2015 • 127 minutes • Warner Brothers Pictures
There are a lot of things that go unexplained in the Wachowskis’ long-delayed sci-fi extravaganza Jupiter Ascending: Why does Mila Kunis’ Jupiter, a cisgendered human woman who has presumably menstruated in her life, apply a pad to an open flesh wound adhesive first? Why would you give Channing Tatum, charming mumbler par excellence, a difficult to speak around fanged mouth piece and tons of exposition as the half-man, half-wolf Caine Wise? If Caine is genetically wired to attack royals, why is Jupiter, the reincarnation of a royal matriarch, totally safe with him? Why are the half-animal Splices and regular ol’ humans forbidden to make out? Why isn’t Abrasax spelled Abraxas? Why does this movie feel like it was made in the nineties? And why is there, judging from Sean Bean’s usage of his natural accent, a Sheffield in space?
That last question has a definitive answer—thanks, Nine!—but the rest remain firmly unanswered. Jupiter Ascending is a sloppily ambitious movie, and that is exactly why bad movie fans of all stripes have been excited for it to finally land in theaters. Every new piece of information sent knowing grins through the Internet: its new release date (pushed back from July of last year to February, the month known as film studios’ junk drawer), Sean Bean’s half-bee, half-man character’s name of Stinger Apini, and a trailer featuring Jupiter breezing past Caine’s explanation of his canine DNA with “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs.” Could it be the first truly great bad movie of 2015?
Friends, I am glad to report that Jupiter Ascending delivers.
I have a very specific kind of bad movie that I like. What separates the simply terrible from the sublime is passion. (And also resources.) The intentionally bad Sharknados of the world hold little allure for me; I want movies people sunk time, money, passion, and heart into. This is, of course, not to say that I derive my enjoyment from watching people fail. Rather, I love watching movies where everybody is happily giving their all to a project predicated on some baffling choices. Like someone attempting to marry the reincarnation of his mother.
Case in point: Eddie Redmayne’s breathtaking performance as the film’s villain, Balem Abrasax. Despite his publicity team’s efforts to downplay the film after Redmayne’s Oscar nomination for his work in The Theory of Everything, it’s been the major draw for most people I know. It’s generated gasps of delight, managed to make the hilariously sparse audience at my opening day screening of the film cackle at a single eye roll, and inspired The Guardian’s Mark Kermode to write what is perhaps the greatest line ever written in a film review: “Top marks go to evil space royal Eddie Redmayne, whose breathy ennui is offset by bouts of mummy’s boy shrieking, all delivered with a “petite-mort” look on his face that suggests he is being fellated by eternity itself.”
But, as Captain Cinema has been delightedly telling me all weekend, all of his character choices make perfect sense—Balem is an ancient being whose soul has aged to an unfathomable degree even though his body has been perfectly preserved. This is why all the best camp villain roles have been played by marvelous actors (see Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons): when they go, they go hard. And the results are fantastic. It’s as if Redmayne injected himself with a sedative after the camera started rolling and they just filmed until he lost consciousness. Except for the scene where he screams that he creates LIFE!, of course.
To detail the sheer amount of beautiful insanity guaranteed to delight fandom circa 2003 (oh, did you want to write wing!fic? The movie does it for you) would take more time than it takes to actually watch the film, which you should do at your earliest convenience. But I do want to point out that Jupiter Ascending is noticeably more diverse than most mainstream Hollywood science fiction. (Although, of course, not so diverse that the lead roles aren’t white. Bleh.) Jupiter’s dad is immediately fridged, and Jupiter herself is an illegal Russian immigrant to the United States. (And while her large family provides some comic relief, they’re largely portrayed warmly.) After ascending to her title, Jupiter gains a police escort, whose captain is played by the commanding and riveting Nikki Amuka-Bird. Her crew is composed of robots, half-animal people, and people of color. I point this out because I have often seen non-human characters stand in for people of color in speculative fiction, to the point that there are no people of color present. It’s so nice to see Jupiter Ascending subvert that. A pre-Belle Gugu Mbatha-Raw (!) plays Famulus, the half-deer right hand woman to Titus Abrasax (a lesser villain). And Doona Bae and David Ajala play a pair of bounty hunters that should really be inspiring Boba Fett levels of fandom.
There is one truly fantastic section of Jupiter Ascending, though: the film’s homage to Brazil and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy finds Jupiter navigating a byzantine bureaucracy with the help of Samuel Barnett’s robot Advocate Bob. It’s funny, charming, and is capped with a fantastic cameo by Terry Gilliam himself. Jupiter Ascending know what it’s about and where it comes from, even if it doesn’t always know exactly why.
I saw this film in theaters.