The Wachowski siblings’ sci-fi thriller Jupiter Ascending is inane from first frame to last — the dialogue is so clunky, I wondered if George Lucas had been brought in to do the rewrite. But it’s not much fun enumerating the movie’s infelicities. As they proved in their Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas, Lana and Andy do nothing halfway, and even a formula picture like this packs in so much physical detail and philosophical subtext that you feel as if you should be dazzled — that you somehow owe it to them to keep watching and hoping that the next sequence will be halfway involving.
Their protagonist is once again a person dulled by ordinary life who turns out to be something other than she seems, destined from birth — it’s in her genes — for higher things. This is Jupiter (Mila Kunis), born to a Russian mother and a father murdered by robbers while looking through a telescope and rubbing Vaseline on his wife; no wonder she turns out to be the reincarnation of the queen of one of the universe’s most powerful dynasties. But I’m getting ahead of myself. As in The Matrix, her mundane existence (she cleans toilets while hyperethnic Russkis holler at her) is ruptured by one set of seeming superbeings trying to kill her and another trying to save her. Her savior is the muscular half-canine Caine Wise (Channing Tatum — who obviously knows how ridiculous he looks but carries on manfully), and though he’s something of a mercenary, he proves rousingly adept at fending off squiggly CG aliens and actors in costumes that would be laughed out of a Greenwich Village Halloween parade.
Leading the family of decadent aristocrats who keep trying to kill Jupiter is Balem, played by Eddie Redmayne, who should hire large men to keep Oscar voters out of theaters. He talks in the wispiest of rasps, as if too rich to be bothered to engage his diaphragm. (“I have more important matters to attend,” he tells his brother, as if too rich to be bothered to add the final preposition.) Balem is the Wachowskis’ Über-capitalist, a man who believes that he has reached a Darwinian state of perfection and is entitled to feed — literally — on the lumpen. The Matrix trilogy showed machines using humans as flesh batteries; here, humans are cattle, their planets destined to be harvested so that the elites may live for millennia. But the most powerful source of Balem’s evil isn’t ideological. He has — wouldn’t you know — mother issues. And mother is now, genetically speaking, back from the great beyond.
Jupiter Ascending would be vastly more enjoyable with a more ascendant Jupiter. Apparently not a very nice person, Kunis is not a very good actress either. Her dark beauty is certainly exotic, but her features barely move, and her voice — apart from the occasional fry — has no color. It’s as if someone put a lot of eyeliner on Minnie Mouse. Jupiter is supposed to be resolutely earthbound; she says things like, “I need to know what in the world is going on here,” and, “Could this get any weirder?” even as aliens drop to their knees and honeybees form reverent clouds. But Kunis can’t begin to suggest the capacious soul that’s supposedly within.
That’s too bad, because whatever heart there is in Jupiter Ascending comes from the Wachowskis’ conviction that our true selves are hidden deep within our genetic codes, and that the goal of life is to recognize and cultivate them. Without that emotional core, the movie is like an old Flash Gordon installment with a thousand times the budget and a tenth the fun. It’s miraculously unmiraculous.