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JUPITER ASCENDING

Producer: Grant Hill, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Director: Lana and Andy Wachowski 
Writer: Lana and Andy Wachowski 
Stars:  Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman,, Ramon Tikaram, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Frog Stone, David Ajala, Doona Bae and Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Studio:  Warner Bros. Pictures

C-

Though “Ascending” is half the title, people are always falling from incredible heights into an apparent abyss in the Wachowski siblings’ latest, a madcap mash-up of “Star Wars,” “Dune,” “Star Trek” and even “Soylent Green” that has impressive special effects but a narrative about as smart as a Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” serial. How much you enjoy it will depend on what means more to you—extravagant visuals and wacky action sequences, or a dumber-than dumb storyline.

Like the Wachowskis’ last picture “Cloud Atlas,” “Jupiter Ascending” deals with reincarnation, and like their “Matrix” series, it posits a world in which earthlings are the unknowing pawns of an outside power. The premise is that the universe is dominated by a race of elite humans whose main power players are the rival members of the Abrasax family—sneering Balem (Eddie Redmayne), coquettish Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and caddish Titus (Douglas Booth). They have “seeded” other planets in the galaxy—just think of Erich von Daniken, with some adjustments—to produce human life, and when each colony globe reaches the point of overpopulation, they harvest the result to provide a special kind of treat for their kind.

The matriarch of the clan—who we’re eventually told had lived a hundred thousand years or so—has recently died, and her heirs are fighting over control of the planets in her account. Earth turns out to be the most important of these, because it’s there that a genetic abnormality has occurred—the birth of a Russian girl named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), now part of her family’s housecleaner business in Chicago, who happens to be the “recurrence” (or genetic duplicate) of the deceased queen. And a wrinkle in the inheritance law prescribes that in such a rare case, the reincarnation has pride of place.

No wonder Jupiter suddenly finds herself the target of a bunch of bounty-hunters, as well as some grisly CGI “keepers” (creatures that look rather like the extraterrestrials from “Close Encounters” except that they’re certainly not benign) that want to kill her. Luckily a savior swoops in: hunky Caine (Channing Tatum), revealed later as a human-wolf hybrid, who’s equipped with a magic shield and anti-gravity boots that allow him to fly around in the air as though he were riding an invisible skateboard. He rescues her in a chase-and-gunfire scene that leaves half of the Loop’s skyline in ashes (shades of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) before reuniting with old frenemy Stinger (Sean Bean)—like him an excommunicated member of the flying Legionaries (“Barbarella,” anyone?), whose prosthetic wings have been amputated—and together they take her to their home world.

There the machinations of Kalique, Titus and Balem come into play, as each tries to use Jupiter for his own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile Caine, who’s clearly besotted with the girl, is helped by Stinger and Famulus (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the captain of a colossal spaceship, to save her again while working to destroy the Abrasax status quo. Much of this latter portion of the movie is filled with hair’s-breadth rescues, outer-space episodes (one that recalls “2001,” of all things), and especially explosions that result in the collapse of huge, flamboyantly-designed structures from which characters repeatedly emerge clinging to shards of debris to avoid falling to their deaths. (To be fair, there’s one moderately amusing sequence amid these activities when Jupiter and Caine must negotiate the bureaucratic complexities of the alien society in order to confirm her identity. Terry Gilliam, in an obvious nod to “Brazil,” portrays one of the officious clerks.)

It must be fairly obvious from the above that if “Jupiter Ascending” had an IQ, it would be on the very low end of the spectrum, and that it’s terribly derivative, borrowing from so many previous movies that it’s impossible to keep count of the references. (Even the huge hairdo Jupiter sports in an elaborate wedding scene calls to mind the one unfortunate Natalie Portman had to wear as Amidala). Kunis makes a nondescript damsel in constant distress, her charm quickly wearing thin, while Tatum—who’s shown himself capable of far better things—is thrown back into the “G.I. Joe” mode one had hoped he’d permanently foresworn. The rest of the cast is trapped in embarrassing parts (even from a wardrobe perspective—Kym Barrett was the designer), with the three Abrasax siblings definitely coming off worst. That’s especially true of Redmayne, who resembles a grotesque blend of Peter Cushing and Bette Davis as the wicked Balem.

