Within the warped wardrobe of the Wachowskis latest sci-fi extravaganza, “Jupiter Ascending,” there are some fantastical feasts of intergalactic ridiculousness. Channing Tatum as a combination elf and speed skater. Space dinosaurs in leather jackets. A robed Eddie Redmayne as the universe’s overload, who so gravely whispers his lines that you fear he is, for the length of the movie, being castrated just off camera. That, at least, would explain his sporadic shrieking.
Redmayne, who may be on the cusp of an Oscar for his more earthbound performance as Stephen Hawking, is the best and worst thing in a movie that rides the campy line of simultaneously great and terrible with intermittent success. For more than a decade now, writer-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski have capitalized on their “Matrix” fame to conjure up mystical blockbusters of grandiose, garish style (“Cloud Atlas”), luring moviegoers who like bananas with their popcorn. Did I mention the space dinosaurs in leather jackets?
“Jupiter Ascending” begins with the birth of a girl, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), to Russian immigrants while midway across the Atlantic. Looking back from later on, she narrates that she was born an illegal alien, betwixt worlds. As the film stretches out into the cosmos, it fills its adventure with mutants and “splices” who have genes of mixed species.
Tatum’s Caine Wise is one such fusion. He’s an elite soldier whose (literal) wings were clipped for a mysterious past incident. Made with part wolf blood, he has pointed ears and a blond goatee, neither of which makes him particularly easy to take seriously as a hero. Oh, and he has jet-propelled boots that he skates through the sky with: an extraterrestrial Apolo Ohno.
Jupiter lives as a cleaning lady with her humble family in Chicago, a regular existence shattered when spindly aliens show up and try to kill her. Caine comes to the rescue, an unfortunately repetitive occurrence in “Jupiter Ascending,” in which Kunis’ character is always in need of being swooped out of danger by her hulking werewolf man. And after a lengthy chase above the Chicago skyline, she’s introduced to a wider universe ruled by the Abrasax dynasty and teaming with sci-fi tropes.
The full picture of the plot of “Jupiter Ascending” takes a long time to clear up, as it flashes between different worlds, space ships fly this way and that, and various bounty hunters (Sean Bean is one) cloud the allegiances. Character and story get washed out in the relentlessly ornate 3-D imagery, a blend of grandiose space-scapes and gaudy metallic machinery.
Though why isn’t quite evident, Jupiter turns out to be a galactic queen (the Wachowskis love their messiahs) fiercely sought by the ruling royalty. The Abrasax family (not to be confused with Santana’s “Abraxas,” even though they share something of its flamboyant album cover) are led by a trio of handsome Brits: Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth), who, we learn, use planets like Earth to harvest human DNA to create youth-preserving gels. Somewhere here is a capitalism critique.
Though she has more space opera swirling around her than any actor could possible hold together, Kunis does an admirable job even if never given much of a chance to be the prime mover in her fairy tale. Tatum, as game as they come, is understandably undone by his get-up; pointed ears and flying boots will do that. But no one fares as poorly as Redmayne, who quivers with such hushed ferocity that he wins the most giggles in a blatantly silly movie.
“Jupiter Ascending” unfolds as a mostly entertaining mess, a cosmic soup of baroque grandeur that the Wachowskis swim happily through, even if few others will. They seem increasingly adrift in their own sci-fi seas, a quixotic plight that would be more admirable if the waters weren’t so familiar.
“Jupiter Ascending,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for “some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity.” Running time: 127 minutes. Two stars out of four.