Silver Screen: Jupiter Ascending 1/2*
If you’re wondering why the Wachowskis haven’t made a good movie in the fifteen years since The Matrix, I can explain it in one word: Cain.
Their latest film, Jupiter Ascending, is a slick, stylized blend of sci-fi and high-fantasy influences that spends the better part of two hours explicating its own needlessly elaborate mythology. We’re introduced to a plethora of interconnected planets governed by a complex cosmic bureaucracy. Much time is spent exploring the customs of this alien political system, and how rules of interstellar propriety ultimately will dictate the fate of Earth. Because of this Byzantine cosmology, our humble world is set to be destroyed unless it can be saved by a genetically modified warrior named Caine.
The Wachowskis spend hundreds of millions of dollars, concoct enough backstory to bore George R.R. Martin, design new races of beings, and reveal that the universe is controlled by an ancient race of immortal capitalists. Imagine the endless pages of concept design, the digital effects wizardry, the makeup effects, a baker’s dozen sci-fi homages carefully woven into the story.
A story about a loner antihero named Caine.
You know, like Cain, as in the Bible. Or the antihero cop played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days. Or the deranged antihero scientist from Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man. Or the warmongering general from Battlestar Galactica— both the original version and the remake. Or the villains from the second Robocop and the third Highlander.
Get it? Cain? It’s, like, a literary reference or something!
This Caine, played by Channing Tatum, is a grumbling brute altered by scientists to be a perfect hunter-killer. His masters send him to Earth to retrieve Jupiter (Mila Kunis), a reincarnated cosmic aristocrat living the humble life of a housekeeper in Chicago. When he discovers a double-cross in the works, Caine uses his savagery and high-tech weapons to help her return to power and defeat the other members of her duplicitous family, in particular the conniving Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne).
The Wachowskis expend so much effort trying to dazzle with elaborate costumes and set designs, bizarre creatures, and outlandish effects that they never notice the whole enterprise is predicated on a standard-issue fairytale populated with overfamiliar characters. It’s a mansion built on a foundation of Jell-O. To those who would charitably call it archetypal storytelling, I would point out that the hero is a guy named Caine, presumably because just directly calling him “Wolverine” would be copyright infringement.
Jupiter Ascending represents not the Wachowskis of the thrilling, innovative Matrix, but the ponderous, needlessly complicated blend of mysticism and technology found in the Matrix sequels. It doesn’t hark back to the cool aesthetic of their first film, Bound, but rather the oppressive stylishness of Speed Racer. It’s a gravity-defying actioneer that forgets that without gravity there is no weight.
The most tolerable method for viewing Jupiter Ascending is to treat it as a game of spot-the-influence. There are the baroque costumes and maddening political interludes of Dune, the giddy melodrama of Flash Gordon, and even a Terry Gilliam cameo to punctuate a pointless riff on the great Brazil.
When viewed as a standalone entity rather than a two-hour barrage of odes and inside jokes, Jupiter Ascending is a dissonant blend of storytelling tropes fitted around a group of stock characters. It breaks up the tedium of its exposition only for headache-inducing fits of flashing lights and bleep-bloop computer sound effects. Poor Tatum keeps a straight face throughout, and the lovely Kunis strains to find something to do other than wear pretty dresses and get rescued. Only Redmayne, speaking in a gasping parody of blueblood affectation that sounds like Jim Backus during an asthma attack, seems to have any idea he’s in a movie this absurd. He channels the outsized villainy of Max von Sydow’s Emperor Ming and the spittle-spraying screams of Gary Oldman circa The Fifth Element, a 1997 sci-fi movie so bad it serves as a perfect point of comparison.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.