Monday, February 16, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Jupiter Ascending

Believe it or not, we're still in the annual Beginning Of The Year Film Dumping Ground Season! Yes, it's that magical time of year where the studios burn off all the celluloid dogs they didn't dare release during the all-important and lucrative summer and Xmas blockbusters seasons. Brace yourselves for an onslaught of watered-down PG-13 horror films, romcoms, dance-off movies and fart comedies. It's a great time to be a film fan.

Jupiter Ascending was written and directed by the Wachowski siblings.

Take the grandeur of Dune, the weirdness of The Fifth Element, the production design of The Chronicles Of Riddick and the palace intrigue of A Game Of Thrones, put 'em all in a blender and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It's a whirlwind of ideas and influences shoehorned into a too short 127 minutes.

The Wachowskis took the movie world by storm with The Matrix in 1999, but have never quite been able to recapture the success of that project. Sadly, it looks like Jupiter Ascending is another in their series of box office disappointments.

Many are criticizing the film's derivative nature, as well as its cliched plot. Eh, so what? Name a big budget movie from the past ten years that isn't derivative and cliched. I know this is bordering on heresy, but the original Star Wars was about as unoriginal as they come. It copped its episodic structure from Flash Gordon serials, it's production design from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it's plot and characters were lifted wholesale from The Hidden Fortress. Yet it's universally praised. So why is Jupiter Ascending chastised for doing the same thing? Because it has a big budget? Because the Wachowski's created it, and bashing them is "in" this month?

Every film borrows from what came before. What matters is what you do with those elements. The aforementioned Star Wars swiped liberally from many sources, but somehow seemed fresh and innovative. Maybe that's the problem with Jupiter Ascending it takes elements from other films but doesn't feel particularly inspired or exciting.

Although the film is highly derivative, it deserves a little bit of credit for not being yet another remake or a sequel.

So far the film is underperforming, and it seems unlikely it'll break even. I blame this squarely on the release date delay. The film was supposed to premiere in June 2014, but was pushed back to February 2015 in order to finish the effects.

Hollywood execs should all know by now that any time you delay a movie it's box office poison. Even if it's for legitimate reasons, once a film is delayed, the audience starts smelling a bomb and shuns it like the plague, no matter the actual quality. Maybe it would have been better if they'd skipped a few effects scenes and released the damn thing when they were supposed to.


The Plot:
Sit back, it's convoluted. Jupiter Jones (played by Mila Kunis) is a young Russian immigrant in the present day who inexplicably lives in what appears to be a 1940s boarding house with her noisy extended family. She cleans toilets for a living, hates her life and longs for something more.

While visiting a clinic, she's taken captive and about to be killed by aliens disguised as humans. At the last second she's rescued (for the first of many times) by Caine Wise (played by Channing Tatum), a half human, half wolf "splice" and the two of them barely escape the alien forces in a huge and expensive action set piece. If you look closely you can almost see the money being thrown at the screen.

Caine hides Jupiter at the home of his former commander, a beekeeper named Stinger (Sean Bean). Caine and Stinger were once Skyjackers, some kind of flying soldiers in an alien army. Stinger tells Jupiter that all life in the galaxy began on a planet called Ores (pronounced O-ress, not "ores"), and Earth was seeded with humanity thousands of years ago. He recognizes Jupiter as royalty, and says she's the rightful owner of the Earth (!). Get it? A lowly toilet scrubber is really the Queen of Earth. I-ro-neee!

Stinger's house is attacked by alien bounty hunters and Jupiter is captured. She's whisked into outer space and taken to Kalique, a member of the powerful Abrasax clan. The Abrasax matriarch has recently died, and her three children— Kalique, Titus and elder sibling Balem (played by Eddie Redmayne)— are fighting over her inheritance.

Kalique tells Jupiter that she's the exact genetic reincarnation of her mother (whaa???) and heir to the Earth and the entire Abrasax fortune. The rest of the film concerns the various Abrasax children capturing Jupiter and trying to get her to sign ownership of the Earth over to them. 

Jupiter eventually finds out that the Abrasax's want Earth so badly because the human population can be distilled into a life-extending drug. Balem kidnaps Jupiter's earth family and threatens to kill them unless she signs the Earth over to him. Just as she's about to do so, she's rescued by Caine for the twentieth time. Balem and his empire are destroyed, and Jupiter returns to Earth and to her old toilet scrubbing job, apparently content with the fact that she's secretly saved humanity and owns the planet.

• I have to say I'm not a fan of Caine's prosthetic makeup. He's supposed to be a human-wolf hybrid, but he looks more like some kind of demented elf.

• Speaking of Caine, he's a human spliced with wolf DNA, and as a result has pointy dog ears and sharp canine teeth. We're then told that Stinger is spliced with bee DNA (!), but other than wings that were forcibly removed, he looks completely human. 

