There is a lot to be said about ambition. And in Hollywood over the last decade or so, quite often it was being said by Andy and Lana Wachowski, the writer-director siblings of The Matrix, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas fame. Irrespective of whether their films were comprehensively successful or not, they were always still willing to push the envelope, to go for those big ideas.

And with their latest bit of sci-fi ambition, Jupiter Ascending, there are more big ideas than you can shake a genetically engineered half-albino human-wolf hybrid ex-intergalactic soldier bounty hunter with authority issues and space-angel wings at. That mouthful being not just one of those aforementioned crazy ideas, but also a description of Channing Tatum’s character Cain Wise, who finds himself on Earth on a mission to find and protect Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis).

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Despite boasting a name straight out of a 1950’s comic strip, Ms Jones leads a pretty ignoble life, cleaning Chicago toilets by day and being derided by her loudmouth Russian family by night. What Jupiter doesn’t know is that she’s the central pawn in a game of intra-family politics being played by the remaining three members of the Abrasax clan, one of the most powerful royal families in the universe, and owners of an intergalactic industrial empire of which Earth is a key component.

Led by gloomy eldest sibling Balem (Eddie Redmayne) the three Abrasax – rounded out by chipper middle-daughter Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and decadent youngest son Titus (Douglas Booth) – are trying to outmaneuver each other to lay claim to their inheritance from their late mother, the Queen of this empire. Slight problem though: It would appear that lowly ol’ Earth gal Jupiter Jones may just be the genetic reincarnation of Alien Mum and thus have a better claim to her title. Cue lots of devious scheming, alien warriors being sent on missions and explosions. Lots and lots of incredibly pretty, intensely vivid explosions in the most fantastically creative locations and involving the most outlandish creatures and vehicles you’ll see in ages.

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If there’s one thing that Jupiter Ascending not only gets right, but excels at, its this highly imaginative visual spectacle. This is unbridled invention made real, as every frame is just stuffed to bursting with bold and striking original designs, all brought to life with unparalleled technical wizardry. And I cannot stress that “brought to life” bit enough. Several of the film’s simply jaw-dropping action set pieces features Channing Tatum right in the thick of things, usually flipping, air-skating and falling all over the place with his spectacular anti-gravity boots as he’s firing off hand-held laser cannons while using flashy protective energy shields to stay alive. My brain knows for a fact that what I am seeing has to be some digital version of Tatum created on a computer server somewhere, as the action is simply to impossible to be real, yet my eyes were still completely fooled by what the Wachowski’s and their creative team have created here.

And if technical proficiency, fantastic world building and widescreen spectacle were the only criteria for a movie review, then Jupiter Ascending would likely be the highest rated movie of the year. But it’s not. For while the Wachowski’s are astounding on the macro level, on the micro level they don’t just drop the ball regularly, but even deflate it until it’s a mere useless bag of stale air.

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The main offender of this is Mila Kunis’ Jupiter Jones. For a character caught up in an adventure with boggling scale, she is insipidly small-minded, embarrassingly non-awed and so quickly trusting as to be insulting. And Kunis herself doesn’t bring much to the part to help her cause, as she puts in a bland showing devoid of any distinguishable character. To a lesser extent Tatum is also guilty of this, but more through the poor characterization of the script than any fault of his own. He’s still dynamic in the action beats, but gets very little chance to exhibit the charm that has made him the superstar he is. Instead, the Wachowksi’s idea of making him, and pretty much every other character, memorable is to just pile on even more crazy ideas even if those ideas have zero to very little actual narrative implications (see: Cain Wise’s wings or being half-wolf).

The same applies to several (often holey) plot points, especially Jupiter’s whole “genetic reincarnation” schtick which is just slapped onto her character with a brisk one-liner and very little inspection.What this results in are narrative beats and characters that are simultaneously under-cooked and over-developed.

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At least the Abrasax siblings get to have some hammy fun with the material though, with Redmayne turning in a particularly showy performance. The recent Oscar-nominee is all throaty whispers and superior looks backed by mannequin-like mannerisms, before unleashing violent bursts of emotion. It’s all very cartoonish (which is to be expected when a scene requires you to be flanked by giant winged lizard creatures in leather coats) but luckily still entertaining and fitting in with the whole sci-fi insanity that Wachowski’s are delivering.

And if only the Wachowski’s had also delivered as wholly on the film’s characters and script as they did on its technical spectacle, Jupiter Ascending would be truly ascendant in the genre. Unfortunately, while there’s definitely enough to get a rise out of you, it’s earthly failings drag down its stellar ambitions.

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Last Updated: February 5, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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