Earth Queen: "Jupiter Ascending" imaginative, robustly fun hooey

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
127 min., rated PG-13.

It's almost surprising to find out "Jupiter Ascending" is an original property, not because it generally borrows from other sci-fi fantasy sagas but because writing-directing team Lana & Andy Wachowski (2012's "Cloud Atlas") haven't created this much world-building since 1999's "The Matrix." Anyone who mistakes it for a bad movie should be asked one question: "How would you make a story about a special young woman discovering she's one with the honeybees, owns Planet Earth, and falls in love with one half-man, half-dog beefcake less silly?" When you think long and hard about itactually, you don't have to"Jupiter Ascending" is goofy, fantastical hooey, yes, but it's also an exciting, frequently inspired, robustly entertaining space opera that introduces a whole new sparkling version of the universe and features plenty of actors in funny-looking animal ears and creature make-up.

Born under the night sky, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an "illegal alien" destined for great things, but she is not a fan of her current adult life. After mobsters killed her British astronomer father Maximilian (James D'Arcy), she was raised in America by her Russian mother Aleksa (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and now works as a toilet-scrubbing maid in Chicago with her immigrant aunt and mother. Reluctant to donate her eggs for money upon request by her cousin, she finds herself the assassination target by a trio of bounty hunters and shape-shifting aliens known as "keepers." Whisked out of the clinic operating table by hunter Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a human/wolf/soldier hybrid, Jupiter learns of her true destiny — she's a genetic reincarnation of royalty and a heir to Earth. Meanwhile, the universe has been divided up between the late Abrasax matriarch's three children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth), who all dress like they're from "The Hunger Games'" The Capitol and all have devious ulterior motives to steal the inheritance. By harvesting little planet Earth, the intergalactic dynasty siblings will remain young for more millenniums to come. When Balem puts a bounty on her Jupiter's head, Caine acts as her protector, and if Earth isn't kept safe with Jupiter's ownership, humanity is in trouble.

As in any project by this tied-by-blood pair of filmmakers, the Wachowskis exhibit no shortage of artistry or a strong vision. There's a little "Dune" here and a little "John Carter" there, but whereas those films were clunky in their exposition-heavy storytelling and encyclopedia-ready details, "Jupiter Ascending" keys more into the spirit of "Star Wars" and "The Fifth Element" as a $175-million extravaganza of imagination and a sense of wonder. If it's not enough that the intergalactic landscapes look freakishly glorious with cinematographer John Toll's dynamic lensing, the film is a heavenly visual triumph, courtesy of the Wachowskis' "Cloud Atlas" crew, including Hugh Bateup's extravagantly dazzling production design and Kym Barrett's opulent costume design. Though The Wachowskis practically invented "bullet time" in their "Matrix" series, and since then that effect has grown into a parody of itself in other action films, they still bring adrenaline to their set-pieces here. Aided by composer Michael Giacchino's booming, rousingly operatic score, Caine's rescue of a suspended Jupiter, who's surrounded by aliens in scrub-wearing human form in a fertility clinic room, rises with portent and genuine excitement. A chase and aerial battle sequence around the Windy City via flying boots and spacecrafts is so breathlessly kinetic and thrilling that it's bound to leave one giddy. An ambush at Caine's fellow veteran Stinger's (Sean Bean) farmhouse, a literal beehive, that continues into a cornfield is lively, too. Also, anytime Caine skates or surfs around on his anti-gravity kicks with more agility than Marty McFly on his hoverboard, it's a cool effect. Another highlight in the film has nothing to do with action-oriented spectacle but instead the labyrinthine process by which Jupiter is taken through the alien planet's bureaucracy, alluding to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (and guess who gives a cameo).

Jupiter (or, as her friends call her, "Jupe") seems to react more reasonably to all of the otherworldly goings-on than a real-life person ever would, save for all the questions she asks, and she has a tendency to nearly fall to her death quite a bit, only to be fetched by Caine. However, when she's not thrown into damsel-in-distress mode, Mila Kunis is grounded and likable, making up for Jupiter being little more than a passive "special snowflake" in her own Cinderella story. Sporting guy-liner, a blonde goatee, pointy ears and (occasionally) wolf incisors, Channing Tatum is stoic without being overly self-serious as Caine Wise. Though Tatum is capable of emoting, the role of Caine asks him to perform stunt work, take off his shirt, and not much more beneath the surface. And then there's Eddie Redmayne, coming off his remarkable portrayal of Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," who's bizarrely fascinating to watch even as the lanky, quietly malicious Balem. He makes villainous commands to his dinosaur henchmen at a low, hoarse whisper, only screaming when it calls for it. Whatever he's doing, Redmayne's performance finds a middle ground between being low-key and chewing up the scenery without slipping into headlong camp. Not to be excluded, Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth are also very watchable as the slippery, millennium-old Kalique and the seductive, pouty-lipped playboy Titus, although the former disappears without any explanation.

The narrative isn't penetrable through and through—one either goes along with the nonsense or not—and sometimes sloppy (Stinger's sick daughter coughs and leaves for the store, never to return), but it's always enthralling, handing the viewer enough guiding exposition without getting weighed down in the technicalities. The relationship that develops between Jupiter and Caine is forced and more thinly developed than it could have been, though it is worthy of a swoon or two. "Jupiter Ascending" might not always reach the cutting-edge innovation of "The Matrix" or provoke as much thought as their magnum opus, the spectacularly sweeping, thematically layered and transcendent "Cloud Atlas," but that needn't matter when the visuals excel so wondrously and do most of the talking. What the viewer can certainly attest to is that the film always seems to be on a mission to go to the tippy top of "over-the-top" for something strange, imaginative and eye-popping.

Grade: B