Jupiter Ascending was supposed to be Lana and Andy Wachowski’s big comeback, the one that brought back their mojo, their mystique and their genre-bending creativity – the one that forced you to pay attention to them again. After the disappointment of the misguided Matrix sequels, followed by two ambitious failures based on other people’s material (Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas), the new film is the filmmakers’ first original, stand-alone work since the first Matrix picture in 1999.
The hope was was that the duo would have regrouped, learned from their mistakes and cooked up another sci-fi pop masterpiece that showed us things and took us places no other film had before. (It is also their first 3D picture, another element to pique our curiosity.) Maybe that’s too much to expect from a mere movie, but the Wachowskis are supremely gifted, imaginative filmmakers who have proven they can tell a corker of a story without a single special effect (their first film, Bound, was a delirious, sexy thriller set almost entirely inside two apartments).
Sadly, Jupiter Ascending turns out to be the exact opposite: the worst movie the Wachowskis have ever made. The first sign of trouble came last summer, when distributor Warner Bros. announced it was pushing the release of the film back seven months to February to allow more time for the elaborate special effects to be completed. This is often studio-speak for “This turkey is going to get clobbered in the summer. Why not move it to a less crowded time of year, when the competition will be less intense?” But there was no ideal date to release this hackneyed, surprisingly dull fantasy, which cost a whopping $175 million to produce, even though the script is worth two dollars at best (maybe a little more if you listed it on eBay).
Borrowing the central premise of The Matrix — an ordinary person is thrust into an alternate universe they didn’t know existed — Jupiter Ascending stars Mila Kunis as Jupiter Jones, a Russian immigrant who scrubs toilets for a living and discovers she is the reincarnation of a 91,000-year-old intergalactic queen who once ruled the universe. The late woman’s three children (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton) are battling amongst themselves to claim their late mother’s post. Instead of King Lear, though, the movie evokes Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the three would-be rulers pouting and plotting against each other while dressed in elegant, otherworldly garb. All of them need to capture Jupiter in order to carry out their plans. Fortunately, there’s a Han Solo-type rogue, Caine (Channing Tatum), who has cool roller-blades that float like Marty McFly’s hoverboard and a transparent shield, like Captain America’s, that helps protect him from the bullets and laser bolts constantly flying at his head.
Caine swoops down to Earth and fills in Jupiter on what’s happening. This would be enough to blow anyone’s mind, or at least make them a tiny bit nervous. But instead, Jupiter seems completely unfazed, responding with the sorts of questions a child would ask (“Are those flying boots?” and “Do you do this kind of thing a lot?”) Kunis, who is normally a bright and intriguing presence onscreen, seems as dazed and confused as the audience, reacting to everything with the same blank-eyed look, her mouth slightly agape. The actress looks like she’s just trying to push through the movie without flubbing her lines and get out of there. Tatum fares better, rising above the material the way he usually does, although his character is so thin his name might as well have been The Good Guy.
Jupiter Ascending is packed with some wondrous visuals — no matter the movie, the Wachowskis always deliver the eye candy — but aside from a couple of strong setpieces, there’s surprisingly little action in the film. There are, however, reams of exposition (at least half of the movie’s screenplay is devoted to explaining what exactly is going on). Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), the meanest of the three siblings, recites all his lines in a Dr. Evil whisper, raising his voice only when he’s really mad, intending to come off as menacing. Instead, he comes off as a guy with laryngitis who is fond of prancing around in caped costumes.
There are some fun, gee-whiz moments in Jupiter Ascending, but they are fleeting and not nearly enough to make up for a movie about people fighting over chunks of outer space, like homeowners bidding on a desirable property. Thematically, the film is barren – a wasteland of pulpy nonsense. Terry Gilliam pops up in a brief cameo, providing the picture with its sole moment of mischievous humor and making you wonder what he might have done with this material.
At least the Wachowskis give us loads of with howl-worthy lines (Caine: “I have more in common with dogs than I have with you.” Jupiter: “I love dogs!”), but the total loss of narrative control and momentum is troubling. Jupiter Ascending is the sort of gigantic, self-indulgent mess only talented filmmakers with a good track record get to make, although if the picture fails financially, the Wachowskis may have to go back to their low-budget roots and come up with something simpler that showcases their storytelling talents. All Jupiter Ascending does is make you long for one of those Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, which suddenly don’t seem so bad any more. There is no joy in Movieville: The mighty Wachowskis have struck out — again.
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, James D’Arcy, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Tuppence Middleton.
Writers-directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 127 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.