You clean toilets for a living. Imagine getting suddenly transported to a distant planet, shown ancient halls glowing with a thousand candles, and a stone replica of you—carved a million years ago.
And imagine suddenly being addressed as “Your Majesty,” because you’re the exact genetic recurrence of this woman immortalized in marble, and because you were—and are—Earth’s savior.
“Jupiter Ascending” is a thematic cornucopia of “Star Wars/Trek/Gate,” “The Matrix,” “Predator,” “Wolf,” even “Turbo” (the snail cartoon), and at least seven more.
At an early point in its production, the film probably had the look of a new franchise because, much like ‘The Matrix” trilogy, it’s a classic Wachowski creation—a comprehensive science-fiction universe, with a distinct visual style.
But “Ascending,” while ambitious, can’t hold a candle, let alone a thousand, to “The Matrix.”
Suffering 4:45 a.m. daily wake-ups, Chicago-based illegal immigrant Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), so named by her deceased astrophysicist dad, scrubs toilets for a living along with her large, heavily Russian-accented family. (They all scrub.) She hates her life.
Jupiter’s stalked by Caine (Channing Tatum), an albino, blond-goateed, genetically modified “ex-legion skyjacker” (ex-military hunter) with a liberal dose of wolf DNA in his system. (The better to track you with, my dear.)
She’s also stalked by a crew of Mad-Max-looking aliens sent by one Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, more on him later), but Caine collars her first, and off they go.
And how they go! You’ve not seen going like this. Caine’s got, like, turbo-sneakers. That’s right (some business about reversing gravity); he can skate on air. Or surf, snowboard, or whichever X-Games modality your kids fancy. He’s like a galactic airborne hockey player.
And the coolest part: When he skates around the tops of skyscrapers, blue streaks jet out the back of his flying basketball shoes, giving “Air Jordans” a whole new meaning. Exactly like Turbo the snail. It actually looks better than it sounds.
So, the whole Jupiter snatch-and-grab is because, as mentioned, her genetic signature designates her as the earthly reincarnation of the most powerful female in the cosmos. And some people have a problem with that.
That would be her kids. The three heirs of the almighty Abrasax family, of which she was the matriarch in lives past, have big plans for planet Earth—they want to “harvest” it.
What is harvesting? Well it’s sort of like juicing humans. Juice a hundred humans and you get a clear elixir, chock-full of genetic goodness that you can rub on your skin. If you’re rich enough, you can go for a swim in it. And you are exquisitely rejuvenated.
Why do this? Because as Kalique Abrasax says, “Time is the single most precious commodity in the universe.” So the Abrasaxes see human-populated planets as long-term investments for the family business. Which is basically a fancy skin-care empire.
The eldest Abrasax, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), lives on Jupiter. Caricaturized with an over-the-top limp-wristed-ness, his back-and-forths between whispery, aloof entitlement and apoplectic rage (sort of like a fey Bobcat Goldthwait) may get audiences giggling. He just wants mom dead.
Kalique, the female heir (Tuppence Middleton), is a friendly-faced backstabber, biding her time, demonstrating, like an outer-space Lancôme ad, the rejuvenating effect of aforesaid gene-juice dunking. The only thing she doesn’t do is say “Listen girlfriend…”
The very pretty Titus (Douglas Booth) pulls an Oedipus; tries to marry mom.
“Jupiter Ascending” further gives us baroque spaceships, behemoth flying bat-gators, and various human-animal splices like Stinger (Sean Bean), another macho skyjacker who’s spliced with bees, and Famulus (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a deer-splice with deer ears.
There’s an amusing low-tech bureaucracy full of various gnarly galactic species a la the bar scene in “Star Wars,” but based on earthly DMV stereotypes, along with terminally boring waiting lines for stamps and signatures.
There’s a Death Star.
One has to hand it to the Wachowskis for swinging for the fences. “Ascending” is ambitious and well-intended. It has sweep and grandeur. It has outrageously advanced technology. It has hair and makeup out the wazoo.
What’s missing is the philosophy and spiritual scope of “The Matrix.” It’s got a similar theme in that both Neo and Jupiter are The Chosen, but Neo’s is a tale of enlightenment, while Jupiter’s just a disgruntled girl, flown about with turbo-boots, put in pretty dresses, courted by her former son, and crushing on the albino wolf-man (“I love dogs!”). There’s no equivalent to Keanu-as-Neo struggling on the path, culminating with “I know kung fu.”
That said, it could be argued there’s a Zen theme. Jupiter’s happy to get home to her family, but now she’s content. And thus the popular Zen phrase “Before the enlightenment, chop wood, carry water…” can be concluded with “After the enlightenment, scrub the toilet.”
The Wachowskis are intent on bringing the spirituality, and as mentioned, they’re always swinging for the fences. But their last go-round, “Cloud Atlas,” as well as “Jupiter Ascending” are cinematic foul balls.
The thing is, though—the bases are loaded; the Wachowskis are clearly onto ideas we need to know about. Look how quickly and permanently the ideas in “The Matrix” entered pop culture, the vernacular, as well as philosophy classrooms. They just need to get back in the batting cage for a spell.
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Terry Gilliam
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Release date: Feb. 6
3.5 stars out of 5