Sunday 8 March 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015) - Movie Review

As a child of the Internet, I have a tendency to get on the fan-boy defensive when it comes to what I enjoy and as my film-watching has evolved over time, I have started doing the same with some of my favourite filmmakers (albeit, slightly tempered compared to how it used to be). One of the more peculiar examples of this with me is the Wachowskis, a creative duo that hold a very dear place with me mostly because of the Matrix, a franchise that contains some of my earliest experiences with films, anime and video gaming. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that Matrix Revolutions is a confusing and jumbled mess but the first two films and The Animatrix are on very good standings with me. Not only that, their 2013 effort Cloud Atlas is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 4-5 years. You’d be right in assuming I had rather lofty expectations of this film considering all that, but did they pay off?

The plot: Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), after several attempts on her life, is informed by a half-man half-wolf soldier called Caine (Channing Tatum) that she is in fact the reincarnation of the sovereign of the Abrasax family, one of the most powerful dynasties in the universe. She soon finds herself embroiled in a familial power struggle between Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) over control of the planets Jupiter now owns, one of which is Earth.

Since we’re talking the Wachowskis here, I might as well get the most obvious observation out of the way: This film is absolutely gorgeous to the eye. The effects team here are all frequent collaborators with the siblings and that kind of familiarity pays off as this feels like no visual idea was misinterpreted throughout. The outer space visuals are jaw-dropping in how expansive and detailed they are, the set designs do wonders for the world-building and the make-up and cosmetics are surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because these are the same people who created the Asian alien make-up for Cloud Atlas, which was just about one of the most distracting elements of any film I’ve seen (yeah, I may love that film but even I’ll admit that the make-up got really creepy at times). Here, however, they do a great job along with the CGI department at portraying the man-animal hybrid that are all over this film. The action, likewise, is exceptionally well-executed, showing off the Wachowskis’ affinity for flashy fight scenes. It’d take a certain kind of magic to make Channing Tatum’s fighting on gravity boots, or rather gravity skates given how he moves in them, look good but going with actual stuntmen for the most part instead of going digital definitely paid off. The spaceship and vehicle fights are given an equal amount of care and attention and also look fantastic as a result.

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag: While Mila Kunis may have been given the short end of the stick when it comes to dialogue, given how her lack of reaction to the scope of her situation along with being saddled with some of the dumbest lines in the entire film, she admittedly does well in her central role. Channing Tatum, an actor who seems to have a better understanding of blocking than speaking dialogue, has a very strong physical presence here as Caine and actually does his lines some justice, as wonky as they can get. Sean Bean has always been good as the stoic warrior-type and here is no exception, although probably the most interesting thing about him is easily his casting; fitting that an actor who dies as often as he does would appear in a film that involves reincarnation.

Eddie Redmayne as Balem has two acting modes: Soft-spoken, croaky menace and campy roaring, both of which he switches between seemingly at the drop of a hat. However, he still manages to pull it off with this film serving as a great showcase of the actor’s range when paired with his transformative role in The Theory Of Everything. However, the one member of the cast that stood out most to me was one of the vastly smaller roles: Terry Gilliam as the Seal and Signet Minister. I once had Gilliam described to me as the kind of person who would genetically engineer his own race of Orcs just so that his adaptation of Lord Of The Rings would be exactly as he envisioned it; in only a short scene, he manages to capture that kind of wild-eyed alchemist that the Wachowskis must have also seen in him, given how the entire scene leading to him is meant to pay homage to Gilliam’s own Brazil.

The score, provided by The Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino, is just as grand-scale as the setting requires it to be, full of lush string orchestration and operatic choirs. There is never a moment where it feels like Giacchino is half-arsing it with the music… which isn’t entirely a good thing. It feels like he was only told "write for a space opera" in his mission brief because there are quite a few moments when the music is a little too full-on for the action happening on screen. The scene leading up to Gilliam’s appearance is the best example of this, because what we end up seeing is quite possibly the most epic filing of paperwork ever committed to film. The tone of the scene is supposed to be humourous on the offset, but the soundtrack makes me question exactly how much of it was meant to be funny; I mean, even the opening to the Dilbert cartoon didn’t hype up office bureaucracy this much.

