There’s a theory to be made, and here we’ll make it, that “too big to fail” can decently apply to certain movies. After James Cameron pioneered the concept in the ‘80s, the “big dumb blockbuster” had something of a renaissance in the late ‘90s. Suddenly, movies that were otherwise positively preposterous could stand alone on spectacle.
To anyone growing up during this period, closing one’s eyes to comically awkward storytelling turned these movies into espresso for the imagination, given how many stops they could pull out visually. In 1999 alone, there was the first “Star Wars” prequel with its pod racing, “Wild Wild West” with its giant steam-powered spider mech and Andy and Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix” with its deadpan kung fu and sunglasses. So if it’s an homage to this special time in cinema, then the Wachowskis’ latest, “Jupiter Ascending,” is a convincing one.
Either way, that history lesson comes in handy when trying to understand what exactly is going on in one of the early scenes of “Jupiter Ascending.” After surviving a run-in with some rakish cyberpunk bounty hunters and rescuing their target, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), ex-space commando Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) zips around Chicago in his flying boots, trying to fend off little grey aliens in lobster-shaped starfighters with plasma cannons for claws. The police, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found, even as the L explodes into many a fireball. Once Wise and Jupiter manage to escape the city in a stolen car, the burning skyscrapers all repair themselves, and nobody is any the wiser.
And if you’re still confused, you should know that that incident is informed by a power struggle between the surviving children of the powerful Abrasax family, alien human royalty who own the title to Earth and much of the rest of the universe, given their immense wealth from the family’s suspicious “youth serum” business. Jupiter, it turns out, is genetically identical to the murdered Abrasax matriarch — a “recurrence,” as they say — and is therefore the legal heir to Earth and more galactic real estate. Those in power, it follows, want her vaporized, too.
And if you’re even more confused, then maybe you’re taking this too seriously. See, “Jupiter Ascending” does dip its toes in a few different bathtubs, but burns them almost every time. The “Game of Thrones” palace intrigue, a handful of “Cinderella” allegories and a brief satirical “Brazil”-esque bureaucracy montage all come and go with little impact or interest. Jupiter, a lowly housekeeper sick of cleaning toilets, turns out to be little more than the 1001st face of Joseph Campbell’s Hero: Luke Skywalker with a bottle of Scrubbing Bubbles.
Instead, the things that make “Jupiter Ascending” such a blast are the very things that make it so unreasonably absurd. As the villainous eldest Abrasax, Balem, Eddie Redmayne is a wispy Caligula prone to cartoonish outbursts, though rarely speaking above a raspy whisper and altogether stealing every scene he’s in. In dependable Wachowski form, the movie makes such use of bullet time in its gripping action sequences that, played at full speed, the whole thing must actually be about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, the mind-melting production design draws from an unending palette of inspirations, from the Greco-Roman statues and chandeliers aboard one Abrasax starship to the soaring domes and minarets of sister Kalique Abrasax’s palace — interesting, given the in-universe’s idea that Earth is only a colony and not humankind’s birthplace. The film is the narrative equivalent of a collapsed soufflé, but the visual equivalent of baked Alaska.
Which brings us back to that piece of exposition — does it honestly matter why a pointy-eared Channing Tatum is speed-skating up the Magnificent Mile? Not if you have a sense of humor about the whole thing, because otherwise you wouldn’t have paid money to see a Wachowski movie (not after “Speed Racer,” anyway). To its full credit, there are times in “Jupiter Ascending” when something approaching a message flickers against the supernova, decrying capitalism and greed and, alternatively, keeping one’s mouth shut when bad people with money try to make their own rules.
But honestly: why would you read that much into a movie where 8-foot dragon men brandish plasma pistols?