Most filmmakers who succeed in creating an original fictional universe that can support three movies (and a handful of animated shorts) rarely try to build another one -- after all, playing God is exhausting -- but that hasn't stopped the Wachowskis. Jupiter Ascending has, if you can imagine it, an even more complex mythology than The Matrix, yet it lacks the special-effects advancements, entertaining performances, and existential cool that made their breakthrough success such a milestone.
Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, a lowly cleaning woman who scrubs toilets all day with her mother and aunt. One day she tries to donate her eggs in exchange for cash, and the doctors and nurses overseeing the procedure attempt to kill her. She's saved just in time by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who was sent to protect her from the Abrasax family, intergalactic beings who mean to do her harm.
For thousands of years, the Abrasax clan have been traveling across the galaxy and using advanced technology to "harvest" planets -- a process that doesn't end well for the inhabitants of those worlds. Jupiter turns out to be, more or less, the reincarnation of the Abrasax matriarch, and eldest son Balem (Eddie Redmayne) needs her out of the way so that he can harvest Earth. This situation is further complicated by his siblings Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), who have their own motives regarding Jupiter and our planet. Meanwhile, Caine and his mentor Stinger (Sean Bean) work to protect the young woman from all threats.
Andy and Lana Wachowski's screenplay checks off all of the expected boxes in the Joseph Campbell hero's journey, but fails to make the main character distinct in any way; Kunis has little to do other than look great. Channing Tatum, an actor of great charm, is a dud as well, forced to wear a goatee that reminds one of John Travolta's look in Battlefield Earth. Eddie Redmayne, front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything as this movie hits theaters, is genuinely terrible here, delivering all of his lines in a supposedly menacing stage whisper -- except for a handful of moments in which he screeches at the top of his lungs.
The visuals, once the Wachowskis' specialty, are also a snooze. Caine travels around on boots that can levitate, but his movements look pretty much like snowboarding -- it's as if they repurposed the Silver Surfer effects from the last Fantastic Four movie. The Matrix's "bullet time" slowed down action sequences, allowing us to enjoy the physics-defying power Neo possessed in virtual reality. This time out, the chases and fights are indecipherable visual noise; you know that people are moving, but you can never be sure where they are going or where they are in relation to whoever is chasing them.
The overly long, incredibly dull action sequences are interspersed with lengthy conversations that will either make you giggle at the ridiculous mythology or groan that you're being forced to listen to such silliness. Entertaining science-fiction movies don't have to make sense: They can appeal to our sense of wonder and imagination in such a way that we're more than willing to suspend our disbelief, especially when there are characters we care about or images we haven't seen before. Jupiter Ascending has nothing like this to offer.
At one point, when Jupiter refuses to believe that she's a powerful being rather than a lowly janitor, a character assures her that greatness comes from what you are, not what you do. That axiom isn't true of filmmakers, and Jupiter Ascending proves that the Wachowskis are pretty far from greatness these days.