Review: The Wachowskis bring mad style to the YA genre in ‘Jupiter Ascending’

“Jupiter Ascending” plays like someone hired Lana and Andy Wachowski to adapt a particularly crazy YA novel and they took the bones of the thing and ran with it. Fast, frequently teetering on the cusp of the ridiculous, and eye-poppingly pretty, “Jupiter Ascending” is a wicked slice of entertainment, and a heck of an antidote to the typical February box-office blahs.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) lives with her large Russian family, and she works as a cleaning lady with her mother. Every day is a long blur of the same thing, and every now and then, she likes to try on the fabulous clothes she sees in the homes of the people they work for, knowing full well that will never be her life.

When she is attacked during a medical procedure, the only thing that saves her is the intervention by Caine (Channing Tatum), a strange-looking soldier who wears gravity boots that allow him to skate on any surface in Chicago, an awfully handy means of transportation when they're being chased by alien soldiers who are determined to get their hands on Jupiter because of something they detected in her blood.

Knowing both the Wachowskis and the genre, it should not come as a huge surprise to anyone that Jupiter turns out to be someone far more important than she  would have ever believed. Instead of her being a mystical “The One,” it turns out that she is the perfect genetic reincarnation of the queen of the universe. I guess she's technically the head of a major corporation, but the way this corporation works, she is the owner of a number of planets, including Earth. When she died originally, it kicked off a power struggle among her children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). Each of them has their own agenda for this small backwater planet that has finally reached full ripeness for exploitation, and each of them is determined to manipulate Jupiter into helping them accomplish their goals.

We learn that Caine is part of a military force created by mixing human DNA with the DNA of specific animals. For example, Caine is part canine, part human, with enhanced senses and a greater physical ability. At one point, they enlist the aid of Stinger (Sean Bean), who is part bee. There are a number of ways they could have tried to sell this idea visually, but they seem like they're pretty careful not to push things too far or to make them too silly. Likewise, they could have approached the design of this far-out film in a number of ways, and they have gone for something that is pulpy and beautiful and that almost gleefully ignores the “commonplace worn-in” look that has been one of the standards for science-fiction ever since “Star Wars” and “Alien.”

As a story, “Jupiter Ascending” is okay. I am personally growing tired of any stories that revolve around a “chosen one,” simply because of how omnipresent the archetype has been. What elevates this above the story being told is how the story is being told, and that's where I think the Wachowskis continue to excel. There is such magnificent beauty on display here that I found myself just lost in the corners and the details of the thing. It's a gorgeous movie, with this vibrant color palette and a truly aggressive visual style. Just watching Caine race around environments with those crazy gravity boots is a kick, and each new place they go in the film is realized vividly. These filmmakers have a knack for staging action that is both thrilling to watch and intensely involving, and their skills have not lessened since the end of the “Matrix” trilogy. This is the first time they've staged this kind of action since then, and it feels like they are practically giddy as each big set piece unfolds.

My one big problem with the film is Mila Kunis, who I like a lot. I think she's fine in the role if you're just judging her ability to play a part. Where I feel like she falls down is in whatever that extra added something is that separates character actors from movie stars. Channing Tatum, for example, is a movie star, born and raised, and for him to survive a film where he has dog ears and rocket-powered roller skates is a testament to just how well he can steer into anything at this point. Tatum has come a long way in the last few years, and he manages to survive this with his dignity intact, precisely because he gives himself over to it completely. There's always some sense of reserve with Kunis, and it makes Jupiter someone we're watching from the outside, not someone we can fully identify with in the way you need to for a film like this to totally work. There are notes she plays perfectly, but the ability to sell that a film like this is “real” is one of those almost undefinable things that some actors possess and some don't, and Kunis never quite fits into the remarkable world they've built around her.

Even so, I think the supporting cast picks up most of the slack, and overall, I enjoyed the energy of “Jupiter Ascending” almost as much as I admire the film's style. This is the first time in a while we've seen the Wachowskis cutting loose in big action set pieces, and there is a chase through Chicago that serves as a sort of destruction-based love letter to the city they love. There's also a six or seven minute digression into “Brazil” that I couldn't believe happened in a major motion picture, but that made me realize more than ever that I am very pleased the Wachowskis are the people who get to make these giant movies. They obviously love the world building, and they love the design side of things, and they love the action. While I don't think this is any danger of supplanting “The Matrix” as the film people know them for, I do think that it's a lovely reminder of just how aggressively creative and fun they can be.

Both John Toll and Michael Giacchino do tremendous work here. I think Toll's work is a beautiful foundation for the digital effects team, and there's something great and playful about what happens when you put Giacchino together with the Wachowskis. He writes such big themes, and such big playful scores, and he knows how to help set the tone for the big set pieces of the film.

Thematically, the film does a nice job of showing how Jupiter's two families are almost like distorted mirror images of one another. She has one family that is poor but very tightly knit, and another family that is positively filthy rich, but that seems willing to murder each other over money. There is no limit to how far over the top the villains in the movie are willing to play things, and Eddie Redmayne in particular seems to be determined to redefine just how big a performance can be.

Even in my early conversations about the film, it's obvious that battle lines are being drawn, and I am firmly on the side of “Jupiter Ascending.” I like that the Wachowskis are willing to play with heady ideas in the exact same moment that they take an almost palpable joy in just plain having fun. “Jupiter” may not pull everything together completely, but I'll take something that's shaggy and special over something that is impeccable but plastic any time. “Jupiter Ascending” is a sprawling adventure for the 14-year-old girl inside all of us, and I for one am more than happy to take this particular ride with two of the most nimble genre artists in the business.

“Jupiter Ascending” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.