Lana and Andy Wachowski, directors/writers/fabulators of the Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas return with an old-fashioned space opera that borrows heavily from the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and cartoonist Alex Raymond’s Thirties-era Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Visually, it’s a flat-out stunner – I didn’t see it on an IMAX screen, but you should – which is pretty much a given with the Wachowskis’ masterful predilection for the intricacies of cinematic world-building. The vaguely Shakespeare-meets-Disney storyline, however, along with the gravity-distorting masses of long-winded exposition and the irritating presence of a miscast Channing Tatum send the whole gorgeous mess plummeting back to Earth before even the first 30 minutes have passed. Luc Besson managed to juggle similarly assorted planets and subplots in the air, or lack thereof, with 1997’s The Fifth Element, but Jupiter Ascending has little of that space opera’s zany genius.
Kunis is Jupiter Jones, the twentysomething daughter of a Russian émigré. Her American father, besotted with brass telescopes and portentous astronomical wonder, was murdered by generic Russian thugs while she was still in the womb, but her extended family makes it to the USA where they bicker around the dinner table and she cleans toilets by day. Jupiter, however, is destined for greater things, although how “great,” she has no idea. As it happens, she’s the reincarnation – “recurrence” in the film’s parlance – of a member of the universe’s royalty, thanks to matching genetics. Soon enough, a trio of spacey bounty hunters are tracking her, a genetically spliced wolf-human supersoldier in anti-grav surfwear (Channing) is saving her, and a trio of universal royals are clamoring for her attention, or her death, or both. Eventually, it’s revealed – spoiler alert – that as in the Matrix films, the whole of humanity is but raw material for more advanced (i.e., evil) intelligences. Frenetically cut but ultimately dull pursuits and bad-guy-and-gal brinksmanship ensue. They exit pursued by a talking bat-lizard enforcer.
While the totality of Jupiter Ascending is just too much for its own massive narrative heft to support, kudos to the Wachowskis for beating back against mainstream Hollywood by casting actors of all races and genders in key roles, something they’ve been doing since their 1996 debut Bound. Their latest, however, works far better as a thinly veiled critique of consumptive capitalism than it does as a femme-empowerment manifesto. Beyond that, and more obviously, this is a (very pricey) throwback to the “gosh, wow, sense-of-wonder” tone of Thirties pulp fictioneerings like Thrilling Wonder Stories and Weird Tales. George Lucas lifted mightily from these same inspirational wellsprings and did a far more coherent job of it. Channing’s vulpine hero pales in comparison to a certain Tatooine farm boy, and even though Jupiter Jones ends up looking strikingly Queen Amidala-ish, this isn’t even on par with the universally loathed The Phantom Menace.
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