Saturday, February 28, 2015
2015, d. Lana and Andy Wachowski -- in theatre
The Wachowskis are intriguing filmmakers, and divisive ones. They naturally became a "name" commodity thanks to resounding (and unexpected) success of The Matrix but rapidly ate away that goodwill with two sequels of diminishing returns (while pushing the integration of digital effects and fight choreography forward). They followed the Matrix with the bizarre pop-art Speed Racer, a huge box office disappointment, but a film that succeeded on its own terms by presenting a very distinct vision, one that the public at large just wasn't willing to embrace. Four years passed between Speed and their adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the multi-generational, experimental, time-sprawling epic which they co-wrote and directed with Tom Tykwer. Again, points for vision and accomplishment but an extremely flawed movie requiring a lot of viewer patience. With these five films (plus the lesbian-noir film Bound, which preceded the Matrix) the Wachowski name has become both a draw and a deterrent, one never quite sure what they're going to receive.
Looking over their nearly 20-year career, one can see that the Wachowskis are keen to focus on the science fiction genre and that, like many directors of that they came up with, they wear their influences on their sleeve. But like a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, their stories bring together their influences into a new whole, rather than feel like recycled copycats. As well, every outing, not matter how successful or unsuccessful the story may be, there's always a very assured vision to what they're doing. It's easy to be impressed with a Wachowski film, and it's just as easy to be disappointed by one. For their last four films, each since The Matrix, one generally has to qualify their liking of the film, acknowledging that they're extremely flawed but still enjoyable to them. I went into Jupiter Ascending expecting to both enjoy it and qualify that enjoyment. I mean, based on the trailer alone, there's no way someone's coming out of that film a straight-up fan, right?
Turns out, I don't have to qualify at all, I flat-out enjoyed, maybe even loved Jupiter Ascending. I didn't think I would have this strong a reaction especially based on the trailer, which utterly undersells the film.
It's a pretty dodgy trailer, and the one I saw most often. Most of the TV commercials were cut from it. It's full of epic music that doesn't quite marry well with the imagery, and full of imagery that doesn't make much sense, and by the end of the trailer pretty much the only thing you're sure of is that it's a Wachowski siblings movie. That Channing Tatum has weird pointy ears and a bleached goatee and guyliner on all make the thing seem rather silly in spite of the grandiose music.
Now this trailer, it features the same music, but lays out the story far, far better:
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter, a Russian immigrant working for her family's housekeeping business, with dreams of a different life but the crushing reality that another life isn't really within her reach. But, it turns out that she happens to be the genetic duplicate of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax, a family tens of thousands of years old, rich in the universe as tycoons of a rejuvenating formula that can extend life and restore youth. As the genetic duplicate she is entitled to her previous life's inheritance, which includes the resource-rich Earth. But the children of Abrasax each want the Earth for their own, the planet, teeming with life, is ripe for the harvesting and being turned into the valuable, life-prolonging formula. Alien bounty hunters and assassins of all sorts descend upon the Earth in pursuit of Jupiter, but one, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) sees Jupiter as something more than just a mark and endeavours to protect her.
The film is delightful space opera bristling with ideas that show the incredible depth of detail that the Wachowskis put into this reality. The film, without doing so head on, addresses popular monster mythology like vampires and werewolves, as well as dinosaurs, alien abduction and crop circles. The fact of the matter is, the Earth was seeded by these higher beings. and is regularly manipulated and influenced by them Their technology is so superior they're able hide in plain sight, becoming invisible or project a human image. They can rebuild a destroyed city in hours and erase the memories of thousands in seconds. When we see their factory hidden in the clouds of Jupiter, their structures are littered with statues that read Greek, Aztek, Egyptian and more but spun with alien twists (so they're evidently responsible for our mythologies as well).
I really appreciated the scale at which the film operated on. The story is very personal to Jupiter, but it expands in scope to encompass the fate of the Earth, but beyond that, it establishes that a planet like the Earth is just a barn full of cattle compared to the larger universe, that to the citizens that live outside of the Earth its existence means nothing. It's rare that there's a science fiction story that takes place on modern day Earth where the aliens do not feel like outsiders, where the ways of the Earth are neither strange nor foreign to them (if anything Earth is so far beneath and below them they're not at all concerned with the planet's ways).
