Monday, February 9, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending
Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski

2.5 out of 5

The Wachowski siblings' quest to out-weird themselves continues with Jupiter Ascending, a sprawling space opera that proudly chooses quantity over quality when it comes to the ideas that shape its original sci-fi narrative.  And for a while, "quantity" doesn't seem like a bad choice: the film's whirlwind first act includes attempted alien abduction, cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunters, a caste of test-tube humans spliced with animal DNA, and the machinations of intergalactic aristocrats trying to gain control the most lucrative and resource-rich planet left to them in their late mother's will: Earth.  

Caught in the middle of this madness is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a humble domestic worker and undocumented immigrant living with her large Russian immigrant family in Chicago.  However, this being a space opera, Jupiter is in reality a very important figure in these space politics, which becomes clear when she's rescued from the alien minions hunting her by a human-wolf hybrid named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum).  She's then whisked away beyond the stars to reclaim the royal birthright waiting for her, and to make decisions that affect the fate of the entire universe with only the slightest giblets of information about what in the holy hell is going on.

The film plays like the colicky love child of Dune and Flash Gordon, attempting to parlay its obsession with court intrigue and political ritual into big, dumb action setpieces.  Unfortunately, it's a fatally unbalanced equation.  Tatum is much blander than a wolf-eared super soldier who rides around on anti-gravity rollerblades should ever be, and the movie relies on a repetitive cycle of capture, rescue, and escape that belies the painstakingly detailed world in which it takes place.  Indeed, there's another, more interesting movie going on beneath Tatum's rote action hero exercises, one where Kunis' screwball charm elevates her secret space princess backstory, and where the Wachowskis manage to insert grace notes about personhood and identity (there's a wonderful sequence where Jupiter endures a labyrinth of bureaucrats and paperwork in an homage to Brazil) alongside indelible images of gorgeous gilded spaceships and the many Dr. Moreau-style hybrids that form a kind of galactic underclass.

Jupiter Ascending will undoubtedly receive plenty of scorn for its overstuffed and incoherent plot, its reliance on space fantasy clichés, and the nonexistent chemistry of its leads.  None of it will be unwarranted; despite a release date change, it still draws unkind comparisons to similar fare like Guardians of the Galaxy.  But to pillory the film for its unabashed weirdness is a fatal mistake, an act of myopia that not only discounts the fascinating marginalia and omnivorous influences present in the Wachowskis' world-building, but also discourages any sort of deviation from the status quo of big-budget pictures.  So many movies fail in the most boring, predictable ways possible.  We should be more grateful when a movie like Jupiter Ascending has the good sense to stumble with style.

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