Monday, February 16, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Alternate Title:  What Goes Up...

One sentence synopsis:    A girl from Earth is kidnapped into a universe of dynastic politics after being identified as the re-incarnation of an interstellar queen.

Things Havoc liked:  Back in 2012, I saw one of the greatest films I have ever encountered, a sweeping, epic opus that went by the name of Cloud Atlas. I loved Cloud Atlas so much that I broke my own review structure when it came time to talk about it, gushing in barely-coherent ramblings about the tapestry of history and the connections between people, or some such. So much did I adore this film, in fact, that I swore then and there that whatever its creators, the Matrix-directing Wachowski siblings, created next, I would, without question, see it, for they had earned as much by presenting something that filled with amazement and wonder. And now here we are, two and a half years later, and what have they given me? Jupiter Ascending. And true to my word, I have seen it.

So what can be said in this movie's favor? Well for starters, the film is absolutely gorgeous. The term "visual director" is one that I've never had much use for (are there non-visual directors out there somewhere?) but if ever it applied to anyone, the Wachowskis would be a strong candidate (as would Wes Anderson). Space in this film is on display in its full Kubrickian majesty, with spaceships and space stations comprised not of the customary phallic or gun-encrusted fare from many modern space films, but spires and sails and organic-looking spindles that waft through the void like the fins of some enormous interstellar whale. The effect is so over-elaborate as to become almost hypnotic, a design archetype that seems to be drawn less from standard movie science fiction, and more from the mysterious and fantastical side of the genre, from sources like Dune or the Barsoom cycle or Warhammer 40,000, with cathedrals of light embossed and imbued with every conceivable enhancement and artistry. The effect is not restricted to outer space either, as scenery, costuming, and everything else positively drips with opulence, hinting at the power, the age, and the decadence of the immense world that the Wachowskis are trying to set before us.

Things Havoc disliked:  As such, it's a great pity that the movie sucks.

Do not mistake, this movie sucks. Hard. It sucks for reasons both familiar and alien, but it sucks all the same, a massive, bloated, festering pile of a movie that despite some interesting ideas, is nothing more than a waste of time. Why is it a waste of time, you ask? Well that answer is rather unfortunately complicated, but it's probably best to begin with Mila Kunis.

You see, Mila Kunis can't act. Irrespective of the circumstances, the project, the tone of the film or the quality of the actors you surround her with, Mila Kunis can't act at all. I can't claim this comes as much of a surprise to me, having watched Black Swan and Oz the Great and Powerful and Book of Eli and half a dozen other things, but I don't believe I appreciated until now just to what degree Mila Kunis' inability to act actually reaches prior to sitting down and watching this movie. Here, playing Jupiter Jones (the name is given a rather handwavey explanation, but still), a Russian immigrant who works with her family cleaning the houses of the wealthy in Chicago, Kunis is tasked with playing the standard fish-out-of-water archetype as she is swept up in events of galactic importance. I don't object to this archetype at all, of course, it's used as often as it is for a reason, but the entire point of the archetype is that the character must grow to master his/her surroundings and seize back control of their own destiny. Kunis plainly doesn't know what to do with this character, reciting her dialogue as though reading it off a cue card, and emoting to the astonishing sights and sounds around her with all the passion of a patent attorney preparing a deposition.  But the biggest problem is that her character remains completely useless throughout the entire movie, bubble-headedly wandering from planet to starship to cathedral to space station like an oblivious extra who got lost on their way to the casting call and stumbled into the middle of a Star Wars knockoff. I can abide many things in a movie, dear readers, if I couldn't I would have lost my mind long ago. But one thing I simply cannot abide is a useless protagonist, and Kunis' Jones is one of the most useless characters I've seen in this entire project, to the point where tertiary characters without names actually accomplish more in the course of the plot than she does.

