February 18, 2015

Movie Multiverse: Jupiter Ascending

I love space operas!

I love space operas!

Title: Jupiter Ascending
Directors: Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Writers: Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Booth, Maria Doyle Kennedy, James D’Arcy, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kick Gurry, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Release Date: February 6, 2015
MPAA: Rated PG-13

Welcome one and all to the first installment of Comic Attack’s newest column, MOVIE MULTIVERSE! If you’re familiar at all with my previous column for CA, MOVIE MONDAYS, you’ll know basically what to expect. A lot of the same, movies based on comics or movies that comic book readers might want to give a look; but also we’ll be covering TV Shows, some particular anime that BENTO BAKO WEEKLY or STAY TOONED SUNDAYS isn’t covering, as well as a plethora of animated outings based on, inspired by, related to comics or (as previously stated) something that I feel you awesome comic book fans should take a look at. So, the sky’s the limit! And in keeping with the spirit of a limitless sky full of possibilities, will be taking a look at Jupiter Ascending!

Giving Padme Amidala some stiff competition

Giving Padme Amidala some stiff competition

This is the tale of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), an immigrant living in America and working as a cleaning lady with her family of immigrants. Soon, we discover that she’s actually more of an immigrant than anyone could have realized. She’s actually an alien and apparently heir to the wealthiest empire in the entire galaxy. That puts her at odds with some very evil people, who all want to kill her and claim her birthright for themselves. Multiple groups of bounty hunters are sent to capture her by different interested parties, and one such bounty hunter is a genetically engineered ex-soldier named Caine (Channing Tatum). Upon capturing her, simultaneously rescuing her from the other hunters, Caine begins to sense that there’s more to this puzzle than he was led to believe. Double-crossing his employer, he and Jupiter set off on a whirlwind adventure to uncover the mysteries of her past and the potential for her future, culminating in a battle to save the lives of everyone on Earth as well as countless other worlds.

The designs are stunning!

The designs are stunning!

The cast does reasonably well with the script they’re given, which is not to say it’s a bad script; it is to say it is a difficult script. People speak in fairly unrealistic, overly theatrical ways. But it was written by the siblings that also wrote The Matrix Trilogy, so you should expect as much. It’s the kind of movie where people don’t just react, but overreact; where people aren’t just emotional, but overemotional. Harrison Ford was once quoted as telling George Lucas “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it” and Mark Hamill as having told him “People don’t talk like this”. Someone needs to tell that to The Wachowskis. If overblown melodrama isn’t your forte, then you might want to steer clear of this movie, but if you enjoy operatic dialogue then you should feel right at home.

The visual effects are all top-notch, from ship-to-ship dogfights to acrobatic laser gun fueled shootouts and ridiculously over the top space battles. Whether fighting through a blockade, or zooming around on hover-bikes, the visuals are a veritable feast for the eyes. The devil is in the details and the special effects artists have paid attention to every conceivable detail here. Be it practical effects like prosthetics or CGI creatures hi-tech gadgetry, everything is so impeccably detailed that it all just comes to life in a fairly believable way.

I love this bike!

I love this bike!

And nothing is duplicated. Every single ship or alien species has a uniqueness to them, with the possible exception of this film’s various storm troopers. But even that plays out differently insofar as each location and/or villain has their own unique set of generic henchmen, making even the “generic henchmen” not all that generic. In so many sci-fi films the individual members of alien races all look exactly the same, unless they’re more humanoid than others, but humanity doesn’t have one completely homogenous look, so why should other species? And in this movie no two aliens look the same. The ships each have a different look from stereotypical militaristic cruisers to more organic, artful and regal designs used by the royalty. A nod to my favorite design of the movie is the hover-bike, with fins and guns and other pieces of technical gizmos floating off of it as if also utilizing the same hover technology to hold itself together. Little touches like these make me appreciate this film.

Each ship design is a stunning treat

Each ship design is a stunning treat

Michael Giacchino, composer for the Star Trek rebootquels, lends his musical talents to this film as well. In an interesting technique, Giacchino wrote the music presumably based on the script and scene outlines for the film before any of it was actually shot, a technique used by director Tom Tykwer, who The Wachowskis worked with on Cloud Atlas. The composer said “it’s much more freeing doing it that way. I’m not locked down to any specific timings and what the film is doing. I can do whatever I want. It opens up a lot more possibilities”. This technique seems to have worked very well, as the score is rather wonderful perfectly complimenting each moment of visual storytelling with appropriate emotional weight or varying degree of intensity.

