Review: Jupiter Ascending

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Jupiter AscendingLana and Andy Wachowski are two of my favorite current filmmakers. The Matrix rocked my worldview, and Cloud Atlas expanded my worldview, claiming a place as my very favorite movie. We've come to expect the very best from them, but not every movie can rock your world. Sometimes we have to settle for just "really damned good."

Jupiter Ascending encompasses the Wachowskis' grand visions of galactic empire within the confines of a relatively small action-adventure story. Their aesthetic, with a dreamlike quality, seems to draw on influences from every big science-fiction film of the past but mixes them together in new and original combinations. Immediately after it screened for press, Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of complaints from critics calling the movie a mess. It may not be for everyone. It misses a few beats, but it gets more right than it does wrong. If you're on the same wavelength as the Wachowskis, you should enjoy Jupiter Ascending as much as I did.

The story follows a Russian immigrant girl, named Jupiter because of her astronomer father's obsession with the planet, as she is attacked and aided by competing alien forces due to an accident of her birth. Her DNA is a perfect match for the eons-dead queen of a galactic empire, and the queen's heirs, her three children, each approach Jupiter in attempts to woo or threaten her and gain control of her now vast resources.

Mila Kunis is perfect for the role of Jupiter, with her combination of dark gorgeous looks and childlike innocence. In their interview with Hitfix's Drew McWeeny, the Wachowskis discuss their goal to make her a particularly feminine heroine rather than a female character who acts like a male hero. This is one goal I feel they failed to achieve, as time and again they place Jupiter in the position of damsel in distress so she can be rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum). This happens with such frequency that he becomes the hero of the story.

Compare Jupiter's story to Neo. He is thrust into a new situation and told he's the saviour of humanity, and success happens when he accepts that role and realizes his full power inside the Matrix. Jupiter hates her life, is also thrust into a new situation, told she's a queen, and then is tossed around like a ragdoll by forces seeking to control and exploit her. Jupiter's only attempts to take control of her situation involve making the wrong choices to give in to her opponents as she fails to trust those few who truly want to help her. Every time, her choices lead to disaster and every time, Caine shows up to save her.

The three heirs-- Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth), Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton) and Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) -- come from a society that is so influenced by its ability to manipulate genes it has some kind of vaguely-expressed worship built up around the concept of a "recurrence" where the same combination of genes is repeated in another being by random chance. This is so important to them that their laws include provisions in their wills to set up inheritance rights to transfer their estates to the recurrence. In spite of this, the three heirs, especially Balem (Redmayne), trigger their own downfall by seeking to capture and control her. If they had merely let her live out a normal human life, lost amid the other billions of humans on Earth, there would be no threat to their continued power.

Each of these heirs is an interesting character, rulers of hundreds of worlds, controlling the lives of billions of people having themselves lived many millenia. How does an actor choose to portray such a personality? This is another bone of contention. According to their interview, the Wachowskis are very happy with Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne's performance. It is evident, even from the previews for the movie that his over-the-top creepines doesn't work for the character, or for him as an actor. His raspy, rheumy voice ponderously hesitates at the beginning of each word as if trying to decide whether it's worth the expenditure of energy just to express his thoughts. The only emotion he seems capable of expressing is a sudden burst of anger when once in a great while, one of his orders is not immediately executed. Redmayne occasionally reads as crazy and the rest of the time barely exceeds robotic.

While Redmayne seems to have turned in the worst performance of his career, Channing Tatum is stretching himself to exceed my expectations. That's especially important since his character carries so much of the film squarely on his muscular back. Resembling some kind of unholy mashup between Flash Gordon, Starlord and Teen Wolf, he's not only believable in that crazy mashup of a role but he also still manages to make it sexier than even he has a right to be. Or perhaps that's just an impression we get because Kunis as Jupiter spends half the film trying to get him to kiss her. Again, an odd idea for a role with the stated intention of being about female empowerment.

If I keep writing like this, you'll think I hated the movie, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. I do feel Jupiter Ascending fails to be everything the Wachowskis want it to be, but they want it to be too many things for too many people. It plays like the first chapter of a much larger epic space opera -- The Hobbit to an eventual Lord of the Rings, if they should pick up the story to make more films. The richness and diversity of that universe have been set up in the background of Jupiter's small adventure, and that is itself a satisfying story.