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Jupiter Ascending

Review by: 
A.J. MacReady
Release Date: 
Warner Bros
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
The Wachowskis
Mila Kunis
Channing Tatum
Eddie Redmayne
Sean Bean
Bottom Line: 

I am a fan of the Wachowskis, period. I love the Matrix trilogy (and enjoy the last two more than most do), find Speed Racer to be a misunderstood masterpiece, and revere Cloud Atlas in every possible way (it's in my Top 5 movies of all time). I state these facts at the outset of this review so you know where I'm coming from; essentially, I am buying what these thoughtful, earnest super-geeks and champion filmmakers are selling. The greatest thing about their films to me is not the joy they take in pushing the envelope or the eye-popping worlds they create onscreen or how they're constantly pushing the evolution of special effects into a new place -- although that appeals to me mightily, I must admit -- but their sincerity. They MEAN it. Their films come from a place of truth and honesty and I respond to that. That is exactly why I find myself such a giant fan of their latest creation, Jupiter Ascending.

The film begins by showing us how our heroine Jupiter Jones came to exist; through the tragic circumstance of her father's death, she is born in the hold of a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean to America, where her Russian family intends to make a new start and hopefully make a better life. That life she grows into is a hard one, lacking in romance or happiness, for when we meet Jupiter as an adult (played by Mila Kunis), she's literally scrubbing toilets as a maid alongside her mother and aunt. Her family as a whole is mostly realistic in a messy nightmare kind of way (shades of Cinderella as a kind of shorthand here) and Jupiter, as most heroines in these stories do, yearns for more from her existence. "More" arrives in the form of interplanetary bounty hunters and a "Splice" named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a warrior genetically engineered as a cocktail of man and wolf DNA who surfs around on "gravity boots" along with a large number of groovy toys that he'll use to protect Jupiter from very powerful people who want her dead. See, the Earth, being just one planet in a much more densely populated galaxy than we're aware of, is under the rule of the Abrasax family. This clan, led by Balem (Eddie Redmayne, mega-acting his ass off), who have squabbled and backstabbed while playing their own game of thrones for the universe for millenia, has realized that Jupiter is the Recurrence (what we'd call the reincarnation) of their recently deceased mother, which means that according to their wacky-ass laws Jupiter is now technically Queen of Earth.

Balem and his siblings Kalique and Titus have their own agenda (each of them seems to have a separate one, actually) regarding that placement of power, and none of that involves what is best for Jupiter, never mind the rest of us Earthlings OR our planet. Jupiter's only protector against this galactic conspiracy is Caine; she'll have to run for her life from giant lizards in leather jackets, navigate a rather insane space bureaucracy, decide which of the alien beings (such as Sean Bean as Stinger, another Splice who has had his DNA crossed with that of a bee -- really) that have entered her life can be trusted and which need to be avoided, and make sure that no harm comes to her family. Not exactly a walk in the park, but Jupiter's stronger than even she knows...   

Let's get this out of the way: Jupiter Ascending, as you may have inferred from that synopsis, is certifiably crazy and while it's totally goofy it is also a blast for those who buy into it. The design of the film, the ideas and the tech on display, are completely Out There but also ridiculously awesome; it looks and feels fantastical in all the best ways. Tatum is running around with pointy wolf ears, there's mean and nasty little aliens (they look just like the greys we all know from countless stories) called Keepers, there's cool tech and gadgets galore, the spacecraft look opulently over the top instead of merely functional, and so on and so on. Literally anywhere you choose to look in this world, there's something amazing to gaze upon. The fight choreography and action scenes, as is par for the course in a Wachowskis joint, are AWESOME. I wouldn't call it camp exactly, because to me camp means they're reaching for serious, and failing miserably. This is not without humor but it does take the story, the characters, and their situation completely straight faced, which for a space opera of this type is paramount if you're not doing the tongue-in-cheek or campy thing, which they aren't (even Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a lot of fun with its world and was overflowing with amusing weirdness, was at heart completely earnest). Essentially, the wackiness of the backstory and mythology is straight out of something from any given ep of Ancient Aliens, and that basically lets you know if you're in or out with this flick.       

I'd say that's what I love most about this movie, this world -- and as previously stated, about the Wachowski films in general -- it's genuine. Even if this isn't your thing and you hate it (apparently this is the overall point of view of most, unfortunately), you cannot deny that this motherfucker COMMITS. In every conceivable way, it commits. When you have a movie where one character states with complete seriousness "we may have stumbled into a war with the Abrasax family" and you realize he's referring to a sort of Mafia-esque intergalactic business clan of assholes that would welcome Donald Trump as one of their own, you either have to be onboard or throw yourself over the side. Me, I'm all in, and love this stuff. If the Wachowskis were constantly winking at us, letting us know that "sure, this is all wacky, but don't worry, we're laughing at it right along with you because we're better than this bullshit," I'd reject it wholly. But they jump in with both feet and have a host of collaborators who are more than willing to dive in alongside them, and that's my kind of party.

