The Wachowskis are back and in well-heeled territory with yet another dark futuristic tale about an outwardly benign regime enslaving mankind without their awareness. And, as one might suspect, it’s propelled by some freakish advances in technology and has a dash of zen mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good measure.

The directors ascended to the mantel of fanboy heroes with their super slo-mo, stunt-driven Matrix trilogy, but they then crashed and burned with the gonzo, over-produced blowup of the Speed Racer (2008) cartoon. Their 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell’s civilization-shaping epic Cloud Atlas brought the duo back to center, and now Jupiter Ascending aligns well with that trajectory — almost to a fault.

Much of what transpires in Jupiter Ascending is like a quick reshuffling of the Wachowskis’ prior successes. The Neo-esque figure (or “the one” for those not in the know) is a young lass with the catchy name of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis). Jupiter lives in a cramped Chicago tenant apartment with her unkempt Russian immigrant kin and cleans toilets for a dime. And although she doesn’t know it, Jupiter also happens to have the genetic imprint of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax, an order of galactic overlords who have all the bad manners and ruthless tendencies of the Harkonnens in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The Abrasaxi are über beings who hold the rights to all the inhabitable planets in the star-scape — Earth included — much the same way oil companies hold rights to oil fields or one-percenters own vacation homes around the globe. And these “entitled” folk live forever (thousands of years) too and — a la Prometheus — posses the god-like ability to create and destroy planets. Upon one such planet recently laid to waste, we learn that mommy Abrasax is now out of the picture (was she murdered?) and her three children (Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton) feud over the right to “harvest” Earth, which has become newly ripe. In the middle looms Jupiter, who, because of her DNA, can sway the balance of power, but she’s clueless to the bigger machination in play — as are her fellow earthlings. That is until some malevolent ET-esque goblins and punked-out cyborgs come at her, and from there, much like Sarah Connor in The Terminator, she stumbles from one certain death scenario to the next, until help is sent from afar.

That savior is a genetically spliced — with a wolf — soldier named Caine (Channing Tatum with vulcan ears and mascara applied as if he were a last second sub in a performance of Cats). Caine — with anti-gravity boots and an orb that allows instant entry through any door or wall — swoops in to save the day.

The Wachowskis try to dress up the played out cinematic quest to save the world by layering surface level storylines atop one another. But the resulting plots within plots don’t serve to deepen the universe-hoping odyssey — they just keep it afloat. That’s largely inconsequential as the seamless rendering of winged giant lizard henchmen and ornate space stations conjure up a transporting spectacle of visual wonderment that goes far to paint over the film’s bland, derivative blemishes.

As for our lead, Kunis comes off a tad too lithe for such a heroic and epic onus. Part of that may be her lack in range but more so, the thinness of the plot that tosses too many bolts into the sci-fi portfolio. Not only does the budding romance between Caine and Jupiter come flying out of left field, but more time is spent on the tangential subplot of Jupiter’s cousin (Kick Gurry) trying to sell Jupiter’s eggs to a clinic so he can get a big screen TV than on the love birds. It’s been a long time since the Wachowskis attempted to articulate the seeds of romance on screen. In fact it was their first collaboration, Bound (1996), a noir-ish lesbian crime thriller, which, while contrived, possessed earnestness and grit. However, here, the chemistry of attraction unfurls a painfully forced plot line.

Beyond the slick effects, the special sauce to Jupiter Ascending lies in the foppishly wicked performances by the three actors playing the avaricious Abrasaxi. Sean Bean too is dutiful as Caine’s mentor and uneasy ally, as is Doona Bae (Cloud Atlas, The Host) as an air-cycle riding bounty hunter. But the juicy cherry on top is Terry Gilliam in a very Brazil-esque scene, playing a gruff head bureaucrat with a surgically implanted eyeglass who walks Jupiter through the very tangled web of her royal assignation.

Jupiter Ascending won’t make anyone forget Guardians of the Galaxy anytime soon, but in the season of the dumps when studios unceremoniously release the projects they have little confidence in, the Wachowskis’ latest is a lion among the dogs.