Jupiter Ascending stands out as a breath of fresh air among the current crop of cookie-cutter YA adaptations that have been steadily plaguing multiplexes since the waning of Harry Potter frenzy a few years ago, brought on only by running out of books to adapt – though from what I understand Rowling is in the process of correcting that. Unlike Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Host, The Maze Runner, and Divergent, to name just a few, which all seem to suffer from a clinging reliance on prepackaged, archaic notions of gender and morality and poetic justice, the best credit that can be paid to The Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending is how it can comfortably fit within that genre and yet transcend it at the same time. Unfairly maligned by audiences and critics alike, a rare conformity to be certain, Jupiter Ascending is a beautifully executed space opera the likes of which we maybe haven’t seen since the siblings tackled The Matrix over a decade ago.
Honestly, The Wachowski’s have not had the best decade. Delivering enormous box office returns with the two Matrix sequels, and sill having them declared underwhelming, and then adapting the beloved Japanese cartoon Speed Racer to tepid reactions, and then moving onto the commercially impenetrable adaptation of David Mitchell’s oft-considered-unfilmable Cloud Atlas as some sort of ill-received art film/blockbuster hybrid, one thing is probably certain, The Wachowski’s won’t be shilling their art for mainstream audiences any longer, at least not with the backing of one of the largest motion picture studios in the world. That is, if Jupiter Ascending proves to be as big a bomb as is being predicted. But what does persist amidst the noise is the fact that these films, regardless of their receptions, have each unmistakably been cut from whole cloth, unwilling to cater to the masses, trying to define the type of populist art audiences should be craving instead of just adding to the pile.
Jupiter Ascending is no different. But while easily compared to The Wachowski’s breakthrough hit The Matrix in terms of story, it is a much better conceived one (and here’s where I probably lose most of whoever is still reading), as it deftly weaves expository elements into its action sequences so that a little bit – only what’s necessary – is divulged at any one time. At no time do things grind to a halt so a character can spell everything out for the audience. The story actually builds from its initial concerns with Jupiter (Mila Kunis), a young, unassuming daughter of Russian immigrants who cleans houses for a living and soon discovers she is The One who holds the entire fate of the world in her hands. Yes I said “Russian;” it’s strange at first, until I realized almost every depiction of Russians in recent Hollywood films has been negative, and their positive characterization here is no doubt a deliberate contrast the Wachowski’s mean to draw. And from that inciting incident take every plot point from our history of male-dominated fantasy cinema that fanboys have been living vicariously through and flip the gender, add wall-to-wall jaw-dropping special effects, and a wondrous imagination, and you have Jupiter Ascending.
It’s easy to write this film off, instead of trying to appreciate how its mere existence affects the traditional notions of the Hollywood blockbuster. People can disagree on whether Channing Tatum’s “wolfcop” protector Caine Wise, who rides around on anti-gravity boots saving Jupiter from disaster at every turn is believable, but how refreshing is it to see a character like that at the beckon call of a girl, and not BECAUSE she is a girl, but because she is The One? People can disagree on whether Eddie Redmayne’s gonzo portrayal of Balem Abrasax, the most ruthless member of a villainous intergalactic dynasty, is more than just scenery chewing, but how terrific is it that the final showdown invokes great peril without relying on the usual third act gender-based clichés? I loved both characters, and especially Redmayne, whose strange behavior and intonations are not only unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon, but they successfully create a character I could not imagine anyone else playing. I also loved the thought and care that so obviously went into the execution of this film.
The film is not without its flaws of course, occasionally feeling rushed as it crams a novel’s worth of plot into two hours, needing to stop for an expected, perfunctory set piece here and there, where The Matrix had over five hours to settle in to its story. And Mila Kunis’ line readings often draw attention to expository dialogue in an obvious way. But Jupiter Ascending is a film that deserves closer inspection. This is far from check-cashing as we know and continue to love each and every week at the box office. It’s smart, creative and original filmmaking, and the blockbuster that girls probably never knew they’ve been waiting for. Don’t listen to co-workers at the water cooler who steer you away. Jupiter Ascending may be a bit rough around the edges, but within you’ll find a well-polished, delightful tale that puts the fate of humanity, and life as we know it, for once, in the hands of a teenage girl, and surrounds her with a hundred million dollar budget of gorgeous special effects and world building.
The Verdict: Rave