Warner Bros. Pictures.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity.
Running time: 125 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
It’s difficult to tell whether “Jupiter Ascending,” the latest sci-fi extravaganza from the writing-directing Wachowski siblings, intends to be as hilarious as it is.
Some elements — Eddie Redmayne’s entire performance as a preening, scheming galactic prince, for instance — clearly have been dipped in deep vats of rich and gooey camp. Others — the romance that kinda-sorta blossoms between Mila Kunis as a cleaning lady who learns she’s the queen of the universe and Channing Tatum as the flying half-man/half-dog who protects her — are inherently ridiculous but also seem to be aiming for an awkward sweetness. (“Awkward” being the key word here.)
But then there are the giant set pieces, which feature a few thrilling moments but more often are generically shiny and noisy displays of infinite pixels on parade. A lot of people spent a lot of time and a lot of money making a lot of movie, but there’s not much there. The spectacle is simultaneously outsized and dumbed-down. If there is no heart to go along with the hardware, why bother?
Lana and Andy Wachowski and a team of thousands have come up with a movie that’s overstuffed and overblown visually but it’s populated with characters drawn so wispily, a breeze could blow them away. Kunis can be enormously appealing in comedies (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and dramas (“Black Swan”). Here, in this hodge-podge of genres, she never seizes the authority her character achieves. Her Jupiter Jones goes from scrubbing toilets for Chicago’s elite to reigning over everyone as reincarnated galactic royalty, but until the end she remains a damsel in distress — a troubled heroine who finds herself literally and repeatedly plummeting to her doom until her hunky protector swoops in to save her. It’s baffling that, having transitioned from being a man in recent years, Lana Wachowski would co-create a female character who (in theory) is supposed to be strong and brave but (in truth) is rather wide-eyed and passive.
Here’s how it all goes down, as Kunis explains in the film’s opening voiceover (which instantly made me think of Meg from “Family Guy,” an idea I had a hard time shaking): Jupiter, a Russian immigrant, is born in dramatic fashion under a cosmic confluence of events. But she ends up living a rather dreary, blue-collar life, crammed into an apartment with her relatives (who are consistently played for aren’t-they-wacky? laughs). As she toils away day after day, she dreams of something greater. And not unlike Neo in the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” series (the last truly groundbreaking thing the siblings did — the first one, at least), it turns out Jupiter is The One. She’s the genetic recurrence of an ancient space queen.
In no time, she’s being whisked away into the stars with the help of the muscular, misunderstood Caine (Tatum with bleach-blonde hair, pointy ears and eyeliner). He’s a “splice” — a genetically engineered mix of human with some kind of werewolf — and a former bounty hunter who’s been sent to Earth to fetch her. (The versatile Tatum gets little more to do here than show up at the right time and fight.) But others also want to capture her for their nefarious purposes, which brings us to the first of many times Jupiter falls from some great heights, only to have Caine zoom in with his jet-powered boots to save her. This first big action sequence — an elaborate chase over downtown Chicago featuring shape-shifting fighter planes — is indeed a doozy, though.
With the help of another splice, an old acquaintance of Caine’s named Stinger (Sean Bean, bringing actual presence and depth), Caine carries Jupiter to her ultimate destination in the sky. There, she finds herself in the midst of a bitter sibling land grab — or, rather, a planet grab. There’s the radiant and smooth-talking sister, Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton); the obsequious and menacing Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth); and finally, Redmayne’s evil Balem Abrasax. Here’s his deal: He whispers about 90 percent of his lines, but then out of nowhere, shouts the other 10 percent. It is an amazingly showy, vampy performance — one with the kind of risks that his solid, Oscar-nominated work as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” could never allow — and it’s one of the few aspects of “Jupiter Ascending” which truly entertain.
What all these actors are stuck saying, though, ranges from the inane to the indecipherable. The dialogue is crammed with exposition about the dense mythology of this outlandish interplaneary realm and its many colorful species of citizens, yet its actual narrative remains so mind-bogglingly complicated, it was often hard to follow. An amusing sequence which leaves the starry skies for the dreary corridors and offices of bureaucracy (where steampunk style is all the rage) almost seems to acknowledge as much. And with the various planets and high-tech interiors often looking the same, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and where, and why it matters.
The costume design is exquisite, though — the work of the Wachowskis’ longtime designer, Kym Barrett. The gowns especially are richly ornate knockouts, including the one featured in the photo above when Jupiter descends upon her own arranged wedding. But Barrett also gives the looks an edge by dabbling in borderline S&M gear. It was enough to make me wish I was watching “Jupiter Ascending: The Fashion Show” rather than “Jupiter Ascending,” the movie, with all its pesky encumbrances of dialogue and plot.