“The Matrix” is almost 20 years old now, a figure that seems longer when its shadow sits over the subsequent films by its writer/directors, Andy and Lana Wachowski.
First there were the lackluster sequels, which arrived as a matching set of first-wave nostalgia in 2003. The Wachowski brothers wrote “V for Vendetta,” at least, making another dent in the culture with the resurgence of a mischievous strain of online anarchism that has adopted that film’s aesthetic (in the form of Guy Fawkes masks). There were the unremarkable adaptations “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas.”
And now “Jupiter Ascending,” a return to form, a sci-fi epic with all the ambition and scale befitting a spiritual descendant of “The Matrix.” This outer-space steampunk epic is such a casserole of overindulgent special effects and half-penciled Big Ideas you have to wonder who would’ve thrown $176 million at this script to make it. Then you imagine the Wachowski brothers pitching it as “The Matrix” meets “Dune,” and the thought of a studio rolling those dice isn’t as crazy as the movie itself.
But no mistake, what they came out with is a giant, regrettable mess. Here’s the premise. Mila Kunis is a Russian immigrant in Chicago whose family cleans houses for their meager existence. Channing Tatum is a — wait, come to think of it, what was Channing Tatum? He’s trying to protect Mila Kunis, because she’s actually some kind of intergalactic royalty who’s supposed to inherit Earth and who might instead be killed by the deep-space aristobrats who want to steal the planet, but what exactly is he doing?
Anyway, he’s there to protect her and maybe kiss her at some point. He’s part wolf, which means he gets to wear silly ears along with a frosted goatee and gravity boots he uses to surf through the air, because he apparently used to have wings and no longer does. Maybe this all made for too much back story, because wow, is he stiff. For the first time in at least the past three years, someone managed to make Channing Tatum boring.
The villains are the extraterrestrial, squabbling heirs to several planets, led in flagrant evilness by Eddie Redmayne, a real actor, who can actually act. Here he whispers menacingly while the too-loud score blots out what he’s saying. He puts out the hit on Mila Kunis by luring her to a medical clinic, or something, where Channing Tatum arrives to save the day, whizzing around the room in gravity-defying boots and shooting lasers at Roswellian alien assassins. Then he takes Mila Kunis to Sean Bean’s house, where the men fight and Mila Kunis realizes she can control bees. Then she gets kidnapped and dragged into space. Eventually there’s a showdown on Jupiter, which it happens is Mila Kunis’ name in the movie. Because sure, why not.
Between point A and point B, there’s a lot of pointlessness, as well as unintelligible, leather-jacketed flying lizards; weird magic/science; hairdos straight out of “The Hunger Games”; explosions; the fate of mankind under threat; who knows what all else. Visually the whole enterprise moves at a speed that shows you how meteorites must feel as they burn up in the atmosphere. Your eyes scramble around the screen in hopes of making sense, only to learn from your brain that none exists. This is a space adventure that took the wrong three “Star Wars” movies as its touchstone for storytelling.
“The Matrix” in 1998 broke ground for incorporating spectacular special effects into the story it was telling. But what it also did spellbindingly was pace and reveal that story. There’s no equivalent in “Jupiter Ascending” to the austere scenes of Laurence Fishburne calmly and cleanly explaining just what the hell is going on, no slow burn of Keanu Reeves gradually discovering (along with the audience) just what this new world holds.
In their latest, the Wachowskis try to do too much, too fast. Maybe they had to, though: Sequels to this expensive jumble will be very slow in coming.