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Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis make silly movies. They've always made silly movies, and they've always done so with aching sincerity. That makes their movies eminently mockable, but it also gives them a heft that lets them push past the goofy premises and find something truly, wonderfully transcendent in the relationships and characters within. It's a challenging balance, but the Wachowskis have made their career walking it, something that's helped even their biggest films and adaptations feel deeply personal. Jupiter Ascending is a big story, a swashbuckling sci-fi adventure and original property that deals with genetic predestination and the horrors of capitalism run amok. Can they pull another heartfelt victory from the muck?

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) lives with her crowded Russian immigrant family, cleaning toilets and scraping by but wishing for more. She gets it one day when a group of little gray aliens attempt to kidnap her and an intergalactic wolf-man bounty hunter named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) saves her life. Once she finds out that she is a perfect genetic duplicate of the recently-deceased 91,000 year old Queen of the Universe, her, Caine, and an Earthbound ally named Stinger (Sean Bean) all work to return her to her title and the protections it offers, but quickly find themselves tangled up in some intergalactic political maneuvering that may cost Jupiter everything she has.

The performances range from serviceable to memorably campy. Tatum (22 Jump Street) is a talented performer, but his bounty hunter is a gruff, stoic bore, a soldier with a dark past who never lets Tatum use his comic timing or soulful physicality to much purpose. Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) fares a bit better, giving his character a wounded nobility that is pretty much Bean's stock-in-trade, but he's given too little to do. Kunis (Black Swan) is similarly hampered by a character who is constantly lost and imperiled. While she does mature a bit over the course of the film, it's a minor transformation that never breaks from the 'damsel in distress' trope the film hammers home.

The Abrasax family, however, are a big campy blast from start to finish. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Douglas Booth (Noah), and Tuppence Middleton (The Imitation Game) are larger than life as centuries-old oligarchs who each want something from Kunis' character. Redmayne's Balem Abrasax speaks for pretty much the entire movie in a bored-by-life malevolent whisper punctuated by Moments! Of! Intense! Actorly! Shouting!, but Redmayne's whisper is expressive and gripping. Douglas Booth as the effete youngest child, Titus Abrasax, is flighty and manipulative, but may just be Earth's best hope. And Tuppence Middleton is serviceable as Kalique Abrasax, who - alongside Tatum - is stuck delivering most of the film's copious exposition to Kunis.

The movie shines in its production, however, its colorful CGI vistas some of the most well-designed I've ever had the pleasure of seeing, bombastic tableaus that owe more than a little to Jodorowsky's Dune and populated by people who owe more than a little to Gilliam's Brazil. And Caine's anti-grav roller-blades (Look, movie, I'm trying to defend you here) make for some truly fantastic action, a nimble, swift, relentlessly moving series of setpieces that make great use of 3D space... and awful use of story, character, and performer. In one of the film's earliest setpieces, Kunis falls through the sky while Tatum races downward to catch her, then bounces off of piece after piece of falling rubble to climb back into the sky. It's a scene lifted directly from anime, reinvented in its live-action context and surprisingly thrilling to see. It's also a scene that is repeated roughly fifteen more times through the film.

Ultimately, the biggest issue with Jupiter Ascending is this: It lacks a truly transcendent moment. It has gorgeous setpieces, the best design work of their career, and some fun performances. But The Matrix, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas- three of the best mainstream American movies of the last 20 years, in my opinion - all built to a single, beautiful moment, a moment of spectacular emotional profundity. Jupiter Ascending lacks that. It's a fine movie, but its flaws outweigh its strengths by a considerable margin. It's bold and sincere, big, weird, brashy old-school sci-fi, but never comes together in any meaningful way. This is their Star Wars prequels, their Hobbit, their movie where visual sensibilities overwhelmed storytelling sensibilities, and while it is vastly superior to (all 6 of) Lucas' & Jackson's mistakes, I'm still hoping they can pull back soon.

Jupiter Ascending is out now in theaters across the nation. Written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski, Jupiter Ascending stars Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, and Eddie Redmayne.
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