American genre movies are only just starting to get out of this really awful, awkward, and generally un-fun period of being sort of embarrassed at themselves. For the longest time there was this almost palpable terror in sci-fi, and to a lesser extent in horror films, of being perceived as being silly or immature. So wherever possible, fantastic or “out there” elements were marginalized as much as possible. This is why we ended up getting a Godzilla movie with barely any Godzilla in it, why genre movies with diverse color palettes are noteworthy, and why Man of Steel tried to distance itself so much from the perception of Superman as a big cheesy boy-scout that it turned him into a big mopey bore. There was, and to a good extent still is, this desperate need for some kind of cultural legitimacy, the only road to which is apparently to downplay anything too fantastical. Hey, did you know that that new Fantastic Four movie has people with superpowers in it? It’s true, freeze frame some parts of the trailer and you can aaaalmost see it.
Now, finally, we’re getting out of this phase and genre movies are coming out of the closet again. They’re allowing themselves to be silly, to have fun, to wallow in larger-than-life sci-fi shenanigans and making few to zero apologies for it. This is what I was hoping for when I went in to see Jupiter Ascending: a totally unapologetic sci-fi romp, completely unashamed at its silly premise, and even sillier characters, concepts, world and lore and just going whole hog with it. And thankfully, that’s what I got. I just wish I could have gotten a good movie, too.
Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, a cleaning lady who finds out that she’s the reincarnation of the queen of a family of alien royalty that own the planet Earth, and in fact are the ones who seeded it with human life. After being whisked away to space by an ex-soldier named Caine, played by Channing Tatum, Jupiter has to contend with the sons of her previous incarnation, who want the Earth for their own nefarious purposes.
Ok, so remember when I said that Jupiter Ascending was totally unapologetic about just how silly it is? Well, here’s the thing. You don’t know silly. You have no idea. Not unless you’ve seen Jupiter Ascending. The royal family Jupiter becomes a part of? Space vampires. Oh yeah, and they’re totally referred to as space vampires on at least one occasion. Space vampires who have in their employ gray aliens like you see in tabloids or X-Files re-runs and big fuck-off lizard people who I’m pretty sure are meant to be descended from freakin’ dinosaurs. There’s a fight scene in a corn field in front of Sean Bean’s house that totally leaves behind a crop circle. The protagonists realize that Mila Kunis is queen of the space vampires because bees really like her, and “bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty.” Exact quote. There’s an elephant man. Not like an “I am not an animal!” elephant man, I mean like a man with a trunk, tusks, flappy ears, the whole nine. Someone sat down and said “Ok, let’s design an elephant man that cannot identified as anything BUT an elephant man, an elephant man that embodies in all aspects the very phrase ‘elephant man.'”
This movie is BONKERS. It’s so totally out to lunch that it makes Guardians of the Galaxy look subdued and sensible. And not once, not on one occasion does the film feel self-conscious about itself. Jupiter Ascending is like the guy you see walking down St. Catherine with fluorescent pink dreadlocks and a civil war cavalryman’s coat. It’s utterly unashamed and proud at how completely goddamn nuts it is. It’s Portland: The Movie. And for that? I respect the hell out of it. This movie has a confidence that I could never hope to match. But the problem is… It also kinda sucks.
The story is this over-written, nebulous mess saddled with so much lore and backstory that we spend practically the first half in full exposition mode, and it’s constantly moving from one endgoal to another. One minute Chan McTates has to save Jupiter from marrying one evil dude, the next it’s a mad race to stop an entirely other evil dude from killing Jupiter’s family so he can get her to give him the Earth. There’s this weird, almost Hitchhiker’s Guide-esque sequence where Jupiter has to navigate the alien bureaucratic system so she can properly take her place as reincarnated space vampire queen, and for a couple of minutes the film has a totally different tone from everything that came before or after. There’s too many villains, too many concepts thrown at us one after the other, it’s just a big unmanageable mess.
The action scenes usually wind up being more boring than exciting, with over-designed spaceships zipping around weightlessly while making unimpressive laser noises, the 3D and needlessly busy design aesthetics reducing everything to a blurry haze of CGI. If you have a chance, don’t see it in 3D, because when the 3D isn’t making the action scenes unintelligible it’s making a lot of the greenscreen effects look impressively terrible.
The acting is equal parts dull and over-the-top, with Tatum just seeming bored half the time, and Eddie Redmayne delivering most of his lines in what he probably thought was a Voldemort-esque rasp but then occasionally shrieking something out like he just realized he left the space-oven on.
If there’s one thing I did kind of like, it was how Kunis actually plays the active role in her romance with Tatum’s half-human, half-wolf commando. Oh right yeah, Tatum is part wolf – did I mention that this movie is nuts? She’s actually the one who makes her intentions known first and flirts awkwardly, while Tatum stands there dreaming about playing Gambit from X-Men someday. And you don’t see that often in genre movies, so that’s something at least. But then it basically gets undone when Tatum has to save her from some new peril at least twice per act if not more.
It’s just not at all good – a clunky, over-written, over-designed, poorly structured collection of ideas and set-pieces. It’s at times tone-deaf and at other times boring. And yet I still respect it. I admire Jupiter Ascending for how balls-out crazy it is, how unabashed it is about being a fever dream of space vampires, friendly bees and that goddamn, beautiful elephant man. It’s honest with itself, it’s proud of itself, and for genre movies that’s still somewhat rare, especially on this scale. And I would take a big, ugly mess of a movie that’s proud of itself over one that puts on airs, and tries to make you think you’re watching something much less ridiculous than you actually are by not letting anyone just call it the goddamn Batmobile.