Jupiter Ascending is a totally nuts, lavishly costumed, deeply funny, completely campy, ridiculously dense space opera that is, more or less, about evil businessmen trying to destroy the Earth and about love saving it. It is so nuts and lush and weird that there is almost no chance it will find an audience in theaters. It demands repeat viewings. It practically screams Basic Cable Classic.
What I’m saying is that there’s about a 50-50 chance that Jupiter Ascending becomes The Fifth Element of the 2010s.
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Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) was born in exile, her mother having fled Russia after her father was killed in a home invasion. (Russia is just the worst.) An illegal immigrant living in a Chicago-area basement, she spends her days scrubbing toilets, dusting shelves, and dreaming about a better life.
Little does she know that the universe has plans for her. It turns out Jupiter is an exact genetic match for a recently deceased intergalactic royal—one who just so happens to own Planet Earth. Planets like Earth, you see, are little more than farms. Their main crop? Humans. And it’s almost harvesting season.
The harvesters are the Abrasax clan, the children of the queen Jupiter matches genetically. There’s the eldest son, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), who following the emergence of Jupiter loses possession of the incredibly valuable planet of Earth. Then there’s Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), a daughter working her own angle. And, finally, there is Titus (Douglas Booth), the younger son who claims to want to end the harvests and bring peace to humankind.
Protecting Jupiter from her, well, children is Caine (Channing Tatum), a half-man, half-dog hybrid with a great sense of smell and some nifty shoes that allow him to "surf gravity." Imagine someone roller blading into the sky, and you get the idea. He’s a trained hunter and an expert killer, and most of the film’s many action sequences revolve around his feats of derring-do.
There are moments of incredible hilarity in Jupiter Ascending. One sequence, involving Jupiter and her robot lawyer’s efforts to navigate the absurd intergalactic bureaucracy, stands out in particular: We cut from window to window, each telling Jupiter and Advocate Bob to get a slightly different form from a slightly different bureaucrat. It’s high comedy in the Python style. No wonder Terry Gilliam is credited with a bit part and the dread 27b stroke six is name-dropped.
Much of the rest of the humor comes from the over-the-top camp of the performances, especially those turned in by the Abrasax clan. Redmayne, arguably the favorite for best actor at the Academy Awards later this month, reads his lines alternating between a husky whisper and a high-pitched scream, one that elicited no small number of giggles from my fellow audience members. Some have wondered if this is Redmayne’s "Norbit"—a reference to the dreadful Eddie Murphy comedy that is rumored to have cost him a best supporting actor nod for his turn in Dreamgirls—but that seems unfair. Redmayne is treating the role exactly as he should have: with over-the-top, unrestrained glee.
Jupiter Ascending is something like the photonegative of the Wachowskis’ The Matrix. Gender roles are reversed: Jupiter is The One, the normal person with a destiny they can’t quite comprehend, while Caine slips into the Trinity role—protector, explainer—with ease. Instead of burrowing into cyberspace, the movie takes flight into outer space. Humans are again being harvested for a form of energy, and only true love can save the day.
The most disappointing aspect of Jupiter Ascending is, surprisingly, its action sequences. The Wachowskis have always known how to put together a set piece, but the computer-generated mayhem in Jupiter Ascending is borderline incomprehensible, especially in the film’s later scenes. It doesn’t help that Tatum looks like a ridiculous dope from a mid-90s TV show while "gravity surfing."
Jupiter Ascending may disappoint those hoping for a return to form for the Wachowskis, but only if they go into the film expecting the straight-ahead sci-fi action flick the ad campaign has promised. Jupiter Ascending is so much more than that. Not necessarily "better," mind you. Just more.