“Jupiter Ascending”: I can tell you two things wrong with that title

“Jupiter Ascending”: I can tell you two things wrong with that title

My mom recently sold the house where I grew up, and I finally had to clean out all my toys from the 80s. I remembered all the Transformers and Star Wars figures; what I’d forgotten were all the off-brand toys I owned.

Every January when I was a kid, I’d take my Christmas money to the post-holiday clearance racks and buy toys from the failed lines that wouldn’t be around the following year. Each had its own gimmick, but all embodied some combination of biomechanical, anthropomorphic, futuristic, dystopic fantasy where everything was patently ridiculous and every being of every species had a giant gun to shoot everyone else with.

Jupiter Ascending feels like a feature about one of those toy lines, a line that had one quick story meeting and then went straight to production. The Wachowskis’ big-budget sci-fi spectacular doesn’t give us a fully realized fantasy world — only a collection of notes towards one. It takes place on several different worlds, but we never quite know where we are. It involves the harvesting of human flesh, but it’s not the least bit frightening. Its heroine has to rescue the Earth, but everything we actually see of the Earth is brutal and rude, so why bother?

That heroine is Jupiter Jones, and I hope Mila Kunis got a nice check for spending a couple of months walking around gaping at a greenscreen. Her performance is completely flat, but who can blame her? I can’t even conceive of how this material could have been communicated to her in any manner that could possibly have made any sense.

Jupiter lives with an ugly, coarse present-day family that she spends the rest of the film trying to save despite the fact that they constantly berate her, and each other. She makes her living in the family cleaning business (her specialty is toilets) and seems to be living at approximately the poverty line, yet looks consistently stunning and knows all about haute couture.

We learn that last tidbit in a scene where she’s helping to dress a client, played by Vanessa Kirby — who shows up in lingerie to display her six-pack and get probed by aliens. To say any more would require a spoiler alert, though it would be a spoiler only in the sense that I’d be spoiling a kaleidoscope if I told you that the blue sequin was about to tip into view. The Wachowskis follow their tried-and-true approach of having something happen first and then explaining it in tedious exposition later, though here the result is less mind-blowing than mind-numbing.

Suffice it to say that Jupiter gets drawn into a nefarious intergalactic plot to destroy the Earth, becoming a pawn among three feuding siblings who all look young and hot but are actually thousands of years old, which they indicate by trying to talk like Don Corleone with emphysema. Jupiter also falls in love with human-wolf hybrid Caine (Channing Tatum), because — she explains — she always falls for the bad boys. Caine counts as a bad boy, because he was stripped of his wings (oh yeah, he had those too) after ripping the wrong guy’s throat out with his teeth.

This might all sound like a lot of silly fun, but the Wachowskis — who wrote and directed — play this material so stony-faced that you’d think they had a different puppy hit by a car on every day of filming. I saw the movie with a packed preview-screening house — the kind of audience that’s disposed to enjoy themselves — but even that crowd only managed an occasional chuckle.

Here’s a sample of this film’s sense of humor: to become certified as a royal in the intergalactic empire, Jupiter has to deal with several different alien bureaucrats in a time-consuming process that’s lavished with detail and attention by the filmmakers despite the fact that it has little to do with anything that happens before or after, an unfunny farce that suggests an aborted attempt to take a satirical Men in Black spin on this material. When Jupiter’s finally done, she’s ready with a big quip. Wait for it: “I’ll never complain about the DMV again!”

The film’s plot, such as it is, hinges on Jupiter being profoundly gullible in a manner that you could attribute to her frightened confusion in this alien world if only she didn’t seem so blasé about it all. Fear not, though: there are plenty of men to take care of any important decision-making she needs done. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an egregious example of a Me-Push-Pull-You movie — a term coined by Roger Ebert to describe a film where the female lead just gets pulled around by men.

(“This convention is so strong,” noted Ebert, “that it is seen even in films where it makes no sense, such as Sheena, in which a jungle-woman who has ruled the savage beasts since infancy is pulled along by a TV anchorman fresh off the plane.” I guess it makes slightly more sense, in the context of Jupiter Ascending, that a confused Earthling would need to be yanked around by a universe-straddling wolfman, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable that the Wachowskis have spent $175 million to create an elaborate universe where their female protagonist has about as much agency as Tarzan’s Jane.)

Any critic who publishes a negative review of a movie like this is prepared for the inevitable response: “Stop overanalyzing it! Just sit back and have fun!” Believe me: I really, really tried to do that. I literally sat back and tried to simply enjoy the spectacle through my 3D specs, but the film is so clumsily frenetic, I found that I had to keep reminding myself that the movie was being shown in 3D.

Any effective movie has to draw you in, but Jupiter Ascending keeps pushing you out in a crowded, confusing cacophony: it’s the cinematic equivalent of the Flushing Line at rush hour. Don’t take it unless you absolutely have to.

Jay Gabler