At the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks ago, George Lucas sat on a panel with festival head Robert Redford and railed against modern multiplex movies, which he described as “more and more circus without substance.” He then went on to note that, “I get blamed a lot for that.” As well he should be, and for the latest Exhibit A you need look no further than “Jupiter Ascending,” a very, very silly 3-D sci-fi action extravaganza from the increasingly floundering Andy and Lana Wachowski (”The Matrix,” “Cloud Atlas”). Dazzling to behold yet puny of imagination, the movie takes the “Star Wars” formula — hero myths nicked from Joseph Campbell, cutting-edge visual effects, comic-strip dialogue, goofy-looking aliens — and reduces it to generic Big Box shelf product.
Some decent actors are thrown under the spaceship along the way. Mila Kunis manages to retain most of her dignity as Jupiter Jones, a Russian immigrant cleaning woman in Chicago who is revealed — no surprise to anyone who knows the genre — to be the genetic reincarnation of the Queen of the Universe. Poor Channing Tatum, on the other hand, spends the entire running time wearing pointy elf ears and glowing-rocket Keds as Caine Wise, a mercenary/fallen angel/half-werewolf/bounty-hunting/mutant “lycantant” who keeps pulling Jupiter out of intergalactic fixes while trying to ignore his, y’know, feelings.
But Tatum has nothing on Eddie Redmayne, who shot his scenes for “Jupiter Ascending” several months before appearing as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” for which he soon may win a best actor Oscar. Playing the power-mad Balem Abrasax, the eldest of three warring siblings who rule the known universe, Redmayne speaks his lines in a tiny, weary whisper except when he YELLS THEM like a diva calling for her meds. It is a rapturously dreadful performance, next to which Douglas Booth, as Balem’s fop brother, Titus, and Tuppence Middleton, as scheming sister Kalique, are merely bad.
The plot of “Jupiter Ascending” has the likably ordinary heroine plucked from Earth by Caine and thrown into the sibling’s three-way tussle for power. As the reincarnated royal, Jupiter possesses title to Planet Earth, which Balem, Titus, and Kalique crave for reasons not unsimilar to developments elsewhere in the Wachowskis’ filmography. There are muffed attempts at humor, most of them involving Jupiter’s extended Russian family, but the film’s primary game plan is to alternate hectic high-speed battles and chase scenes with dull bits in which the characters explain the story’s tortured mythology. As a critic, I have to take notes, but there’s no reason you need to.
With this genre, the visuals are the thing, or they should be. The credits for “Jupiter Ascending” acknowledge nearly 1,600 artists, technicians, visual imagineers, and pixel-pushers who have labored mightily to bring this story to life. Their efforts only reveal the underlying conceptual hollowness. Balem’s city-state squirreled away beneath the Red Spot of Jupiter, Titus’s orgiastic pleasure-ship, and Kalique’s “Game of Thrones”-meets-Maxfield Parrish kingdom are obsessively rendered fantasy-scapes against which the cardboard characters disappear. The Wachowskis developed a “Pano-Cam” rig to give new flexibility to helicopter filming; the results are a midair battle over a Chicago that seems wholly devoid of people.
A few moments stick in the memory: Jupiter’s regal status honored by a swarm of backyard bees; a left turn into steampunk territory, complete with a cameo by Terry Gilliam as a bureaucrat out of “Brazil.” Elsewhere the creativity that has gone into alien hair and makeup — a crew member with an elephant trunk, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) wearing giant bat ears in a small role — seems like a purposeless distraction.
“The Matrix” (1999), the Wachowskis’ original claim to fame, was another mind-bending saga about an ordinary Neo who turns out to be the One; its revelation that reality’s a dream and that we’re all drugged sheep struck a chord among the young and disaffected. (It helped that the fights were boss.) Two sequels left fans feeling burned; “Speed Racer” (2008) was all style and no substance, and “Cloud Atlas” (2012, co-directed with Tom Tykwer) was ambitious, crazy, and ultimately naive. With “Jupiter Ascending,” it feels as if the siblings have thrown in the towel and have started cranking out what they believe the audience wants: digital dazzle and Lucas-ian leftovers. They’re in for a rude surprise.