Directors: The Wachowskis
Stars: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Jupiter Ascending” doesn’t care if you mock it. Lana and Andy Wachowski, its moneyed creators, have gone on record saying as much, but such defiance in the face of bloodthirsty chuckleheads is plainly evident from the film itself — a proud, super-expensive, quasi-explicable sci-fi semi-disaster in the vein of “Zardoz” and David Lynch’s “Dune.” One doesn’t make a blockbuster with Channing Tatum in pointy ears skating through the sky in flying shoes and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a half-deer to make friends. But these modest sights are the heights of its ridiculousness. It’s insufficiently silly if anything, and as it wears on it starts to make a kind of sense and even cook. The long stretch where it was barely watchable becomes a distant memory.
Like any self-respecting Joseph Campbell-bred fantasy mess, “Jupiter Ascending” takes 30 to 45 minutes to find its footing, and even then things are rickety. It starts not with a disembodied head vomiting exposition a la “Zardoz” or “Dune” but with an illegal immigration joke. Mila Kunis plays (yes) Jupiter, the daughter of a Russian cleaning woman and a British astronomer, who was killed defending a telescope (in one of the film’s too few totally ridiculous scenes). It takes Tatum’s sky-surfing Caine to make her realize she’s actually (of course) a reincarnated version of a dead queen of the universe — a fact that takes trawling through a handful of false starts, some confusing backstabbing and the utter wasting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Once it finally sorts itself out, “Jupiter” turns into a loose riff on “King Lear” in space, only with three crappy kids, not just two, who either want to seduce her to their side or snuff her out. The evilest of the royal family Abarasax (not to be confused with the Santana album “Abraxas”) is Eddie Redmayne’s Balem. He’s one of the Wachowskis’ weird-voiced baddies, and even funnier than “The Matrix”’s slow talking Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). Lounging about in flowing capes that show off his improbable Thin White Duke six pack, he can’t be bothered to speak above a lazy whisper — unless, that is, he’s trading in sudden all-caps, Gary Oldman in “The Professional”-style barks that all but splice themselves into YouTube supercuts. He wants dominion over the universe and especially Earth, so he can harvest it for profit, and he’s not a little miffed that his dear, mega-capitalist mother was born again inside a peasant cleaning lady.
This seething class anger is “Jupiter”’s most interesting aspect, but it must fight for space within a cluttered space opera. There’s a lot busy-ness here, from whiz-bang shoot-outs with little sense of space or impact to space chases where the action just seems like one big glop of stuff happening, guided by rules that seem made up on the spot. Even an early eight-minute chase through Chicago at dawn has too many moving parts for even the Wachowskis to control. Key characters are led into death’s grasp, only to be saved by lazy screenwriting. This is the Wachowskis’ clearest bid, after ambitious art-blockbuster bombs “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas,” for a return to the clean first “Matrix” days. It only underlines their big breakthrough as a (relative) model of narrative economy, pace and world building.
That said, as a world one only needs visit once, “Jupiter Ascending” ain’t bad. It feels smaller the more sense the film makes. One doesn’t need to suss out some elaborate anthropology, a la "Star Wars" geeks and Trekkies, of all the many times of animal-mammal “splices” existing in warlike harmony. It just feels like the Wachowskis threw whatever they wanted into their thick, sticky stew. And Kunis and Tatum, both best as quick-witted cut-ups, are misused in dull straight-faced roles. Tatum slips in a couple of his usual mumble-deadpan line readings, but Kunis — in a hero role that's really just a damsel in distress — seems lost as she often does when not called on to be bossy.
Yes, there’s a lot wrong with “Jupiter Ascending," and every thing that deserves praise calls in mind something that needs knocked down. But there is a lot that’s special — and, in its second hour, almost anonymously competent — about it too. When the dust settles the most unique quality is its palpable contempt for its line of artistocrat-capitalist-fascist royals. Bucking against genre tradition, its hero never once wants to join or even usurp them, but simply return home to her low-income digs — or at least canoodle with the lowly hunter who looks like the guy from “Magic Mike” but with a bad fuzz-goatee and a dirty blonde dye job. There’s no need to return to this world (especially with its most entertaining character presumed dead), but when did we get programmed to think a one-off is a bad thing?