After the extremely nimble writing that went into Cloud Atlas, saying this film is a let-down in the writing stakes is a severe understatement. Then again, for as much as they try to give a very philosophical air to their scripts, the Wachowskis have always had a certain visceral style of writing that tends to focus far more on the present than the past. They tend not to think too hard on the setups for the worlds they create and instead focus more on their implications in the film’s now. For example, in The Matrix, the key reason why the titular device exists at all is extremely flimsy. The most glaring example of this comes with the big climactic battle scene at the end. *SPOILERS* Don’t get me wrong, it’s as visually effective as the rest of the film and looks amazing, but its effect starts to falter once you realise that the entire reason why the planet seems to be falling apart, or at least the structures built on it, is because one ship managed to crash through its shield. As much as the Abrasax don’t come across trustworthy in the slightest, I find it hard to believe that they could have amassed this much power without including little things like back-up plans in case things like this would happen. Actually, at points, I find it to believe that the family amassed any sort of power full stop, given how they’re shown to carry out business in this film. Really, the finale borders on Divergent levels of failure at world-building, but thankfully it isn’t nearly that aggravating to witness considering this is the only real moment that bothered me where that's concerned, as opposed to Divergent’s entire running time.

The problems with this script can be attributed to a large amount of little things that begin to stack on top of each other as the film carries on, and it all starts with the title itself. Never mind that calling your main character Jupiter Jones is a tad ridiculous on its own, but then you consider how much of her life seems to involve Jupiter in one way or another; from her star sign (*sigh*) to the seat of power for the Abrasax, it gets annoying before too long. Then there’s the incredibly bad dialogue that’s littered throughout, most of it oddly being given to Jupiter; the scene in the trailers where Jupiter talks about how much she loves dogs is just a taste of it. The other major example of this is a scene where Jupiter and Caine are driving in a stolen car and Caine is bleeding from a wound in his stomach; Jupiter then takes a pantyliner from the glove box, saying "Luckily, a woman owns this car", and uses it to cover up the wound. In the cinema, I could not stop laughing for a few solid minutes upon seeing this, and not for any of the right reasons; this comes across more like something I would come up with as a joke while watching a film rather than something in the actual product.

Of course, when they decide to talk about genetics, this film only gets funnier. It feels like the writers have only tertiary knowledge of how genetics actually work, considering how they seem to think that genes can carry personality traits, can be tracked by smell through the vacuum of space or that bees are genetically disposed to identify alien royalty. I would include the whole reincarnation angle here as well, but then again the Wachowskis have an affinity for the merging of SF and philosophy, but then again said reincarnation of Jupiter has some rather bizarre implications behind it, not the least of which being when one of her sons tries to marry her for her planetary possessions, that the film never even glances at, let alone addresses. Add all of this together with the weirdly complex political and business-savvy story surrounding the Abrasax dynasty and it results in a mostly poor script. I say mostly because it felt like it at least properly understand human ambition and how it would only grow as we expand beyond a single planet, to the point of owning several of them. There are also a few points relating to the argument of how unlikely it is that Earth is the only inhabited planet, or even a planet of real significance in the grand scheme of things, but it’s so old hat by this point that it’s pretty much the bare minimum I would expect from this kind of story.

I want to give this film all the credit for being one of the few films released of late that isn’t adapted directly from a previously existing source material. However, as is usually the case with such things, the film owes a fair lot to older sci-fi fare: The revelation of the Abrasax’s key resource and where it comes from is a plot point that has been repeated so many times that the Wachowskis did it themselves in Cloud Atlas. Not only that, the idea of intergalactic royal families as portrayed here feels like it was pulled straight out of David Lynch’s Dune. Actually, this film has a very similar feeling to that of Dune in that this is also a rather kitschy mess… and yet it is somehow still enjoyable to watch. Yeah, as much as I’ve bitched about here, this is one of the few movies that is dumb but doesn’t feel like it’s actively insulting your intelligence with how dumb it is. It’s the kind of dumb that makes for a rather fun watch, provided it isn’t looked into too deeply… like I have just spent this entire review doing. Oops.

All in all, this film exists in a weird limbo state. On one hand, it’s decently acted with great action scenes and visuals, and dear Lord I hadn’t realized how much I missed watching good old-fashioned space operas until I saw this. But on the other hand, this is a typical Wachowski script which means that it has a lot of issues. However, with Zhong Kui still pretty fresh in my memory, I am willing to cut it some slack on that front. This is an incredibly fun watch, even if it really doesn’t make sense at times.

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