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Jupiter Ascending
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by Brett Gallman

"The Wachowskis' Dune"
3 stars

One of the most astounding and daring scenes of the last decade of blockbuster filmmaking comes at the climax of “The Matrix Reloaded,” where the Wachowskis pull the rug from underneath the audiences with the Architect’s revelation that Neo and the prophecy are merely constructs set to recur as an algorithm. With “Jupiter Ascending,” the duo have attempted to will this notion of eternal recurrence to cinematic life, as they’re back retracing similar monomyth steps—albeit with less depth and ingenuity—in the hopes that history might repeat.

Save for the familiar hero’s (or in this case, heroine’s) journey arc, there’s not a dearth of imagination to it, though: in terms of world-building, the Wachowskis have swung for the fences in conjuring up the sort of universe you’d expect to find the in the pages of vintage sci-fi/fantasy novels. Earth is reduced to an infinitesimal speck in a grand universe lorded over by a race of ancient beings who use planets the same way we use farmland. High ranking elders glide through the galaxies in stupendous warships, flanked by all manner of strange beings and hybrids, from highly evolved humans to dinosaur men. “Jupiter Ascending” is an astonishing achievement in costume and production design.

Maybe that’s a nice way to segue to the admission that its shiny moving parts never quite find their groove within the familiar story. In revisiting the beats of “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis have found another ordinary human in Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a lowly housemaid born aboard an American-bound freighter to a Russian mother widowed by a violent robbery (hello, tragic backstory). Growing up, her aunt always maintained she would serve a greater purpose, but Jupiter has a hard time believing it when she’s scrubbing toilets for a living. When the feuding siblings of an intergalactic dynasty believe her to be the reincarnated soul of their mother, she’s suddenly The One—only instead of learning kung-fu and gunplay, she’s whisked away from one strange locale to the next as each member of the Abrasax clan attempts to woo her into relinquishing her inherited throne on Earth.

If it sounds like “Jupiter Ascending” is the most grandiose game of intergalactic Monopoly ever, that’s not too far off: seriously, an entire chunk of the movie involves Jupiter being drawn into the bureaucratic nonsense involved with claiming her title to Earth as if it were a deed to a piece of land. While it’s certainly an unexpected gambit for a huge tentpole, it’s not exactly electrifying. Imagine if a Conan movie featured the barbarian having to pay taxes on newly conquered land after all that business about crushing enemies and basking in the lamentations of their women. It’s sort of interesting (if not galling) that the Wachowskis crafted this colorful universe only to muse on the absurdity of government red tape, even if it feels like an elaborate setup for a punchline about how maybe the DMV isn’t so shitty after all.

This rare idiosyncratic fit is the only moment “Jupiter Ascending” bothers to be about anything other than its title character falling into perilous situations and waiting to be rescued. Many times, that’s literal: Mila Kunis spends a lot of time just falling from one place to the next until Channing Tatum—playing a dog-eared human-wolf bounty hunter with antigravity boots named Caine Wise—swoops in to save her. In melding the hero’s journey and damsel-in-distress archetypes, the Wachowskis have bent too far towards the latter, a disappointing turn of events considering the opportunity at hand here. How many sci-fi films on this scale even bother to put a female lead in this position? You want to credit "Jupiter Ascending" for this at least, but you sense it's more intrigued by her bodyguard’s own dark history (if the above description weren’t crazy enough, Caine is also a fallen angel of sorts, with clipped wings and everything).

Kunis struggles to anchor the film through no fault of her own, as she’s mostly resigned to listening to other characters explain the nuances of the universe. She’s low-key and unassuming (not unlike Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix”), so much so that she never quite reaches the same wavelength as everyone else. Tatum’s own laconic blankness (again channeling the Zen-like detachment of Reeves, though Tatum is more traditionally masculine and soulful) fares better; if anyone still harbors doubts about his acting credentials, this turn should shred them because he makes a preposterous character the perfect cipher for his directors’ lunacy. Caine Wise is about as restless as the film’s plot—he’s all kinetic energy charging ahead without so much as a glance over his shoulder. He doesn’t have time to even think about winking. Asking Tatum—who has become one of Hollywood’s most gifted comedic talents—to play it straight in this situation is risk in a film that could have used more of them.

