Metropolitan Chicago has a population edging toward ten million. It’s the third largest city in the United States, the largest in Illinois, and attracts tens of millions of visitors each year. While New York City may be better known as the city that never sleeps, it’s safe to say that Chicago is equally alive at all hours of the day. And in the Wachowskis‘ space fable folly “Jupiter Ascending,” Chicago is the staging ground for a handful of gargantuan action scenes in which aliens race across sky, shoot at each other, smash up skyscrapers and dip into the Chicago River with guns blazing. But among the millions of the city’s inhabitants who might notice futuristic ships and weird creatures using their city as a “Star Wars” playground, none stop and gawk, and no surveillance cameras or footage manages to capture any imagery of the mass destruction. The directors get around this by unconvincingly establishing that the aliens take care to quickly rebuild when the battles are over, and essentially zap any pesky human witnesses “Men In Black” style so they don’t remember seeing anything. But this merely serves as an indication of the Wachowskis’ arrogance —if they throw enough spectacle on the screen, no one will care to inspect the half baked foundation of their sci-fi flick too closely. However, even the least discerning audience may wish that aliens wipe this film from their memory as soon as the credits roll.
Told in the most confusedly over-expository manner possible, the crux of the story is this: space brothers Titus Abrasax (the conniving but ultimately harmless Douglas Booth) and Balem Abrasax (the big bad, played a campy Eddie Redmayne) fight over the fate of lowly Russian janitor Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who is unknowningly next in line to become the galactic queen of Earth. It’s the most valuable part of a package of planets divided up between Titus and Balem after their mother’s death, but Jupiter’s royal claim on Earth complicates their plans. The favored son Balem wants the planet so he can harvest its resources (including people) for space dollars. Titus wants Earth because he’s always played second fiddle to his brother. Oh yeah, there’s also their sister Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton) who has her own barely developed interests in the planet. Anyway, wolf/human hybrid and disgraced soldier turned mercenary/bounty hunter Caine (Channing Tatum) is sent by Titus to protect Jupiter from Balem’s assassins. And thus begins a movie that is essentially two hours of people constantly explaining to each other their nefarious schemes, familial lineage or key bits of plot detail that become irrelevant a few minutes later when a cursory action sequence begins and shifts the narrative around. And then the cycle begins all over again.
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Having built their careers on creative world building and groundbreaking action sequences, it’s almost astonishing to see the Wachowskis’ flounder so hard as such. Strip away all the extra padding to the story —which includes an extraneous prologue and endless. pedantic conversation about ancestry and the political mechanics of the universe— and you have a space opera version of “Cinderella,” which the Wachowskis even reference directly in this hollow film. Many issues could’ve been overlooked if the action sequences had any verve to them, but the pair who gave the world “bullet time” seem utterly lost or disinterested here. From the now standard city destruction porn occurring in every blockbuster movie to incoherent, crudely edited, geographically seasick setpieces, the Wachowskis throw a lot of money at the screen to almost no memorable effect. You could take their names off “Jupiter Ascending,” and you would hardly know this picture belonged to them.
But the mess the Wachowskis have stamped their brand on is unfortunately a reminder of their worst weaknesses as filmmakers. With the exception of “Bound,” the duo have consistently asked for only minimal acting from their casts, with the spectacle usually doing the heavy lifting. But since the visual effects are so incoherent in “Jupiter Ascending,” it makes the wooden performances by everyone involved look especially bad. Kunis easily fares the worst, with the actress clearly lacking the presence required to lead a blockbuster film. A return to rom-coms and ground more familiar with her “That ’70s Show” work is probably not far behind after this. Tatum does what he can with the ridiculous script he has to work with, but he stoically manages to come out the least scathed. Redmayne, who could easily earn a Razzie for his performance, picks up a few clichés from the fey villain handbook and dials them up a couple hundred notches. HIs performance is out of line with anything else in the film, but at the very least he’s doing something, and he can’t be faulted if the Wachowskis can’t maintain the tone of this film. Careening from space opera to bonkers domestic comedy to half-sketched romance to big screen bonanza, “Jupiter Ascending” is a jumbled assortment of different moods clunkily mashed together into a lumpy, leaden picture.
However, there is one sequence in the film where everything clicks. After being taken from Earth to Future Space Land and learning about her true ancestry, Jupiter is forced to go through the bureaucratic process of having her royalty recognized. Guided by a perky but continually irritated android named Bob (a pitch perfect Samuel Barnett), she’s sent in circles from one civil agency to another so that the paperwork is put in order before Jupiter winds up at the dusky desk of Terry Gilliam, popping up in a cameo hidden by a big beard and giant eyepiece. It’s a direct nod to “Brazil,” right down to the mention of “27B stroke 6,” but like almost everything else in the movie, it’s carelessly lifted from somewhere else and not reinvented with any particular imagination.
Like some unholy hybrid of “Dune” (Abrasax and Arrakis sound a lot alike), “Soylent Green,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” and even the Wachowskis own “The Matrix” “Jupiter Ascending” is a mishmash of warmed over concepts seeking a common thread. There is an attempt by the Wachowskis to grasp at big ideas about Time, The Ruthlessness Of Capitalism And Consumerism and Love, but they are naive and simplistic at best. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising coming from the producers of the anarchy-for-beginners “V For Vendetta” and the directors responsible for the new-age scented candle “Cloud Atlas,” but more than ever their inability to make potentially heady concepts land with any depth or resonance comes into clear view.
There is an emptiness that lingers around “Jupiter Ascending.” From the lack of original thought in its conception to the expensive excess in its execution, the directors’ usual bag of tricks can’t manage to fill the void. “Jupiter Ascending” promises a galactic ride full of original, thought-provoking science-fiction, but the problem is that The Wachowskis never manage to get their film into orbit. [D-]