Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, May 8, 2015

Director Report Card: The Wachowskis (2015)

7. Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis don’t get any respect. Despite creating one of the defining science fiction films of the last twenty years, their new films are treated with indifference, if not active scorn. Maybe its because nerd culture wants to see its visionaries fail. Or maybe everyone’s still pissed about “The Matrix” sequels. The directors haven’t had a real hit since those films. People ignored “Speed Racer’s” day-glo imagery and sugar-rush excitement and then it bombed. People ignored the deep storytelling, clever genre juggling, mind-blowing visuals, and spiritual richness of “Cloud Atlas.” Then it bombed. Still somehow getting mega budgets, the Wachowski returned to “Matrix” territory with a big sci-fi action movie. “Jupiter Ascending” was originally planned for a July release, during the same summer when a quirky sci-fi movie became one of the biggest hits of the year. But then the studio actually looked at the movie and got cold-feet. They made some bullshit excuse about special effects not being done, pulled the movie from summer, buried it in fucking February and then – guess what? – it bombed. When there’s blood in the water, Hollywood is more willing to make a 176 million write-off then take a risk on something unexpected connecting with audiences. “Jupiter Ascending” immediately developed a cult following because duh.

Jupiter Jones is a Russian-American woman living with her family of fuck-ups and cleaning toilets for a living. Jupiter has no idea that she’s actually the secret reincarnation of the matriarch of the most powerful family in the galaxy. When the villainous heirs to that galactic crown discover this, they come after the girl. Sent to protect here is a hunky, half-wolf space warrior. Soon, Jupiter is made aware of her alien family tree, the origins of the human race, that half of space belongs to her, and that her life is very much in danger.

Throughout their career, the Wachowskis have been very open about their influences. Before adapting an anime and a massive science fiction novel, they made “The Matrix,” a movie heavily influenced by both of those things. “Jupiter Ascending” came about because producers asked the siblings to create an original sci-fi IP. Similarly, “Jupiter Ascending” looks a bit like a Jack Kirby comic book, feels a lot like an anime, and has the scope of a major sci-fi novel. At times, it feels like an exceptionally long series or book condensed into one two-hour long movie. Plot points that other films would devote long stretches of time to are succinctly explained in a few short scenes. There are characters with long histories whose pasts are only hinted at. On one hand, it’s easy to see what the filmmakers were getting at. This is the story of a normal person suddenly being thrust into a complex, strange world full of things she doesn’t entirely understand. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to imagine the film being turned into a 24 episode animated series with few changes in story. The result is a movie that is beautifully designed and detailed but sometimes moves so fast, the audience can’t keep up.

In the aftermath of “The Matrix,” genre cinema was full of stories about “chosen ones,” seemingly normal people who have an astonishing destiny revealed to him. “Jupiter Ascending” is about this too. However, the filmmakers seem to be toying with their own ideas. The details of Jupiter’s chosen status are so convoluted – the far-flung reincarnation of a 9000 year old intergalactic queen of industry – that it borders on parody. Jones explores the strange new world at her feet but her goal always remains returning home and protecting her family. Moreover, she’s not an action hero. She’s not a variation on Neo. She doesn’t know kung-fu. Instead, Jupiter’s quiet intellect, and a keen ability to understand the motives of those around her, keeps her alive. She’s a different sort of chosen one and a welcome change of pace.

Here are some of the huge ideas “Jupiter Ascending” casually tosses around. The script discusses the origins of the human race. Turns out, man didn’t evolve naturally on Earth after millions of year. Instead, humanity is one of the oldest species in the universe and has its origins among the stars. These space-fairing humans executed the dinosaurs and seeded the Earth with man, leaving us Earthlings unaware of our galactic roots. The reason why is another huge plot point. The leaders of the empire are practically immortal, living through multiple centuries with ease. Their long lives are credited to bathing in a magical elixir that renews the body’s cells. And this elixir is made from the genetic tissue of other people, harvested from the many, unaware planets the space-humans have established. Conceptually, the film also deals with the weight and loyalty of family, Jones remaining devoted to her simple roots despite the crazy adventure she’s on. Any one of these ideas would be enough for most movies but “Jupiter Ascending” is far more ambitious then that. If there’s one thing the Wachowskis have never been short on, it’s ideas.

An interesting move “Jupiter Ascending” makes is its approach to the evil empire. The House of Abrasax is the family that controls the resources of the universe, especially the antidote to aging. The three siblings at the top, and the film’s trio of antagonists, are Balem, Titus, and Kalique. At times, the three play as the decadent, idle rich you’re used to seeing as bad guys in sci-fi movies. Balem is a nut job with mommy issues who frequently wears robes and sits on a throne. Titus is a decadent playboy, cavorting in a sci-fi orgy room with a party of willing partners. Kalique, meanwhile, hangs out in Grecian robes and manipulates those around her with a sweet smile. However, the movie doesn’t treat the bad guys like a wicked royal family. Instead, they’re something far more insidious:  Businessmen. The villains’ plot revolves around controlling resources. Jupiter is targeted because she’s an unexpected heir who has a stronger claim to the resources Balem and Titus desire to control. The crushing bureaucracy of the situation is emphasized in a humorous sequence where Jupiter and friends spend all-day getting papers signed, forms filled out, and the correct legal documents necessary to cement her status as royalty. It’s a funny moment to insert into your sci-fi/action epic and a further example of how textured the world of “Jupiter Ascending” is. (It also features a cameo from Terry Gilliam, an appropriate shout-out to “Brazil.”)

