“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.”
You can hear Morpheus’ words blaring in your ears the further and further you go into the Wachowski siblings’ latest film, Jupiter Ascending. It takes no more than 10 minutes to realize that the duo responsible for The Matrix swallowed red pills by the handful, like so many Very Cherry Jelly Bellies, and went deeper into Wonderland than ever before, coming out the other side with their weirdest movie yet.
But first, the set-up: Jupiter Ascending begins on Earth, in Russia, as a local woman falls in love with a British astronomer. He dies, but before he does, he impregnates his lover, who leaves Russia in her grief and gives birth to a baby girl somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on her way to America.
That girl is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), and when she becomes a young woman, she seems destined for little more than turning dirty toilets into pristine thrones for elite Chicagoans who fancy themselves Cinderella. As it turns out, it’s Jupiter who boasts the Cinderella story, and the claim to a pristine throne. Her fairy grandmother comes in the form of a man-wolf space-outlaw named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), the glass slipper is her DNA, and her eventual royal prize is nothing less than Earth itself.
Confused yet? Let’s muddy the waters even more: It turns out that the universe is under the thumb of an ancient dynasty known as House Abrasax, and the three children of the family are warring with one another over planets and resources. With their mother dead and gone, each of the three wants to make a play at Earth, currently the crown jewel of the universe with its bountiful population ripe for harvesting. But the eldest son and Earth’s heir, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), finds his claim challenged when he and the other siblings learn of Jupiter Jones. The Earthling has the exact same genetic code as their mother, and as such, she is considered Earth’s rightful queen reincarnated.
As the three Abrasax make their plays for Jupiter with their own various pitches and schemes, Jupiter finds herself caught up in an unfathomable situation beyond the far reaches of our Sun, awestruck by the possibilities of the universe, and falling deeper and deeper still into Caine Wise’s eyes — or at least his abs.
Love their work or loathe it, Wachowski films are always a spectacle, and Jupiter Ascending is no different. Indeed, it’s the Wachowskis at their most lavish, creating vast and detailed worlds populated by humanoids of all shapes and sizes, blended with rabbits and alligators and elephants and other assorted beasts. Robots, too, exist in these worlds, like Intergalactic Advocate Bob, a minor character who features prominently in one of the movie’s best and funniest montages. Alien royals wear ethereal ornaments as testament to their power and class, participating in orgies because they can, lying through their teeth because it’s how they get their jollies.
All the while, rough-and-tumble renegades and mercs slug it out with one another, blasting high-powered lasers, setting off hand grenades that convert hard substances into nothingness, and flying fast and furious at one another in dog fights over the Chicago skyline and in the far reaches of space. Advanced technologies and unique universal currencies further flesh out the culture of these cosmos. Without question, the world the Wachowskis have created here is their most fully realized yet.
But how about the story? It’s… well, it’s confusing, designed by red-pill-poppers for red-pill-poppers. But a certain level of philosophical whimsy, if not outright nonsense, should be expected from any Wachowski effort by now. If The Matrix didn’t convince you of their abstract interests, then their most recent effort, the ambitious and generations-spanning Cloud Atlas, certainly should have done the trick. When you set foot inside the theater for a Wachowski movie, you’re not paying for straightforward anything. Jupiter Ascending fits right at home in their catalogue in that regard.
Love their work or loathe it, Wachowski films are always a spectacle, and Jupiter Ascending is no different.
It also fits into the Wachowski catalogue in terms of questionable acting. Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis take the leads as sharp-eared Caine and wide-eyed Jupiter, and there’s no getting around their celebrity. Tatum’s seasoned space rogue all but screams, “F—k you, science,” while Kunis often acts like nothing more than Jackie Burkhart in space. After a while, both actors settle into their roles a bit more, and their natural tendencies are charming; not unlike the Keanu Reeves of long ago, whose Matrix-era knows-kung-fu delivery now elicits joyful nostalgia more than it does groan-worthy nausea.
If casting for the two leads is somewhat dubious, the exact opposite is true of the main villain, Balem Abrasax. With his pale skin, thin frame, gaunt face, and plump lips, covered head to toe in affluent adornments, Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne does not feel of this Earth. He walks through his surroundings with lizard-like entitlement, barely breathing out demands and desires, until he goes full Gary Oldman and barks out commands, The Professional-style. (He has more than one “EVERYONE” moment, to say the least.) Redmayne’s Abrasax belongs with another Oldman original, The Fifth Element’s Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, as one of the great science fiction villains of the last 20 years. He’s basically Space Joffrey. It’s the performance of the movie, without a doubt.
Always perplexing and often even numbing, Jupiter Ascending is a bizarre ride the likes of which are rarely matched. It’s full-blown Wachowski — and that’s very good news for you, if you prefer your pills red over blue.
Jupiter Ascending is in theaters now.