Jupiter Ascending

JA1It’s not enough to have a big budget; the major studios love to throw their money around, actively boasting about how much their latest tentpole picture cost as though the investment equated directly to the quality of the finished product, when in fact the opposite tends to be the case. Nor is it sufficient to engage the hottest talent simply because their names are on the lips of the gossip papers, because casting a big name isn’t the same as casting correctly for the part. Equally, the set and costume designers may be the most experienced in the business, but their work is only in service to the directors, and it is the vision of those who are at the helm which is paramount.

JA4As is the nature of all artists who push boundaries, the Wachowskis, Lana and Andy, have had an equal share of hits and misses, but the significance of their work cannot be denied. 1996’s genre bending low budget Bound brought them critical attention, but it was The Matrix in 1999 which marked them as a creative force in modern entertainment, again breaking boundaries and defying audience expectation.

Tied more closely to studio expectation based on the performance of the first, the two sequels disappointed, while 2008’s live action anime Speed Racer confounded audiences. Their adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed yet supposedly “unfilmable” novel Cloud Atlas co-directed with Run, Lola, Run’s Tom Tykwer was independently financed and regarded as a commercial failure due to the poor returns in America, yet with 80% of its box office revenue generated in overseas territories, reflecting the global themes of the film, it recouped more than its production budget.

JA9Going on to win eleven of the more than fifty awards for which it was nominated but receiving no recognition at all at the Academy Awards, it is apparent that while the film connected strongly with many, it was not a commercial film in the conventional sense, which was perhaps to have been expected of the Wachowskis by this stage.

Returning to original material their latest film is as vast in scope as Cloud Atlas and like that film is rooted in the history of its many characters, sometimes humble, sometimes priviliged, though this time traversing space rather than time.

JA3Maximilan was an astronomer, Aleska a mathematician; they met on a cold night in Saint Petersburg as he stared at the skies and she was as enchanted with him as he was with the stars, but their courtship was not to have a happy ending.

Shot by intruders who broke into the small flat they shared, Maximilian died in the arms of the pregnant Aleska; with her sister she left Russia, illegal immigrants hidded in a packing crate, and in international waters her daughter Jupiter Jones was born.

JA5In a distant star system, the children on the House of Abrasax have gathered following the harvesting of their latest trophy, Balem (The Theory of Everything’s award hoover Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (The Imitation Game’s Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth, soon to be seen in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

Jealous, squabbling, manipulative, Titus suggests that Balem might see fit to pass on the rights to another of his planets, but Balem is unmoved, well aware of the profit which will be generated by the population of Earth as soon as they are ripe.

JA8On Earth, the now adult Jupiter (Black Swan’s Mila Kunis) assists her mother and aunt in the family cleaning business, but she has a dream to buy a telescope matching that which her father died defending; to that end, her unreliable cousin has hatched a scheme whereby Jupiter will donate her eggs for cash. Attending the clinic under the assumed name of one of her clients, Jupiter is anaesthetised and slipping under when the clinic is attacked.

Awakening in a high rise building, Jupiter is comforted by a man who introduces himself as Caine Wise (Foxcatcher’s Channing Tatum) who explains to her that Earth is only one small planet in a galactic empire and that he has been sent to retrieve her and deliver her safely to his employer. Stepping out the window in his arms into a beam of light which carries her aloft, they are attacked again, and her adventure among the stars begins.

JA7With a budget of $176 million, it was to be expected that a science fiction blockbuster would have its special effects prominently featured, but that is insufficient to describe Jupiter Ascending where almost every single frame which has not been rendered entirely by vast processing power features some measure of digital adjustment or enhancement, but nor does it convey the majesty of the film.

To fund pyrotechnics is not the same as to conceive a universe complex and grand and intricate, the difference between an image which simply looks like a cutscene from a videogame, waiting for the action to begin, and a vista which draws in the eye while dazzling the senses.

JA2In Jupiter Ascending the Wachowskis have created their most audacious work yet, whole planets strung with orbiting ribbons of habitats like the Glitter Belt of Alastair ReynoldsThe Prefect, spaceships sculpted as works of art, magnificent flying cathedrals which float through planetary ring systems, vast refineries suspended in the swirling clouds of gas giants, environmental suits made of Banksian smart matter and other wonders too numerous to count. If Jupiter is overwhelmed and speechless, there is just cause.

As Balem, Redmayne is a quivering lip away from psychosis, his siblings at least having learned how to modify their behaviour to obtain what they want by charm rather than threats, but it is Kunis and Tatum who command the majority of the screen time, their relationship increasingly warm and believable as she is saved time and again by possibly the only man in her life who has ever not failed her or taken advantage of her yet who remains utterly oblivious to her attraction.

JA12In a curious inversion of the normal blockbuster tropes, Kunis remains clothed (sometimes gloriously though impractically so in her gifted finery) although her friend Katharine (Vanessa Kirby) is briefly reduced to her underwear; instead it is Tatum who removes his shirt so first aid can be administered and fails to replace it for the next twenty minutes as he hitches a lift on an enemy raider through a hyperspace gate before skydiving on his rocket boots to the rescue once again.

Populated by a plethora of animal/human chimeras (Caine is partially canine, Belem’s majordomo is a deer hybrid, his hunters almost fully reptilian) and the cybernetically enhanced police force of the Aegis, the supporting cast includes genre favourite Sean Bean as Stinger Apini, Caine’s former commanding officer who shared his punishment and exile, Cloud Atlas’ Doona Bae and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Spencer Wilding as bounty hunters and a cameo from Terry Gilliam as the Seal and Signet Minister, the pinnacle of a nightmare bureaucracy of which the Vogons could not imagine for obvious reasons.

JA13Most like Cloud Atlas in sprawling structure and unbridled ambition and sharing with it the theme of destiny and inheritance, the Wachowskis have dealt with an unexpected birthright before in The Matrix, and here another aspect of that film rises, organic beings used and traded as a commodity, though rather than a machine power source here they are a resource harvested for their rejuvenating properties supporting the elder houses.

The film is far from perfect; early scenes are disjointed, indicating there may have been brutal edits in order to bring it close to the magic two hour runtime expected by distributors, Jupiter’s family are heavy handed comedy relief, the plot beneath the needless convolutions is somewhat simplistic and the constant victory of Caine and Stinger over Belem’s vastly superior forces stretches credulity, but the whole is so enjoyable and uplifting that these flaws can be overlooked or forgiven.

Jupiter Ascending is now on general release and is screening in IMAX




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