Now, you knew it wouldn’t be all good, because if it were then this film would be faring much better than it is. While definitely flawed, this film is nowhere near deserving of the amount of flak it has received from various critics.

The biggest problem with this movie is just how much of its story comes from other science fiction tales. It lifts other story elements from other science fiction stories so blatantly that with any knowledge of the pre-existing material, the movie becomes almost a chore to get through at times. The Wachowskis even borrow from themselves. In this story, the human race is a precious energy source that imbues those that consume it with longer life. A human being grown to be used as a life/power source sounds an awful lot like the battery plot point from The Matrix. Let’s not forget the film Soylent Green, wherein humans are used as a food source. And family houses fighting over ownership of a particular planet which is home to the most precious commodity in the galaxy while some unknowing upstart just happens to be possibly pre-ordained to take control of it herself, sounds a bit too much like Dune to be a passing coincidence.  There’s even a loving homage to the insane bureaucracy seen in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.   The list goes on a bit, but if we were to nitpick all of the borrowed plot elements, we’d be here for quite a while. But you get the point.

Terry Gilliam even cameos in the "Brazil" scene

Terry Gilliam even cameos in the “Brazil” scene

If Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces taught us anything about filmmaking and storytelling in the modern era, it’s that there aren’t really any “original” stories left to tell. All of the story-types have been told already. But what makes a film “original” is what it does with all of those previously used story elements once combined into a new story. The problem with Jupiter Ascending is that it doesn’t really do much of anything new. So, any familiarity with the story-types this film makes use of kills any sort of chance for dramatic tension. In short, the movie borrows so heavily from other stories and movies without doing anything new with the material, it becomes painfully predictable.

So, the movie is overly melodramatic, with less-than-naturalistic sounding dialogue, wholly unoriginal, and pretty damn predictable. But is it a bad movie? Not really, no, simply put, despite those glaring flaws it’s still a rather enjoyable film. That is, of course, if you go in for cheesy melodramatic sci-fi action adventure movies. The best way I can think to describe the film is that it’s basically what it would be like if something like The Guardians of the Galaxy was a little less quirky to the point of being silly and a little more serious. A good sliding scale might sound something like this: better, for the most part, than the Star Wars prequels but doesn’t hold a candle to the original trilogy.

The love-child of Feyd-Rautha (Dune) and Ra (Stargate)

The love-child of Feyd-Rautha (Dune) and Ra (Stargate)

A lot of critics have been ripping this movie to shreds, and they’re wrong for that. Yes, shocking though it may be, opinions can be wrong. I feel that the people ripping on this movie are only doing so because they went in to see this film expecting to see something else, expecting to see a different kind of movie than what they got. This isn’t a straightforward sci-fi space opera action flick. This isn’t meant to be The Wrath of Khan or The Empire Strikes Back. And it’s not fair to grade this movie, expecting as much. Where Star Wars was a space opera modeled after 1940s film-serials like Flash Gordon, Jupiter Ascending is more akin to the 1980s movie Flash Gordon.

Jupiter Ascending isn’t trying to be the modern-budget version of Star Wars. It’s trying to be that light-hearted, cheesy space opera B-Movie like Battle Beyond the Stars, Spacehunter, Barbarella, or the aforementioned Flash Gordon. It’s not drama; it’s melodrama, and should be viewed as such. In the same way that Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables was a send up to cheesy mindless action flicks of the 80s, and Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was a loving homage to giant monster and giant robot movies from Japan The Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending is a love letter to the melodramatic, cheesy, B-Movie space operas of yesteryear. Is it a perfect love letter? No. Is it still pretty damn fun? Yes. And with that in mind, I can easily say this film earns a score of 7 out of 10.

A bit of postscript:

Now that I’ve said my piece, time for a little bit of random fun! The movie is called Jupiter Ascending, right … follow me on this. I lost count of the number of times the title character Jupiter is lifted up or carried away or raised in a tractor beam. She literally ascends over and over again during the film. Also, she damn near plummets to her death a number of times as well. I couldn’t help but chuckle and say to myself “Jupiter descending” every time it happened. So, count the number of times she either ascends or descends during the film; and maybe we’ve got the start of a great new drinking game.

Look! Jupiter's ASCENDING! ... and DESCENDING!

Look! Jupiter’s ASCENDING! … and DESCENDING!

Aaron Nicewonger



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