If there’s one thing that Jupiter Ascending should make perfectly clear, it’s that some critics aren’t going to like a genre movies no matter what. After years of moaning about how everything is a sequel, prequel, adaptation, remake, spinoff, or ripoff, they finally get an original story and now it’s too weird. It’s okay, guys; you can admit you just don’t like genre pics and be done with it.
To be fair, this latest of the Wachowskis’ ventures is not a great story, but they’ve never really been great storytellers. Even the vaunted Matrix is “yet another Hero’s Journey” with some tired old philosophical hooks tacked on that will Totally Blow The Mind of maybe a college freshman. The best they’ve done on the story side is Cloud Atlas, and that was adapted from David Mitchell’s book, co-directed by Tom Tykwer, and still all the really interesting material is in the metastory. But Jupiter Ascending is a wonderfully sprawling, ambitious mess of a story spilling out haphazardly across the gorgeous visuals the Wachowskis are really known for.
Right off, this is also another Hero’s Journey story, but with a female hero, and that’s something right there. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is exactly the sort of backwater nobody who’s perfect to be launched into importance. An undocumented Russian immigrant, her father was killed in a home-invasion before she was born in a shipping container on the way to America, where she now cleans rich people’s bathrooms.
Speaking of rich people, we also have the Abrasax family and the internecine squabbling between the three heirs: Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). Unbeknownst to most of us, the entire Earth is basically a sort of farming operation — the processing plant is set up inside the planet Jupiter — and Balem holds the controlling interest.
That is, until Ms. Jones enters the picture. She turns out to be genetically identical to the departed Abrasax matriarch, and their culture regards genetics as identity, which means she stands to inherit a significant chunk of the estate. Obviously her presence destabilizes relations between the three siblings; each seeks her out for their own ulterior motives, using a network of genetically-tweaked bounty-hunters (most notably Channing Tatum, but also Sean Bean, Bae Doona, David Ajala, Neil Fingleton and more).
As I said, it gets to be a bit of a mess. Plotlines pick up with little explanation, only to vanish once they’ve served their purpose. There’s a particular bit of misdirection early on involving a rich friend of Jupiter’s that also serves to echo a later theme, but really doesn’t tie in well to the main story. That all said, this approach is something of a welcome break from the Everything Is Destiny style of genre stories like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where every single event ties back to some common cause.
And the sprawl gives the Wachowskis room to reach out and tag in all sorts of references. The alien-seeding backstory ties in with everything from the extinction of the dinosaurs to grey aliens. Belem plays like a mixture of the Harkonnens from Dune and Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon. Kalique’s palace draws heavily from Peter Jackson’s version of Rivendell. Scene after scene is infused with the same Moebius feel that made so many great sci-fi films even greater. The Wachowskis even take both George Lucas and critics of The Phantom Menace to task, not only writing an interesting story that hinges on galactic property rights, but featuring a scene that actually makes bureaucracy entertaining. And of course they pay homage to the film that did it first: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Spotting all the genre references more than makes up for the scattered plot.
Besides, for all its ragged edges the story hangs together well enough, and the real reason to go to a Wachowski movie is the pretty pictures. These are gorgeous. The art direction is phenomenally detailed, and the CGI is fantastic. The renderings in Interstellar may have been scientifically accurate, but I’ll take the portal graphics from Jupiter Ascending over a weak rehash of 2001 any day. The single major complaint is that the action choreography has descended into chaos, falling far short of the bar the Wachowskis set for themselves in The Matrix
High culture this is not; Jupiter Ascending is visually spectacular space opera that doesn’t pretend to be anything more. It’s delightfully weird and off-kilter as it reaches out in every direction, and if you want to be at all original that’s what you have to do. Many audiences may find it awkward, or even laughable, but if you’re willing to embrace the Wachowskis’ weirdness, you’re in for quite a ride.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.