If the Wachowskis deserve credit for nothing else (and let’s be clear, the deserve credit for quite a bit), they certainly never undershoot their ambitions. No, every time the Wachowski siblings grab a megaphone and put on their directing pants, they go big and dare themselves to fail. With ‘Jupiter Ascending’, they’ve delivered a space opera packed with astounding set-pieces, ridiculous performances, encyclopedias worth of mythology, and a fully formed (if fully insane) universe. Their latest effort is far from perfect and often falls flat on its face, as tends to happen when filmmakers leap without a safety net. But when the pieces that work flicker across the screen, you can’t help but smile.
So, plot summary… Yeesh. This will be tough given that the Wachowkis essentially spend every non-action scene struggling to condense all their plot and mythology into bite-sized chunks. I’ll just stick to the basics. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, an illegal Russian immigrant who cleans toilets to carve out something resembling a life in Chicago. One day, she’s driven to sell her eggs for cash and ends up on an operating table surrounded by aliens planning to kill her. At that moment, Caine (Channing Tatum) bursts through the door and kills all those pesky aliens while flying around the room in a pair of rocket boots. From there, the two make a trip to Sean Bean’s house filled with bees, and we learn that Caine is part wolf, part man, and all hunk, while Jupiter turns out to be the queen of the universe or something along those lines. There are a bunch of amazing action sequences in and around that, and eventually the film goes to the farthest reaches of space, where Jupiter meets the three children she gave birth to in a past life (Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Booth and Eddie Redmayne). Unsurprisingly, they all turn out to be evil in their own personal ways, and Jupiter and Caine have to fight to save the planet Earth.
Did you get all that? Don’t worry, I’m not sure I got it all either.
Like all Wachowski movies at their best, ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is a work of pastiche. It’s a little ‘Heavy Metal’ here, a little ‘Dune’ there, a little ‘Matrix’ over in the corner, some ‘Star Wars’ tucked under the rug, and oh look a full ‘Brazil’ homage montage capped off with a cameo by Terry Gilliam. Much like they did in ‘The Matrix’, the Wachowskis stick a stack of influences into a blender and then fashion it into a fresh adventure that’s entirely their own. If ‘The Matrix’ was the Jesus myth via cyberpunk anime, then ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is a Disney princess story filtered through all the major sci-fi fantasies and space operas of the 20th Century. At times, the movie feels just as garbled and confused as that description sounds, yet at other times it’s just as joyous and exciting as you’d hope.
First and foremost, the film is a wondrous bit of eye candy. The action sequences (especially a vertigo-inducing flying fight through Chicago) are peerlessly executed. Working in 3D for the first time and fully embracing the format, the Wachowskis have used the massive resources at their disposal to create stunning dogfights, fisticuffs, and destruction scenes that prove just how adept they are at creating the finest cinematic spectacle a few hundred million dollars can buy. Unlike the Michael Bays of the world, their action scenes are also completely clear as to what’s happening at all times while still delivering maximum impact.
Unfortunately, whenever the movie slows down enough for characters to start speaking to each other, things don’t play out quite so flawlessly. There are some intriguing ideas at the core of this mythology that I won’t dare spoil, but toy with the apocalyptic future at the center of ‘The Matrix’ in amusing ways. Quite often, the right mix of actor and character can cut through all the dense expository dialogue and create an amusing moment devoid of fancy effects and explosions. In particular, Kunis is better than she’s ever been in a lead role. Tatum and Bean share a few amusing arguments, Gilliam’s cameo is hysterical, and Douglas Booth does a “pretty little creep” thing well.
Sadly, the histrionics and exaggerated characterizations are too much for some. That’s especially true of Redmayne, a truly great actor whose mixture of snarls and eyeliner is often laughable here. To be fair, it’s not all Redmayne’s fault. In their quest to reign supreme in the world of ridiculous space operas, the Wachowskis have provided their actors with some of the densest and least speakable dialogue since David Lynch sulked his way through ‘Dune’.
Toss in some absurd head-scratching moments and a few unbelievably lame stabs at comedic relief, and you’ve got a movie that quite often falls into the category of “laughably bad.” Yet, the Wachowskis vision is so bizarre, their visual pyrotechnics so eye-gouging, and their sense of pacing so unrelenting that it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the rush of it all. This ain’t ‘The Matrix’. Hell, it’s not even ‘Speed Racer’. But at least it’s not as lost as ‘Cloud Atlas’. The mixture of genuine thrills and accidental camp in ‘Jupiter Ascending’ flies at the audience with such manic intensity that it’s hard not to be pummeled into submission and have a good time. Love it or loathe it, you’ll have fun with this nutso production. Seek it out on the biggest screen possible and try not to take it too seriously. There are good times to be had, I swear.