On the other hand, the production team acquits itself with honors. The designs of structures and spaceships might be hilariously garish, but they’re expertly realized by production designer Hugh Bateup, supervising art director Charlie Reval and set decorator Peter Walpole. And except for one distant shot of Caine struggling in the tail of a giant CGI alligator creature toward the close, the visual effects are excellent. The film is also well shot by John Toll, in 3D that doesn’t call too much attention to itself, and Alexander Berner’s editing keeps things moving along at a fairly good clip. Michael Giacchino’s score, on the other hand, is loud but generic.

In the end, though, the problem is that “Jupiter” never ascends to any heights except the visual ones. This is a pretty but empty sci-fi bauble that quickly sinks in its derivative foolishness.

THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER

Producer:  Paul Tibbitt and Mary Parent
Director:  Paul Tibbitt and Mike Mitchell
Writer:  Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Jill Talley, Mr. Lawrence, Clancy Brown, De Bradley Baker, Carloyn Lawrence and Matt Berry 
Studio: Paramount Pictures 

B+

There’s more than a hint of Chuck Jones and Jay Ward in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” the second feature drawn from the long-running Nickelodeon TV series. Combining the anarchic zaniness of Looney Tunes with the inside-joke abandon of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the movie improves on the previous installment and should amuse most adults while predictably enchanting the series’ kid fans.

For those unacquainted with the show, the script thoughtfully lays out the basics upfront, in the form of a story read, in one of the segments that mix live-action with animation, by a pirate named Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) to a flock of seagulls from a magical book—an ex-library book, we see in an inspired sight gag, previously checked out by the likes of Davey Jones and Blackbeard. The tale he relates explains how the nefarious Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence) goes to extraordinary lengths to steal the secret recipe for the Krabby Patties that short-order cook SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) serves up in Mr. Krabs’ (Clancy Brown) Krusty Krab shack. Plankton’s elaborate schemes result in a tussle over the prize with SpongeBob, the outcome of which is in doubt until the formula simply vanishes.

That leads all the residents of Bikini Bottom to turn on Plankton, and the underwater town itself to experience an abrupt Armageddon, suddenly turning into a primitive dog-eat-dog society in the absence of the delicious patties. But SpongeBob, who knows Plankton’s innocent of this crime at least, rescues him and together they’re off the find the missing formula. And here the picture, which has already been pretty surreal, goes fill throttle in that direction as the unlikely duo use a hastily-constructed time machine in their quest. It takes them, among other places, to a space observatory where a talking dolphin named Bubbles controls the movement of the planets, while in one especially outrageous sequence Plankton sneaks into the napping SpongeBob’s very brain, which proves a veritable cornucopia of candied delights. Ultimately, however, they, along with Mr. Krabs, his dour clerk Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), SpongeBob’s pal Patrick the Starfish (Bill Faggerbakke) and Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), wind up in the “real world,” in another sequence mixing live action and CGI animation. There, transformed into an oddball team of superheroes, they work to retrieve the recipe from the villain who’s stolen it.

That final confrontation, it must be said, goes on too long, and despite Banderas’ enthusiastic work, it gets a mite tiresome. The transformation of the Bikini Bottom characters into superheroes, moreover, has a predictable feel to it—kids like superheroes, so let’s give them some even in a “SpongeBob” movie. But even at these points when the movie is at its weakest, it maintains an easygoing, anarchic vibe that makes it easy to take.

The voice work, of course, is fine—after all, these folks have been working on their characters for years, and have honed the sound down to a fine art. And while Mike Mitchell’s direction of the live-sequences is a tad pedestrian (as, frankly, are the visual effects in them), Paul Tibbetts keeps the animated ones percolating nicely, with very few wasted minutes thanks to editor Phil Meheux. Visually the picture follows the TV formula, except in the live action-CGI scenes. Bright colors dominate, and the character animation is typically flat and sketchy. Nor does the 3D format contribute all that much to the effect. But one doesn’t expect artistic mastery in a SpongeBob Squarepants cartoon any more than one does in “South Park.”

All in all, “Sponge Out of Water” is a breezy, colorful, giddily zany return trip to Bikini Bottom, and if the side trips above water don’t quite match the undersea action, they’re still pretty amusing.