Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

It is very rare that you see a film that you know is, for all intents and purposes, a considerable failure, but which you nonetheless come out of stoked out of your mind. The Wachowski’s latest commercial disaster, Jupiter Ascending, is just such a film, alternating an over-designed sci-fi production with an undercooked screenplay, partially rescued by its action scenes and the best musical score Michael Giacchino has ever written.

There’s just no getting around it. I have to start there. The Wachowskis used the rare approach of having Giacchino score to the screenplay (rather than scoring to a near-complete edit of the film) and, then assembling the film around the music. It’s a technique they picked up from Tom Tykwer during Cloud Atlas, but it traces back at least to Sergio Leone’s legendary collaboration with Ennio Morricone in the 60s. I can’t speak to its efficiency or cost from a production standpoint, but it’s delivered some of the best music in the annals of film. Here, it seems to have given Michael Giacchino the creative breathing room he needed to write that classic sci-fi score he’s hinted at ever since 2009’s Star Trek. Giacchino, whose best work prior to this was Speed Racer, another Wachowski film, fires up a broad stylistic range, a score whose influences are so diverse — the agile orchestral grandeur of Jarre, the pounding fanfare of early Williams (Giacchino hasn’t thrived so much in this regard since his work on the Medal of Honor games), the trilling strings of late Williams, the action bombast of Goldsmith and, of course, Holst — yet so cohesive and unique and culminative of his prior work that eventually you have to just smile and say “It sounds like Giacchino.”

Happily, there’s a lot of the Wachowskis’ personalities on display as well, though not in their sporadically-reached peak form. Their “chosen one” protagonist, this time, is Russian-descended Earthling, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis). Jupiter, the film is very fond of telling us, is destined for greater things than her menial life with a family of caricaturesque émigrés, and when a grouping of aliens tries to assassinate Jupiter and an elf-eared, dog-toothed mercenary (Channing Tatum) rescues her, those greater things come to pass; it’s not long before Jupiter discovers that the human race is not indigenous to Earth, and that she is the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abraxis family, an intergalactic corporate dynasty. This status grants her, among other benefits, ownership of her home planet. Her three corporateering children (Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Booth, and Eddie Redmayne) have other ideas, and it becomes clear that Jupiter’s genetic predecessor had one helluva dysfunctional relationship with her children that may have gone as far as matricide….

This is, er, silly. And Jupiter Ascending, of course, is aware that it’s silly. Were you to swap out this music for a pop soundtrack, and were the Wachowskis not the most reliably excellent directors of action scenes in the world, it would resemble nothing more than the notoriously campy (and amusingly hare-brained) Flash Gordon film of 1980, a work far more eager to distinguish itself from any other science-fiction on the market than it is to tell the story at its center.

Unlike that film, however, Jupiter Ascending is not so willing to laugh at itself, an attitude at odds with its lighthearted story. It’s not that the Wachowskis take the characters and material too seriously, it’s that they don’t take it seriously enough — there’s far more laughs and fun to be mined from a protagonist’s ongoing incredulity than there is with this lackadaisical “go with it” attitude of each and every character, especially Jupiter herself. One of the biggest assets to placing an Earth person just like this at the center of a sci-fi epic is allowing the audience to identify with that character, and given that this isn’t as stoic or grim-faced a work as The Matrix, humour is a practical necessity for us to identify with the fish-out-of-water hero. It’s alienating to see Jupiter gawk so little at the way her ordinary life has overturned and become a space opera, beyond a little quip comparing alien bureaucracy to the DMV.

Had Jupiter Ascending done more to sell its characters’ believability within such goofy trappings, instead of using those trappings to waive believability, we could be looking at a really terrific film. Visually, the Wachowskis are certainly up to it; though I have qualms about the digestibility of its giddily ornate and diverse production/alien designs, there’s not much arguing that it’s fun to look at, and John Toll’s cinematography is certainly a sterling presence throughout — though my 3D viewing suggested that the action works best in three dimensions, and all other material in two.

Those action scenes! Always count on the Wachowskis for their skill here, because nobody is better at redirecting an audience’s rulebook for gunfights, from the light push on the y-axis of “boots that let you surf gravity” to their uncanny ability to put the camera in exactly the most exciting position that will cut to the next shot in exactly the most exciting way. There is nothing here to match the quintessentially climactic ending of Speed Racer (which counted on our investment in the characters as much as it did its pitch-perfect confluence of light and design), but any time the movie transitions into a firefight it quickly becomes a joy to experience — especially in one contrived but elated scene that intercuts between a chaotic space chase and a fantastically overblown don’t do it! wedding.

The Wachowskis, however, seem far more interested in the things unique to a space opera than they are the things universal to any character-centered story. The downtime between action is hard to defend, and only becomes harder as the film goes on. Character attributes are introduced without much fanfare, left alone for most of the running time, and then treated with grave import in the 11th hour, and the cast’s performances seem roundly confused as a result (Redmayne's hammed-up malevolence is as unconvincing as you've probably heard). The plot’s episodic structure has thin premises and thinner payoffs. Perhaps most damningly for a movie about doe-eyed spacefaring, the inner workings of galactic society are treated with too much dry procedure (one parade of bureaucracies halfway through is toned for comedy, but written with no wit beyond repetition. It ends with a Terry Gilliam cameo, which registers both as a fun homage to Brazil and a reminder of how much better this kind of comic material can be handled).

Jupiter Ascending has big problems. How the superlative score elevates the film’s many shortcomings! Giacchino weaves a myriad of lovely motifs together, capturing the majesty and excitement of its genre’s tradition better than anything it underscores. I cannot give the music a high enough recommendation, and it works at least as well on-album as it does with the movie. I don’t expect any other 2015 film to surpass its craftsmanship in any given field. That can make you either grateful for its help in making Jupiter Ascending a much funner experience, or regretful that it’s not surrounded by a better movie. Depends on how you look at it. If you lean in close to any of this film’s most lovingly crafted parts, you’ll find much to delight in. Step back and look at the whole, and you’ll see a Jupiter that doesn’t really go anywhere. Me, I stayed on the edge of my seat.


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