‘Jupiter Ascending’ a bit messy, but fun to watch
Action movies are often criticized as being “color by numbers” and following the same, basic plot we’ve seen dozens of times before. What happens if you take all the color by numbers pages you have, crumple them together, and glue like a madman? Some parts might be recognizable, but the seams where the pages meet won’t make any sense.
It’ll be a surreal mess, but it might still be fun to look at. This is the approach “Jupiter Ascending” takes. It follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young girl with a tragic past who works as a house cleaner, but is really the reincarnation of one of the universe’s most powerful CEOs. Before we get the chance to know her, she’s targeted by bounty hunters and saved by a hunky space wolf played by Channing Tatum. We take it on faith he’s a space wolf despite the only evidence being pointy ears and the occasional growl, but everyone in the movie keeps telling us he is, so why not? Oh, and he has anti-gravity boots that let him speed skate at jet speed.
Have you seen “Underworld,” “Stargate,” “Dune,” “The Fifth Element,” or “Star Wars?” Read any Douglas Adams? Seen any Disney princess animation ever? Good, because they’re all smashed in here. Do you want a movie that makes a lot of sense? This isn’t the place. Do you want one that crazily shoves every sci-fi cliché into a blender and holds on for dear life? Welcome to “Jupiter Ascending.”
You can’t take the movie’s surface seriously. It’s thoroughly B-grade. There’s a sequence where Tatum fights aliens on earth, hops onto their frigate, rides a wormhole through space, and then raids an intergalactic thunder palace -- all without putting on a shirt. The number of costume changes Kunis undergoes, from hospital gown to space jumpsuit to ever more extravagant and revealing evening gowns, becomes a running joke.
“Jupiter Ascending” is trolling science-fiction and our expectations of it, trying to get a rise by being like everything and nothing all at once.
Kunis is fine playing straight man to the film’s zany antics. Tatum is too glum for the kind of chances the film is taking and Sean Bean nods and winks his way through a paper-thin mentor role. The biggest shortcoming is Eddie Redmayne, currently up for an Oscar for “The Theory of Everything.” It’s difficult to overact without being campy, but he finds a way, mumbling half his lines away.
The movie’s biggest problem is a lack of signifiers in the action scenes. We need to know where everyone is so we can marvel at the amazing visual effects and feats of heroism taking place. When our heroes hijack an alien fighter over Chicago, for instance, we’re treated to a few minutes of high-speed chase. The only problem is that all the fighters look exactly the same and have extra moving parts that distract the eye. This is Grade-A “Transformers” disease: which fighter are we rooting for in the mess of fantastic visual effects? Who knows? We’re rooting for the effects, I guess.
The solution is as simple as painting a red streak on the side of our heroes’ fighter, or lighting the cockpit a different color. Audiences thrive on context. “Jupiter Ascending” gets a pass on being zany; it doesn’t get a pass on bad fundamentals.
Characters, realizations, and scenes don’t emerge; they crash into the rest of the plot. The later half revolves around the intergalactic espionage surrounding who owns Earth: it’s Jupiter and her space wolf versus the infighting space vampires. Think the shenanigans of “Twilight” meeting the corporate metaphors of “Dune,” if you can do so without your brain breaking. The movie starts becoming more solid as it becomes clearer just how big of a riff it all is.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four: it’s a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. “Jupiter Ascending” is a movie I want to like more than I actually do like. In this case, that makes the difference. Maybe it’s Kunis’s charm, or the Wachowski’s kitchen sink approach, or the blue collar message it trumpets at the end. It’s just insane enough to make me applaud its ambition. It stands out not because it achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but because it wants to accomplish so much. Falling on its face makes me admire the movie a lot more than if it didn’t try at all. Is it a good film? Absolutely not, but it is relentlessly interesting. You have to know what happens next. It’s a fine line to walk, as if the Wachowskis took the “There is no spoon” line from their “Matrix” franchise and applied it to a movie instead of silverware.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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