The secret of the Wachowski siblings' success, as well as their lamentable weaknesses, are both on display in their newest venture, "Jupiter Ascending."
If you ever wondered why these filmmakers were given $175 million to play with after less-than-stellar results with both "Cloud Atlas" and "Speed Racer," you will find some answers here.
Simply put, the Wachowskis have discovered a kind of cinematic fountain of youth: They are eternally 14 years old, an age that the Hollywood studio system, as currently configured, finds endlessly seductive.
On the plus side, these writers-directors, responsible as well for the excellent "The Matrix" and its less impressive sequels, certainly know how to give audiences something eye-catching to see, both on this planet and others.
Using the talents of production designer Hugh Bateup, visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and cinematographer John Toll, "Jupiter Ascending" deposits stars Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum in eye-widening imaginary worlds as well as in super-elaborate battles to the death in the air space above a blissfully unaware Chicago.
It's in the plotting of "Jupiter Ascending" that things begin to fall apart. While the core idea is sound — Kunis plays an impoverished Chicago house cleaner named Jupiter Jones, a specialist in scrubbing toilets (in 3-D no less) who turns out to be the intergalactic heir to unimaginable wealth and power — the specifics are not worked out as well as they might be.
For one thing, the plot details feel more than usually derivative, with numerous echoes of everything from H. Rider Haggard's "She" to "Star Wars" to the Wachowskis' own "Matrix" mythology. Also, the universe that the writers-directors have created is so numbingly complex that keeping track of what is going on can cause headaches. Toll was, if anything, understating the case when he told American Cinematographer magazine that "the story doesn't lend itself to an easy, one-line description."
But the core problem with "Jupiter Ascending" is its language. The Wachowskis may be fine creators of soaring universes, but their dialogue couldn't be more pedestrian, filled with thumping clichés delivered without a trace of irony. Maybe lines like "some lives will always matter more than others" and "we're not getting off this planet without a fight" will play well in dubbed versions overseas, but in English they are troubling to experience.
Some actors are hurt more by this feeble dialogue than others (Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne is especially undermined in a key supporting role), but stars Kunis and Tatum are good sports about it all, gamely rolling with the punches.
"Jupiter" is at its weakest in its opening prologue, which shows the St. Petersburg, Russia, meet cute of the title character's parents and how circumstances brought Jupiter and her mom to their life of drudgery in the City of Big Shoulders.
Meanwhile, on another planet way far away, three siblings are living a very different kind of existence. Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) are members of the Abrasax clan, more or less de facto owners of the universe. Now that their mother is dead, they're making plans to divide up her empire.
A key part of that domain is apparently our clueless planet Earth, where ruthless bounty hunters soon appear, eager to capture Jupiter for reasons she does not know and has difficulty comprehending once she finds out.
Coming to her rescue is Caine Wise (Tatum), a former intergalactic soldier who — can you believe it? — has wolf DNA spliced into his human makeup, making him "fearless, relentless, a perfect hunting machine." Once Jupiter's position as "entitled" royalty is revealed, a variant of the venerable "you think a princess and a guy like me" plot kicks in as well. It's all more wooden than you can imagine.
"Jupiter Ascending" is best during its purely visual moments, of which there are many, with a reported 2,700 effects shots, running the gamut from the snarling exploits of Greeghan, a 7-foot tall CG lizard with wings and a tail, to that above-Chicago battle, which took months of planning to pull off, as well as striking images that are grounded in real-world locations like London's Natural History Museum and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.
All of which makes it a shame that the only sense the Wachowskis can count on is their visual one. As the plot unravels and the dialogue disintegrates, even Jupiter Jones has to ask, "How much weirder can this get?" The only honest answer is, you have no idea.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes