Jupiter Ascending is, to borrow a phrase, a hot mess.
This mega-budget sci-fi roller coaster stars Mila Kunis as a young Russian immigrant who cleans toilets for a living but may actually be a reincarnated space queen. Opposite her is Channing Tatum as a part-wolf super soldier bodyguard with magical flying space roller blades. It's the Wachowski siblings’ latest film, and it's as zany and nonsensical as it sounds, but it's also absolutely gorgeous.
The film's plot, such as I could follow it, centers on Jupiter Jones (Kunis) learning that Earth is merely a tiny part of a massive galactic empire, and she's the rightful heir to the planet and other assorted wealth. Naturally, her space-family, headed by Balem (a scenery-chewing Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), want that piece of the pie. As such, she's in grave danger the minute her "genetic print" is discovered.
Caine (Tatum) and a motley crew of space soldiers arrive to try to protect the wide-eyed Jupiter. Maybe. Everyone in this movie has some ulterior motive, and the royalty has their greedy hands in seemingly everything. But generally the "good guys" are the ones trying to help Jupiter stay alive long enough to get to the next setpiece.
There's also a romance subplot, where Jupiter keeps trying to hit on Caine. At one point, he tries to explain how beneath her he is in the hierarchy of this world. She awkwardly responds with an exclamation: "I love dogs!" It's not remotely subtle, but I found myself charmed by how adorable it was.
nothing makes much sense in Jupiter Ascending.
If the romance subplot sounds a little off-kilter, it’s par for the course in this movie, where nothing makes much sense. The script feels like little more than a perfunctory plot device machine in service of a pastiche of sci-fi tropes with incredible production design and a bunch of star actors hamming it up.
It's hard to keep track of the many societies, planets, creatures and speaking characters introduced as the story moves at a breakneck pace. It bounces merrily along from one massive spectacle to the next, and even the hapless Jupiter is confused by the turn of events.
It's possible to have a great time with Jupiter Ascending, but you must go into the theater expecting precisely that: a big, incoherent and beautiful spectacle.
The production design alone is worth the trip. Throughout Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter and company visit many gorgeously rendered locales, each brimming with personality and a sense of place. One of the first worlds the film showcases is covered in indigo sand, with bending architecture that might feel at home on the MIT campus. Balem's industrial empire on Jupiter looks and feels like a space-age oil refinery, with dark pipes jutting up at ugly angles.
Costume and creature design are similarly inspired. There are cyberpunk mercenaries, flying lizard men and "synthetic" people with human-looking faces covering neon electronics. Jupiter's encounters with royalty inspire an opulent line of dresses and hairdos that would make Vera Wang blush with envy.
An equal amount of screen time is devoted to impossibly balletic chase scenes and space combat. These scenes largely focus on Caine, using his gravity-reversing roller blades, or flying a tiny spaceship, shooting down bad guys.
There are a few interesting ideas about gender and class hidden amongst the spectacle. Jupiter is obviously a bright young lady, and she's miserable in her job. Her family loves her, but they don't understand her potential. She's held down on Earth by her class and immigration status, as well as her gender.
But space society doesn't seem much better, at least where money is concerned. The classes are even more stratified in the wider universe, with an "entitled" class that is called literally that. Jupiter is uncomfortable with her new status, and her possible romance with Caine is complicated by her newfound power.
Balem's villainy is an extension of his own class privilege. He even rants about how "some lives matter and some don't," the common refrain of rich villains in film.
These obvious, in-your-face themes run throughout the entire movie, but the finer points are lost amidst the bigger, louder events. I liked that Jupiter Ascending had something to say, but I found myself wishing it would speak up.
There's a tongue-in-cheek quality to Jupiter Ascending that makes the wacky action go down a bit easier. The actors appear to be in on the joke, although no one more than Eddie Redmayne. His hysterical performance crosses into camp early on and squarely holds its ground, Redmayne plays Balem as the consummate cartoon space villain. He isn't so much chewing scenery as he is devouring it hungrily, and it is a genuine pleasure to watch him do so.
Mila Kunis is perfect in the title role. She's grounded and bewildered by her fate, but also likable. She's not above making a poop joke (she cleans toilets for a living, after all), and she has a core decency that makes her believable even when everyone else is clearly vamping it up for the camera.
Tatum, too, is game for his role as the macho Caine, strutting around shirtless and flying wildly above cityscapes. He probably has the most ridiculous character in a movie filled to the brim with ridiculous characters, largely because of his campy appearance, but somehow, he pulls it off.
The Wachowski siblings have an aesthetic sensibility that is so weird and bold that it elevates Jupiter Ascending far beyond its meager script. It makes close to no damned sense, and it requires more suspension of disbelief than your average sci-fi spectacle. But if you want to be entertained by pretty pictures and wildly talented actors at their loudest possible setting, Jupiter Ascending has your number.