Instead, just as Caine usually finds himself jet-skating on gravity’s rails, “Jupiter Ascending” glides ahead on tracks. If the script isn’t breezing through recycled plot points, then its characters are floating through the sort of effects sequences that big budget movies sport like wrapping paper these days. Once pioneers in this field, the Wachowskis have yielded to the boilerplate method that flings actors against green screen carnage that becomes emptier as it lumbers on. When the sight of Channing Tatum riding rocket boots and shooting lizard men in the face fails to completely dazzle, you wonder if the effects revolution ushered in by “The Matrix” has birthed a monster. After pushing the boundaries for over a decade, The Wachowskis have now become Frankenstein, and “Jupiter Ascending” is their malformed creation stitched together from familiar scraps, its ungainly appearance all but assuring that its weird, misunderstood soul will go unnoticed.

What’s frustrating is that you don’t have to stretch all the way back to “The Matrix” to see evidence of the Wachowskis’ grandeur. Both “Speed Race” and “Cloud Atlas” are monumental aesthetic signposts pointing towards the future of cinema; meanwhile, “Jupiter Ascending” already feels like old hat. Before this, you could trust that the Wachowskis could even make people standing in line seem thrilling—and then they go and have their characters actually stand in line, and it’s more exasperating than rousing.

You expect more from these two, especially when they’ve peppered the proceedings with so much goddamn weirdness hinting at something more memorable. Even when they’re cribbing from their own stash of narrative preoccupations, the Wachowskis at least have the decency to graffiti it with some amazingly gaudy decorations. “Jupiter Ascending” is a movie that splits time between a badass team of bounty hunters and Jupiter’s earthbound family: when she’s not contending with being shuttled around by the former, she’s being pestered by a cousin to sell her eggs so he can buy a big screen TV. Bees are genetically coded to show deference to royalty and where people walk around with names like Stinger Apini (Sean Bean) and Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth).

The latter tries to wed the reincarnation of his mom, and he’s not even the biggest asshole in the Abrasax clan. That would be Balem, the eldest of the three siblings, and Eddie Redmayne threatens to go Galactus in more ways than one: when his character threatens to consume the entire universe, you’re convinced Redmayne is going to devour the entire set at the same time. In one of the most bizarre turns in recent memory, he his lines become raspy utterances punctuated by strange outbursts. People will spend time perfecting their impersonations of this character for years to come. This will be the legacy of “Jupiter Ascending.”

Speaking of legacies and recurrence, it’s tempting to draw a parallel between the Wachowskis and George Lucas here, particularly since they more or less supplanted the fanboy patriarch upon his big return in 1999. Back then, it had been 16 years between “Star Wars” installments, and, thanks to a six month delay, the same amount of time has elapsed since “The Matrix.” Similarities abound between Lucas’s film and “The Phantom Menace”: the over-reliance on effects work, the rote plotting, the strange fascination with intergalactic bureaucracy. In trying to recreate the magic of “The Matrix,” they’ve unwittingly echoed the film it practically obliterated. How ironic that the Wachowskis—once anointed as The One(s)—have become part of a cycle that dooms them to repeating the mistakes of their predecessor.

This is their Architect moment, and their response should be a sight to behold. Given their past willingness to go off-page (say what you want about “The Matrix Revolutions,” but it was ballsy as hell), something tells me they won’t continue burrowing down the same insular rabbit hole as Lucas. Besides, “Jupiter Ascending” itself reveals that they aren’t lacking for imagination, nor have they become insincere: for all its faults, it’s earnest to an astounding degree.

Give most directors a dog-eared Channing Tatum, and they’ll treat it as low-hanging fruit and spit out obvious camp; at least the Wachowskis actually believe in this shit, and it’s just infectious enough to convince you that maybe you should too.

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originally posted: 02/07/15 19:06:13
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User Comments

9/26/15 mr.mike Battlefield Earth was more entertaining. 2 stars
6/05/15 alessandro pampolino good movie 3 stars
2/09/15 Bob Dog More imagination than a dozen of Hollywood typical pablum sci-fi's 5 stars
2/07/15 Oyvind Brubaker I want to bugger Mila Kunis 5 stars
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  06-Feb-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 02-Jun-2015


  DVD: 02-Jun-2015

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