Film Review: Jupiter Ascending (★★½)

jupiter_ascending_character_poster_2After the atrocity that was Cloud Atlas, (sorry to its few fans) I expected Andy and Lana Wachowski to deliver a near-three hour opus of space moralizing with excessive special effects and utterly stupid writing. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. That’s all there in their latest, Jupiter Ascending, but it looks so glorious and the actors are so over-the-top I ended up being bewitched by the spectacle. Two hours flew by so quickly I was left shocked and disturbed. And with 72 hours to process, I can’t stop thinking about it; its stupidity, its beauty, its acting. There are two types of bad movies: Movies so bad your own humor is what makes the experience worthwhile, and movies so bad in and of themselves that you laugh at how ridiculous it is and end up letting the entertainment of it all overtake you. Jupiter Ascending is a bad movie saved by its inanity that I didn’t even need jokes to be entertained by it.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a maid by day and perpetual hater of her life by night. Her life changes abruptly when an intergalactic space dynasty, headed up by Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) decide to kill her. Why? Because Jupiter is the reincarnation of the Abrasax matriarch, making her the owner of Earth. As the various Abrasax siblings try to woo or kill her, a former soldier, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) does what he can to keep Jupiter safe.

After being pushed back almost a year, allegedly for post-production work, the final product is on par with the last Wachowski project. Like Cloud Atlas this is an epic, sprawling, gorgeously filmed feature with an asinine story. But where Cloud Atlas took itself so seriously it practically sprouted wrinkles Jupiter is fun in all the worst ways. Because 90% of the story is action, there’s little time for anyone to fall asleep on the job. Things are constantly moving, zooming, or blasting in your face that you’re wrapped up in how cool everything looks (unlike Speed Racer where you wanted to throw up from all the color lobbed at you). Furthermore, the script’s stupidity lends a certain charm, particularly within the examination of the Abrasax children. Things are insanely rough throughout Jupiter’s introduction – because Jupiter is the worst part of the movie – but once the three Abrasax children arrive (Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton), things become interesting because the acting is tighter and said actors seem to have slyly said “Fuck it” to everything.

The Wachowskis certainly love big cartoony movies, but Jupiter Ascending is probably the closest they’ve come to making a fairy tale (because apparently girls need something to identify with in space). Jupiter Jones’ story is Cinderella in space – she even references the famed girl with shoe problems at one point. The young woman works in a demeaning job where she’s constantly ignored, ends up becoming the Queen of the Universe, ends up being chased by a dastardly villain (Redmayne in Jafar-mode), almost marries a vain pretty boy (Booth), and is saved by the poor peasant. Okay, this is probably more in line with Aladdin in space, but if Princess Jasmine was the heroine.

Unfortunately, I give the edge to Princess Jasmine in that regard because the weakest element in Jupiter Ascending is Jupiter herself. Kunis’ wide-eyed surprise is understandable, but there’s little more than that throughout the entirety of the film. Natalie Portman was originally cast here, and I can see why. Too often Jupiter’s kicked around, passed out (and being helped out of her clothes while unconscious one too many times), and generally jupiter-ascending-pic-channing-tatum-lead-imagewaiting for Caine to save her. Portman as the damsel in distress would have been perfect as she’s cultivated that schtick.

There are some moments where Kunis nails a humorous line, but the majority of her lines are commenting on how plain she is, how guys don’t like her, and how in lurve she is with Caine. (Sorry, Andy and Lana but no one’s buying a girl like Kunis can’t find a date.) Kunis has the ability to be the tough chick, wielding a gun in the final act, but she’s limited to just wearing clothes from the Sarah Connor collection when she’s not being dressed up like a Barbie doll. She’s the princess, nothing more. And even worse, despite the title focusing on her ascendance to the throne, the conclusion places her right back where she is with absolutely zero changes to her life outside of a hamfisted “the more you know” moral. What’s her prize for almost getting killed and being the Queen of Earth? Why, Caine, of course! No space money at the very least? What more could a woman need other than Channing Tatum, though, in a universe where women almost exclusively talk about being young and finding the right dress to wear for their marriage proposal (both of those happen in the Earth and space segments!).

Really, you have to go into this with little interest in Jupiter herself. The side characters are what keep things interesting. This is a far cry from Cockney Tom Hanks thinking he’s a gangster in Cloud Atlas. Outside of Kunis and Tatum, who believe they’re in a serious movie, the rest of the cast play a rousing game of “Who Chews More Scenery?” Middleton and Booth are given a segment a piece – the pacing here is good, but the divide between the Jupiter/Caine sequence and the actual Abrasax story, the meat of the narrative, never gels properly – and they’re good as the vapid princess and the playboy prince. Booth’s smooth-talking Englishman makes me wonder if the Wachowski’s finally saw Twilight (with Tatum’s Caine Wise as Jacob).

But who cares when you have possible Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in the cast? The marketing REALLY plays up Redmayne’s character. Don’t be deceived, though, as he’s only in it for about 30 minutes. But, I’m not going to lie, those thirty minutes are the hammiest moments of the film. This is Redmayne at his creepiest, slitheriest (if that’s not a word I’m coining it), shoutiest, and any other word with an -est at the end. His Balem is the film’s big bad and Redmayne’s so hammy he’s practically honey-baked. There’s little rhyme or reason for his motivations, but it’s compelling watching a straitlaced actor go so batshit; you can’t help but watch him go overboard. Tatum takes the material so seriously that he’s boring, but Redmayne realizes even his worst acting still sounds compelling – although he drops his voice an octave so it sometimes sounds like he’s being strangled – and it keeps you engaged.

If I had to describe Jupiter Ascending to friends here’s how I’d do it: You know in movies about movie making, when they show the finished product and it’s some self-indulgent opus that never looks entirely like a real movie? Where the actors are super serious, but there’s that thin veneer that they know it’s BS? You know those parody movie trailers Jimmy Fallon or Kimmel make with all their best friends? Yep, Jupiter Ascending is that! Much like last year’s Winter’s Tale, Jupiter Ascending is utterly insane, self-indulgent, stupid, and ridiculous, but you can’t look away from it. The near constant action, over-the-top performances, and space fairy tale narrative are the ultimate train wreck you can’t look away from. I guarantee in a few years we’ll see Room-like screenings of this movie. I can’t say I hated it, I honestly can’t.