Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jupiter Ascending - Forget Quality, Long Live Camp

"Jupiter Ascending" is everything that is wrong with the modern effects-driven Blockbuster.  Letting the Wachowskis out with a blank check to create a maddening circus-like CG festival was a massive mistake.  If anybody is style over substance, it is the Wachowskis.  Sure they have interesting ideas, but mostly they resort to completely generic storylines with nondescript charmless leads.  "Jupiter Ascending" is seemingly an adaptation of some preteen SciFi fantasy series that existed only in the minds of its sibling directors.  A story ridden with predictable choices and a main character with no agency.  Throw it together with a film that can barely take itself seriously, you have to wonder if the Wachowskis and even their overlords at Warner Bros were just making some kind of huge joke.  If you care for quality, do anything but watch "Jupiter Ascending".

...But on the other hand, if you actually like movies, you cannot possibly miss this film.

I am going to accept on face-value that "Jupiter Ascending" is not a good movie.  However, quality is not everything.  In fact, quality might not even matter.  If you want quality, go watch "Mr. Turner", a completely solid but entirely unwatchable sophisticated drama.  What I'm talking about here is the compelling power of being completely up your own ass and throwing every insane idea you can onto the screen.  "Jupiter Ascending" offers barely anything in terms of characters or story, but when it comes to visuals, imagination, and fun, it has everything.  The narrative is a weak excuse for the experience.

"Jupiter Ascending" belongs to (and even is full of references to) a long line of badly imperfect SciFi/fantasy films, all of whom are charming in their deficiencies.  That inspiration is a pretty eclectic list varying from films now regarded as brilliant classics ("Brazil") to the so-bad-it's-good camp standards ("Flash Gordon") to the barely watchable ("Krull").  Audiences of the past mostly ignored these films which nearly all flopped, and are ignoring "Jupiter Ascending" for the same reason:  they hate fun.  Audiences say they like fun, but only a very marketable pop song kind of fun, with a very basic rhythm and only four cords.  "Jupiter Ascending" is not a pop song, it is a giant ridiculous anthem defying all definition and structure.  Quality means little compared to the sheer audacity of glorious spectacle.  That's what movies like David Lynch's "Dune" had, that's what "Jupiter Ascending" has.

There are movies that are fun to see, but there are movies that are more fun to describe.  "Jupiter Ascending" belongs to that wonderful "Winter's Tale" category of movies you can joyfully recount.  One of it's forefathers, "The Fifth Element" had a blue alien opera singer.  Writing the words "blue alien opera singer" and knowing you are a part of the blessed generation of mankind to have seen something like that is a privilege.  Just listing off the crazy details to the Wachowski's vision is a pleasant chore on it's own.  This movie has ablino werewolf space cops, a planet of Frank Gehry architecture, owl men, squirrel girls, incestuous space nobles, traditional Gray aliens, giant robots, and Sean Bean.  At times it's a preposterously serious space epic, at other times the main character accidentally admits to liking bestiality.   You have to see "Jupiter Ascending" to actually believe it exists.

Oh and gravity boots, I forgot about the gravity boots.
"Jupiter Ascending" has a vast universe filled with vile intrigue.  But then it indulges in huge ridiculous Terry Gilliam-esque comic satires (with a guest appearance by Terry Gilliam himself no less).  And yet, ultimately none of this matters because the story is just a dead simple Good vs. Evil plotline upon which all this imagination is largely unnecessary.  I will not say "wasted" because no movie with a character named "Chicanery Night" is a misuse of imagination.

You have to feel bad for any space opera film with the bad luck to come out between the pop culture phenomena "Guardians of the Galaxy" and the raging blackhole known as "Star Wars Episode VII".  No light can escape the gravitational power that is the new Star Wars.  We have barely thirty seconds of trailer for that movie and already 2015 will be forgotten under it's might.  "Jupiter Ascending" was always doomed to be a historical footnote.  But even so, I'm sure Warner Bros accountants wished that could have at least made some money with this footnote.  As for why "Guardians", a film about a space Raccoon, a tree-man, and a green Zoe Saldana managed to capture the imaginations of everybody nerd or not and "Jupiter Ascending" did not, I'm not 100% sure.  "Guardians" has barely a fraction of the visual power of "Ascending", Chris Pratt is very hot right now but so is Channing Tatum, and neither movie is exactly "Interstellar" in terms of seriousness.  I have to suspect that there is some kind of sinister cultural programming that Marvel has mastered which manipulates us all.  The Wachowskis just cannot compete.

But putting aside my tin foil, there is a very good reason why "Guardians" is a legitimately great movie beloved by millions and "Jupiter Ascending" is only defended by semi-insane internet film critics.  That's called "character".  You see while "Guardians of the Galaxy" was an innovative anti-hero film starring misfits comically being chosen to save the galaxy,  "Jupiter Ascending" is a completely standard tale, just like every other Young Adult fiction novel series adapted into a major motion picture.  (Ignore that in this case there is no YA series, it makes no narrative difference.)  Sure the background is incredible and wacky, but the foreground is just as missable as everybody thinks.  Channing Tatum aint no Han Solo, you know.

Did the next Lady Gaga music video drop already?
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter, an average every day young girl so inexperienced in the ways of the world you might even think she was a virgin, except, of course, she's played by Mila Kunis.  She manages to escape her hum-drum life of annoying Russian immigrant relatives and scrubbing toilets when it turns out that by inexplicable 1 in 100 billion [citation needed] chance, she has the same DNA as the now dead Queen of Space*.  This means that she is the heir to an intergalactic empire of planets, including the Earth.  However the Queen's incredibly hammy evil aristocratic children all want her dead because they happen to like owning Earth, and all have mommy issues.  Enter Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a half-wolf space cop hired to protect Jupiter from her enemies, rescue her all six or seven times she gets kidnapped, and then fuck her brains out after they inevitably fall in love.

