Jupiter Ascending

(2015) ** Pg-13
127 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Lana Wachowski. Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean.

/content/films/4769/1.jpegIf what we go to the movie theater for now is spectacle, the sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending in most respects fits the bill. But to the extent we still demand rich characters and sensible plotting, the Wachowskis' latest is a few planets short of a galaxy.

There's a certain gonzo-ness about Lana and Andy Wachowski's work that makes them almost endearing as they go to town on otherworldly movies like Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer. Almost. It's been sixteen years since the sibling writer-directors earned fanboy goodwill galore with The Matrix and nineteen years since they courted indie cred with the sexy thriller Bound. Since The Matrix started spawning sequels, the Wachowskis have been steadily sloughing all that respect for blinkered visions that, while eye-popping, test the patience of audiences.

Go in with a mantra of "Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon...", and you may get a kick out of Jupiter Ascending and its dopey dumbness. Mila Kunis gamely plays Jupiter Jones, a cleaning woman "destined for greatness" but currently scrubbing toilets. Soon she's Space Cinderella, rescued from alien assassination by a genetically-modified organism called Channing Tatum—no, wait, Tatum just plays the GMO, a part-wolf hunk named Caine and outfitted with pointy ears, a bleached goatee, and sneakers that allow him to speed-skate on air. Strap in folks: it just gets weirder.

But, oddly, not more fun. Once we're past a jaw-dropping "street fight" that zips amongst skyscrapers, Jupiter Ascending quits generating fun and focuses on "homaging" much better science-fiction. Those who saw last year's terrific documentary Jodorowky's Dune will note a strong influence on the Wachowski's comic-book aesthetic here, in both production design and convoluted palace intrigue (with none of the thematic richness).

It's in those space palaces that we meet one British villain too many, in the persons of Douglas Booth (Romeo and Juliet) and current Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne (the Theory of Everything star coming off here like Basil Rathbone on heroin). The baddies' far-flung world profitably "harvests" other planets for time (the "greatest commodity"), and their power struggle involves "taking care of" Jupiter by hook (marriage) or by crook (the aforementioned assassination). While ostensibly putting an empowered female front and center, the Wachowskis repeatedly regress to "damsel in distress" mode, right up to that space-wedding climax that once again requires a rescue from a man.

Audiences will unavoidably, unfavorably compare Jupiter to past enjoyments like Star Wars and The Fifth Element, and the Wachowskis do no favors by taking a break in the story for what amounts to a five-minute Brazil fan film, complete with a cameo by director Terry Gilliam. Jupiter Ascending is colorful and expensive-looking, thanks to legions of special-effects artists and two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. It's also kooky and frantic, with assaultive, repetitive 3D action sequences that quickly start losing their feature-length battle with gravity. What it isn't much is entertaining or compelling, so Ascending oddly amounts to a high-flying takedown.

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