For the galactic scale of the Wachowskis’ latest, Jupiter Ascending feels oddly small. Plot progression is almost entirely a series of expository conversations–mainly between Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) and some whispery, intergalactic stoic–set in tiny rooms, cameras tightly focused on actors. Backdrops, ranging from a mining operation on Jones’ gas giant namesake to the skylines of Chicago, are green-screen creations which exist only when a zippy dogfight is used to punch up the script. The only non-CGI glimpses of the Windy City allowed are snippets of housecleaning and dinner-table discussions amongst Jupiter’s extended immigrant family. Peripheral characters are virtually nonexistent–literally during a massive wedding scene, the guests being holograms and all. There’s supposedly world-ending consequences in store for Earth, but the Wachowskis would rather bog audiences down with the minutia of protocol, regulation and stipulation.
It’s the sort of world-building exercise which traps many would-be blockbuster franchises: tease something epic, lay out the rules in clumsy dialogue, string along some sequel embeds, wait hopefully for the cash to roll in. Jupiter Ascending is no less awkward and fumbling than predecessors The Last Airbender, John Carter, and the Amazing Spider-Man duet (among others), but the Wachowskis seem aware of the milieu they’re working in, using it to power a throughline about entitlement. The crux of the film is a rich family’s squabble over inheritance. Namely, they scheme to gain possession of the Earth, whose boundless genetic resources are being prepared for harvest. Only one problem: some commoner–Jupiter–is genetically identical to the deceased matriarch, making her heir apparent. Jones’ humdrum life gets upended by a hit placed on her, and she comes under the protection of an alien dog-man (Channing Tatum). Soon, she finds herself negotiating with her not-really-children (including one who desires to marry her to get the inheritance) and wading into a Brazil-ian bureaucracy montage. Kunis’ icy demeanor during these sequences belies how ridiculous the whole premise is.
The space family Jupiter contends with, the Abraxas, have all the wealth she and her actual family wish they had. However, they’ve gained it by birthright. Their every whim granted comes natural to them, the thought they might be denied infuriating. The misery and suffering their actions brought over millennia, and will potentially bring, as abstract as numbers on a ledger. It’s hinted their mother disapproved her spoiled brood: Jupiter is told her progenitor hated her life, echoing her own sentiments about a life of scrubbing toilets. A few days in their world of excess, and horrified billions of lives amount to a commodity, Jupiter shares the disgust (possibly with herself, too, for ever wanting even a piece of such wealth). She’d rather make time with Tatum and glide around in the sky, but over and over finds herself dealing with these blowhards.
Keyed into the inherent dark humor, Jupiter Ascending flirts with greatness. It’s a slack film, though, moving along pieces and rules. Like their villains, the Wachowskis are more committed to the particulars of their universe than its consequences. Even Jupiter isn’t allowed to hang onto an emotional note for longer than a few moments. Nothing more than a welcome sideshow in a landscape of indecisive cinematic universes.