The term “space opera” gets thrown around every time a big-budget fantasy set in space rolls into theatres, but Jupiter Ascending actually earns the title: whatever you may think of it, there's no denying that it's pretty damn operatic. There's a pure-hearted earnestness here which might have felt run-of-the-mill thirty years ago but feels fairly bracing in 2015. It's a movie filled with flying dinosaur soldiers, shape-shifting aliens, genetic splicing, bonkers performances, grandiose concepts, political statements, royalphile bees, anti-gravity roller blades, Brazil references and a metric ton of world-building lore. Is it good? Not in any conventional sense, no. Is it an entertaining and memorable theatrical experience? Oh yes.
Jupiter Ascending tells the story of a young woman named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis, Ted), who lives with an extended family of Russian immigrants in Chicago. Her daily life is largely filled with hard work and family squabbles, and it's a routine she's eager to break free of. Soon – through circumstances too absurd for me to describe here – she finds herself swept up in a universe-spanning adventure. It seems that Jupiter is actually the clone of a deceased space queen, and that she is the rightful heir to the planet earth as a result of this. Unfortunately, that queen's surviving children have learned of Jupiter's existence and are determined to exterminate her before she has a chance to make her claim.
Jupiter is aided in her quest for glory by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher), a part-man/part-animal genetic hybrid who seems to be 10% wolf, 10% elf and 80% Magic Mike. Their relationship is largely defined by scenes in which Jupiter stumbles into a sticky situation and Caine bursts in to save her, shooting people with his space guns (and showing off his other space guns) as he flits around the room in his hi-tech wonder boots. Occasionally, they pause to kiss or contemplate kissing. “I'm more dog than man,” Caine cautions Jupiter. “I like dogs,” she says, leaning in with anticipation. I kid you not when I say that this line inspired a group of teenage girls at my screening to sigh with empathy.
There is much to mock in Jupiter Ascending, but there is just as much to admire. I have a good deal of respect for Andy and Lana Wachowski, a team that brings such obvious sincerity to the table. The finished product may not quite match the scope of their ambition (and the ambition isn't as high as it was in their last feature, the imperfect yet indelible Cloud Atlas), but it's rare that you find a massive blockbuster that feels this heartfelt and personal. The other big factor is that there's a lot of entertainment value to be found in the film, which both indulges old-fashioned fantasy conventions and cheerfully toys with them.
Just wait until you see what Eddie Redmayne does in this movie. Playing the villainous Balem Abrasax (one of many outlandish character names), Redmayne speaks in an intense whisper that's unlike anything I've ever heard. Every now and then, he'll stop whispering and scream at the top of his lungs. The performance leaps so far over the top that it becomes its own strangely transcendent thing. Redmayne's overacting bothered me in The Theory of Everything, but he's magnificently in tune with the vibe of this movie (much as the bellowing Roger Allam was in tune with the vibe of Speed Racer).
None of the other performances are quite that memorable – okay, none of the other performances are half that memorable – but there are some nice touches here and there. There's one guy with a red nose who looks like an anthropomorphic rat from the French Revolution, and actor Edward Hogg (Anonymous) plays all of his scenes with such naked villainy that it becomes immensely amusing after a while (in one scene, he delivers a monologue that basically translates as, “I've laid a terrible trap for you, please step into it”). Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) brings a real humanity to his supporting role as a jaded old comrade of Caine's, and there's a kooky cameo from Terry Gilliam, patron saint of ambitious cinematic flops.
The leads, alas, don't fare nearly as well. Mila Kunis seems a little uncertain of how she should play Jupiter, though that may admittedly be partially due to the fact that she's playing a young woman who is often completely out of her element. Honestly, Jupiter isn't much of a character, which is a problem when one considers that the film is built around her and named after her. She feels like a Disney princess of yesteryear; a sweet but perpetually clueless young woman who makes one obvious mistake after another and then must wait for her ever-present prince to come rescue her. Tatum is a bit more convincing, mostly because his role is a surprisingly simple one. The actor has demonstrated on a number of occasions that he's capable of playing more than a heroic hunk, but the part of Caine certainly doesn't require him to do much more than look muscular and serious.
A decent chunk of the film is occupied by action sequences, and it must be said that most of those scenes don't feel worthy of the team that gave us The Matrix (or even the Neo Seoul scenes in Cloud Atlas, for that matter). They aren't bad, exactly, they merely feel blandly competent in the same way that many of the action scenes in most Marvel movies feel blandly competent. They do admittedly have the benefit of a fantastic, exhilarating Michael Giacchino score, who does his best John Williams impression to tremendous effect. Please note: I'm well aware that many film critics are fond of labeling any large-scale orchestral score a “John Williams impression.” That's not what I'm doing here – there are very specific echoes of Williams' work, particularly his score for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (another problematic, expensive, ambitious film as unfairly despised as Jupiter Ascending).
The dialogue is incredibly exposition-heavy (I could be wrong, but it felt as if roughly half the movie was comprised of scenes in which characters explain to each other who certain people are, what a certain place is, how certain customs work, etc.), but there's also plenty of stuff that just goes completely unexplained. For me, this proved one of the film's strange pleasures – the characters talk and talk and talk, but we still get the sense that we've only scratched the surface of this wild, wondrous universe the Wachowskis have created. If only there were more scenes actually exploring it and fewer scenes discussing it. To riff on a notion suggested by Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice, the film often feels like a 50-hour RPG condensed to two hours of cutscenes. In a sense, the movie lacks momentum. In another sense, it moves with alarming and invigorating speed. Some of you may suggest that the latter sense is, in fact, a lack of sense. There is what I know and what I feel, and cinema is a fundamentally emotion-driven medium.
Anyway. The Wachowskis have a lot of thematic ideas to convey, and not all of them manage to stick. The film is as blatantly anti-capitalist as Speed Racer, but it must be noted that this theme is often conveyed rather clumsily (read: dumb/villainous characters like to talk about the virtues of capitalism and profit). The movie lifts the “time as a precious resource” notion from Andrew Niccol's terrible In Time, but doesn't quite manage to explore that idea with enough depth. On the other hand, I flat-out loved the idea presented by the film's conclusion, which successfully subverts the conventional Hollywood notion of a “happy ending” in a way that truly surprised me. It's a beautifully human grace note for the film, and I couldn't help but smile as the credits rolled. There is indeed a currency more precious than time, and for all of its faults, Jupiter Ascending knows exactly what it is.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Year: 2015