I don't know if I've always felt this way, but I'm certain that of late I am most forcefully drawn to science fiction, fantasy and horror that does a thorough and impressive job of world building. I'm not just talking about building CG environments; I mean establishing a logic, rules and other elements that filmmakers use to nest their story—however wacky—and take me someplace that doesn't feel wholly derivative and show me something that maybe I've never seen, or at least never seen does quite like they do it. Whether they are working in worlds built from other source material (SPEED RACER, CLOUD ATLAS) or ones they built from scratch (THE MATRIX trilogy and now JUPITER ASCENDING), The Wachowskis—Chicago's own Lana and Andy—are at the top of their game of dropping us into a place and situation and having us learn where we are and what can happen as we go. And it always sucks me in completely and makes me want to live there forever.
With JUPITER ASCENDING, the Wachowskis are actually using a modified version of the Matrix template. For reasons we don't always understand, everybody wants to get their hands on a young woman of Russian descent named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), whose greatest accomplishment to date is making a little money working with her mother as a cleaning lady. Her father died when she was very young, but somehow it is discovered that Jupiter is the living reincarnation of a long-dead alien queen, whose children—Balem (current Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppance Middleton)—are in a bitter squabble over who will run certain corners of the universe.
When it's discovered that the queen may have returned in the body of this earthling, apparently that means control of Earth—which is for some reason important to these folks—would revert back to her, so the children attempt various means of wrenching control in their favor. Some simply want her dead, while others try to woo her and get her to sign over her control to them through various devious means. This controlling alien race are apparently real sticklers for bureaucracy and doing things by the book, so simply taking control of Earth doesn't appear to be an option. To protect Jupiter from being slaughtered, a genetically engineered, human-wolf-like hybrid creature named Caine (Channing Tatum) comes to Earth to protect her and get her somewhere safe, while various siblings and their vast array of alien underlings attempt to grab her as well.
For a good portion of the first part of JUPITER ASCENDING, the world on display is Chicago, which is shot so beautifully and such an array of high-altitude angles, it looked like a city I hadn't seen before let alone lived in for nearly 30 years. In a far more elegant but no less impressive way than was done in the third TRANSFORMERS movie, watching alien spaceships zip between Chicago's stunning skyline, crashing into buildings, using familiar landmarks as their battlefield makes you feel proud to be here. But even for non-residents, the camera work and technical splendor that goes into making these ships (which at times resemble certain exotic fish) exist among the city's structures and geography is beyond impressive.
There's also just a general sense of playfulness and creativity that permeates every sequence in JUPITER ASCENDING. The writer-directors are two lifelong genre fanatics doing what they love best: creating characters and situations and an interplanetary hierarchy that are all tossed at each other to see which survive. There are a whole lot of action sequences, often somehow involving Caine's gravity boots; alien tech and massive cities that will absolutely need to be paused and examined in detail when the Blu-ray arrives; the welcome presence of Sean Bean as Stinger (he's got bits of bee in him), an old comrade of Caine who assists in getting Jupiter off earth; and an extended sequence that is a clear nod to the red-tape aspects Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL, complete with a cameo that pretty much hits the nail on the head.
People have made fun of Redmayne's whispery delivery, punctuated by the occasional yelling at full volume, but I found his performance intentionally hilarious. When you perceive yourself to be the most powerful man in the universe, you don't have to raise your voice above a whisper (which should not be confused with mumbling; Redmayne certainly does not mumble). And if your exact orders aren't followed to the letter, then and only then do you raise your voice. There are more problematic performances in Jupiter Ascending than Redmayne's, beginning with the foppish Booth as Titus. As menacing as he attempts to be, I never found him a credible threat in the slightest.
JUPITER ASCENDING is about embracing the freedoms that the science-fiction genre affords filmmakers, few of whom actually take advantage of it. But the Wachowskis aren't just your run-of-the-mill filmmakers. They possess a proven gift for getting the details right, sometimes at the expense of the big picture, but not in this case. There are underlying messages and social commentary about consumerism, the destructive lengths people will go to for certain natural resources, and of course an almost fetishistic embracing of bureaucratic culture. And most of it works.
The unwarranted emphasis on Jupiter's extended family never really amounts to much, besides failed attempts at humor. And there is so many characters with ulterior motives willing to double cross Jupiter at a moment's notice that I essentially lost track and stopped caring, opting instead to trust no one, which is rarely a fun way to watch a movie. But if you walk into JUPITER ASCENDING with a willingness to be taken on a ride—a trippy, weird, sometimes ridiculous ride—I truly believe you'll have a blast, the kind that the Wachowskis tend to make possible time and time again.