Hot stars can’t save ‘Jupiter Ascending’ from crashing, burning

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As far as the Wachowski siblings have ever been concerned, subtlety ranks among the most spectacular wastes of screen time. The directors’ impatience about pacing and minute details has played out to their advantage in the past — take “The Matrix” for instance, which jumped from one vast idea to the next and unfolded at an eagerly quick pace, all without sacrificing storytelling or creativity.

But when it comes to Andy and Lana Wachowski’s latest effort “Jupiter Ascending,” the cavalcade of brutally forceful visuals fails to distract from the lack of thought put into other aspects of the film.

Naturally, it starts out with a rushed origin-story flashback. A young English astronomer falls in love with and impregnates a Soviet woman before getting inexplicably murdered. Next, the woman flees with her family to the United States, giving birth en route to her daughter, Jupiter. Flash forward about two decades. Jupiter (Mila Kunis) gets by doing grimy work with her family as a housecleaner, dreaming of an escape from her monotonous existence.

This escape comes when a half-wolf, half-albino warrior named Caine (Channing Tatum) saves her from cartoonish aliens disguised as humans. After telling Jupiter that she’s a member of alien royalty and heir to the entire planet Earth, he whisks her away for an interplanetary jaunt. Insert a few fight scenes, a number of chase scenes, some melodramatic plotting and way too much explanation of alien customs.

While the plot itself may not be the film’s strong suit, the characters and casting choices should produce some allure.  After all, the sci-fi action blockbuster genre is notoriously oversaturated with male leads, and movies within this genre that center on female characters remain too few and far between. Yet “Jupiter Ascending” manages to cast the protagonist’s spotlight on Kunis without allowing her character’s actions or development to move beyond those of the typical helpless female stock character. In fact, most of the characters and plot points seem borrowed from a generic back catalogue.

For the majority of the film, Jupiter gapes in amazement, tilts her head in confusion, weeps in desperation and sultrily affects her voice in flirtation. Meanwhile, Caine tends to lead the way, fighting off alien attacks as well as Jupiter’s attempts to woo him. By the end, it becomes hard to escape the notion that the film may be set in the point of view of the real main character’s love interest.

The worst example comes in a corny cliche, as Jupiter is on the verge of marrying a plainly evil character — so Caine must defy the odds and rush to stop the ceremony. A relationship is established in which the two are clear foils: She is impulsive, while he is wise; she is vulnerable, while he is strong. In a broader sense, Jupiter and Caine’s roles in the film reaffirm the fictitious gender roles of the masculine savior and the feminine deadweight that pervade the genre.

Granted, the film’s aim is for entertainment value, not social commentary or high-art status. This is made obvious in scenes such as the wedding. But the film definitely packs a punch as a visual experience. Effects used in sets, character design and action sequences are all equally captivating, and the descent of the main crew’s ship through the Jupiterian atmosphere makes for an impressive sight. Without a doubt, most of the highlights were the film’s visuals, such as those seen in Jupiter’s unusual control over bees and in a fleeting gag in which a ship’s launch from a corn field leaves behind a crop circle.

Although parts of the movie are memorable, it’s far from unforgettable as a whole. The story rockets along but never reaches any new terrain, and calling its characters flat may wrongly imply that they have upward of two dimensions. As a cinematic experience, “Jupiter Ascending” is easily interchangeable with any number of recent blockbusters, functioning as little more than another nail in the coffin of the Wachowski siblings’ credibility as writers and directors.

Contact Erik Weiner at [email protected].