First things first: If, in spite of all the reviews that are piling up utterly trashing the Wachowski siblings’ new space epic Jupiter Ascending, you still plan to go see it, if only to find out whether and how the Sean Bean character dies (as his characters infamously always do), I’m not going to be the one to spoil that discovery for you. Secondly, I’m here to tell you that this movie, while every bit the silly hodgepodge of sci-fi tropes that the other critics are saying, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.
Like John Carter before it, Jupiter Ascending is one of those movies that was meant to be the next Star Warsy franchise, but was torpedoed long before it hit the theaters by industry scuttlebutt about production bloat and cost overruns caused by overreliance on state-of-the-art special effects. That’s unfortunate, because – again like John Carter – there’s actually plenty to enjoy in this movie, especially for fans of that galaxy far, far away.
Jupiter Ascending takes visual spectacle to a new level, especially when it comes to aerial chases. The ones involving the likes of spaceships trying to sneak through rapidly closing wormholes in energy shields make the attack on the Death Star in the original Star Wars trilogy look like…well, 1970s technology, which it was. The ones in which Channing Tatum as intergalactic bounty-hunter Caine Wise zips around the skyscrapers of Chicago on antigravity speed-skates, often diving hundreds of feet to catch a plummeting Mila Kunis in the title role, are just mind-bogglingly exhilarating to watch – especially considering that these sequences were shot from helicopters with real stuntmen rather than simulated on CGI consoles. It’s a visual thrill ride, a movie full of unabashed “Wheeeee!” moments.
That said, Jupiter Ascending bears little dissection as an excuse for storytelling. The dialogue is atrocious and the screenplay utterly lame and derivative. Indeed, though it breaks new ground (or sky) in terms of knockout visual effects, as a yarn it doesn’t have an original bone in its body – to a point where it almost makes no sense to bother carping that the theme of pan-millennial genetic engineering was lifted from the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, its manifestation on Earth reminiscent of the movie Soylent Green, Bean’s character of the reluctant renegade Stinger patterned on Han Solo, the scheming, aristocratic Abrasax siblings inspired by the elite Eloi in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, their retinues’ get-ups imitative of the citizens of the Capital in The Hunger Games and so on and on. It’s a total, unapologetic pastiche. Deal with it.
The cast of Jupiter Ascending is a strange kettle of fish as well. As the unhappy Chicago cleaning woman who turns out to be the genetic replica of a princess from another galaxy who essentially owns the Earth, Mila Kunis looks good in leatherette space jumpsuits but is otherwise sort of annoying – especially in the first half-hour or so of the movie, when she uptalks in a Valley Girl whine and generally acts like the sort of sullen slacker teenager who is the perpetual despair of her parents. Luckily, the accent gradually wears off, and Jupiter eventually gets to do a lot of gymnastics, but Kunis never does embody the sort of butt-kicking sass that a better-cast actress might have brought to the part and won audiences’ hearts.
Tatum doesn’t fare much better as a glum-but-deadly mercenary with wolf genes, hired for his fantastic sense of smell to track Jupiter down. He’s best when he’s in rapid motion, which luckily is the vast majority of his screentime. Bean is much more impressive as a former ace space enforcer forcibly retired to a beekeeping gig on Earth after taking a fall for something that his then-underling Wise had done. But the real surprise among the cast is the ridiculous whispery performance by Eddie Redmayne as the effete intergalactic capitalist villain Balem Abrasax; if this were the actor’s only recent screen role, he certainly wouldn’t be taking home any Oscars anytime soon.
Then there are the dinner-table scenes with Jupiter’s Russian immigrant family, thrown in for broad comic effect. The stereotypes promulgated here are as goofy and over-the-top as Cher’s Italian family in Moonstruck or Woody Allen’s Jewish family in any number of early Woody Allen movies. And from the perspective of a viewer spawned from a Balto-Slavic gene pool, they don’t nearly hit the gloomy, repressive mark of a real family whose ancestors evolved near the Arctic Circle. Jupiter’s clan is Russian like Sacha Baron Cohen is Kazakh. (The actual funniest scene involves a well-disguised Terry Gilliam as the Seal and Signet Minister – an elderly bureaucrat surrounded by elderly contraptions that will make Steampunkers drool with interior-decorating lust – in a cameo that pays homage to Gilliam’s own dystopian opus Brazil.)
But that’s just one quibble among many about a film that is a veritable quibblefest. Jupiter Ascending is a hot mess no matter how you look at it. But looking at it is just too much fun to resist. Count this reviewer among the insistent minority who, in spite of all its myriad flaws, found this movie more than worth the rental price of a pair of 3-D goggles.