An original science-fiction space epic hailing entirely from the minds of writer-directors Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski? It sure sounds good in concept, what with these fearlessly idiosyncratic filmmakers having most recently spearheaded 2008's dazzling, rainbow-hued "Speed Racer
" and 2012's sweeping, underappreciated "Cloud Atlas
," the latter no less than a staggering cinematic watermark adapted from David Mitchell's thought-uncrackable 2004 novel. This time, the Wachowskis have achingly lost their way, their ambitions not coming close to matching the reality of what has made its way onto the screen. From the tedious, exposition-heavy script to the thoroughly bizarre cast trapped in soulless roles, the $175-million "Jupiter Ascending" is an interesting, albeit clunky, mess until it ceases holding any appeal at all. It ultimately reminds of David Lynch's notoriously bloated, overblown 1984 bomb, "Dune," and this is not a comparison which any movie should be thrilled to receive.
Jupiter "Please, Call Me Jupe" Jones (Mila Kunis) was born on a ship headed for America, an illegal alien without a home, without a country, and without a father. Twenty-plus years later, she lives in Chicago with her aunt's family, rising every morning at 4:45 a.m. to work as a housekeeper alongside mother Aleksa (Maria Doyle Kennedy). She hates the lower-middle class life she has always led, without a clue that she shares the exact genetic code of an extraterrestrial dynasty's recently deceased matriarch. When a half-man, half-wolf skyjacker named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) narrowly saves Jupiter from a rogue attack, she is gradually clued into her extraordinary lineage as the royal heir to Earth. Snatched and transported to a distant planet where the revered House of Abrasax resides, Jupiter soon meets royal siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). The three of them harbor ulterior motives for seeking out this woman who is a perfect match for their late mothera fact that Caine knows will only end in disaster if he does not save Jupiter from their clutches.
When "Jupiter Ascending" was moved out of its original July 2014 release date and into the grim February landscape, studio Warner Bros. issued a statement claiming that more time was needed to complete the film's many special effects. This explanation was largely suspect then, and even more so now that the finished product has been screened. While there are plenty of perfectly good movies that get shuffled around the schedule for various reasons, some of them political and some of them a case of distributors being unsure how to market certain pictures, "Jupiter Ascending" is not one of them. Once filming finished and Warner Bros. got their first look at the dog they had on their hands, they likely freaked out. Moving it to the doldrums of the following winter, however, has done nothing except given the project a bad reputation and even less of a chance to succeed.
There would be nothing more pleasing than to say that the film proper is far superior to what the early negative buzz has suggested, a sci-fi extravaganza destined to become a misunderstood classic a few years down the line. Saying such things, alas, would be a lie. At best, "Jupiter Ascending" is a camp lover's dream, a big-budget tornado of misjudgments that spends ninety minutes trying to explain its convoluted plot, ten on a genuinely rousing action set-piece, and the rest of the time on lame confrontations, lamer drama, and a nonsensical romance that traps Jupe in a figurative corner with visions of semi-bestiality dancing in her head. First, the positive: arriving roughly twenty minutes in, Jupiter is swept off her feet by buff, semi-albino space hunter Caine and taken for a high-flying ride across the Chicago cityscape via his gravity-defying superboots. With a gaggle of rogue agents in pursuit, the daring, death-defying chase that follows proves to be the single sequence that lives up to its aims. It's thrilling, it's expertly choreographed, and it gives one the false hope that the film is turning around for the better. It's downhill from there.
Mila Kunis (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful
") and Channing Tatum (2014's "Foxcatcher
") share enough chemistry that a smartly written romantic comedy pairing these two sounds like a better idea than the unfortunate fiasco they've found themselves in. Jupiter is far too wishy-washy as a protagonist to be engagingshe gets tugged in every possible direction while remaining calm and seemingly unimpressed by the unbelievable things happening to herand Kunis' just-okay performance suffers because of this detrimental fault in the script. Tatum remains stoic and dutiful, fitting the bill as a savior even as his Caine is in need of a personality. When Caine says that he is closer to a dog than a human, Jupiter practically quivers as she muses, "I love dogs." It's all enormously silly, but still no match for Eddie Redmayne's (2014's "The Theory of Everything
") incomprehensibly strange turn as the villainous Balem. Is Redmayne over-the-top or hardly trying at all? Whatever the case, his out-there character choice to whisper his lines while looking terminally constipated pays off heinously. He turns his every moment into a cause for titters and supreme audience discomfort. As Titus and Kalique, Douglas Booth (2014's "Noah
") and Tuppence Middleton (2014's "A Long Way Down
") disappear without resolution, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who had a breakthrough year in 2014 with "Belle" and "Beyond the Lights") is criminally squandered in the nothing part of a dog-eared hybrid named Famulus.
"Jupiter Ascending" offers plenty of preposterous revelations (did you know that bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty?), but when it comes down to the story at hand and Jupe's fight to stay true to herself in the face of enormous privilege, there is nothing to care about. Her love for her family members, which a chunk of the climax hinges upon, is so undernourished and ineffectually established it comes off as an afterthought rather than a legitimate crisis of conflict. A plot point involving the harvesting of humans was already explored with infinitely more complexity in "Cloud Atlas
" and, before that, 1973's "Soylent Green." Allusions to "The Wizard of Oz" are patently obvious right down to the title character pleading by the third act that she just wants to go home, but they only serve to remind of a 1939 treasure that will continue to stand the test of time long after this film has been largely forgotten. Visual effects are professional, but there is something cloyingly synthetic about the look of the alien planets, which are never satisfactorily explored and used boringly as mere computer-generated backdrops. Andy and Lana Wachowski have made a number of terrific features spanning all the way back to 1996's Hitchcockian thriller "Bound," and they will hopefully get the chance to impress again. Concluding on a dopey note that makes less sense the more it is pondered, "Jupiter Ascending" is hopefully but a fleeting, blunderous footnote on their résumés. David Lynch, after all, once made "Dune."