But while Kunis can't act, and therefore has no idea what to do about this predicament she finds herself in, there are a number of actors here who can, and whose coping strategies at being dropped into a movie this stale are... interesting. Channing Tatum, who has been in his share of bad movies, plainly knows what kind of film he's in this time, and looks and sounds completely uninterested in his surroundings, mumbling his lines as though he's recovering from an all-night bender, and lapsing into half-understandable exposition at the drop of a hat. Given that we have no idea what he is actually talking about, as he throws out casual references to objects, people, and locations we've never heard of, Tatum's dead-eyed mumbling renders it actually quite difficult to understand what in the hell he's saying. Tatum is also tasked with the unenviable duty of trying to portray a romantic relationship with Kunis, with whom he shares absolutely no chemistry, save perhaps for soporific gas. Sean Bean meanwhile, he who always dies (spoiler alert?), does his best playing a character whose motives and relationship with everyone else I was entirely unable to understand, being as the film consists of him being introduced by throwaway comment and then engaging in a lengthy series of about-faces wherein he sheds what little motivation he has in favor of new, equally-confusing motivation. I suspect his hope was that if he confused the audience sufficiently, they might forget he was in the movie. But taking the opposite approach is Eddie Redmayne, a fine young actor who, according to this film, has taken leave of his senses. His character, Balem Abrasax, serves as the primary antagonist (sort of), and Redmayne plays him like a cross between Emperor Palpatine and Al Pacino as Lucifer, alternating between a strained, throaty whisper that sounds vaguely orgasmic, and screaming unbridled madness in the style of Sting-in-Dune. The effect is not precisely menacing, but perhaps Redmayne is taking the Lee Pace approach, reckoning that the only method to survive the movie is to overact to the point where anyone who criticizes you risks being devoured along with the scenery.

That said, Redmayne does at least liven the movie somewhat, something I appreciate when the rest of the film is such a leaden chore. Perhaps Tatum's lack of enthusiasm tainted the whole mix, but for an eye-watering spectacle film that is also a space opera, Jupiter Ascending drags for long stretches of its run-time, as the plot meanders from one meaningless confrontation with one of the evil, self-serving Abrasax nobles to the next. At one point in the middle of the film, Jupiter and her retinue must go to a bureaucratic planet to get her claim recognized officially, a sequence which consists of her visiting department after department (in a clear reference to Brazil) before finally stumbling upon a helpful bureaucrat (played by Terry Gilliam himself, see above) who manages at last to get her papers processed. What is the purpose of this 5-10 minute section? What lessons does the heroine learn or meaningful events transpire? Nothing. We get to watch her watch robots watch bureaucrats shuffle paper, until at length the movie allows us to watch something else for a while. Similarly, an entire wasted series of plotlines concerning the antics of Kunis' extended Russian family back home on Earth feels like nothing more than filler, in the vein of the parents' antics in the Transformers movies, a series of meaningless sequences in which people complain about not having enough money to pay for their video game equipment, which we are being shown in preference to the staggeringly vast galactic civilization that our "hero" is supposedly being enmeshed in. The main villain doesn't even get a moment's screentime for 2/3 of the film, as Jupiter slowly gets hoodwinked by other, lesser nobles, for plots that have nothing whatsoever to do with the main threat, and which afford her neither the skills nor the lessons, nor even the equipment she will need to finally confront the bad guy. And by confront, of course, I mean stand around and watch other people confront him, because Mila Kunis cannot be allowed to take any goddamn action in a movie in which she's supposedly the star!

Final thoughts:   I can't pretend that I didn't know Jupiter Ascending was going to suck. The trailers for this movie looked awful in that wonderfully YA/Twilight-in-Space sort of way that graces a lot of movies released around this time of year, and neither the announcement that it was being pushed back to February, nor the casting of Mila "Needs an Acting Coach" Kunis, filled me with hope as to its qualities. That said, even with that, I remain surprised at just how awful this movie was, a turgid slog of a film, albeit one with pretty pictures, that feels rather like the Wachowskis' dumping all of the characterization and plot details they weren't able to use in the third Matrix movie, due to the need to include seven hundred thousand references to Neo-as-Jesus. If nothing else then, this movie can teach me a lesson about the risks entailed in following directors blindly, even when their last project was as monumentally good as Cloud Atlas was. My policy with this project has been only to see movies that I believe honestly have a chance of being good, and I believe it should stay that way. Lord knows I see enough crap as it is.

And as to the Wachowskis? I would simply suggest next time that they let someone else write their film, as that seems to have worked for them in the past. Otherwise I'm worried their next project may literally include Space-Jesus, save that in this rendition, he will be forced to watch uselessly as other people sacrifice themselves on his behalf before returning to Jerusalem and becoming a carpenter again.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Next Time:  All the King's horses...

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