Film

Jupiter Ascending Is a Fascinating Mess, Grand and Gaudy

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“You ready for another miserable video game?” I heard one critic crack to another as I settled in for Jupiter Ascending.

“Maybe in March we’ll see this year’s first good movie,” his pal said back, as if Girlhood, Hard to Be a God, Amira & Sam, Timbuktu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and The Duke of Burgundy didn’t exist.

Then, as the lights dimmed, they complained that the studios don’t invite critics to as many big movies as they used to, as if it’s a sensible investment for Warner Bros. to endeavor to get Jupiter Ascending in front of miserable pricks who already know they hate it.

Those particular pricks are wrong to be so from-the-start dismissive of Jupiter Ascending. The movie’s a fascinating mess, grand and gaudy, often hilarious. Wait until you see the bees of Earth decide that Mila Kunis is a queen of some sort. Or shirtless Channing Tatum, with elf-ears and a goatee, looking like he’s playing Puck in a WWE production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some of its marvels are worth beholding on the biggest screen you can find: An early chase/battle set against the Chicago skyline bests the Marvel movies in vigor, coherence, and beauty.

Too bad that at that point in the movie we don’t know or care, really, about anyone involved in that chase — and that the action to come isn’t as sharply executed. For some reason, the Wachowskis are three bang-up action set pieces in before they tell us who anybody is. Still, there’s a simple test I’ve come up with to measure the pleasures of putative blockbusters, one that Jupiter Ascending, however nonsensical, handily passes: Is watching this movie more interesting than seeing all the millions they spent on it stuffed into a woodchipper aimed at the producers’ faces?

Yes, it is. As always with the Wachowskis, who directed and produced, there’s heaps of Big Ideas for the stoner crowd: As Kunis’s everyday cleaning woman gets caught up in dynastic space warfare, we learn what really killed the dinosaurs, where crop circles come from, why some people seem truly to believe they’ve suffered alien abductions, and how human life originated on Earth (which is much clearer here than in Prometheus). We don’t learn why the talking-lizard villains seem to believe that leather jackets look totally badass, but I just figure their planet never got Happy Days.

Those prick critics were right about one thing. Jupiter Ascending often suggests a video game, but not always in the way critics mean when they resort to such vague shorthand. Usually, critics lob “video game” as an insult at any movie that has lots of computer-assisted fantasy violence, especially if the filmmakers stage and shoot and cut it without honoring the limitations of the older movie-tech those critics grew up on. If actors are zipping around in the sky, and the audience seems to follow right along with them, and it’s obvious that this could never have been whipped up on a set with some dolly tracks, then for many critics it doesn’t count: It’s not how God and Hitch intended movies to look. Their concern seems to be that the craft behind it is not the right kind, but that’s really just an excuse not to bother trying to unpack the images onscreen.

I mean, imagine theater critics getting huffy over a play’s use of video projections.

There’s a half-hour or so of Jupiter Ascending that looks like a video game in that familiar way. Playing an intergalactic wolf-man, Tatum scoots through a city beneath Jupiter’s red spot on anti-grav rollerblades, as blood-red space-towers crumble around him — and Kunis keeps getting stranded on an improbable number of collapsing balconies. The sequence is alternately gobstopping and incomprehensible, like much of the film, but in one key sense it’s not like a video game at all. The creators of games make sure that at all times you, the player, know exactly what you’re looking at, where you’re going, and what dangers matter. The Wachowskis may have vision, but they’re hit-or-miss with clarity — how come, sometimes, Tatum can crash right into flaming debris, and other times he has to dash around it in a panic?

Of course, there’s much greater diversity among video games than there is among movie critics. The type of game the movie mostly resembles is something like Dragon Age, purportedly a “role-playing game” but in actuality more of a fantasyland conversation simulator. In that breed of RPG, the chief draw isn’t the mayhem or the exploration — it’s the long, stiff chats between the player, via an onscreen avatar, and the game’s elves, kings, beasts, and what-have-yous, who have much to say about their world and their pasts and the way you give them boners.

Perhaps that game influence accounts for Kunis’s curious blankness, her character’s blasé response to being whisked from the top of the Sears Tower and told that bees can smell her royalty. It’s left to us to read into her what she wants. She asks a lot of questions in the movie, and they sound as if they’ve been selected by a player from a list offered up by the game’s creators — and whoever’s wielding the PS4 controller keeps choosing the one about the finer points of franchise lore rather than niceties like “I’m the queen of what, now?” or “Why are those guys chasing us?” or “What is all this about, anyway?” or “How come we finally have a lavish SF adventure film with a female hero, but she’s mostly a passive lump, and then the climax centers around Tatum roller-discoing through the heavens as he tries to stop her wedding?”

That’s the kind of game Jupiter Ascending is: a strange and dazzling and exhausting one that would be better if you were piloting its avatar — and asking the questions.

Other weirdness I feel obliged to note: the confounding comedy sequence about intergalactic bureaucracy that kicks off with a dreadfully caricatured black woman hmmphing her way through a miserable government job; the grandeur of every shot of Jupiter and its bloody-mary hurricanes; the way the elephant-trunked creature running a station on a spaceship somehow looks nothing like Max Rebo; the now objectively proven fact that talking CGI lizards never work as bad guys; portentous Wachowski dialogue like “Life is an act of consumption” and “Sharing is not the strength of your species” and “Bees don’t lie”; the too-short moment where Kunis’s character considers letting immortal beings kill all life on Earth sometime in the future if it happens after she and her family have lived out their lives; the fact that Kunis’s character is named Jupiter Jones, just like that chunky junkyard detective kid in the Three Investigators books; the way Kunis’s character, just like a Dragon Age elf, suddenly decides she’s totally hot for a member of her party; the thousand white candles one of the villains sets out in his lair, like space tyrants share Sting’s idea of what’s classy; the fact that the other planets often look like Naboo multiplied by Rivendell; the way Tatum holding on to a spaceship as it leaves the atmosphere makes that whole Indiana Jones–somehow-clings-to-the-submarine thing look entirely reasonable; that it’s a relief to see so much money spent in pursuit of so reckless and goony and humane and garish a stab at greatness, rather than, like, Iron Man 4 or something.