Movies

Crash landing

"Jupiter Ascending" overdoses on production design, starves for fun

If what we go to the movie theater for now is spectacle, the science fiction epic "Jupiter Ascending" fits the bill. But to the extent that we still demand rich characters and sensible plotting, the Wachowskis' latest is a few planets short of a galaxy.

There's a certain eccentricity to Lana and Andy Wachowski's work that makes them almost endearing as they go to town on otherworldly movies like "Cloud Atlas" and "Speed Racer."

Almost.

It's been 16 years since the sibling writer-directors earned fanboy goodwill galore with "The Matrix," and 19 years since they courted indie cred with the sexy thriller "Bound." Since the "Matrix" started spawning sequels, the Wachowskis have been steadily sloughing that respect as they generate blinkered, eye-popping visions that test the patience of audiences.

Go in with a mantra of "Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon," and you may get a kick out of "Jupiter Ascending" and its dopey dumbness. Mila Kunis gamely plays Jupiter Jones, a cleaning woman "destined for greatness" but currently scrubbing toilets. Soon she's Space Cinderella, rescued from alien assassination by a genetically modified organism called Channing Tatum -- no, wait, Tatum just plays the GMO, a part-wolf hunk named Caine who's outfitted with pointy ears, a bleached goatee and sneakers that let him speed-skate on air. Strap in folks: It just gets weirder.

But, oddly, not more fun. Once we're past a jaw-dropping "street fight" that zips amongst skyscrapers, "Jupiter Ascending" quits generating excitement and starts echoing much better science fiction. Those who saw last year's terrific documentary, "Jodorowky's Dune," will note a strong influence on the Wachowskis' comic-book aesthetic here, in both production design and convoluted palace intrigue (with none of the thematic richness).

It's in those space palaces that we meet one British villain too many, in the persons of Douglas Booth ("Romeo and Juliet") and current Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne (the "Theory of Everything" star coming off here like Basil Rathbone on heroin). The baddies' far-flung world profitably "harvests" other planets for time (the "greatest commodity"), and their power struggle involves "taking care of" Jupiter by hook (marriage) or by crook (the aforementioned assassination). While ostensibly putting an empowered female front and center, the Wachowskis repeatedly regress to "damsel in distress" mode, right up to that space-wedding climax.

Audiences will unfavorably compare "Jupiter" to past enjoyments like "Star Wars" and "The Fifth Element," and the Wachowskis do themselves no favors by taking a break in the story for what amounts to a five-minute "Brazil" fan film, complete with a cameo by Terry Gilliam. "Jupiter Ascending" is colorful and expensive-looking, thanks to legions of special-effects artists and two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. It's also kooky and frantic, with assaultive 3-D action sequences that soon lose their feature-length battle with gravity.

Rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity. Two hours, 7 minutes.

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