SPOOF OPERA | Stealing liberally from ‘Dune’ and ‘Brazil,’ ‘Jupiter Ascending’ includes a frequently shirtless Channing Tatum — thank heaven for small victories.

Deeply flawed, but passably entertaining, ‘Jupiter’ hides its spoofish heart

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

Sometimes, despite your better instincts to be wary, you give a movie a shot. External factors — a delayed opening date, a hurried February dump of a film that looks like it should be a summer tentpole — warn you off, but you go anyway. You have to.

When it comes to sci-fi, the Wachowskis are legit royalty. They are the team, after all, who more than 15 years ago revolutionized the genre with The Matrix: Creating “bullet time,” mind-screwing audiences with a clever plot that transcended expectations. Yes, the two sequels were disappointing (though moneymaking) and yes, Speed Racer was a disaster of epic proportions. But their last film, Cloud Atlas, was a marvel of storytelling legerdemain, where VFX and character and plot and style stood on equal footing.

So I tried to keep my misgivings about Jupiter Ascending — gimmicky title (the lead character, played by Mila Kunis, is named Jupiter Jones), familiar look, the aforementioned “signs” — to myself. I went in open-minded. And I enjoyed myself. But I had to overlook a lot.

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The story is a tangled pastiche of other sci-fi classics, from the inter-family intrigue of Dune to the bureaucratic surrealism of Brazil (subtly emphasized with the inclusion of Terry Gilliam in a cameo as a gruff functionary) to the Wachowskis’ own “the world is not what you think” Matrix trope to many, many more (including the duller parts of Episodes I through III of Star Wars). In fact, there are so many echoes of other films it begins to dawn on you: Don’t think of this as science fiction per se, but as a spoof of the genre — overwrought, silly and melodramatic (sort of what Inherent Vice does with the private eye film).

The problem is, Lana and Andy Wachowski don’t have a satirist’s touch. They are technicians deep down, who generate fantastical ways of presenting their stories (Tatum basically Rollerblades through the air, and the android heads — half flesh, half mechanism — are off-handed dazzling) and often let the tone get away from them. The humor is mired in rapid-cut editing and the presence of so many in-jokes that it starts to seem like they just don’t “get it.” I think they get it exactly, but are like standups who blow the punchline: The structure is there, but the execution misses.

Partly, that’s due to the dour, relentlessly gloomy performance by Eddie Redmayne as the central villain (there are diminishingly few likeable characters in sight). His puffy, chapped lips, hooded eyes and somnambulic line-readings convey one message: “I hate being here.” Kunis and Tatum give more effort, but then, they are accustomed to being in trashy movies. Don’t blame them for not carrying the picture — a comedy without jokes is a hard sell.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 6, 2015.