The Wachowski’s will never make another movie like The Matrix ever again. The sooner we as a collective come to terms with that the sooner we can begin to enjoy all the other treats they have for us. Why bring this up? Because with everyone expecting every single one of their films to be as ground breaking and Earth shattering as The Matrix was, it has placed each of their subsequent works in an unfair arena. Speed Racer was a lot of fun and visually stunning, but it wasn’t The Matrix. Cloud Atlas was thought provoking and often times became the transcendent experience it so wanted to be, but it wasn’t The Matrix. Likewise, their latest big screen experiment Jupiter Ascending is beautiful to look at, fun to watch most of the time and extreme hardcore sci-fi goodness, but yet again it isn’t The Matrix. In other words it would be best to level your expectations for once.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) has had a hard life. She lost her father, was born in a shipping crate in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the way to America and now as an adult she is stuck in a rut working with her mother cleaning toilets and unable to find the right man who she imagines will one day come and sweep her off her feet. Little did she know that her fantasy would soon become a reality when she meets Caine (Channing Tatum), a half human half wolf hybrid intergalactic bounty hunter who comes to Earth to save her from a royal space dynasty of whom she is unknowingly related to. Caine, with his gravity defying space boots, then in an attempt to protect Jupiter literally (and figuratively) sweeps her not only off her feet, but off the entire planet.
To truly appreciate The Wachowski’s latest sci-fi opus one has to already have a deep appreciation for the sci-fi genre itself. Unlike most modern sci-fi tales of good versus evil, Jupiter Ascending is full of complexities and characters who are never easily defined as either good or evil. This is the type of sci-fi epic that fans of the genre can really sink their teeth into if that particular urge needs fulfilling, but that appeal is sadly going to be limited to a small percentage of people out there. While the geeks get their rocks off with all the new spins on mostly recycled ideas, general audiences are likely themselves going to feel alienated once the first handful of aliens start showing up.
Guardians of the Galaxy proved that there is a place out there for big sci-fi epic adventures, but it was tailored from top to bottom to be easily accessible to just about everyone, even those who find space based movies not to their liking. While GOTG can easily be classified as a space adventure, Jupiter Ascending is more like a space opera, albeit a very silly one despite how serious it takes itself. But that is part of the appeal of the film, it’s willingness to just go for broke and throw the audience into the spin cycle without ever thinking twice about it.
Aside from a short prologue explaining Jupiter’s childhood history and family lineage, we are immediately thrown into the cosmos as these rich aristocratic types survey a dead planet discussing high profile dealings which involve owning planets, harvesting them and how good it makes them feel, all with plenty of sinister daytime soap opera inner family dynamics. The juxtaposition of going from Jupiter’s quaint existence on Earth to these larger than life figures flying around the cosmos in these giant spaceships is jarring at first and the film does little to ease the audience into the fold, which can be quite polarizing if you aren’t prepared for it.
Thankfully for those willing to give themselves over to the film and makes it through the bumpy first act, it does eventually settle into a steady rhythm once Jupiter crosses paths with Caine and they leave Earth. From there the film takes on a sort of elegance in the way it unfolds as it quickly establishes itself as more of a surreal sci-fi fantasy epic than the more popular action packed variety. Fans of David Lynch’s screen adaptation of Dune will find the galaxy of Jupiter Ascending extremely familiar as it is filled with different hierarchies and dynasties that wouldn’t be out of place in Roman times. House Atreides meet House Abraxas. And just like spice ruled the worlds of Dune, the galaxy of Jupiter Ascending is also ruled by a single precious commodity which (oddly enough) is this unnamed sort of serum that holds the power of eternal youth.
There is also a sort of bureaucratic side to the world of Jupiter Ascending as well, which is evidenced by how everyone, including the bad guys, try to achieve their goals through deception and working the political system in their favor. Sound ridiculous? Take this scene for example, when Jupiter learns of her heritage and that she is the new Matriarch of House Abraxas and will reclaim the Earth from her former heir and sibling Balem (Eddie Redmayne), this isn’t handled with epic space battles (which do happen), but instead she goes to the galactic city hall and must prove who she is by visiting a number of different clerks that will remind most of being at the DMV which evokes some likely unintentional comparisons to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and it’s humorous take on space politics.
There is so much happening at one time and it all goes by at such a lighting pace that it is possible some may dislike the film simply because it is throwing too much at them to keep up. The ability to comprehend what is going on is without a doubt a necessity for any film trying to tell a story, especially when dealing with such a detail oriented world as this. But the Wachowski’s vision is so darned ambitious that you almost forgive them for forgetting we have to understand what is going on to enjoy it. It is rare when extra time would benefit a film, but Jupiter Ascending could have used an extra 20 minutes or so just to help let the audience sink into its world and properly absorb it. Yes, it is that heavy on details.
You may or may not have noticed that most of the films mentioned so far are not exactly of the action variety. Dune and Hitchhiker are more known for their outlandish and extremely detailed universes than they are for laser battles and space skirmishes. The same can also be said for Jupiter Ascending, while with the exception of a handful of hand to hand combat sequences, a few flashy effects driven action scenes and a tireless dogfight through downtown Chicago, most of the film is heavily dialog driven which is where most of the Dune comparisons come from. There are a lot of scenes with entitled people discussing the fates of others while surrounded by immensely beautiful landscapes and dressed in appropriately regal outfits.
While that may sound like a detriment at first, in practice it is the film’s single saving grace and the singular reason why it overcomes nay, embraces its inherent hokiness. There was an allusion earlier in this review towards the film having a soap opera quality to it and with the risk of turning any of you reading this off, that is more on point than you (or the Wachowski’s themselves) would want to believe. But that is its charm though, seeing these actors go for broke and delve into the material as if their very lives depended on it makes you buy into as well even if you were ready to call it quits a few minutes ago.
The one aspect no one can argue against is the visual beauty of the film which is already a top contender for the best looking film released this year. From the ornate set designs, the elaborate and ridiculously detailed spaceships and cityscapes to the unique flavor of all the different characters and alien species, the film is never short on amazing sights or ideas. The moment you see a gigantic spaceship rise through a ring of stardust or watch in awe as Channing Tatum bounces around from planet to planet on those nifty gravity boots all negative pretensions one might have towards the film’s many inconsistencies will fade away.
Although the film isn’t perfect it is hard to nail down one thing that felt wrong or off. Perhaps getting to know Jupiter a bit more before she is told about who she is would have been nice or maybe a better way to ease the audience into this crazy world of aliens, bounty hunters, matriarchs, space police and all other manner of insane fiction it throws at us without warning. Regardless though, it is difficult to find fault with the film simply because it knows exactly what it is and it doesn’t pull any punches for better or worse. If you are a fan of the aforementioned films like Dune or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or any sci-fi epic for that matter, and just want a new film that doesn’t really feel like anything else out there at the moment, forget that inner voice telling you to skip it and instead give it a chance, you may just find yourself enjoying it.
When Jupiter Ascending was post-poned last year from its July release date to February of the following year, it seemed to be spelling certain doom for the ambitious film. But whatever tinkering they did seems to have paid off because the finished product is a fine, polished and fun bit of sci-fi escapism that every fan of the genre is sure to enjoy. See it now while it is in theaters and see it again when it is released at home to catch all those little details you will most likely miss the first time around.