It’s inevitable that Jupiter Ascending, the latest dispatch from the crazed imaginations of Lana and Andy Wachowski, will be adopted and anointed by some cult of nonsense as a camp item. To even begin to describe the plot might cause one to double over in laughter. It’s clear enough that Channing Tatum’s Caine Wise, a wolf-man from the planet Oros, is tasked with the protection of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant making a living as a cleaning lady in Chicago while sharing a room with at least two of her relatives. Beyond that, Jupiter Ascending’s unwieldy, cumbersome narrative grows convoluted quicker than a M. Night Shyamalan film, all handled with the same unsure sense of mood that’s become the Wachowskis’ stock in trade since The Matrix.
Like that megahit and 2012’s Cloud Atlas, the purveying theme of Jupiter Ascending is the consumption (or use) of a working class for the benefit of their indifferent overseers. In this case, Earth is a human farm, seeded after the extinction of the dinosaurs by the ruling class of Oros. The Wachowskis’ script pivots on the question of who owns the planet, which is being debated between three siblings of the House of Abrasax, and now Jupiter, who turns out to be their reincarnated mother. Humans are harvested and liquidated to fill fountains of youth on Oros, which allow the rich to get up to six-digit ages. Designed in the gray zone between Game of Thrones and Farscape, the latest Wachowski jaunt is intermittently inventive in its visual and physical effects, from a variety of intergalactic species (elephant people) to new technologies (compact space suits), but its politics are unthinking and obvious, a cheap anti-authoritarian tantrum embedded in an intergalactic action-melodrama.
The film thankfully doesn’t indulge in either the histrionics or gruesome violence of Cloud Atlas, but the novelistic pull of the Wachowskis’ previous feature is sorely absent. The expositional backstory of the Oros world and other alien races is thick as a brick, and the cast, which includes Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton as the Abrasax siblings, spends most of its time parsing through this mostly useless information. Some of the action musters a thrill, but it only goes to pepper up long passages where Redmayne’s Balem conspires with a faction of dragon people, or where a pack of Keepers, little gray demons who can become invisible at their leisure, are hunting Jupiter. That’s not even counting the scenes with Sean Bean’s Stinger, a Hans Solo type, or Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s deer-person.
The Wachowskis self-seriously approach their hammy script, selling the story as a grim actioner rather than a romp; ultimately, only Redmayne seems to latch onto the material’s camp potential. Apart from the design work, the visuals are pedestrian at best, more driven by imparting plot points than any kind of visionary flourish. And for however imaginative the story seems from scene to scene, the film’s tone is all over the map. The lust and ultimate romance between Jupiter and Wise comes up suddenly and awkwardly, and the quasi-incest subplot between our titular heroine and Booth’s Titus is inexplicable. That this all ultimately feels like perpetual build-up, this film acting as the presumable Batman Begins-type introductory volume to a bigger space wolf-man saga, only dulls the impact of even the film’s passing pleasures, like the nifty visions of Wise walking on air and a warmly eccentric cameo by Terry Gilliam.
For a story that’s made up almost entirely of hogwash, Jupiter Ascending never feels as fun as it should. And the unsteady message that the Wachowski siblings are ultimately selling is a “maybe in the next life” type of philosophy, one that coldly suggests you should be happy with what you got. The entire thrust of the film seems to be anchored to the concept of Jupiter enjoying her meager, measly existence, a long swim in Lake Paradise compared to the death-defying existence of the otherworldly rich and privileged. This is partially why Jupiter Ascending registers quickly as the most frivolous and innocuous of the Wachowskis’ work thus far, lacking both Speed Racer’s vibrant, candy-coated bombast and The Matrix’s cyberpunk fury. Still, the film is of a similar breed as Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer, an idiosyncratic, if tremendously dimwitted, stretch of cosmic balderdash, and is similarly more fun to laugh at than actually keep up with. It’s all empty, vaguely enjoyable hokum, but even under such categorization, Jupiter Ascending is of a distinctly lesser quality than its predecessors.