There are dozens of other human-animal "splices" in the movie— humans crossed with birds, rodents, deer, turtles, and even elephants (!). In every one of these cases you can clearly tell what animal they've been spliced with. So why does Stinger just look like Sean Bean instead of having compound eyes and antenna? 

Maybe Stinger's hiding something in his pants that gave him his nickname?

• Stinger's farmhouse is filled inside and out with beehives. When Jupiter first arrives, millions of bees begin swarming around her. They don't sting her, but instead form intricate patterns around her body and react to her motions.

Stinger looks at her in awe, kneels and addresses her as "Your majesty," because according to him, "Bees are genetically programmed to recognize royalty."

I think Sean Bean deserves some kind of special Oscar® for managing to deliver that line without doubling over laughing.

• The production design is top notch, even if it does look a lot like that of Dune, the 1980 Flash Gordon and The Fifth Element.

One thing that isn't derivative— the spaceship design. They're all constructed of various separate, floating pieces that are presumably held together by force fields or something. Definitely original, and something I've not seen before. Kudos to the design team.

• At one point, a small scout craft docks with one of the Abrasax's huge, city-sized ships. It enters the docking bay through an enormous transparent force field that makes up one entire wall of the ship. Yikes!

That seems... needlessly dangerous. Hopefully there's never any power failure on this ship, or half the crew (and their scout spacecraft) are gonna be sucked out into space.

• Eddie Redmayne, who plays Balem, is an award winning actor who's been nominated for an Oscar® for his role in The Theory Of Everything.

You definitely wouldn't know that watching him here. He plays the part of Balem like he just downed a couple of gallons of cough syrup. The hard stuff, not that daytime kind. 

He constantly seems in danger of nodding off as he lounges around the sets and says all his lines in an annoying and barely audible whisper. Then near the end he finally snaps out of his daze and bellows all his lines as he hungrily chews the scenery. It's like he only has two settings— simmer and way over the top.

 The big set piece of the film is the eight minute-long chase scene set high above downtown Chicago. Caine, who wears flying boots (!) and Jupiter dodge a dozen or so attack ships as they swoop around the skyscrapers.

The boot flying scenes were OK, but once Caine and Jupiter jump into one of the attack ships and are pursued, I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. From that point on it was just a blur of buildings, falling masonry and splashing water as the ships chased one another at speeds too fast to see. 

Just because you can render ships travelling at 900 mph doesn't mean you should render ships flying at 900 mph. My synapses aren't fast enough to take it all in.

• After Caine rescues Jupiter several times, she falls hopelessly in love with him. He shuns her advances (at first), telling her that he's got more in common with a dog than a man. Jupiter then replies, "I love dogs!"

Um... hey Wachowskis? I know that was supposed to be funny, but bestiality is not cool. I'm just saying.'

• So Jupiter is the "genetic reincarnation" of her mother. Somehow, her mother's exact DNA sequence just happened to repeat itself in Jupiter. Um... I don't think that's how DNA and genetics work.

Because of this reincarnation, Jupiter now owns all the Abrasax matriarch's property, which includes the Earth. Titus wants Earth for himself, and to that end he wants to marry Jupiter (and then kill her) so he'll own all her property.

Did you get that? He wants to marry his own mother.

Um... hey Wachowskis? I guess you probably also meant that to be funny but incest is also not cool. Not even genetically reincarnated incest. I'm just saying.'

• I liked the "space bureaucracy" montage, in which Jupiter tries to become a citizen of the galaxy. Did you catch Terry Gilliam's cameo as a musty old bureaucrat? I'm assuming that was a shout out to his film Brazil, which featured a similarly nightmarish bureaucratic world mired in red tape.

• Jupiter spends a good deal of the film falling from great heights and having to be rescued by Caine. In fact that's pretty much all she does. She does manage to kick Balem in the crotch once (I guess aliens have testicles) and leaps from a couple of crumbling platforms, but that's about the extent of her action. She falls very firmly into "damsel in distress" territory.

She's ostensibly the heroine of the film, but does absolutely nothing. Jesus, even Princess Leia wasn't above picking up a blaster and using it now and then. Jupiter ultimately ends up saving the Earth, but not through any physical action on her part. She does so by invoking the legalese in a contract!

• It's hard to believe, but Sean Bean's character doesn't die at the end of the film. Amazing!

• The Wachowski's did a great job of world-building here, and I wish we were able to dive a bit deeper into it. There's just way too many concepts and back story for one film. Given the poor box office, the outlook for a sequel's not so good, which is too bad.

• The film ends on an odd, anticlimactic note as Jupiter, now the sole owner of the entire planet Earth, chooses to go back to her old job scrubbing toilets. Um... shouldn't she be out there in space somewhere, making sure nobody else tries to get their hands on the planet? Sure, Balem is gone, but the other two Abrasax kids are still out there, no doubt plotting and scheming. Ah well, I'm sure Earth will be OK. Go ahead and keep those toilets sparkling, Jupiter!

Jupiter Ascending is both a derivative and original mess, but not nearly as bad as most critics would have you believe. I give it a B.

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