**** (out of 5)
February 6, 2015
Mila Kunis as JUPITER JONES
Channing Tatum as CAINE WISE
Sean Bean as STINGER APINI
Eddie Redmayne as BALEM ABRASAX
Douglas Booth as TITUS ABRASAX
Tuppence Middleton as KALIQUE ABRASAX
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: The Wachowskis
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
One of the most depressing things about the release of “Jupiter Ascending” is the virtual feeding frenzy of criticism surrounding the film. The Wachowskis – who were once considered the golden children of science fiction, destined to lead a city of sequels, reboots and remakes out of the dark ages – have become two of the most maligned filmmakers for doing exactly what they’re supposed to do: make original and stimulating science fiction cinema.
Yeah, I know a lot of people have taken issue with some clunky writing, poor casting and possibly racially-insensitive elements (looking at you, “Cloud Atlas”). I don’t deny those things exist in their films. However, there’s still a lot of greatness in the Wachowskis’ vision.
This actually started as far back as with “The Matrix Reloaded.” Not being able to deliver the freshness and innovation of bullet-time and the OMG-inspiring reactions to Neo waking up from the Matrix was their downfall. Back then, I lamented that you will never experience bullet-time for the first time ever again, just as you’ll only be able to experience John William’s majestic score and the “Star Wars” crawl for the first time ever again. However, that doesn’t mean that the filmmakers are cinematic pariahs for not being able to deliver such an effect upon every outing.
Like “Cloud Atlas,” “Jupiter Ascending” delivers exactly what critics and film fans have been clamoring for, a wholly original, visionary science fiction thrill ride that doesn’t rely on a long-standing brand like “Star Wars” or the Marvel series. However, because they’re not on that familiar ground, these films seem to suffer and struggle to find an audience.
So, is “Jupiter Ascending” a masterpiece? No, but I doubt the Wachowskis ever intend to make one of those. Sadly, it was “The Matrix” that broke the mold more than 15 years ago, and they haven’t been able to make a new one. Still, if you’re not going in to skewer the movie because it’s the cool thing to do, you might just enjoy it for the pulpy old-school fun factor.
The story follows a young woman named Jupiter (Mila Kunis) who lives with her Russian immigrant family and cleans toilets for a living in Chicago. However, when she stumbles onto an apparent alien abduction, she soon learns that she is intergalactic royalty, being hunted by several different bounty hunters. One of them, a wolf-soldier hybrid named Caine (Channing Tatum) saves her life and takes her to the stars to claim her birthright ownership of the Earth. Of course, her intergalactic family are also scheming and fighting amongst themselves to seize control of the planet for sinister developmental purposes.
While I was skeptical of Kunis and Tatum in these roles – and while I will quickly admit that they are each far from perfect for the parts – they are entirely serviceable in the film. Kunis’s character is sadly underwritten, and some of the silly decisions she makes throughout the film appear to be bad writing on the surface but upon greater reflection are probably unfortunate artifacts of time compression.
The other thing that stands out as silly in this movie is Eddie Redmayne’s breathy villain. He chews the scenery as badly as Gary Oldman does in “The Fifth Element,” but you can’t fault him for his level of commitment. It’s an over-the-top performance and a calculated misfire, but I could look past it and enjoy the film around it.
Things slow down in the second act a bit more than I’d like, but that was a result of the film juggling some pretty high concepts with some pretty standard story elements. However, it’s hard to deny the fun I had watching the film’s brilliant action sequences and visually arresting effects.
Recently, I revisited the much-maligned “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” after powering through several episode of forgotten 1940s-era serials upon which George Lucas based his series. It was then that I realized that “The Phantom Menace” is much smarter satirical filmmaking than anyone gives it credit for. Sure, it has some lazy writing, racist characters, some painfully substandard characters and some extremely stilted dialogue. However, after watching a couple episodes of “Terry and the Pirates,” “Flash Gordon” and “Nyoka the Jungle Girl,” I realized these were all riffing on the archetypes set up in the 40s.
Similarly, “Jupiter Ascending” is riffing off of pulp science fiction stories that appeared in magazines like “Amazing Stories,” “Astounding Science Fiction” and “Fantastic” before the new wave literary movement ruined the written version of science fiction and “Star Wars” brought the genre to the popular mainstream in the 70s. If you don’t believe me, just look at the character roster on “Jupiter Ascending.” With names like Jupiter Jones as heroine, Caine Wise as the genetic hybrid dog soldier and Stinger as a character who was spliced with bee DNA, how could this not be a deliberate choice? Add to this all the winks and nods the Wachowskis do to classic science fiction from “Flash Gordon” movie riffs to a brilliant cameo by Terry Gilliam in the most “Brazil”-esque sequences in the film.
“Jupiter Ascending” is a fascinating and beautiful movie that might have a problem connecting with the average filmgoer, and that’s a shame. As much as I love the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, their unabashed success at the global box office makes it harder for less mainstream and more out-of-the-box features to get a piece of the pie.
Personally, I hope the Wachowskis don’t stop making movies, and I hope they can still manage to secure budgets (maybe not as huge as the ones for this film and “Cloud Atlas”). They are true artists in the realm, and they never fail to give us something unique and different. Not everything they do can – or will – be “The Matrix,” and we would be very naive to expect as much.