‘Jupiter Ascending’ Review: Hail to the Queen
In the 21st century there aren’t many filmmakers to whom audiences turn for originality, but one of them – or rather, two – are the mad geniuses Wachowski Starship. Their films The Matrix, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas (the latter co-directed by Tom Tykwer) have offered moviegoers deft and exciting realms of broad entertainment, generously bedazzled with high-minded ideas. And they are hailed as unique voices in the cinematic pantheon, which is pretty ironic considering that they aren’t actually all that original. What they really do best is combine existing ideas in unlikely and enjoyable ways.
The Matrix combined Chinese kung fu choreography with Christ metaphors and Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison sci-fi concepts, filmed with a then rather familiar black leather, rave-centric 1990s aesthetic. Cloud Atlas was already based on the novel by David Mitchell, and was brought to life using editing techniques pioneered nearly a century ago in D.W. Griffiths Intolerance. And Speed Racer is Speed Racer, albeit in live action, and that was enough to feel like a novelty.
And yet their work always feels fresh and exciting, even when you can pick apart the pieces to uncover where the heck it all came from. Their latest film, Jupiter Ascending, is a mishmash of one-percenter politics, chosen one nonsense, alien conspiracy theories and hefty helpings of Brazil and Dune, but it still feels special, it still feels daring, and dang it, it works. It’s the most original sci-fi epic in recent memory even though it doesn’t have an original bone in its body.
Jupiter Jones, played by Mila Kunis, is an immigrant housemaid who discovers to her surprise that she has inherited the planet Earth. Because unbeknownst to mankind, Earth is just a small part of a vast interstellar empire run by the Abrasax Dynasty, and due to a quirk of genetic fate, Jupiter has the exact same DNA as their late matriarch. This makes her one of the most important people in the galaxy, targeted for assassination and political intrigue by the villainous Balem Abraxas (Eddie Redmayne), the duplicitous Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth), and the superficial Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton).
Guiding Jupiter through these strange new worlds is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a dog man with anti-gravity surfing boots and sweet abs. The dog part is perhaps most important: Jupiter and Caine develop feelings for each other and the film doesn’t shy away from the bestiality implications, reminding us that every White Knight tasked with saving the princess in these movies is essentially a loyal lap dog who exists only to serve. By the third time Caine comes to Jupiter’s rescue in the knick of time, braving all odds to come to her aid, you really do want to give him a treat and say, “Good boy.”
It’s that kind of unexpected thoughtfulness that makes even the most familiar elements of Jupiter Ascending transcend its eccentric costume designs and absurd over-and-underplotting. (You will know every detail about the Abrasax Corporation, but you will never know who the hell the Aegis are and why they’re tagging along for every single plot point like they’re cock of the walk.) The episodic storyline takes Jupiter to one member of the Abrasax family after another, each one teaching her a new lesson about what it means to be truly rich, and each one representing a different facet of wealthy corruption on Earth. It’s didactic but also strange enough to hide its educational intentions in wild, woolly fun.
Meanwhile, the action sequences squeal across the screen with high energy and great portent, even when you have no idea why we’re watching them, and Kunis grounds the film in just the right combination of befuddlement and wish-fulfillment. Jupiter Ascending is essentially The Princess Diaries if Julie Andrews was a genocidal maniac and Hector Elizondo was a sci-fi werewolf. And that’s just great. It caters to and simultaneously subverts the expectations of both the young adult and hardcore sci-fi/fantasy genres, and emerges victorious over both.
Jupiter Ascending doesn’t paint a new picture, but it produces a handsome collage of what we’ve already seen before, eking intelligence from whence we found none, and entertainment from whence we found only turgid textbooks. It starts off a little too quickly, not giving us quite enough information to hang onto before the battle scenes swoop us away, and the action gets a little bit repetitive towards the end once we finally do know what’s happening, but we can pick nits with any great movie.
And make no mistake: Jupiter Ascending is great. It’s fun, it’s smart, it’s exciting and although it owes an obvious debt of gratitude to the many similar stories that came before, it still feels like a one-of-a-kind experience. It just so happens that it’s not. But who cares when it’s this freaking interesting?