Jupiter Ascending

People have been hate-watching Jupiter Ascending even before it was released. It's as if the real anticipation hasn't been over the film itself, but over what excoriating comments could be written about the film. Sometimes I hate the Internet.

While I'm not a Wachowski apologist, the writers/directors earned a lot of goodwill with me with their previous film, the ambitious if polarizing Cloud Atlas, so I was willing to take a risk on Jupiter Ascending in spite of the nasty reviews.

The film is not as bad as others have been saying. The acting isn't atrocious; Channing Tatum's makeup isn't laughable; the dialogue isn't cringe-worthy. It's not great, or even entirely satisfying, but is it a stinker? No. As sci fi outings go, it's no more overreaching than the much better-received Looper, and it's certainly not as ridiculous as the inexplicably popular The Fifth Element.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a half-Russian cleaning lady in present-day Chicago. Unbeknownst to her, she's also the winner of the genetic lottery: her DNA marks her as the reincarnation of a powerful intergalactic empress – think Queen Amidala meets the Dalai Lama meets Anne Hathaway's Princess Diaries character – and the late empress's children aren't happy about splitting their inheritance with a newly-crowned royal. So Jupiter's marked for death, and it's up to a genetically-bred wolfman (Tatum) to save her.

Jupiter Ascending is packed with big ideas, and this both saves and sinks the film. Watching the events unspool, I could imagine the Wachowskis as little boys – sorry, Lana – playing make-believe in their backyard, saying, "Yeah, and then THIS happens!" "Cool! And then THIS happens!" As a result, there's a lot of neat visuals and throwaway scenes that add nothing to the story. Plot and character development, in fact, often take a back seat to all these ideas. I could easily list at least ten different things that don't make any sense. (Many scenes in the first hour feel truncated, suggesting that the Wachowskis did film a lot more character stuff, but cut it for the sake of delivering a two-hour movie. Perhaps there's a really amazing 3-hour directors' cut out there somewhere?)

The film's a mixed bag on other fronts. Kunis and Tatum are likable, but their romantic subplot doesn't work. The effects are spectacular, especially in 3-D (this may be the last of the recent crop of "auteur" 3-D films, at least until the Avatar sequels get churned out), yet the whole thing feels weirdly small and claustrophobic. And the climactic third act battle is just another protracted digital effects reel, like Guardians of the Galaxy. It's exhausting, not exhilarating.

While I can't say I truly liked Jupiter Ascending, I like that it exists. I'm glad the Wachowskis took a chance on giving us original, big-budget science fiction. With stronger characters, more emotional resonance, and better pacing, the film could have been a classic. Instead, it's merely a curio.