So it really is all just YA nonsense.  Female character at the center of the story.  Her mere existence makes her the most important thing in the universe despite never once earning that attention.  Incredibly sexy dangerous beast men protecting her.  Etc. Etc.  Add a vampire boy and this could be "Twilight Beyond the Stars".  Jupiter is such a Mary Sue that she even is one with the animals, as she can command bees with the movement of her hands - a lame superpower that never once comes in handy.  There is even obligatory appearances by serious elder actors like Sean Bean playing a surly retired space warrior.  Eddie Redmayne as the main villain seems to be trying to out-ham Michael Sheen's Twilight performance in levels of camp, going from a husky whisper to an explosive Al Pacino temper tantrum.  Throw in a creepy incest subtext, and boom, it's got everything you need to ride the Stephenie Meyer rocket ship into preteen hyperspace.

Turns out that the evil space aristocracy is not ruling Earth for their own lunatic ambition, it's actually a massive industry of immortality.  See, homo sapiens are actually aliens to our world, with our race having been planted there by older humans millions of years ago.  Their goal?  To raise our planet up like cattle, and finally harvest us.  Then we would be devoured, our organs repackaged, and the rich space folk could stay alive for another lifetime.  And this is all... brilliant.  I have to respect "Jupiter Ascending"'s serious ambition to create a clever science fiction plotline, albeit one whose themes are mostly borrowed from the Wakowski's earlier "Matrix" trilogy.  This universe is a very interesting one even if the story told within it is not.

I want to hang this movie up on my wall.
Now sure, when it comes to the Wachowskis actually directing actors... they have a great visual style.  Channing Tatum is a good actor, but he is not a traditional action lead.  He's too doofy and clueless to be a serious badass.  I cannot look at Caine Wise without imagining a frat boy dumbass, which is why he was fantastic in "22 Jump Street".  Mila Kunis has nothing to add to the story.  Maybe in some scenes she'll had an awkward real girl authenticity (which was completely unnecessary considering in the next scene she'll be hanging with an elephant man).  Other actors are just allowed to run free all over the script.  Eddie Redmayne's performance is so ridiculous it has to be a deliberate attempt to sabotage his Oscar run for "The Theory of Everything".  There are no Groots or Rocket Racoons in "Jupiter Ascending", just badly managed star vehicles that exploded on take-off.

But still... holy shit "Jupiter Ascending" is pretty.  I actually have to pity Disney for the thankless task they now have of making "Star Wars VII", because nothing is going to top this film in terms of visual style.  In the modern age of CG wonders it is almost impossible to really impress an audience anymore, which explains why nobody but film geeks like myself are blown away by the visuals of "Jupiter Ascending".  But trust me, this is advanced stuff.  This is a gorgeous movie filled with intensely beautiful scenery and majestic action scenes.  It's one thing to stage a boxing match between a lycanthrope Channing Tatum and a winged dinosaur man in a leather coat in the middle of the imploding Great Red Spot in Jupiter, it's another to make it look good.  Michael Bay loves thrashing Chicago for hours, but the Wachowskis can really pull it off with far more maturity and elegance - and that's only the first act climax.  So Star Wars is fucked, man.  "Jupiter Ascending" is the prettiest space opera movie ever made and nobody cares.

In a few years, maybe "Jupiter Ascending" will rise to a point of being a hipster unexpected pick for a decent space opera film, in the vein of the unfairly maligned "John Carter".  For now, even the studios knew that the Wachowskis had screwed them with a bomb, moving this film out of the hot summer period of July into blizzard-ridden February.  The Wachowskis probably will never be allowed to make a two hundred million dollar blockbuster again**.  And that is really a shame because this is a wonderfully bizarre movie.  Sure, it's silly and formulaic, but in a sophisticated campy way.  You don't have zero gravity space orgies or homosexual clockpunk robot lawyers without on some level being self-aware that you are making a ridiculous film.  We need to learn to respect ridiculousness.  And apparently relearn how to have fun.

Also regrettably everything positive I've said about "Jupiter Ascending" I can also say about the Star Wars Prequels.  Does that mean I like the Star Wars Prequels now?

* They don't call this character the "Queen of Space" but God I wish they did.

** Though I said the same thing after their equally huge bombs of "Space Racer" and "Cloud Atlas", and yet studios keep throwing them fortunes, who knows?


  1. Well if I liked Cloud Atlas, I can give this a chance.

    And your right , these days there seems to be a hate against products that are fun.

    I mean I will take something that is over the top and silly as opposed to another bland dreary "realistic drama", because in the case of the former it seems like the creators actually enjoy what they are doing.

    Sword Of Primus

  2. When can we expect your Fifty Shades of Grey review?


  3. She did use the bees against that one bounty hunter in the corn field, you are wrong saying her bee-powers were not used.

    Seriously, how do you keep missing those bits?

  4. I saw this film last night and learned after that my MUN high school teacher was there as well after. We spent a good 10 minutes fangasming in what roughly translates into "OH MY REINCARNATION SPAS MADE OF STEM CELL JUICE AND THE ELEPHANT MAN WHO SPOKE IN TRUNK AND THE TERRY GILLIAM AND THE SPACE AND THE HAMMY STEPHEN HAWKING IN LOVE THAT WAS AMAZING! Okay it wasn't objectively good but man that was insane and FUN." This is a cult film in the making. This is a world I truly want to live in. This is a videogame I would play the fuck out of. Seriously, thanks for the recommendation. I am gonna tell kids discovering this film about how it was like to be in a theater packed with people who either walked out at the insanity (10%) or laughed with the craziness of it all (everyone else).