Andy and Lana Wachowski may go down as the most spectacular one-hit wonders in the history of cinema. With The Matrix (1999), they made a startlingly kinetic dystopian mind-bender about a society – not entirely unlike ours – in which people had to unplug from an insidious network of false images to see reality. The fact that The Matrix started off as heady sci-fi and wound up resolving its conflicts through kung fu should, in theory, have been a flaw in its design. Yet even during the fight scenes, the Wachowskis showed that they were the first filmmakers to capture the spirit of the digital age. That's why The Matrix endures.

However, in the 16 intervening years, all the Wachowskis have done is devise ever more lavish ways to gild the lily of their original achievement. Their subsequent movies unfold on a preposterously grand scale, as if they were trying to be the DW Griffith of space geeks. Yet the Wachowskis’ vision has turned out to be kitsch: reheated tales of good v evil and interplanetary conflict, all dressed up in HR Giger-meets-RuPaul couture. The two Matrix sequels huffed and puffed to push the theme of mind control even further, and wound up as films so convoluted that ultimately it was the audience that wanted to unplug. Speed Racer (2008) had an extraordinary look – it was like an explosion in a candy factory – but the film made almost no sense. And 2012’s Cloud Atlas, by far the best of their post-Matrix ouevre, was a cosmic soap opera that hopped around elaborately through time, employing each of its actors in half a dozen roles. (Hugh Grant as a savage jungle chieftain? Why not!) But even that film’s wit and ingenuity came to seem a touch laborious.

Now, bravely undeterred, the Wachowskis plunge into glittery outer-space fantasy again with Jupiter Ascending, another piece of assaultive eye candy about extraterrestrial mischief and innocent earthlings touched by forces from beyond. The heroine, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), is, like Neo in The Matrix, a ‘chosen one’. She seems to be a miserable  Chicago housekeeper, but in truth she is the reincarnation of a deceased queen from Jupiter whose three adult children are squabbling over the fate of a piece of real estate. The name of this particular property is Earth.

Space oddity

Eddie Redmayne plays Balem, the most evil of the three, a louche dictator in thick metal neckwear who wants to “harvest” the human race for what is basically a miraculous youth serum: one bath in the stuff will take millennia off your wrinkles. But Balem's younger brother, Titus (Douglas Booth), longs to stop this barbaric practice. Their sister, Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), hasn’t committed to either view, though at one point she relishes her born-again skin as if she'd just had a facial from heaven. Basically, Jupiter Ascending is the people-as-food shocker Soylent Green (1973) redone as a critique of the vanity of plastic surgery. It's about the horror of killing off the human race for the sake of the ultimate beauty product.

Really, though, the movie is more about flying combat scenes and mile-high digital sets. Channing Tatum plays Caine, a professional tracker whose DNA is spliced with that of a wolf, and with his chivalrous gruffness set off by a goatee and stylishly frosted hair he comes off like the Han Solo of Beverly Hills. Tatum gets to be in a lot of skyborne fights in which he seems to be skateboarding on air: a clever effect, though not nearly as eye-popping as The Matrix’s ‘‘bullet-time’’ fight sequences.

Jupiter Ascending may be the most traditional pulp sci-fi movie the Wachowskis have ever made. It feels a bit like one of George Lucas's stodgy Star Wars prequels, except that here some of the actors perform with the kinky swagger of glam rockers. Redmayne, all aristocratic contempt, chews the scenery as if it were haute cuisine, coming off like an even more decadent late-'70s David Bowie. And Booth plays Titus like a sharply upbeat '80s new-wave idol. The two keep you watching, though the likable Kunis, unfortunately, conveys little more than lethargy, like a sulky fashion model playing ‘the girl next door’.

The Wachowskis' images have an immediacy to them. It feels like you could reach out and touch the spaceships as they pop through glowing wormholes and dive into Jupiter's great red spot, which in the filmmakers' eyes is like an ominous ocean painted by Van Gogh. And the movie is just conventional enough that, with its red-carpet-ready stars, it may succeed commercially where most of the Wachowskis' post-Matrix movies have failed. Yet here's an idea for them: the reason that Jupiter Ascending feels watchable but second-hand, with a certain giggle-worthy flamboyance, is that Andy and Lana Wachowski are far better directors than screenwriters. They came up with a great concept for The Matrix, but even there they fulfilled it with balletic visuals rather than an organic resolution of ideas. Next time they should stop pretending to be sci-fi visionaries. Because it’s become clear their vision is poppycock.


If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.