From Lana and Andy Wachowski, the visionary minds behind The Matrix and its optional ancillary products, comes the next wave in old-fashioned space opera, Jupiter Ascending. It’s got a Chosen One, a shirtless A-list actor, rich evil oppressors, sharp-dressed bounty hunters, garbled proper nouns, mad science, spaceship explosions, a dashing hero saving a damsel in distress from certain death, human/animal hybrids, flying lizard-men, the Chicago skyline, toilet bowl cleaning, a commercial for Dark Souls II, and something way better than your musty old Marty McFly hoverboards: alien hoverskates! If you can’t find anything in this movie that speaks to you, that’s why the new Spongebob Squarepants movie also opened this weekend, just in case.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Mila Kunis is lower-class Chicago maid Jupiter Jones, named after the lead character in the long-running Three Investigators young-adult series. Life is nothing but work-work-work until a pointy-eared Channing Tatum space-skates into her life and tries to use his genetically spliced man-wolf talents to save her from the forces of Space Evil. Little did she know she’s set to inherit the Earth — all of it — as part of a complicated alien will-‘n’-testament that overrules our local Terran laws without us actually knowing it. Her existence thereby threatens to ruin the plans of the family Abrasax (accent on the second syllable), the secret 1% who claim ownership of this sector and value humanity as a prized commodity. No one is more upset than Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables, The Theory of Everything) as the aristocratic Balem Abrasax, who rasps like Voldemort, screams like Zod, and claims he called dibs on us all first.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Sean Bean costars as a former military man who’s not dead yet. Nikki Amuka-Bird (the meddling DS Gray from the BBC’s Luther) is the good guys’ commanding officer. Jupiter’s greedy jerk cousin is Kick Gurry, one of the grunts from Edge of Tomorrow, and, in flashback prologue, her dad is James D’Arcy, a.k.a. dignified sidekick Edwin Jarvis from Marvel’s Agent Carter. And my son recognized one of the hunters as Doona Bae from the Wachowskis’ previous ambitious contraption, Cloud Atlas.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The family name “Abrasax”, a.k.a. Abraxas, is a word of cosmological significance from old Gnostic texts. This is one of several pointers to a world-building ethos that incorporates astrology as well as astronomy, along with the sci-fi trope of a Creation story that has mankind originating elsewhere in the universe before emigrating to Earth. (Near as I can tell, “Balem” is just an anagram for “Mabel”.) Intrinsic to that design is the old Carl Sagan nutshell, “If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.” Jupiter Ascending assumes we’re not alone, and that we’re pretty low on the cosmic food chain. Your belief system may vary.
Despite their competitive differences, Team Abrasax share a collective goal. Since they own vast intergalactic real estate and resources between the three of them, we’re told at that level of success there’s only one prize left to hoard: time. They’re not truly immortal, but their game plan is to extend their lives as long as possible so they can keep enjoying their power and their stuff. Their concern doesn’t sound like a fear of death; rather, it’s as if they want more time just because someone told them they can’t have it.
One of my favorite scenes, even though it’s a jarring tonal departure from the rest of the movie, has Jupiter going through the motions of assuming ownership of Earth, which isn’t as simple as donning a crown and reciting a few lines to an applauding crowd. Here, as in reality, there’s endless bureaucratic red tape to navigate, departments to visit, protocols to decipher, Catch-22s to disentangle, and a lot of walking to do from one office to the next. For one fleeting moment we’re treated to a trailer for a $50 million remake of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but then the moment ends and we return to Elvish G.I. Joe in Space, already in progress.
Other possible morals of the story:
* Treating people like a disposable product is not cool.
* Rich people are mean. If you ever get the chance to rule the world, try doing it without being rich.
* Don’t take your life for granted, even when your purpose is doing other people’s chores.
Nitpicking? For a few minutes in the middle, I realized I’d lost track of which characters were working for which of the ruling class, because they’re all in competition but they all have the exact same motive. Balem is the most overtly cruel of all; his sister Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) is a liar who gets overshadowed; and his brother Titus (Douglas Booth) is a bold liar who loves lying and can’t believe you’re buying a single thing he says. But when the first hint of a double-cross rears up between characters, the only effect is Our Heroes are taken captive because the plot needed the power balance to shift from one sibling to the other for the sake of a tenser (if wimpier) boss fight later. Ultimately the three Abrasax sides stop mattering as they end up lumped together when the final act shifts into Explosions mode.
Regardless of meanings, the film’s main ingredient is CG fighting, whether on the ground, in ships, in space, or in midair over the Chicago River and the Loop. When it’s kept simple and personal, as in the initial alley throwdown between Tatum and the other hunters, it’s a stylish kind of Matrix-level movie sport. When it’s scenes of lookalike spaceships flying through clouds of zillions of other lookalike spaceships, I’m not wowed. I don’t care how many speed lines zip across the screen, how puffy the death-flames billow, or how many decibels the sound effects are cranked up. Such scenes mean nothing, have no stakes, and offer less drama and entertainment value than a round of Galaga. Also, even in the hand-to-hand combat, the alien lizard-men were the least convincing effect.(Yes, even less convincing than Channing Tatum’s Vulcan ears. Those, combined with his blond hair and goatee, render him a clone of the titular hero from Jak and Daxter, but they’re not badly done. It’s not as though you can see spirit gum or flesh-colored paint droplets on his collar. They look weird and took me a while to accept, but I got over them. Tatum’s stoic warrior’s performance went a long way.)
I presume Jupiter Ascending is the setup for an entire series, in hopes of follow-ups with titles such as Jupiter Reloading or Jupiter Revolting. Assuming the overseas box office fares much better than the U.S. reports I’ve heard today, it’s my hope that the next installment would backtrack a bit to the leftover disturbing part where (mild spoiler!) the Earth is still standing but the new owner hasn’t officially confirmed the dismantling of all the engines that oversee our secret captivity or chopping-block destinies yet, to say nothing of the same setups on other worlds. Some kind of radical change on the intergalactic factory floors would’ve been nice to hear.
So did I like it or not? Calling Jupiter Ascending “bad” seems like overkill. If this had been released in the 1980s it might’ve been hailed in the same circles that revere the likes of The Last Starfighter or Krull. It might be seen as a shame that Mila Kunis’ Chosen One is more like a 21st-century Cinderella than a Joseph Campbell hero, and that Jupiter falls for her new alien friend much faster than he falls for her. But if we ignore modern viewers’ context and pretend that an old-school middle-of-the-road distant cousin of Star Wars is exactly what the Wachowskis had in mind, then maybe someday after its underwhelming theatrical release has been forgotten, future generations might embrace it in the same way that some lone rebels now insist that Speed Racer was an unfairly underrated flick ahead of its time. I’d say that’s the best hope for the future of Jupiter Ascending, but I haven’t decided yet if that’s a compliment.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Jupiter Ascending end credits. Names that caught my eye in the meantime:
* Storyboard artist and former comics pro Steve Skroce, who’s worked with the Wachowskis on past projects
* Architect Frank Gehry, attached to some section involving Spanish housing
* Willis Tower, whose owners gave their blessing to have their fabled Chicago landmark trashed by spaceship lasers