If you like sci-fi epics with not one, but two scenes in which characters negotiate the finer points of the galaxy’s real estate laws, then you’ll love Jupiter Ascending.
Lana and Andy Wachowski’s latest attractive, expensive post-Matrix failure is full of interesting ideas and fantastic set design, which are undone by mostly uninteresting characters, emotionally dishonest storytelling and a convoluted plot more fascinated with the signing of deeds using notarized space tattoos – yep, that’s a thing -- than with creating situations and people worthy of the filmmakers’ effort.
After random Russian thieves kill her stargazing father and – clutch the pearls! – steal his brass telescope, Jupiter (the painfully miscast Mila Kunis) is born aboard a Chicago-bound cargo ship (because reasons). There, we find her struggling to live as the world’s prettiest maid, one willing to donate her eggs so she can one day afford to buy a brass telescope like her dad’s.
Jupiter doesn’t know she recently became the rightful owner of Earth, much to the chagrin of a regal alien villain that calls the inside of the planet Jupiter home. The campy, whispering baddie, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), will stop at nothing – save for obeying the aforementioned space laws – to prevent her from being queen.
Lots of damsel-in-distress scenes ensue as Jupiter falls (a lot) and gets rescued (a lot) by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a half-man, half-dog and all master hover-boot flyer, charged with saving her so she can rightfully claim our planet.
All of that would be passable if the script presented us with a heroine worth saving, or, even better, someone who can save herself. There’s a moment when the latter almost happens, during the confusing and bloated climax. Here, Jupiter physically battles Balem -- she has him on the ropes, one more blow from the metal wipe she wields should finish him. Instead, she gets her ass handed to her by gravity once again, falling to a death Wise swoops in to prevent.
We never get to know who Jupiter is; what are her wants, her dreams, other than a desire to own a telescope identical to the one that belonged to the father she never knew?
Tatum fares slightly better than his costar, thanks to a generous supply of heroic laser fights and spaceship battles the script affords him. We don’t get to know anything significant about him, but the movie acts like we already do. He’s introduced with an unearned confidence – as if we’ve already spent countless films with him and have put him on the same iconic pedestal with the likes of Han Solo or Neo.
In fact, the whole movie plays like the continuation of a story we’re only getting the first part of – as if the Wachowskis believe we love these characters as much as they do. It’s like being dropped into the second book in A Song of Fire and Ice and being expected to catch up either through Wiki or with the help of a friend.
Whole sections seethe with exposition that confuses more than it explains. Space battles blaze across the stars without clarity. And most scenes frequently open in the middle of events in ways that trick you into believing you must have missed the beginnings because you fell asleep. The story assumes you saw that which only lives inside the minds of the Wachowskis.
As pretty as the production design is, there are too many CG establishing shots that owe their shimmering landscapes to places like Naboo, as if the movie’s world-building was inspired by only the bad parts of the Star Wars prequels. One of its key alien creatures is basically the Koopa design from Super Mario Bros., now with dragon wings.
The overcooked spectacle gives way to an aimless and loud score from Michael Giachino, (sadly) his worst ever. His best work, as fans know, stems from stories that resonate with theme and heart. Here, all his music does is underscore their absence.
If Jupiter Ascending succeeds at anything, it’s validating Hollywood’s current mandate to franchise intellectual property -- while torpedoing any hopes original sci-fi has in ever seeing the green light.
Jupiter Ascending opens today nationwide.