Even the people who didn’t much liked “Jupiter Ascending” seemed to agree that it’s gorgeous looking. The aristocratic villains lounge in giant, ornate mansions, pinned above rolling waterfalls. Balem’s lair is an impressive gothic cathedral, full of huge archways and imposing pillars. As the title indicates, the final portion of the story takes place within Jupiter’s Red Spot, creating a truly alien feeling location for the action-packed climax. The outer space scenes are full of color, elaborate ships floating above planets made up of swirling colors. The blackness of space gives way to rich, interstellar tapestries. A moment that got a lot of play in the trailers has Mila Kunis wearing a white rose gown, floating above a wedding ceremony, a visual stunner of a moment. The costumes and production design are equally impressive.

“Jupiter Ascending” is also an action movie. And a fairly successful one at that. Most of the action scenes revolve around Caine, the canine/human crossbreed that becomes Jupiter’s protector. Caine gets around on a pair of hover boots, a sort of silly idea on paper that the movie sells fairly well. This allows him to tumble through the air like an acrobat, blasting the bad guys with laser guns. He spin-kicks an alien into a mirror and, several scenes later, performs an inverted roundhouse kick to the head. Mostly, the hover boots lend a certain dynamic quality, the hero smoothly gliding into conflicts, reflecting proton rays with his laser shield. The action high-light of the film is an aerial chase above the skyline of Chicago. Caine and Jupiter weave between cars, jump in their own space ship, and take control of another ship, slicing through the enemy’s craft with their own wings. It’s impressive and, even more impressive, the movie later tops it with a giant robot assisted dive into the center of the Red Spot, the machine dodging a whole fleet and mechanized hammers.

Maybe what I liked most about “Jupiter Ascending” is the nutty array of aliens it puts on screen. Employed by the Abrasax are a race of space-shifting little aliens. They resemble the classic greys of UFO lore but have rat-like muzzles and long, spindly limbs that bend back and forth. Also working for the bad guys are the Sargons, a race of reptilian aliens that heavily resembles dinosaurs or dragons. These guys are my favorite, as they look amazing and are beautifully brought to life. Amusingly, all of their names are prefaced with a “Mr.,” making them sound like accountants. During the finale, Caine fights one of the creatures and we see how well utilized the dragon’s wings and tail can be. Also among the aliens are robots with mechanical faces partially removed from their heads, armless sentries in leather gimp masks, and scheming, rat-faced humanoids. Like the original “Star Wars,” the film sometimes throws interesting looking critters into the background, like the elephant-human hybrid that shows up just for the hell of it.

When trailers for “Jupiter Ascending” first arrived, I reluctant to get excited for the movie. Mostly because I had yet to be sold on the two leads. Mila Kunis, though obviously talented, had yet to really impress me. As Jones, she is allow to show a quiet intelligence and a decent, romantic sense of humor. While the character grows, Kunis’ performance shows a richer, earthier side. After years of being considered just a beefy piece of meat, Channing Tatum has successful reinvented himself thanks to some sharp comedic turns and some dramatic heavy lifting. As Caine Wise, Jupiter’s dogboy body guard, his performance is mostly physical. It’s clear Tatum never feels entirely comfortable under the make-up and it never looks great on him. However, he has decent chemistry with Kunis and seems capable as an action hero. Meanwhile, Sean Bean plays a variation on his typical role as a roguish action hero. He does just fine. And, surprise!, he makes it to the end of the movie too.

Around the time “Jupiter Ascending” was limping into theaters, Eddie Redmayne was well on his way to winning an Oscar for “The Theory of Everything.” His controlled, disciplined performance as Stephen Hawkins is in contrast to his role here as Balem, the movie’s main villain. Redmayne spends the entire film whispering ominously, saying everything in a hushed, craggy rasp. His intensity is whip-like while the character remains a viable, calculating threat. It’s a very strange performance but one in tune with this odd ball movie. Douglas Booth as Titus is more expected, filling the role of an oversexed, manipulative sleaze nicely. The excruciatingly named Tuppence Middleton is harder to read as Kalique.

Since the film is so sprawling there are more then a few ideas seemingly thrown in for the hell of it. The silliest aspect is Tatum’s character being half dog, something that’s brought up repeatedly but has very little affect on the actual plot. Twice, his character gets out of horrible jams in ridiculous ways. The first moment has him hanging onto the side of a space ship as it seemingly crosses the cosmos. The second time his executioners ignore him sneaking a space suit out of the airlock, providing enough air for a wandering ship to save his life. There’s also a trio of bounty hunters, one of them played by Wachowski regular Doona Bae, introduced early on. These characters are distinctive and seem like they’ll be important. Instead, they disappear before the hour mark and are never brought up again. This is just one of the times its obvious that hundreds of pages of notes were written for the film and only a small percentage of that made it on-screen.

It’s hard to say if “Jupiter Ascending” was ever destined for anything other then box office failure and a cult status afterlife. I’d like to think that, as a summer release, it would have found an audience with its far-out visuals and exciting action. But who knows. Dumped in the middle of winter, there was no chance of it succeeding. Once again, a studio had no confidence in the Wachowskis’ utterly distinctive vision, leading to a subsequently apathetic audience. This is the third time in the row it’s happened, yet they keep getting chances to make these huge, crazy movies. So who knows what they’ll do next, even if it won’t be the sequel this movie is clearly calling out for. “Jupiter Ascending” is another fun, imaginative, if slightly incoherent sci-fi epic from the filmmakers. [Grade: B]

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