Epic fails come in two indigestible flavors: Cynical blockbusters, like the kind Michael Bay makes, that hold audiences in contempt for buying whatever swill they spew out. And disasters in which you can still feel the ambition and soul behind the unholy mess onscreen. Jupiter Ascending, the brainchild of Andy and Lana Wachowski, falls in the latter category. The wisdom of the digiverse has it that the Wachowskis haven’t made anything to shout about except The Matrix, way back in 1999. (Of course that leaves out the most excellent Bound, the kinky pleasure they created three years before The Matrix.) But after two overheated Matrix sequels, the animated chaos of Speed Racer (2008) and the pseudo-intellectual posturing of Cloud Atlas (2012), you can’t help but fear for the worst. I haven’t given up on the Wachowskis — thoughtful mischief is still an endangered species in Hollywood. But I sure as hell don’t want anything more to do with Jupiter Ascending, the first of their films that seems motivated by box-office (3D IMAX, a whopping $175 million budget) and not by their own churning, crazy-ass worldview.
The flimsy plot sucks at the dregs of The Matrix well. How so? Well, the Neo figure here is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis). She scrubs toilets in Chicago hotels but she’s really — hold on — a princess. And not just any princess, she’s the reincarnation of a dead queen from Jupiter whose three children, Balen (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth), are at each other’s throats over who will inherit the Earth. That means we humans are merely playthings of a larger force, in this case the Abrasax dynasty. Come on, Wachowskis, you can do better than that.
Sadly, they can’t. To the rescue comes Channing Tatum as Caine Wise, a hunky skyjacker with pointy ears and frosted hair who rescues our girl from a fate worse than death. That means marrying Balen, a creep who needs to wed his reincarnated mother so he can control the Earth and use the vital juices of humanity to sustain himself for another millennia. It’s an impossible role. And the gifted Redmayne has been forced to play it for camp, intoning his godawful lines in a voice with only two modes — a whisper and a shout. Hopefully, Oscar voters won’t let this one mistake affect their admiration for Redmayne’s tour de force as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
None of the actors escape doom. Kunis should be in line for a Razzie for the soon-to-be classic bad scene in which she shoots down Redmayne’s effete ruler by screaming, “I’m not your damn mother.” Tatum has it best because he has the least dialogue. Mostly he flies around rescuing Jupiter from the same villains, who capture her back so the cycle can start again. This kind of pandering FX padding, unnurtured by humor or heart, is what shifts Jupiter Ascending from a shambles to a fiasco. In an effort to win back audiences by lowering their standards and their daring, the Wachowskis wind up where you never expected to find them creatively: on the ropes.