'Jupiter Ascending' a glorious mess of unbridled creativity

Andy and Lana Wachowski are risk-taking filmmakers with vision that cannot be contained, at least not within the confines of a big-studio picture.

After the kinetic, layered unreality of their underappreciated live-action adaptation of “Speed Racer” and the big-theme ensemble of “Cloud Atlas” — which spans hundreds of years into the past and future — the writer/director siblings return with "Jupiter Ascending" to the standard Hollywood mode of fantasy storytelling: the hero’s journey. But it’s painfully clear how disinterested the Wachowskis are with following the classic formula.

In “Jupiter Ascending,” which features Mila Kunis as a housecleaner who turns out to be the queen of the universe(s), they struggle to stay on course, constantly sidetracked by their own fetishes and big-picture themes — which, it turns out, are way more fun and interesting than the actual plot.

“Jupiter Ascending” may be an unfocused mess, but as far as big-budget sci-fi fantasies go, it’s one of the most entertaining messes ever. John Travolta’s passion project “Battlefield Earth” is widely considered to be one of the worst of the genre, for being an unremarkable, joyless, rehash of genre tropes — and one with an agenda to boot. The way its press is trending, “Jupiter Ascending” may go down in history as being a similar kind of mess, but I bristle at the very suggestion.

You see, “Jupiter Ascending,” which co-stars Channing Tatum as some kind of dog-werewolf-alien hybrid who’s tasked with protecting Kunis, isn’t a by-the-books fantasy, even if it is supposed to be. It’s full of Gonzo passion. You can feel it in every frame.

Last year when it was announced that the film’s release would be delayed until 2015, it was clear its commercial prospects were in trouble and that there would be tinkering to get it ready. Now that it's here, it clocks in at just over two hours, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

The Wachowskis’ breakthrough 1999 film “The Matrix” was a model of efficient storytelling in the mode of the hero’s journey. In “Jupiter Ascending,” Kunis’ character wakes up, much like Neo, to the reality that the world is not what she thought it was. But she’s too passive in her journey, getting shuttled back and forth between the fey alien siblings of the galactic ruling Abrasax dynasty, while Tatum takes on the Terminator role.

Tatum is earnest as ever, Kunis plays charming and clueless appropriately, and Sean Bean is in his “reliable sidekick” mode, but Eddie Redmayne steals the show, vamping it up as the villain.

Decked out with eyeliner and makeup, in an ornate outfit that would make Cher jealous, he has two modes of delivery: a whisper or a bellow. His larger-than-life choices serve him well because no matter how much Warner Bros. wants it to be, “Jupiter Ascending” is not a standard-issue fantasy picture, which means he fits in well with the Wachowskis’ other flights of fancy.

The Wachowskis’ continuing obsession with reincarnation, blurry gender lines, alternate realities, and new modes of action — all present again here — are just some of the reasons that the film’s diversions are where it's at. These strange and wonderful fetishes are baked into the movie’s DNA, even as the screenplay tries to follow familiar tropes.

Tatum has more than one thrilling chase scene where he skates across the sky, his boots using gravity against itself to keep him afloat. The hallucinatory scenes featuring alien abduction are thrilling in their visuals and horrifying in their suggestion.

In designing their freaky new sci-fi sandbox, the Wachowskis don’t care about origin stories, so there doesn’t seem to be a reason for giant flying lizards that speak, a man with the head of an elephant who trumpets loudly while piloting a spaceship, or henchmen robots that wear S&M masks. There’s no logic in a mid-movie digression into alien corporate bureaucracy that repeatedly references “Brazil,” or the cameo by Terry Gilliam, that film’s director — but boy is it fun.

“Jupiter Ascending” never gels into a cohesive whole. It’s easy to argue that better filmmakers would have been able to wrangle their divergent themes and digressions into a movie that satisfies on some “normal” level, but this movie strikes me as one that was compromised from the beginning.

The Wachowskis have proven once again that it’s impossible for them to make a boring movie. If there’s a longer director’s cut released on home video, it may be closer to their complete vision, I suppose, but who cares? This vision is personal, and it’s a refreshing break from the codified fantasy world Hollywood usually serves up.

“Jupiter Ascending” is rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity.

A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor (“All is Lost,” “Margin Call”) has fashioned a handsome '70s-era crime drama in his New York-set “A Most Violent Year,” now playing at Liberty Hall. It looks and feels like a throwback, from Oscar Isaac’s Pacino-esque delivery as a heating oil businessman to the period costumes. Set in 1981, it’s a compelling drama that chronicles one man’s resistance to the mob violence overtaking his industry.

Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks provide sturdy backup, while composer Alex Ebert channels the synth-heavy vibe of the early '80s. “A Most Violent Year” has a slow pace, but rarely a misstep in terms of its storytelling.

“A Most Violent Year” is rated R for language and some violence.


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