Ever since siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski burst into the big time with The Matrix in 1999, fans have been waiting for them to concoct another science-fiction flick "visionary" enough to capture the public imagination. Jupiter Ascending is not that movie. Less stylistically out there than the duo's Speed Racer, less philosophically ambitious than Cloud Atlas, this tinselly collage of space-opera tropes doesn't amount to much. But in February, its shiny, fast-moving, designed-to-the-nines style of "not much" counts as a pretty good time.
The plot might have been dreamed up by a bright 12-year-old girl who just watched Guardians of the Galaxy and David Lynch's Dune in rapid succession. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a hardscrabble Russian immigrant whose name has a long and pointless backstory. Her cartoonishly awful life of scrubbing toilets and becoming an egg donor at the insistence of a loutish cousin is interrupted by ... aliens! They've come to kill her at the behest of a space tyrant (Eddie Redmayne) who has identified Jupiter as the only person standing in the way of his legal possession of the Earth. And his plans for the planet once he does own it aren't pretty.
Happily for Jupiter, she's rescued by a pointy-eared dog man who zips through the air in "gravity boots" and is played by a frequently shirtless Channing Tatum. Endowed with dogged (and doglike) loyalty, he will continue to rescue our heroine every 15 minutes or so after he zips her off to another planet, where Jupiter learns all about her crucial role in the feud of a pan-galactic dynasty.
The movie features so many royal machinations, it could be the pilot for an SF rival to "Game of Thrones." Along with all that plot, the Wachowskis offer exactly one idea: namely, that millennia-old space tyrants might view our Earth precisely the way certain corporate CEOs on Earth do, as "resources to be converted into capital." Their conversion methods are just faster and more brutal.
It's not a bad concept for would-be provocative sci-fi, but it's more of an afterthought than a central allegory. The main reason viewers might even notice the anticorporate subtext is that Redmayne conveys it while wearing a collar like the queen's in Snow White and raising his voice with terrifying abruptness from an effete rasp to a shout. (I, for one, will remember that bizarre monologue longer and with more pleasure than the actor's Oscar-nominated turn in The Theory of Everything.) After that, Jupiter's determination to fight the power sort of just disappears in a flash of sparkly set design.
Jupiter Ascending doesn't hit its campy highs often enough, either. The Wachowskis' attempts to use tongue-in-cheek banter to humanize their characters peter out awkwardly. ("I love dogs," Jupiter pleads, when her would-be boyfriend reminds her about his canine DNA.) A steampunk space-bureaucracy sequence is pretty cool, but it exists more as a freestanding homage to Terry Gilliam than as a contributor to the story. In the end, Jupiter stands or falls on the basis of its animated action sequences, and, while they're fun in a busy way, they're far from revolutionary.
Like Disney's John Carter, Jupiter is a better old-school space adventure than its critical and box-office drubbing might suggest. It offers as much solid, silly entertainment as a lesser Marvel flick, and deserves to be beloved of 12-year-old girls everywhere. (Maybe they've earned a turn, after so many action flicks catering to the fantasies of their male counterparts.) But viewers who are earnestly seeking to have their minds blown along with their visual cortexes may find that Jupiter Ascending brings them down.