The Wachowskis are masters of action sequences and the first big one is an eye-popper. Caine and Jupiter are falling high above Chicago after their transport is destroyed by enemy bounty hunters. Caine wears anti-gravity boots which allow him to hover and move in the sky, so its up to him to rescue Jupiter from her plummet while dodging the firing ships trailing them. This sequence features so many wide, broad sequences of Caine skating the Chicago skyline at sunrise, intercut with the tenuous grip he has on Jupiter, recalling the Superman and Lois sequence from the 1979 Superman film. It's bright and exciting, and the neon trail Caine leaves behind from his boots hearkens back to Tron. It's the way Caine moves through the sky that really excites me, the speed skating creates a very dynamic visual, one that is unlike any other I've seen. I wasn't old enough to first see Superman in a theatre, I can only imagine the excitement of seeing someone flying on screen convincingly for the first time was very much like the same exciting charge of seeing Caine skate the sky. I've seen flying in film before but it's never been as exciting as this.
That tone that the trailer establishes is very absent from the film. This isn't a dour, self-serious picture. It has levity and is quite generally playful. Jupiter is a bit awestruck by her experiences, while Caine feels conflicted. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays the most ruthless of the Abrasax siblings, speaking with a gravelly whispered hush befitting an 80,000-year-old man, and chewing the scenery, which doesn't feel out of place in this film. Meanwhile Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth play much softer yet no less conniving members of the family, attempting to use business or diplomacy to wriggle what they want from Jupiter, their reincarnated mother. The Abrasax family and their commercial interests nods towards Dune, without directly emulating it. Sean Bean brings his usual burdened heaviness to the film as one of Caine's ex-military colleagues, but manages to avoid all of the Wachowski's traps and survive to the end (spoiler alert). Jupiter's immediate family, a huddled mass of Russian immigrants, provide a source of levity, not by mocking them but by creating a very contentious yet close knit dynamic.
The inclusion of human-animal hybrids is perhaps the film's weirdest touch and where it might lose a great many of its audience members. Caine is essentially a genetic human-wolf hybrid, while we also spy ferret-human, elephant-human, and mouse-human hybrids, all of whom look downright weird. I have to guess, knowing that the Wachowskis are indeed comic book fans, that they were inspired by the great mothly book Saga (by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which features very similar human-animal hybrids among its other exotic alien designs), just as I'm certain those hover boots were inspired by Jack Kirby's New Gods (Wachowskis neeed to do a New Gods movie)
There's so much to Jupiter Ascending that I could continue writing at length about the great many things I loved, all the wonderful minutiae that the Wachowskis seeded the film with (such the great bureaucracy sequence that was obviously inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which then goes on to feature Gilliam in the segment), but if you want me to nitpick, there's one particular point of contention, which would be Jupiter's repeated need of rescuing by Chase (including a surprising homage to the Graduate), but in the end when she actually gets into a fight she holds her own. Too bad she didn't get her own anti-grav boots sooner.
Jupiter Ascending features a heavy Doctor Who and Outer Limits influence as well as countless others, but isn't defined by any one of them. It takes its anime ships and its Mary Poppins flying and does its own thing. It's not been getting great reviews (largely from those same reviewers commenting on comic book/teen novel/sequel/franchise fatigue), reviewers generally citing it as ridiculous and the plot confusing (seemed straightforward enough to me). This is space opera, not light or hard sci-fi. It's romantic, playful and opulent, it's weird and knowingly goofy at times, reveling in everything it is. Everything here is a choice the Wachowskis made and not a rash of mistakes cobbled together into a 2 hour film. It's definitely an under-appreciated film, a film which may grow its fanbase as the years forge on. It's densely structured enough that repeated viewings will yield only more insight and appreciation for the craft the Wachowskis put into it. I'm excited that it already has a growing cult following and that its doing well internationally. But then again, I don't need anyone else to love it. The film exists, it ends without cliffhangers or anticipating a sequel, so whether it's successful or a failure I can enjoy it as often as I like (as soon as it's released for home viewing). It's also only got two swears and minor rear-end nudity so it's pretty clean for the kids as well.