There is no other movie like Jupiter Ascending. Don’t get me wrong, the latest ambitious original intellectual property (IP) from the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas, The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer) is an imaginative and goofy epic space opera with ideas and concepts never done before. With a seemingly bottomless budget and decades (possibly eons) of sci-fi concept art and clear influences from Japanese comics and animation, these ambitious auteur have created not only the craziest, biggest and most visionary sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters of our time…they may have also made one of the dumbest and messiest movies to ever clunk its way to the big screen. In some ways I was reminded of the sheer absurd and trashy joy I felt last year when I saw Luc Besson’s Lucy but I feel that may be underselling it. By no means is Jupiter Ascending a “good” movie let alone a “smart” movie (though it’s clear even in this film the Wachowski siblings may be two of the most intelligent and ambitious mainstream filmmakers out there) but it is endlessly entertaining both in intentional ways and unintentional ways (just as many “so bad-it’s good” moments as there are respectable moments of filmmaking craft) that it practically defies traditional qualification. It’s unfortunate that this film seems destined to fall at the box office (it’s being taken down from screens pretty fast) because if I had the choice between seeing competent-yet-unimaginative and repetitive blockbuster fare (such as the Marvel superhero films) versus endlessly imaginative and wildly ambitious yet weirdly incompetent failures like this, I’d choose the latter every time. Even if this film is for all intents and purposes “terribad,” it’s also one of those rare times I saw a movie and truly felt there were endless possibilities as to what can be imagined and brought to life on screen.
The story is deceptively simple and recalls countless old-school manga and anime not to mention modern young adult fiction influences: a seemingly ordinary girl, Jupiter (played with perkiness by Mila Kunis) discovers she is the reincarnation of a space queen and is whisked away by a dashing hero/love interest (Channing Tatum in full-on “swoon for me” mode) on a journey to save the universe. It’s a “chosen one” story not too dissimilar for the Wachowskis’ now-classic The Matrix both in setup and even act structure but the difference (and what sets Jupiter Ascending apart) lies in execution. What makes the film a remarkable mess is the way the Wachowskis manage to blend all of their influences into something like a cohesive worldview. The best way to describe this movie is…”EVERYTHING.” It’s about genetic pre-destination, warring alien clans, dream-world conspiracies, oppressive oligarchies, space cops, half-animal people, space taxes and BEES etc., there’s too much to list (otherwise this write-up would be a novel). All these things and never once does it feel like the pieces don’t belong with one another. From winged space lizards, hunks on hover skates, fallen angles, elephant men, robots of all shapes and sizes, purple-haired divas on space motorcycles, baroque space ships, zero-gravity orgies and endless arrays chest-exposing sequin gowns…this movie is almost too much. So it’s not the perfect synthesis of pop philosophy and geek tastes that The Matrix was but it feels personal in the way that big-budget, effects-driven movies almost never do.
The one caveat is that nothing in Jupiter Ascending really works, beyond the production design and high-concept. Sure the manic schlocky “acting” from certain character actors (looking at you Eddie Redmayne) helps the movie stay on the right side of “so bad it’s good” but so much of the movie seems erroneous. The script is not exactly flat, as it’s mostly a series of scenes of expository dialogue where Mila Kunis (who is kind of miscast as the “plain Jane”) and parades through various worlds and scenarios while everybody tells her who she is and what they want (or they attack her in increasingly cartoonish ways). All the more damning is the fact that she has no chemistry with Channing Tatum (who is perfectly cast), trapped in a humorless role as the dog/angel man Caine Wise. Their “love” drives the plot along and while the two might be swoon-worthy enough for the Tumblr generation of pop-culture fans, it never quite works the way even the much-maligned Twilight franchise seems to get at. These lifeless expository moments are frequently interrupted by gorgeous action set pieces (most of which revolve around a shirtless Tatum on his flying hoverskates) that, while a lot of fun viscerally, seem intrusive and really out of place. There’s something off about the editing and structure of the film and I have a sneaking suspicion that it has something to do with the constant delays, re-shoots and re-cuts the film has suffered.
And of course there are the “bad” things in the movie that are actually kind of endearing enough to become genuinely entertaining. As mentioned before…there are bizarre choices from character actors like Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, as “Balem Abrasax” (*chuckle*). I simply must go on a tangent on his performance because it’s so…weird and awful…and I loved it. Redmayne, dressed in elegant gowns fit for a drag queen, whispers his dialogue down to an inaudible Marlon Brando impression before unexpectedly shouting like a stereotypical German dictator for a line or two: he goes from under-acting to over-acting with the same sort of spontaneity that the movie throws ideas and concepts at the screen. And he’s not alone, the supporting cast including Sean Bean, Tuppance Middleton, Gugu Mbtha-Raw etc such that the film is full of perfect B-movie hammy acting and enough self awareness to be in completely in-tune with this already bonkers movie. Kunis and Tatum’s memo as to what kind of film this is may have been lost in the mail.
It’s important that you understand how much I appreciate the work of The Wachowskis. Yes, The Matrix Revolutions is a spectacular failure (with a truly sublime ending) but Speed Racer is pure pop-art and Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece. They make the big ambitious films that dare not to kowtow to what’s trending in the realm of blockbuster films. Jupiter Ascending is probably their weakest effort since that 3rd Matrix film but unlike that movie it never feels lifeless or confused. Much like Luc Besson’s dopey odyssey Lucy, Jupiter Ascending is sort of this freewheeling messy wad of insanity I can’t help but love. This movie forsook every opportunity to become the next big original sci-fi intellectual property and that is undoubtedly a tragedy that may doom us to hundreds more Marvel movies and Star Wars sequels. However, what we did get is this huge and glorious kitsch-y “so bad it’s good” junk food picture which is kind of majestic in it’s own way. It’s in line alongside movies like Krull, David Lynch’s Dune, Waterworld, The Shadow, Showgirls, Battlefield Earth, The Room, Lucy etc destined to become a “bad movie” viewing party staple and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Jupiter Ascending is a wondrous and beautiful experience that is as spectacular in its successes as it is in its failings.