'Jupiter Ascending' Review: An Impassioned Defense of the Wachowskis' Space Epic
Sometimes a movie can be doomed before it even opens.
This happens when a film is discussed openly without anyone having firsthand knowledge of (or even having seen) it, and it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when said movie come out and underperforms, thanks in large part to countless write-ups lacking reliable sources and built on foundations of hearsay and conjecture. Most of the time, these movies are rediscovered years later because, as it turns out, they weren't that bad after all. Right now, swarms of ill will seem to be circling "Jupiter Ascending," which opens Friday, due largely to a shift in its release date, from a coveted summer-of-2014 slot to a desolate winter 2015 position. Now that it's finally here, though, reviewers are sharpening their knives in anticipation. I am here to say that those knives are not necessary; "Jupiter Ascending" is actually a delightful space epic, full of devilishly clever action set pieces, rococo production design, some surprisingly touching moments, and niftily over-the-top performances.
One of the most marvelous things about "Jupiter Ascending" is just how bizarre it is. The movie details the adventures of young Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), an illegal alien living in Chicago who makes a living scrubbing people's toilets. Elsewhere, in some far-flung corner of the universe, a royal dynasty is squabbling over who owns Earth, a planet rich in an essential ingredient utilized for outer space commerce. Soon it's discovered that Jupiter is a "recurrent," a genetic double for a once vaulted high queen (and rightful owner of the planet). Soon, everybody is after her, including a half-wolf bounty hunter named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a space police force, this crazy dinosaur guy, and all those squabbling royals (led by Eddie Redmayne). This is fairly standard science-fiction stuff, but the way that the Wachowskis ("The Matrix," "Bound," "Cloud Atlas") pull it off is absolutely, 100% theirs.
When Jupiter initially encounters some outer-space visitors, she is in a women's health clinic having her eggs harvested so she can buy a telescope that reminds her of her murdered father (yes, there is a lengthy flashback to Soviet Russia, why wouldn't there be?), there is a whole section of the movie devoted to Jupiter obtaining her queenly status through bureaucratic paperwork (complete with a cameo from "Brazil" director Terry Gilliam), and, oh yeah, did you read that part about the crazy dinosaur guy?
At its best, "Jupiter Ascending" is wonderfully, breathlessly alive. There are moments of genuine, awe-inspiring beauty and it's full of the beautiful world-building that made "The Matrix" films so transformative. The Wachowskis are incredibly earnest filmmakers, sometimes to a fault, and they believe in what they're doing so completely. It's infectious and so completely at odds with the cold cynicism of most Hollywood productions and adds to the buoyantly fun, Saturday-afternoon serial feeling of the film, reminiscent of everything from "Flash Gordon" to "Star Wars." You can tell that they've lovingly pored over every frame.
That's not to say that the movie is perfect; there's way too much jargon and exposition, delivered in a way that is much harsher than anything in "The Matrix" films. Sometimes certain visual aspects look so similar that it's hard to tell them apart (spaceships, dinosaur men). And, occasionally, the film can get lost in the specifics of its loopy screenplay. But these are minor faults and didn't, for an instant, take me away from having a blast.
For all of the screenplay's detail and complexity, the movie's best, most profound moments are also its simplest. There's a moment when, back on Earth, Jupiter is surrounded by a swarm of bees that respond to her in an elegant way, like Jupiter is conducting a symphony. Another moment juxtaposes a lavishly over-the-top wedding (with Kunis wearing one of the all-time most amazing cinematic wedding dresses) with an outer-space firefight. And then there's the Chicago chase, involving several spaceships and large sections of Chicago getting blown to smithereens. That chase feels new and revolutionary, like the first time you saw the "bullet time" effect in "The Matrix," and the wizards responsible for it (Double Negative) should be paid a huge compliment for their tireless, hard work. When the studio announced that the scheduling shift was due to the complex nature of the visual effects, you can understand why.
And this, of course, makes the fact that the critical community is already starting to pile on top of the film even more depressing. Recently, Lana Wachowski, one half of the directing duo, stated that when something is weird or different or off-center on television, it's celebrated for breaking from the proven formula. But when that is attempted in movies, it's condemned. And that's true, especially for the Wachowskis, who continually try to reinvent and top themselves, while working in a kind of social consciousness and thematic resonance, sometimes to disastrous financial results. And it's a shame to think of a movie so full of stunning images and crazy ideas and barbed wit suffering because it's hard to pin down on a tonal level, or because critics and journalists have somehow poisoned the well due to a smattering of half-whispered intelligence.
"Jupiter Ascending" doesn't deserve to be dismissed; it's a genuine thrill, full of all sorts of things that you've never seen before and made by two uncompromisingly brilliant filmmakers who continue to push the boundaries of mainstream movies. Expand your universe, indeed.
"Jupiter Ascending" is in theaters Friday, February 6.
Editor's note: Oops! We incorrectly credited ILM with the Chicago chase scene when it was the wizards at Double Negative who pulled out all the stops. The review has been updated to reflect the correct information.