Friday, February 6, 2015

In Theaters: JUPITER ASCENDING (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by The Wachowskis. Cast: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tim Piggot-Smith, Maria Doyle Kennedy, James D'Arcy, Doona Bae, Kick Gurry, Jeremy Swift, Edward Hogg, Terry Gilliam, Rupert Frazer, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Frog Stone, Ramon Tikaram, Ariyon Bakare, David Ajala, Vanessa Kirby, Charlotte Beaumont. (PG-13, 127 mins)

It's already more or less expected that the $175 million JUPITER ASCENDING, the latest from MATRIX masterminds Andy and Lana Wachowski, will be yet another costly box-office dud to follow 2008's SPEED RACER and 2012's CLOUD ATLAS (co-directed with Tom Tykwer), not to mention 2009's NINJA ASSASSIN, which they produced. After the disappointing reception that followed the back-to-back MATRIX sequels, only V FOR VENDETTA (produced by the siblings and directed by their protege James McTeigue) seemed to get a positive reaction from mainstream audiences. But time can change perspective, and by now, SPEED RACER and especially CLOUD ATLAS already have strong cult followings with viewers who can simply appreciate the incredible visuals and wild ambition inherent in the Wachowskis' work (even the much-maligned MATRIX sequels have their defenders). Given the "What have you done for me lately?" attitude of Hollywood studios, it's amazing that they can still get someone to gamble nearly $200 million on greenlighting a massively-budgeted auteurist vision that still gives them more creative control than most filmmakers are granted in 2015. That MATRIX cache still carries a lot of cred, even though they haven't had anywhere near the same level of financial success, but when the sci-fi epic JUPITER ASCENDING was yanked from the summer 2014 schedule and bumped to February 2015 to "work on the visual effects," the online snark machine revved up. By the time the film was released, it was already anointed the next BATTLEFIELD EARTH before anybody even saw it. If anything, it's the 2015 SUCKER PUNCH, and much like Zack Snyder's one-of-a-kind vision was trashed by everyone only to enjoy a quick turnaround as a misunderstood cult film, so JUPITER ASCENDING will likely go.  The elements are in place for a colossal flop of career-ending proportions, but just when nobody is expecting it, the Wachowskis turn in their loosest, craziest, and even more so than SPEED RACER, infectiously fun movie yet.

Every penny of that $175 million is up on the screen to create a cinematic canvas that resembles the covers of pulpy sci-fi paperbacks by the likes of Isaac Asimov or John Ringo, David Weber and the entire Baen Books back catalog. The Wachowskis have fashioned JUPITER ASCENDING as an insane mash-up of STAR WARS, DUNE, BUCK ROGERS, the 1980 FLASH GORDON, BLADE RUNNER, and even a brief segue into the satirical sci-fi nightmare bureaucracy of BRAZIL-era Terry Gilliam. There's a lot of story and some of the subplots and extraneous characters get shortchanged or abandoned outright. It's representative of the kind of world-building that, if this were the 1980s, probably could've resulted in an entire series of spinoff novels like the Star Wars and Star Trek novels that still fill the sci-fi sections of bookstores today. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), the daughter of a British father who was killed by home invaders before she was born, and a Russian mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who gave birth to her midway across the Atlantic while emigrating to America, lives in a cramped house with her mother's entire extended immigrant family. While her uncle and cousins engage in shady con games, Jupiter and her mother work as housecleaners for Chicago's wealthy. All of that changes when the three children of the late Seraphi Abrasax, the matriarch of the Abrasax family who recently died, her life tragically cut short by murder at just 91,000, discover that her royal genomic code has "recurred" in Jupiter. The Abrasax offpsring--fey, hissing Balem (Eddie Redmayne), playboy Titus (Douglas Booth), and kind Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), looking smashing for 14,004--are intergalactic one-percenters who collectively own most of the galaxy, left to them by their mother, whose genomic recurrence in Jupiter--a reincarnation of sorts--means that Queen Jupiter will control their assets through a complex DNA-related legal loophole of the laws of space royalty.

Enter disgraced ex-soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an albino half-man/half-wolf mercenary hired by Titus Abrasax to protect Jupiter from the forces of Balem. Earth is merely one tiny but very important piece of property to Balem, and like most planets, it's used to harvest life to provide eternal youth to the most wealthy and privileged among the galaxy's movers and shakers. Caine, expelled from the military after biting a member of the "Entitled" class ("I'm more dog than man," he explains to a lovestruck Jupiter), saves Jupiter from the clutches of Balem's minions and leaves Chicago for a country farm where his old commanding officer and bee DNA-carrier Stinger (Sean Bean) lives with his daughter and countless active beehives ("Bees are genetically designed to sense royalty," he tells Jupiter in one of the film's sillier deus ex machina lines). Caine delivers Jupiter to Titus, who of course, has ulterior motives, which leads to numerous power shifts between the siblings. Balem has Jupiter's family taken from Earth to be harvested, essentially holding them as ransom until Jupiter cedes control of Earth, while Caine and Stinger set aside their differences to team up with hard-nosed Cmdr. Diomika Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and her crew of half-human/half-animal officers, heading to Balem's planet stronghold to rescue Jupiter and bring an end to the Abrasax dynasty.

JUPITER ASCENDING is an utterly ludicrous space opera, and comparisons to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY are inevitable (likely why it was bumped from last summer), but it works in spite of its silliness. The production design and visual effects are on par with the best the sci-fi genre has ever offered, and it takes less time than expected to get over the sight of a lupine, Spock-eared Tatum. A miscast Kunis never quite works as Jupiter, but top (over)acting honors must go to THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne as the preening Balem, looking like a young Peter Cushing as an emo Grand Moff Tarkin, melodramatically gasping his lines while indulging in some intermittent Al Pacino shouting. It's exactly the kind of goofy, cartoonish performance the film needs and it only enhances the go-for-broke, bonkers nature of the entire project. There's a good chance people will laugh this off the screen, but it's earnest, entertaining, and offers some smart, subtle political and economic commentary on top of the space action and mayhem. I'm not sure how much longer the Wachowskis will get this kind of money to make movies this bizarre. Certainly, well-schooled cineastes can appreciate all the throwback sci-fi referencing, but how many casual, mainstream moviegoers, especially the younger ones to which studios and focus groups pander, are even aware of BUCK ROGERS and FLASH GORDON at this point? And who other than the most ardent sci-fi nerds or bookstore employees will even get the film's production design being an homage to garish, over-the-top sci-fi paperback artwork? It's a too-expensive film for a comparatively small pop culture niche, but that niche will find much to like if they don't approach it with an MST3K attitude. Check your sighing and eye-rolls at the door and go in with the right attitude and roll with it as big, dumb, visually stunning entertainment, and you'll be surprised at how much of a blast JUPITER ASCENDING turns out to be.

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