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Even with all its familiar action tropes, less-than-fresh special effects and loopy plotting, the most depressing element in the Wachowski siblings’ latest sci-fi mash is that, as they conceive it, human society has been around for more than a billion years but is still presided over by a rivalrous British-style royal family that treacherously behaves as if it were the 1550s. Won’t the ruling class ever learn? With costumes and elaborate hairdos just slightly less risible than those in the Wachowskis’ last outing, Cloud Atlas, but with similarly underachieved, outsized aims, Jupiter Ascending at least possesses familiar sci-fi genre elements that are promotable to its target audience and will thereby generate reasonable returns, especially overseas. But anyone hoping for the old Matrix magic to rematerialize (it’s been 15 years) is due for more disappointment.
Once again, the Wachowskis are nothing if not ambitious, as they create a theory of existence that posits the notion that we’re even smaller pawns in a cosmic system than we might have imagined, mere “livestock” to a ruling clan based elsewhere in the cosmos that suddenly finds itself in a power struggle following the unexpected demise of a matriarch of 100,000 years standing. Waiting in the intergalactic wings are three progenies with different approaches to dealing with a lowly Chicago maid who, it is discovered, has the precise genetic makeup of their late mother, which therefore technically entitles the young woman to become queen of the universe.
A true Cinderella, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) cleans toilets to earn her keep with an extended Russian family that includes her mother and aunt, her astrophysicist father having been murdered back in the old country. Giving literal meaning to sweeping a woman off her feet, a muscle-bound dude named Caine (Channing Tatum), who wears shoes that enable him to lift off the ground and skate between the skyscrapers, takes Jupiter in his arms and zips her between the Loop’s skyscrapers, which gratifyingly look to have been restored to mint condition after having been so thoroughly trashed four years ago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Unfortunately, they are blown to smithereens all over again here.
Caine spirits Jupiter to a farm occupied by fellow tough guy Stinger (Sean Bean), who unnerves the young lady by persistently addressing her as “Your Majesty”; he’s able to discern her lineage because the bees he keeps start acting up the moment she arrives and, as he explains, “Bees are genetically disposed to recognize royalty.” Any hope that Jupiter Ascending might be designed to make sense on any level is pretty much jettisoned from this point forward, although Jupiter does get an explanation of sorts as to why she’s now to be viewed as the Chosen One.
As for the macho men, they’re veteran Legionnaires with bad attitudes toward authority, so Jupiter now has loyal (to become loving) assistance in warding off the warriors and monsters who arrive to snatch her away. For their part, the royal siblings, who live on assorted far-flung planets of their own, have different attitudes about how to deal with this unexpected rival. The dominant one among them, the clearly twisted Balem (Eddie Redmayne, speaking in whispery, constrained tones), just wants her out of the way ASAP and does all he can to arrange it. The one female heir, Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), takes a calculatedly friendly approach, inviting the Earthling as a guest. The youngest, pretty boy Titus (Douglas Booth), schemes to keep Jupiter on the sidelines while outfoxing his brother and sister. They’re a swell bunch, the three of them.
Other than to dictate the power dynamics of the ruling family, the film’s conceptual dimensions yield very little of interest. If the Earth is really a colony being exploited economically by leaders capable of instantaneous travel and equipped with enormously advanced technology, it’s completely unclear how this works or what the impact is on its citizens; everything seems quite as normal.
The film’s geographic distinctions are also poorly registered. Balem lives on Jupiter, but the others, who knows where. If humans live elsewhere in the solar system and beyond under the dominion of this royal family, there must be some universal apparatus linking them or holding the empire together, but we see or hear no evidence of that. The technological advances glimpsed are enormous, but they look to have been kept effectively under wraps and out of view of ordinary people, which is perplexing. The prolonged final action sequence goes to the very edge of becoming ridiculous.
Unlike The Matrix, certainly, there is nothing conceptual here that catches the viewer’s fancy, only the spectacle of an ordinary young lady being swept up into extraordinary circumstances. The slowly percolating romance between Jupiter and her guardian may sweep young fans of Kunis and Tatum along up to a point but, while the characters swing through the air with the greatest of ease, thanks to Caine’s late-model boots, the love story never becomes something to swoon over; there’s something about the strapping man’s little blond goatee and elfin ears that’s a bit weird.
For her part, Kunis maintains her composure and doesn’t have quite as hard a time as she had in her misbegotten role in Oz the Great and Powerful. We now know from Foxcatcher that Tatum is capable of much more than this sort of he-man role, while Redmayne can hope that balloting for a certain prestigious award is finished before voters get a load of his melodramatics on display here. Director Terry Gilliam has a bit part playing an eccentric bureaucrat in a distinctly Brazil-like office.
Special effects and technical work here are second-tier, acceptable but not on a level with the likes of Interstellar, Gravity and other cutting-edge sci-fi productions.
Production company: Village Roadshow, Anarchos Productions
Cast: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton
Director-screenwriters: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Producers: Grant Hill, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Executive producers: Roberto Malerba, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Hugh Bateup
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Editor: Alexander Berner
Music: Michael Giacchino
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Glass
Rated PG-13, 127 minutes
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