Conjure, if you will, a moving image of the hippest rollerblader you’ve ever seen. If you are strapped for stock images, try the reuniting-the-team segment at the front end of D2: The Mighty Ducks, or some other nineties vintage of the same ilk. Now, hoist that rollerblader twenty, thirty, a thousand feet into air—the same bent, overbalanced posture; the same sweeping legs—and you have the recurring image at the heart of Jupiter Ascending. The first time the brooding hero, Caine (Channing Tatum in prosthetic wolf ears), powers up his jet-powered roller skates, they play like a one-and-done gadget gimmick—the kind of thing Bond or Batman might use to get out of a jam—the kind of trope that might quickly characterize this guy as the “man with the tools for the job” and then be discarded by the storytellers. The second or third time Caine hover-skates into frame to save the plummeting heroine from certain precipitous death, you begin to worry that the space-age footwear (and the falling damsel shtick) might be a permanent fixture. And nothing could make it clearer that Jupiter Ascending is both intentionally and accidentally wrestling with a crisis of place.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a fatherless Anglo-Russian working as a maid in Chicago, and she finds precisely nothing about her life interesting or satisfying. A toilet-cleaning montage efficiently confirms that she is not, indeed, living her best-life-now, or—what truly frightens her—that she is. When her cousin talks her into bettering her situation by selling her eggs for a bundle of cash, galactic ovular alarm bells start ringing somewhere in the heart of (the planet) Jupiter, and Jones is swept up into an interstellar drama. As it sometimes happens, Jupiter is the genetically-identical reincarnation of a powerful space-empress whose dominion stretched across dozens of solar systems including Earth’s. This empress, apparently lacking or disregarding any real concept of the soul, willed her crown and the entirety of her galactic holdings to first DNA-doppelgänger who should come along. It turns out maybe Jupiter doesn’t belong in the bathrooms of rich Earth-women. Phew.
The relief is short-lived, though. After the empress’ death, her three children divided her empire and have been ruling their portions in a comfortably bitter rivalry for a millennium or more, thanks to a controversial anti-aging treatment. Upon discovering the existence of their chromosomal stepmother, each of the heirs concocts his or her own scheme to get the better of Jupiter in order to preserve their own dominion and maybe even move in on those of their siblings. Caine, then, is sent to Earth to kidnap Jupiter (the girl), but after one whiff of her with his lupine sniffer he falls in love instead. When alien assassins show up with something more permanent than kidnapping in mind, Caine powers up his rocket skates and whisks Jupiter off the planet, determined to help her claim her new empire.
“Up is hard, down is easy,” says Caine, as he explains the theoretical physics behind his rocket skates, and the same has proven true for the creative duo behind The Matrix. They have been making variations on the same out-of-world Cinderella story for two decades, and from The Matrix on to its sequels and V for Vendetta, on down the line to Jupiter Ascending, they have been gradually exhausting a creative economy that, it seems now, may only have been forced upon them initially by technical restraints that they no longer encounter. With every project, the duo appears to spend less time directing actors and more time directing digital artists. To their credit, they have embraced that trend in Jupiter Ascending, self-consciously making something more like a spectacle-driven space opera than a traditional drama driven by plot and performance. They have never mastered the art of creating chemistry between their romantic leads, but arrive at an all-time low in the on-screen interactions between Tatum and Kunis.
This shift is not without its own fruit, though. Jupiter Ascending’s space-scapes are polished, varied, and dashingly original—from austere palaces of dark stone lit by moonlight, to soft and gaudy Japanese-garden themed space cruisers populated by android partygoers, to harsh volcanic industrial cities crawling with dragon-man security guards. Contrasted with the bland, unenchanting shots of Chicago, they give the overwhelming impression that space is really where the Wachowskis wanted Jupiter Ascending to take place, but the story limps along for nearly half an hour before the characters manage to escape the gravity of our backwater world for the more interesting and terrifying one the duo have so painstakingly created. And even then, the exposition must be hopelessly truncated to accomplish the transition. Like their Cinderella-heroine, they end up spending a lot of time in places they don’t belong and, unfortunately, that robs time from the more creative back end.
Cosmologically, Jupiter Ascending displays a strikingly medieval view of the heavens. Space is where the action is—it is even the realm of seraphic space craft and law enforcement agencies that issue their agents prosthetic angel wings. But for all the motion and music of the spheres, little changes out among the stars. Cities can be rebuilt overnight, and bodies repaired in seconds. By harvesting the vital essences of humans on underdeveloped worlds like Earth, the movie’s trio of villains has remained alive and youthful for millennia. Instinct says that fourteen thousand year old baddies should be tired of living, or at least have transcended petty rivalries, but the Wachowskis’ cosmos is characterized by human sin. Instead of immutable goodness, the heavens are ruled by souls who have lived with their petty sins for so long, practicing and curating them, that they can do, love, think of little else. It’s no real pleasure in life, and no love moving these stars.
Not so on Earth. Jupiter’s little planet compensates for its sublunary boorishness with a cosmically unique capacity for change. Jupiter’s joyless existence isn’t eternal. In the end, she returns to Earth to live as the undercover empress of the known universe. She still cleans toilets, but scrubs with a smile and then spends her afternoons cruising the skyline in her very own pair of rocket boots. The mundane variety of this new life is supposed to be obviously superior to whatever the heavenly realm might have to offer, but it’s a hard sell when the Wachowskis don’t seem to have convinced even themselves.