find favor with the mass audiences needed to help recoup even a small portion of its extravagant budget. And yet, it has a cheerfully goofball spirit and some extraordinary visuals and it is certainly never boring--three things that can't be said about the vast majority of the big-budget fantasy epics hitting the multiplexes these days. It may be a failure by conventional standards--it will almost certainly signal the end of the Wachowskis being able to score the huge budgets they have been playing with since the surprise success of "The Matrix"--but I have the sneaking suspicion that this is one of those movies whose reputation is going to slowly but surely improve once the dust settles and future generations will be able to read clickbait articles wondering why it failed to find an audience when it first came out.

Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones and dammit, I am almost willing to give the film a star based on that name alone. Anyway, Jupiter is an illegal immigrant from Russia who is barely eking out a miserable living in Chicago scrubbing toilets and cleaning the homes of the well-to-do as part of her family's low-rent cleaning business. In other words, she is convinced that she is doomed to a life of nothingness but as fans of elaborate fantasy epics of this sort can attest, she is more important to the scheme of things than she can possibly imagine. That discovery becomes clear when an attempt to harvest some of her eggs for cash leads to her being probed by a bunch of weird alien creatures before being rescued in the ta-daa nick of time by Caine (Tatum), a half-human, half-wolf interplanetary hunter who swoops in and carries her through the skies to safety with the aid of his fancy rocket boots. Yes, this film has Channing Tatum as a half-hunk/half wolf hurtling through the Chicago skyline on his rocket boots--that image alone beats the "Hobbit" saga entire like a gong in my book.

As I think I have it, Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family, an incredibly rich and powerful intergalactic business concern that owns entire galaxies and which includes the planet Earth among its holdings. As the reincarnation, Jupiter now owns Earth and finds herself in the middle of a power play between the three Abrasax siblings--Kallique (Tuppence Middleton) tries to lure her to her side with the promise of eternal youth and beauty (though you don't want to know how this is facilitated), Titus (Douglas Booth) wants to marry her as part of what seems to be a straightforward business alliance and the vile Balem (Redmayne), who had been in control of Earth until knowledge of Jupiter came about, just wants to kill her. Now with the fate of Earth literally in her hands, Jupiter tries to stay one step ahead of the game while beginning to realize that despite being a wolf-boy, Caine is still on the hot side.

In other words, "Jupiter Ascending" is essentially "The Matrix" filtered through the framework of a standard-issue best-selling YA book series with healthy dollops of elements taken from the likes of "Blade Runner," "Brazil," "Soylent Green" and any number of other genre favorites. Although this might seem to be a disappointing step back on the part of the Wachowskis in an effort to regain the pop cultural zeitgeist that they first seized with the release of "The Matrix" back in 1999, maintained with the powerful "V for Vendetta" and then lost amidst the twin disasters that were "Speed Racer" and "Cloud Atlas," I didn't mind so much. This finds the Wachowskis working with a definitively lighter frame of mind that is a refreshing change of pace from the occasional heavy lifting that dominated many of their previous efforts. While this may prove to be off-putting to those hoping for another metaphysical head trip along the lines of "The Matrix," those in the mood for something sillier and wilder--think along the likes of "Flash Gordon" and "The Fifth Element"--may indeed get a kick out of the proceedings.

With a film like "Jupiter Ascending," however, the narrative is almost besides the point (which becomes painfully obvious during the moments when it takes a breather from the action to explain the plot via exceedingly lump bits of raw exposition)--this is all about the spectacle and in that regard, it is pretty breathtaking. On Earth, there is an extended sequence in which Caine and Jupiter take to the skies for a fierce battle against their enemies over the Chicago skyline that is a breathless wonder that puts the similar cinematic Second City razings from the "Transformers" films and "Man of Steel" to shame. Once in space, the Wachowskis and their armies of technicians have provided lavishly designed depictions of the alien worlds that are undeniably eye-catching as well. Speaking of eye-catching, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum make for an appealing team as well--they nicely find the right tone to their performances that allow them to fit right in with the breezy nature of their surroundings. As for current Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne, he has been directed to act in such a ridiculously over-the-top manner that it is a wonder that anyone was able to keep a straight face whenever he appeared on the set. It is a singularly awful performance but it is one of those turns that is so crazily terrible that it exudes a certain strange fascination that compels you to keep watching.

I admit that "Jupiter Ascending" is far from perfect--the expository scenes are a mess, the conclusion is yet another action setpiece with people dangling over grand precipices and the whole thing is a little too long for its own good at certain points. However, when it does work--and there are enough moments when it does just that--it has a spark of life to it that is undeniably appealing and which sets it apart from other films of its type, which too often come across like filmed business memos than anything else. It will not go down as a genre classic and it will never rank among the top title in the Wachowski filmography (though it is easily the most entertaining film they have been involved with since "V for Vendetta") but having entered the theater with the lowest possible expectations, I emerged from it 130 minutes later more entertained than I could have possibly expected myself to be. Sadly, there is almost no way that a film this goofy could possibly become a hit at the box-office but my guess is that this is one of those oddities that will one day inspire a loyal and fervent cult following. Therefore, why not see it now and get in on the ground floor while you can?

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