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Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a Blue Blood Flies

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Warner Brothers Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Jupiter Ascending (2015)

After debuting with “Bound” in 1996, followed by the worldwide phenomenon of “The Matrix” in 1999, the Wachowski siblings have consistently followed their own path instead of resting on their laurels, writing and directing films that have pushed the boundaries of what is expected of the Hollywood blockbuster — both in terms of storytelling and in technical prowess. “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” were elaborate deconstructions of the traditional hero’s journey seen in the first film; “Speed Racer” was a candy-colored computer generated wonderland in which the traditional family values faced rapacious corporate interests; while the ambitious epic “Cloud Atlas” — co-directed with Tom Tykwer — featured a multitude of characters and actors whose stories spanned centuries.

Now there is “Jupiter Ascending,” which at first glance may seem like an attempt by the Wachowskis to create a more conventional science-fiction saga. Despite appearances, though, this new film is not just the first, unresolved part of a franchise blockbuster or action filmmaking sound and fury signifying nothing. Instead, the film takes topics relevant today, such as genetic engineering, unregulated capitalism and consumption, and a privileged few exploiting an impoverished mass, and mixes them into a tale of intergalactic rivalry and intrigue, topping it off with striking images and sequences that delight the senses. This is unmistakably a film by the Wachowskis, splicing together elements from movies, television, comics, philosophy, politics and gaming, as well as mixing styles and tones, to create a singular cinematic universe.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a young woman who suddenly finds herself on an amazing space odyssey, going from being a toilet cleaner in Chicago to Queen of the Earth due to her genetic connection to three members of the alien Abrasax royal family: Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Balem (Eddie Redmayne). Bouncing from spaceships to planets while accompanied in her travels by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) — a part-man, part-wolf protector — Jupiter is plunged into a surreal wonderland; surrounded by riches and tempted by a royal title, her encounters with each member of the Abrasax clan filling in another part of the story puzzle. However, the more Jupiter discovers about her space siblings and the Abrasax Harvest process, the more she questions their motives and reexamines her life.

On the surface, Jupiter’s story arc might look like another “chosen one” narrative; but like the “Matrix” sequels, the Wachowskis humanize this potential planetary savior and complicate the character’s journey. Jupiter may be revealed as someone special, but she still behaves like someone relatable and does not crave her special status. Ms. Kunis gives Jupiter a credible world-weariness at the start as she yearns to escape her seemingly humdrum life. When she learns of the bigger picture of life beyond Earth, she is initially awed and cowed by the galactic sights and sounds. However, her amazement gradually gives way to exasperation at the bureaucracy of royal life, followed by frustration, and then revulsion, at the sinister machinations of the Abrasax royals.

Caine is as much a central character as Jupiter, a disgraced soldier who initially seems to obey orders unquestioningly, but who also has a rebellious, heroic streak that Jupiter brings to the surface. Mr. Tatum is perfect in the role: he has the brawn and brains to pull off the hero role, but he exudes sensitivity in his scenes with Ms. Kunis that makes their relationship convincing. If comparisons can be made to “The Matrix,” Jupiter is Neo and Caine is Trinity, with Caine opening Jupiter’s eyes to a greater reality than her life on Earth, while Jupiter provides Caine with a renewed sense of purpose. Caine is also partnered with Stinger (Sean Bean), another hybrid alien character. While this is a supporting role, Stinger is also given motivations beyond simply being there to help Jupiter and Caine. As for the three royals, Ms. Middleton gives Kalique a levelheadedness that her siblings lack; Mr. Booth’s Titus is a louche lothario, while Mr. Redmayne’s amusing yet menacing Balem is like a petulant child — a spoilt brat who never matured, but whose position gives him the power of life and death over others.

It feels like the Wachowskis have packed a trilogy’s worth of movie mythology into a single film, which can make some action scenes feel rushed, some ideas feel underdeveloped and some characters underused. Also, the editing feels choppy at times, as if some scenes or moments had been hastily removed in postproduction to shorten the running time or streamline the story. Still, the Wachowskis create an endlessly fascinating dream world where anything seems possible; a place where buildings and bodies can be magically repaired, where painful and confusing memories can be wiped, and where escapes and rescues are performed as if by magic. “Jupiter Ascending” is crammed with invention and incident, but the frame never feels cluttered with extraneous details. There is a dazzling array of costumes, makeup and visual effects, all aided by epic imagery conjured by cinematographer John Toll, with the drama expanded even further by Michael Giacchino’s propulsive score.

Surely a viewer cannot fail to feel giddy at the delights on display: star fighters designed to resemble insects, their elegant wings unfurling, vast cityscapes and spaceships of striking ornate designs, an intriguing mix of humanoid and animal characters, flying dinosaur warriors that talk, royal soldiers equipped with guns for arms, not to mention Caine’s nifty antigravity boots, allowing him to surf through the Chicago skies and beyond, frequently scooping Jupiter into his arms and out of danger. Jupiter’s journey is a variation on “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “The Wizard of Oz,” more fantasy and fairy tale than science fiction, with a mix of colorful characters and worlds seen in films like the 1980 “Flash Gordon” movie and “Labyrinth,” the latter being another story of a bored young woman escaping into a fantastical world that dazzles and imperils. All this makes “Jupiter Ascending” a unique genre hybrid that lingers in the memory long after more lauded, but conventional blockbuster fare has faded from memory.

JUPITER ASCENDING

Opened on Feb. 6.

Written and directed by the Wachowskis; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Alexander Berner; music by Michael Giacchino; production design by Hugh Bateup; costumes by Kym Barrett; visual effects by Dan Glass; produced by the Wachowskis and Grant Hill; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A in Britain.

WITH: Channing Tatum (Caine Wise), Mila Kunis (Jupiter Jones), Sean Bean (Stinger Apini), Eddie Redmayne (Balem Abrasax), Douglas Booth (Titus Abrasax) and Tuppence Middleton (Kalique Abrasax).

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