Monday, March 2, 2015
JUPITER ASCENDING Is Flawed But Visually-Stunning Sci-Fi
JUPITER ASCENDING Review:
- It's funny ... back in the days when The Matrix ruled pop-culture, I never really counted myself as a huge fan of the franchise, or of the siblings who directed the film and its sequels. Only later, when the Wachowskis' work became less commercial and more esoteric, did I fully appreciate the duo's status as some of the last original voices working in blockbuster filmmaking. Speed Racer was the film that converted me. An ahead-of-its-time anime-come-to-life, the movie was a sugar rush of visual splendor matched with the giddy storytelling sensibility of classic animation on acid. Then came Cloud Atlas. That movie divided audiences, but won a passionate fanbase - myself included - for its unbridled ambition and go-for-broke mentality. Coming right at a moment in which blockbuster filmmaking felt more by-the-numbers than ever, Cloud Atlas was the rare film that melded next-gen visuals with big ideas and real thematic substance. Now, the Wachowskis continue to push limits with JUPITER ASCENDING. It's big, epic, uber-detailed space opera. It's the kind of story that, these days, might feel more at home in videogames or comic books - because it doesn't hold back on any of its inherent geekiness. To that end, the movie feels overstuffed and, often, hard to follow. But I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of those deriding it as out-and-out bad. No movie with this much visual brilliance or sheer spark of imagination could be called bad. As someone who finds it admirable that the Wachowskis are steadfastly sticking to original stories, I for one support the movie - and urge open-minded fans to give it a look.
JUPITER ASCENDING gives us a fairy-tale spin on space opera, casting Mila Kunis as the aptly-named Jupiter Jones - a hard-working, down-on-her-luck cleaning lady who discovers that her destiny lies not in cleaning well-off people's toilets, but in the stars. As it turns out, Jupiter is actually the reincarnation of an interstellar monarch. Since the original died, her god-like offspring battle for control of the family's holdings - namely, planets (including earth) that are used as harvest grounds for resources. Feeding off the populations of their planetary conquests, the intergalactic one-percenters kill and destroy as a means of maintaining their own power and immortality. So rather than play nice with her power-hungry quasi-family, Jupiter instead sides with a scrappy group of rebels looking to bring down the evil regime. Chief among them is Channing Tatum's Caine - a genetically-modified soldier who finds star-crossed romance in the maid-turned-monarch.
There is A LOT going on in this movie. It feels like we're seeing one small slice of a vast universe, and the result is a lot of disorientation. Some of that, I think, is cool. There's a sense of wonder I got from the movie bombarding me with random side-dishes of concepts and characters that, in some other film, would have been the main course. Oh, this movie has lizard people? And androids with video-faces? And soldiers whose DNA is spliced with that of animals? This movie sometimes comes off like the sci-fi equivalent of one of New York's hottest clubs as described by SNL's Stephon - there's a little of everything, and tons of weird $#%&. All of that would be all good - even sort of awesome, if it didn't seem to come at the expense of the story. For a space opera, the opera part feels a little soft. There's so much stuff jammed into the movie that the big character beats end up feeling glossed over, and the movie rarely has the emotional punch you want from a movie of this nature. Jupiter seems to take most things in stride, and Tatum's Caine is too stoic to give the film the sort of Han Solo-esque badassery it sorely needs.
Part of the problem is the casting. Kunis is good as the girl-next-door, but less so as the would-be Chosen One who helps to take down an empire. She handles the action ably, but never quite gives us much in the way of gravitas. Tatum is okay as Caine, but sort of bland. The boyish, All-American Tatum seems miscast as a brooding badass. Sean Bean seems more at home as Caine's grizzled mentor, but his character is one of the film's weakest - going from friend to foe with lightning speed and not enough dramatic weight behind his decisions. The real MVP of the movie is Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as the angry-whispering despot Balem Abrasax. Camping it up to the extreme, Redmayne is a lot of fun as the film's pulpy Big Bad. He's one of the few in the cast that goes big.
But really, the star of the movie is its incredible visual f/x work and world-building. In IMAX 3D, the film is a stunner. In a world where so much of what we seen in blockbuster filmmaking feels like stock footage pulled from other genre flicks, the worlds of JUPITER ASCENDING are truly things of beauty. There's so much coolness going on here - the sets, the character design, the costuming - all of it is absolute eye candy - especially if you're into painterly sci-fi visuals (and I am). In turn, the action sequences in the film are pretty spectacular - with some fantastically-choreographed set pieces that remind us why the Wachowskis are among the best in the biz at creating unique and memorable action scenes.
JUPITER ASCENDING has so much raw potential. This is the kind of fictional world that feels well-suited to be a multimedia creation, that could and should be further explored in comics, videogames, etc. But there's just too much world-building stuff going on in the movie, and as presented in the film, it rarely feels coherant, or built on a solid foundation. I think the Wachowskis actually tell us too much. There's a power in these sorts of movies to letting the audience fill in the details. Think about Star Wars, and how a simple mention of "The Clone Wars" fueled fanboy imaginations for decades. The Wachowskis could have focused a bit more on the big, iconographic elements of their world and less on cramming in everything and the kitchen sink. At times, JUPITER ASCENDING has a surreal, Alice in Wonderland through-the-rabbit-hole quality. At times, it takes on the social commentary aspect of comedic dystopian sci-fi - think Terry Gilliam's Brazil (there's actually a lengthy sequence that is a direct riff on Brazil, and even features a Gilliam cameo). At times, it's pure blockbuster pulp in the vein of Star Wars. It's a pastiche of influences, to be sure. But it's all sort of a hazy jumble by the film's end. I wanted to see more of the world, but I still wasn't quite sure what this world was to begin with.
Still, there is so much imagination on display in this movie. I'd gladly take more JUPITER ASCENDING's and less cynically-made sequels or reboots. I say: shame on critics who call artfully-made films like this "bad." Open your mind and recognize that movies can have good aspects and less-good aspects, but that if they present you with something you've never quite seen before, then hey, that's something that's praiseworthy. Story-wise, JUPITER has some issues. But there's enough that's interesting and unique - even mind-blowing - in the film that sci-fi fans owe it to themselves to at least give this one a look - preferably on the biggest screen possible.
My Grade: B