Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hot Mess: Jupiter Ascending

Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones, in Andy and Lana Wachowsk's Jupiter Ascending.

It’s often been said of Andy and Lana Wachowski that even when they fail, they do so in new and interesting ways with each new project. I think such a sentiment speaks more to the audience member than the artists, frankly – it sounds to me like that person thinks the Wachowskis do excellent work that they simply have trouble understanding, and I don’t count that as a fault. The veteran writing-directing duo have been unimpeachably fearless in their drive to create original, engaging film experiences, and for me their acceptance of risk, which often yields spectacular, visually-stunning, emotionally-challenging rewards, outweighs their occasional missteps in quality. One only needs browse their resume: from the gorgeous Lichtenstein-inspired pop cubism of the narratively-stunted Speed Racer to the beautiful but bloated Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis have been characterized by their inspired (if flawed) work, and moreover, their willingness to dust themselves off, go back to the drawing board, and try something new. They’re persistent, if nothing else.

It was really only a matter of time before this pattern coalesced into something like Jupiter Ascending – after the heavy century-spanning pseudo-philosophy of Cloud Atlas, it makes sense that the Wachowskis would indulge in some simple escapism. “Simple”, though, isn’t the best term to describe the extravagant, wild, convoluted, and gorgeous Jupiter. “Hot mess” might be more accurate.

Strap in: a young Russian-American girl named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), born under some vaguely-significant auspices, cleans toilets as a hired maid. Unbeknownst to her, of course, she is the beneficiary of a genetic destiny which grants her dominion over the entire Earth, thanks to an interstellar bureaucracy run by a family of immortal spacefaring proto-humans, whose squabble over her birthright leads them to target her for assassination. Enter bounty hunter Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic hybrid of man and wolf, who is hired to protect her and deliver this punishing amount of revelation in a very short period of time, which she admittedly handles with aplomb. She is whisked away to be lectured by Stinger (Sean Bean) on the nature of her royal lineage, and eventually brought before all three members of the Abrasax family in an attempt to come to terms with all of this, and stop one of the brothers, Balem (Eddie Redmayne) from claiming Earth for his own (the nefarious purpose of which becomes clear later). 

Still with me? This storyline calls for a staggering amount of worldbuilding, which is very rare in a standalone picture, and not unwelcome – although many will find the script’s abundant detail to be excessive. If you take a bathroom break, you’re likely to have missed several key pieces of information by the time you return. This is treat for people like me, however, as such detail helps to create an absurd clockwork fantasy, with sets, costumes, and creature effects that might have been doodled on a napkin during a coffee date between Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro (the film even finds room for a nod to Brazil in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of the phrase “27b-stroke-6”, not to mention a heavily-disguised cameo by Gilliam himself). Jupiter Ascending is shot through with exquisite production design, so visually sumptuous that it seems the Wachowskis couldn’t help but gorge themselves on it. The opulence of the Abrasax family manifests in jaw-dropping space palaces that combine classical architecture with alien technology, and the hurricane vistas of Jupiter’s refineries or the glittering starscapes of faraway planets are like a Jodorowsky wet dream. Complex and baffling practical brass machinery, looking like something out of the Harry Potter films, ticks away alongside towering CGI gargoyles (the reptilian bodyguards of the more vengeful Abrasax sibling). The vision of the film is at once singularly dazzling and too flamboyant to bear its own weight.

It’s disappointing to me that Star Wars seems to be the only current model for space opera in film. Other examples seem to be few and far between (films like Guardians of the Galaxy, which has been compared to Star Wars, deviates from the original definition too much in its postmodern cynicism and self-awareness). Jupiter Ascending with its playful, exciting, melodramatic tone is a space opera in the truest sense: a romanticized tale of destiny in the stars, featuring exotic worlds and advanced technology (Caine’s gravitational hover-boots and wrist-mounted laser shield being the obvious examples). The action, as one would expect from the team that made The Matrix, is excellent in its effortless coherence and breathless excitement. Supported by a rousing, John Williams-inspired score by Michael Giacchino, it’s a perfectly-shaped – if completely overcooked – genre offering. Some choices may grate – do we really need two nearly identical back-to-back sequences in which Jupiter painfully draws out a decision of deadly import while Caine rushes to stop her? – not to mention that the gothic Dune-flavoured vampire politics of the Abrasax family are sure to leave a bad taste in many mouths. Encouragingly, though, there’s no cliffhanger ending, and no attempt to set up a sequel – Jupiter may be overstuffed, but it remains compact. The screenplay is dense, but hardly impenetrable, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because it’s so much damn fun to follow along. 

Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending.

Casting which appeared nonsensical and uninspired outside of the theatre turned out to be pitch-perfect in context: Mila Kunis plays the sass-mouth Jupiter as a consistently grounded working girl who is as unimpressed with the sparkling galactic cathedrals of her birthright as she is with the drudgery of her Earthly life, and Channing Tatum is allowed to stick to his strengths (which, when compared with peers such as the personality-free Chris Hemsworth, seem more and more numerous), never needing do more than skate around on his hover boots and give Jupiter the smouldering come-hither wolf eyes. Sean Bean, too, exercises his well-worn duty as a gruff mentor who is a physical match for the hero despite his advancing age, and brings a welcome pedigree to the proceedings (not to mention he defies all expectation by taking a role in which – spoiler? – his character doesn’t die). Only Eddie Redmayne, who apparently waited until after this film wrapped to begin his “serious” acting career, seems out of place; the exaggerated stage whisper he gives Balem is somehow both laughable and irritating. 

In defense of their insistence on bucking cinematic trends, the Wachowskis have taken a pseudo-political stance, claiming that in a post-9/11 world, Hollywood has taken to cultivating a reliance on the familiar, and a rejection of originality in cinema, preferring stories to which the end is already certain. This may be an oversimplification of the current climate of film, but it definitely doesn’t ring false – and it explains the similarities that Jupiter Ascending shares with pre-9/11 cinema like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator, Alien, and Back to the Future: they were all created as original stories for the film medium. The newness of Jupiter Ascending is refreshing in the extreme – doubtless a jarring experience for the average filmgoer (which might explain the film’s tepid critical and box office reception), but an invigorating tonic for the discerning film fan, who has become exhausted by the homogenization of popular cinema. Here at last, in the dead of winter, fun genre fare receives a breath of fresh air – messy and imperfect as it is.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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