‘Jupiter’ Ascends to excellence

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How often do you have a big budget, multiplex film with a female protagonist, who spends her days scrubbing toilets? How about a male protagonist, who is an albino genetic splice between human and lycan DNA? Such is the case with “Jupiter Ascending,” the controversial new film by the Wachowski siblings.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) never met her English father, Maximilian (James D’Arcy). The astronomer was gunned down by mobsters before she was even born. In a trunk in the hold of steamer cargo ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, her Russian mother, Aleksa (Maria Doyle Kennedy), gave birth to Jupiter. She named her newborn daughter after her deceased husband’s favorite planet.

Fast forward a few decades. Jupiter is an undocumented alien, living with her multi-generational Russian émigré family in Chicago. She has the thankless job of working with her mother and aunt, cleaning the homes of wealthy homeowners. The downtrodden toilet scrubber has no inkling of the pivotal role that she will play in the Earth’s future.

One day, she is donating eggs at a fertility clinic to raise a little extra cash. Suddenly, the staff is revealed to actually be a bunch of strange looking creatures from a different planet. The clinic’s staff isn’t trying to salvage her eggs, they’re trying to kill her.

Just in the nick of time, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a mean-tempered action figure wearing anti-gravity boots, shows up. Though severely outnumbered, he manages to save Jupiter from certain death. He turns out to be a genetically engineered mutant, who bears both human and wolf genetic material. Caine was the runt of the litter. However, he became a formidable warrior by dint of sheer determination. Unfortunately, Caine was dismissed as a Legionnaire in the military for attacking a member of the privileged elite.

Caine explains that he has a chance to redeem himself if he can save Jupiter. However, Jupiter protests that it must be case of mistaken identity. She is a total nobody. Why would anyone care about her?

Do you remember learning about evolution back in school? According to authorities, some three and a half million years ago, unicellular amoebae was generated from inorganic matter in the primordial broth of planet’s ocean. These begat multicellular life forms.  Eventually, primates and our own human species arose from these antecedents in the process of evolution.

“Jupiter Ascending,” repudiates this prevailing notion of human evolution. In its place, they offer a fundamentally different origin story. It certainly isn’t creationism.

As Caine tries to explain to an incredulous Jupiter, humans actually originated on a  planet in a different galaxy more than three billion years ago. The ruling elite there have decided to seed other planets throughout the multiverse with the human species. These humanoid transplants are unaware that their ancestors arose on a different planet altogether. They are also oblivious to what their purpose is in the overall scheme of things.

In fact, these humans on other planets are being raised so that one day they can be harvested. When they reach their Darwinian peak, they will be killed. Their essence is extracted and used as a life-extending elixir for the privileged members on the home planet.

By some sort of fluke, Jupiter has the exact same genetic code as the murdered matriarch of the Abrasax family, the most powerful in the multiverse. By the arcane inheritance laws, Jupiter can claim the property of her genetic analogue. That would make her the owner of the planet earth and in position to prevent the Earth from being harvested.

The matriarch’s children; Balem (Eddie Redmayne, Stephen Hawkins in “The Theory of Everything”) Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth) are squabbling over their mother’ legacy. Right now, Balem owns the planet Earth and plans to harvest it. However, if Jupiter asserts her right of ownership, he will forfeit his proprietary rights. Guess who wants Jupiter dead?

“Jupiter Ascending” was originally scheduled for release in mid-July of 2014. A deluge of scathing advance press accounts detailed production woes and cost overruns. With a budget, which reached $175 million, some predicted that the film would be a financial disaster for Warner Brothers.  Here it is, over six months after the prior release date. The film has been subverted by a new cascade of scathing reviews.

I was not an admirer of the Wachowski’s “Matrix” trilogy. Parenthetically, is it really sixteen years since Keanu Reeves introduced the screen character of Neo? For me, “V for Vendetta” was plagued with a panoply of iconographic and narrative problems.  I thought that their “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas” were unmitigated disasters. With this in mind, I was taken aback by the enthusiasm that I felt for “Jupiter Ascending.”

“Jupiter Ascending” is exceptionally ambitious. It is a conceptually provocative treatise on our genetic destiny and its mutability. The film also limns the theme of class consciousness.  Admittedly, on occasion, the narrative becomes convoluted and difficult to follow.

The film boasts a strong cast. As an everyday girl abruptly catapulted into the status of royalty, Mila Kunis captures her character’s understandable sense of befuddlement and disorientation. Channing Tatum once again displays his consummate athleticism as an action hero. In addition, throughout the film, he smolders with a deep-seated resentment. The repressed limerance between Kunis and Tatum is touchingly heartfelt.

The always reliable Sean Bean portrays Stinger Apini, Caine’s erstwhile mentor. When Caine stepped out of line, Stinger accepted the blame for his misconduct. As punishment, he was stripped of his wings and banished to the planet Earth. Can he and Caine possibly reconcile?

The three Abrasax siblings all exude a sense of regal entitlement. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle,” Beyond the Lights”) lends gravitas to her portrayal of Famulus, a half-human, half-deer genetic splice. In lesser hands, the character could have easily been risible. As Vasilliy Bolodnikov, the autocratic head of Jupiter’s family, Jeremy Swift also makes an impression with his brief screen time. Ditto for Samuel Barnett , who plays a character assigned to be an advocate for Jupiter in navigating the bureaucratic maze, necessary to assert her right of inheritance.

Some will no doubt castigate the storyline of “Jupiter Ascending,” as farfetched and ridiculous. However, even the film’s detractors will be forced to acknowledge its remarkable production values. Michael Giacchino’s score, John Toll’s cinematography, Dan Glass’ visual effects, Hugh Bateup’s production design, and Kym Barrett’s costume design all deserve kudos. Notably, the film eschews the futuristic visual motif of most sci-fi films. Instead, the extra-terrestrial scenes adopt an aesthetic that evokes a Medieval European epoch.

In tone, “Jupiter Ascending” is a cross between the upbeat, fairy tale ethos of “Cinderella” and the more sobering “Odyssesy.” It is no coincidence that Lana Wachowski has cited Homer’s epic tale as her favorite book.

The Wachowskis have never been noted for the sense of humor pervading their films. However, “Jupiter Ascending” has a hilarious parody of the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy. It is an obvious homage to “Brazil.” Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize Terry Gilliam, that film’s director in a cameo role.

Directed with verve by the Wachowskis and enhanced by stunning production values, this film ascends to excellence.

***1/2 PG-13 (for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity)  127 minutes

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Jupiter Ascending" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ZzMkDLjWI

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Jupiter Ascending” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ZzMkDLjWI

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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