I’ve been enthusiastic about Jupiter Ascending for quite some time, and that anticipation only ticked upward when the film suffered the ignominy of a postponement from the heart of summer to the dreary days of early February, a scheduling shift announced a mere six weeks before its original release date. That’s because I wasn’t necessarily craving my time in the theater before the latest sci-fi extravaganza from Andy and Lana Wachowski (or as they’re billed in the credits for Jupiter Ascending, simply “The Wachowskis,” like they’ve formed a traveling family band) out of a belief it was going to be good. Given what I’d seen and heard, I expected the film to be either a masterpiece or a debacle, with the latter looking more likely when one of the trailers was capped off by Mila Kunis delivering the line “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs” with admirable sincerity. Brilliance or bust, I would have been overjoyed either way.
In the end, I don’t think Jupiter Ascending rings the bell at either end of the spectrum I mentally laid out for it. Instead, it’s an enjoyable, playful film that effectively captures the spirit of old paperback adventures from publishers like Tor and Del Rey, those bulky, pulpy novels that were often trembling fantasy epics in a glistening science fiction disguise. Even the various spaceships and otherworldly cityscapes look as if they were peeled right off of those well-worn covers and transferred to the screen. If it feels at time like a pastiche, it’s at least an echo of an entire genre, and the Wachowskis stuff the film with so many ideas and concepts that it can feel like they’re trying to shove the wide-ranging invention of that genre into a single film.
The critics who’ve pounced on the film with malevolent glee take shots at the film’s cheesiness as if it’s evidence of dreadful mistakes on the part of the filmmakers. On the contrary, I think any creators who’ve opted to name their lead character Jupiter Jones (Kunis) know exactly what they’re doing, and I admire the hubris of embracing the exuberant ludicrousness of the film’s ancestral influences with such unabashed pleasure. For Neo’s sake, they’ve cast Channing Tatum to play a human-wolf hybrids who soars across the air using gravity-manipulating boots that are essentially outer space roller blades. The Wachowskis siblings are resolutely committed to finding fun in this manifestation of their collective imagination, without any winks of knowing parody intended to desperately preserve a veneer of coolness.
As the nature of my praise above implies, the film’s plot is built out of familiar elements: the beleaguered nobody who discovers they’re secretly an immensely special purpose (in this case, the owner and queen of Earth!), creepy royal siblings who squabble over their pieces of a vast empire, intricate intergalactic political maneuvering spotted with hidden agendas and double-crosses. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in commitment and remarkably contained sprawl. The Wachowskis claim the original screenplay was six-hundred pages long, and it sometimes feels as if they’ve tried to fit all of it into a running time that just edges over the two hour mark. They want it all. There are wild set pieces tearing apart cityscapes, earthly and otherwise, and enough elaborately devised space gowns to fill an early season episode of Project Runway. There is room for both Kunis’s trademark natural ease (she even makes the “I love dogs” moment work, largely by playing the moment that follows with the right beat of mild mortification) and for Eddie Redmayne, as the chief villain, to deliver the acting equivalent of a Nirvana song, shifting from low, raspy quiet to strident bursts of high volume abandon in a startling moment. Maybe the Wachowskis don’t manage to balance all this with equal grace throughout, but at least they have the daring to carrying their load while walking the highest of wires.