Glass Half-Full In Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending"

From Lana and Lilly Wachowski – the gray matter behind the “Matrix” trilogy – comes “Jupiter Ascending,” a left-field mass of cheeseball sci-fi that flips and flops its way from stale to semi-sweet and back again. From earthbound beginnings to balletic space battles, the film plays like a Ziggy Stardust fever dream that just might scratch an itch for genre fans. But for general audiences? Mileage will vary intensely, with the pic’s oft-stunning visuals weighed down by a clunky screenplay and uneven performances.

Mila Kunis (“Oz The Great And Powerful”) headlines as the eponymous Jupiter Jones, a Windy City housemaid with no idea that she’s intergalactic royalty. When a family of humanoid aliens begins to squabble over interstellar inheritances – including possession of Jupiter, their mother reincarnated – our heroine is scooped up by Caine Wise, a half-man, half-wolf genetic hybrid with elf ears and anti-gravity boots. It’s all absurdly colorful, colorfully absurd, and pretty engrossing – to a point.

The film’s rogues gallery of supporting characters – from owl-men to oversized lizards – is comfortably reminiscent of one Mos Eisley Cantina (“Star Wars”). And hawk-eyed viewers will note similarities to more obscure science fiction, a reward in itself.

But as the piece’s villains are rolled out – led by a laughably throaty performance from Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory Of Everything) – the story eventually grinds to a halt, focusing on family drama that diverts from the sights and sounds. Act two is deadly dull, zeroing in on a deceit-filled space wedding between Jupiter and one of the feuding siblings, Titus (Douglas Booth, “Noah”). Booth is incomparably obnoxious – beyond what the screenplay requires – and Kunis looks understandably bored.

This soggy midsection robs the picture of the effervescence of its first act, a lightness aided by a surprisingly nimble turn from veteran action star Sean Bean (“The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy). But the surplus of gorgeous production design and solid special effects routinely carries the day, reminding at every turn what made the Wachowskis a commodity in the first place. Inspiration.

The duo remains a volcano of ideas, rescuing themselves time and time again from their eternal weakness for character work.

As act two comes to a close, leave it to Channing Tatum to swoop in again – something he does seemingly every twenty minutes – to free our lead and shift the narrative to its airborne third act, where it recovers some lost momentum.

Unlike the Wachowski’s previous effort, the deadly serious and catastrophically overlong “Cloud Atlas,” there’s a light enough touch here to sustain the piece. It has more in common with their initially unpopular but increasingly esteemed “Speed Racer” adaptation than anything else they’ve done, bottling a sweetness they’ve only hinted at previously.

“Jupiter Ascending” is a work of great vision without much clarity, drunk on possibility to the point that it inevitably crumples into a heap in the corner. But it’s never less than watchable, through all the stilted dialogue, nonsensical story developments, and lurching pace. Lana and Lilly may never rekindle the flame they found with Neo and Morpheus in 1999, but they’re more than capable of evoking it. And that might be good enough for the majority of sci-fi fans.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 6, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Screenwriter: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Doona Bae, Tuppence Middleton