A lot of folks aren't fans of Mila Kunis in the flick because they say she doesn't DO enough, and seems too passive. Okay, but isn't it okay for the heroine of one of these stories to not end it as a super-soldier mighty asskicker because, well, that's not what she is? Can she not be low-key, almost overwhelmed by all of this shit (as most of us would be, if not in outright shock the whole time), but yet grounded? I think she can, is, and feel Kunis does a great job as a regular girl finding out that her ordinary life isn't that at all with a quiet and understated grace. Tatum sells the physical stuff perfectly (no surprise to anyone who knows what a good athlete he is) and acts as the calm center to the craziness surrounding he and Jupiter throughout the running time. His quiet strength acts as the anchor that keeps Jupiter from spinning off into space (sometimes literally; I think he catches her when she's falling more than any characters ever have in any movie ever made). Sean Bean is his usual solid self (does he die again? dunno, you'll have to watch for yourself), Maria Doyle Kennedy (of Orphan Black) has a small but crucial role as Jupiter's mother and is superb as always; the rest of the supporting cast, from Doona Bae to Kick Gurry, acquit themselves just fine. The Abrasax siblings are playing parts in a family drama where they're all trying to fuck each other over because that's just what they've done for thousands and thousands of years and they've come to truly enjoy it. Douglas Booth and Constance Tupper are quite good, but Redmayne seems to be having a hellacious time as Balem. Going from theatrical whispers to bratty, entitled screams, one is reminded of an Oldman or Cage and it is a seriously fun time to watch him. In fact, thinking about the family Abrasax, one would assume that the Wachowskis don't have a lot of nice things to say about class warfare; about the rich who lord over things while those of us who actually keep the world running struggle and scrape for survival as meanwhile those sorry, spoiled backstabbing bitches carry on. Here they are painted not so much as social butterflies as they are wasps slipping a stinger into you when you aren't looking.

In regards to the style of it (top notch as always in Wachowski projects): the production design is GORGEOUS and will blow minds; the use of color and shade is simply remarkable and absolutely beautiful, and understands exactly when to go to a muted palette for maximum impact but doesn't overwhelm you with gloom in any way; and the action and FX is, simply put, as good as it gets right now. But let's not forget, that will fade...for example, there's an action scene throughout Chicago -- from the elevated train to the skyscrapers -- and it thrills completely. I find it exciting, involving, and superbly executed. But what will it look like in 10 years? Or 20? Does it matter? I don't think so, honestly. The fact of the matter is that what is cutting edge will one day fade (there are of course exceptions, like Bottin's practical work in The Thing, still as great as ever) and this is non-negotiable. Take a look at The Matrix now -- at the time those were, no question, the finest special effects any of us had ever seen -- and we realize that if made today, it'd be a little cleaner and look a tad better. But does that matter? NO, it does not -- because that flick still gets it done. I firmly believe this one will too, for those who love and appreciate it, even 50 years from now. The excellence of the technical elements, while only momentarily perfect, will still thrill our imaginations because of the story and the skill in telling it that the Wachowskis apply. I think this is a movie that will continue to find an audience throughout the years, and those who find it will be happy to do so. It's truly a diamond in the rough. That's kind of a crazy statement to make about a movie that cost almost $200 million, but seeing as how it didn't exactly set the world ablaze, it's not wrong to say.

Warner Bros' Blu-ray is up to their usual high standards of greatness. The 1080p HD 2.40:1 transfer and Dolby Atmos 5.1 sports a fantastic level of detail, beautiful bright colors and deep blacks alongside a thunderingly pristine audio track where laser battles, explosions, and dialogue alike crystal clear. The bonus features consist of seven in-depth feaurettes, divided by subject, which are as follows:  Jupiter Jones - Destiny Is Within Us (6 min) & Caine Wise - Interplanetary Warrior (6 min), which covers how those characters were brought to the screen; The Wachowskis - Mind Over Matter (7 min), concerning those amazingly talented, brilliant siblings and how they came up with this world and brought it to life; Worlds Within Worlds Within Worlds (10 min), which looks at the tremendous production/art/costume design; Jupiter Ascending - Genetically Spliced (10 min), an overview of the makeup and character concepts; Bullet Time Evolved (10 min), covering the action sequences, stunts, and choreography; and finally From Earth To Jupiter (10 min), which looks at the conception of this original story and created universe. They're all loaded with interesting facts, revealing and insightful interviews, and behind the scenes footage which fans will happily devour.

In one of those interviews, Lana Wachowski laments the fact that an original movie isn't in style so much these days, and how when members of a certain generation were coming up, the goal was to create something that hadn't been done before. When what artists strove for was the ORIGINAL; sadly, the newer generation seems to run to the familiar, the safe, and the formulaic. I think that's true, for the most part, and that it's a damn shame. It's not as if Jupiter Ascending is full of elements that haven't ever been seen before (in addition to the aforementioned Cinderella parallels, there's more than a bit of The Wizard Of Oz and Alice in Wonderland here too, as well as countless space adventures and pulp fiction), but I do believe these elements have never been blended together in quite this way. No one would have made this movie like the Wachowskis did, the same way that creators ranging from Guillermo Del Toro to Wes Anderson to Quentin Tarantino put their own distinctive stamp on their material; their movies are THEIRS and there's no mistaking them for anyone else's. No one else would think to tell these stories in quite this way.

That's what makes them individuals, and their stories worth hearing, the movies worth watching. To see something specific and wonderful, beautiful and unhinged in equal measure. As I was watching Jupiter Ascending this last time through to prepare for this review, I realized something that I hadn't during my previous viewings, something that opened a door to understanding not just what this film is but the reaction it has gotten from the movie-going public, and that is this: Jupiter Ascending is the Flash Gordon of the 21st century. Some of you will remember that 1980 film and think "yeah, no way -- Jupiter Ascending is NOT for me, then." Those of you who perk up at the comparison, and get exactly why that's a good thing...this is a flick made just for you, and it's just as weird, exciting, unique, romantic, and involving as you'd want your sci-fi fantasy to be.

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