Jupiter Ascending Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski have been both blessed and cursed by the massive success of their 1999 film The Matrix: blessed in that even after two box-office failures (Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas) they can still get a studio to pony up $175 million for an ambitious, effects-heavy sci-fi epic; and cursed in that every movie they make will end up being compared, probably unfavorably, to their early-career achievement. The siblings’ latest film, Jupiter Ascending, is a similar study in contradictions. It’s both excessively convoluted and simplistically predictable, like a movie that’s been adapted and condensed from a 500-page assembly-line young adult sci-fi novel.
Only it hasn’t been—the tale of seemingly average human woman Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) learning that she’s a secret space queen and falling in love with an extraterrestrial human-wolf hybrid named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is an original Wachowskis creation, although it draws heavily from sci-fi/fantasy classics ranging from Dune to The Last Starfighter to Brazil to The Matrix itself (with a little Cinderella thrown in for good measure).
Jupiter, who works as a lowly housecleaner in Chicago and lives with her extended working-class Russian family, becomes the target of an intergalactic power struggle when the three heirs to a millennia-old royal family discover that she’s the reincarnation of their late mother, and thus entitled to rule over Earth and various other planets that go unmentioned. That’s not good news for the petulant kids (who are themselves thousands of years old), especially eldest sibling Balem (Eddie Redmayne, making a strong case against his recent Oscar nomination), and they all devise their own ways to deceive and/or murder Jupiter so they can hold onto their planetary inheritances. Meanwhile, bounty hunter Caine, hired to track Jupiter down, does his best to protect her from these new dangers.
There’s more (way too much more) to the plot, but it really boils down to Jupiter as the latest version of the old-fashioned Chosen One, using her newfound status to save the world while falling in love. The plot of Jupiter Ascending is ridiculously overstuffed, with huge swaths of exposition that might be better suited to a role-playing-game manual. And the characters thus get pushed to the margins, even Jupiter and Caine, whose star-crossed love story is inert and unconvincing.
But the Wachowskis remain impressive stylists, and Jupiter Ascending is quite an achievement in world-building, with dazzlingly ornate costumes, sets and special effects. An early spaceship battle through the streets of Chicago stacks up favorably against the best action sequences the Wachowskis have created. If Jupiter Ascending were just as accomplished in its plotting and character development, it would be brilliant, but instead it’s a stunning, wildly creative book cover with a mediocre story inside.