Friday, February 6, 2015

Jupiter Ascending: Overcooked sci-fi slop

Jupiter Ascending (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and brief chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang

Back in the day — way back in the day — sci-fi pulp magazine covers were known for their wonderfully lurid images of scantily clad maidens being menaced by all manner of strange creatures, usually of a reptilian or insectoid nature.

With several nasty spaceships chasing them through the urban canyons of downtown
Chicago, Jupiter (Mila Kunis) and Caine (Channing Tatum) just barely manage to dodge
the laser blasts, thanks to his anti-gravity footwear, which allows him to "skate" on air.
Such covers generally accompanied thoroughly ludicrous space operas that were light on credible characterization or plausible plotting, and heavy on high-tech hardware and weaponry.

This laughably ridiculous flick belongs squarely in that sort of company.

In fairness, Jupiter Ascending isn’t as inane as the Wachowski siblings’ nadir, a spot forever and always to be occupied by 2008’s ill-advised big-screen adaptation of Speed Racer. (At least, one hopes they never plumb lower depths.)

At times, though, it seems a pretty close call. Despite some genuinely thoughtful “big ideas” that percolate throughout this clumsy original script, Jupiter Ascending will be remembered — if it’s remembered at all — for its howlingly dreadful dialogue and relentless, protracted, video game-style action scenes.

Rarely has an ordinary, flesh-and-blood human being endured such punishment, violated so many natural laws of physics, and emerged with nary a scratch. Heck, our heroine’s hair never even gets mussed. We can but roll our eyes, as she survives megascale carnage that should have pulped her fragile body many times over. Scores of times over. Hundreds of times over.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Outer space fantasies can be a tough genre to mine successfully; it’s difficult to qualify what separates an engaging, rip-roaring homage — such as the original Star Wars trilogy — from the sort of overcooked mess being served here. I guess the distinction becomes obvious only when filmmakers egregiously succumb to the dark side of the Force, as Andy and Lana Wachowski have done so ostentatiously.

And the silly names don’t help much.

Jupiter Jones (sigh) is born to a starry-eyed astrophysicist (James D’Arcy) and the Russian woman (Maria Doyle Kennedy) with whom he falls in love, while working in St. Petersburg; tragedy strikes shortly before the little girl comes into the world. Suddenly, whoosh, we’re in Chicago, where Jupiter has grown into a young woman (Mila Kunis) who lives with her extended Russian relations and works as a housekeeper/maid alongside her mother and aunt (Frog Stone).

Jupiter, understandably loathing her life, wishes for ... something different.

She gets that wish, when some creepy extraterrestrials attempt to kill her: an effort that fails only due to the last-second intervention of Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered “skyjacker” soldier with incomparable hunting, tracking and fighting skills. (And boy, that’s an understatement.)

Caine seems to be a good guy, but Jupiter has trouble keeping track — as do we — because of all the other entities suddenly after her.

These life-threatening attacks originate far beyond Earth, and result from a power struggle between the three heirs of the universe-spanning House of Abrasax: Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth). Somehow, Jupiter’s very existence threatens the current order, and at least one of the Abrasax heirs wants her dead.

Because, it turns out, Jupiter has “royal DNA” or some such nonsense.

Some pretty high-falutin’ cosmological concepts are tossed into the mix, most significantly the fact that the House of Abrasax is responsible for having “seeded” hundreds (thousands?) of worlds, including Earth, throughout the galaxy ... which conveniently explains their humanesque appearance.

The motive wasn’t altruistic. Once certain population densities are reached — once a world threatens to exhaust its resources, and therefore can be said to have peaked — the entire planet is “harvested,” it’s inhabitants stripped down to genetic materials that are refined into a white syrup that prolongs life.

Just as our own 16th century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed supposedly bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth, the Abrasax heirs have preserved themselves for millennia by bathing in liquefied human DNA. (Ick.)

Additionally, Abrasax tech hasn’t been confined to developing human, ah, livestock. They also genetically crossed their human DNA with that of other creatures, resulting in hybrids developed for specific characteristics. Caine’s powers derive from his wolf DNA, the visible results being his lupine ears; Balem’s royal guard is led by Greeghan, a ferocious “saurisapian” that resembles a winged dinosaur/crocodile.

OK, all this is intriguing, and I can see a thoroughly fascinating long-form drama spun from this premise: say, a 10-hour miniseries with Jupiter seduced and/or deceived by each Abrasax sibling in turn, with events building to a mesmerizing showdown. Something on the scale of Frank Herbert’s Dune, with its various warring factions, scores of key characters and internecine paranoia.

Nice thought, but the Wachowskis haven’t aimed that high. They do introduce lots of characters, but most remain under-developed, vague and ill-defined; it’s almost impossible to keep track, at any given moment, of who’s good, bad or somewhere in between ... let alone who’s working for Balem, as opposed to Kalique or Titus.

Efforts at thoughtful drama are sabotaged further by the aforementioned childish names, notably Caine’s estranged warrior colleague, played by Sean Bean, and identified as Stinger ... because his human genes were crossed with those of a highly evolved bee species. (Seriously?)

Bean is a solid, highly talented actor ... under better circumstances. His performance here is a mess, probably because he hasn’t the faintest idea what to do, or how to behave, from one scene to the next.

When it comes to bad acting, though, nobody could top Redmayne, whose Balem is so over-the-top awful that you can’t help laughing at the character’s hilariously aristocratic lunacy. You half expect him to huff and puff like the Big, Bad Wolf. And yes, this is the same Eddie Redmayne currently Oscar-nominated for his superlative work in The Theory of Everything ... and he no doubt wishes that Jupiter Ascending hadn’t been released at this particular moment.

We’re frequently reminded, throughout this film, that — whatever their talents for orchestrating high-tech mayhem — the Wachowskis haven’t a clue how to direct actors to good performances, or even plausible ones.

By far the worst misstep comes later, though, once we meet Diomika Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the captain of an intergalactic police force escort ship who — for reasons unknown — puts herself and her crew in peril, to help Caine and Jupiter. Tsing’s pilot appears to be a human/elephant cross: a preposterous character who immediately reminded me of Hooter, the goofy little elephant in the Disneyland/Michael Jackson Captain Eo attraction. (Needless to say, not a desirable comparison...)

I take it back: The worst misstep comes when Kunis insists on informality during an introduction, by saying “Call me Jupe.” Rarely has a line of dialogue elicited such a wince.

Other sidebar characters or sequences feel as though they wandered in from some other film. Jupiter’s Russian relations, particularly greedy Cousin Vladie (Kick Gurry), behave like they’re auditioning for a bad TV sitcom. Later, when Caine and Jupiter struggle to establish her royal credentials within the maze of overcrowded offices in Titus’ Commonwealth Ministry, these various encounters become a bureaucratic farce that concludes with the “Seal and Signet Minister,” a cranky old civil servant played by filmmaker Terry Gilliam, no doubt because this montage echoes his film Brazil.

Amusing, certainly, but pointless ... and having nothing to do with the rest of the film. Except to set up another tone-deaf punch line by Kunis.

I must hasten to add that Kunis cannot be blamed for any of this; indeed, she’s the best part of this film. Jupiter is a brave and resourceful heroine — if perhaps a bit slow on the uptake, when it comes to dealing with the Abrasax sibs — and Kunis gamely tackles the role with grit and determination. It’s not her fault that the character is forced to say and do so many stupid things.

As for Tatum ... well ... he’s been better. His heart doesn’t seem to be in this role, and he often seems embarrassed by his character’s wolf ears.

On the positive side, the film looks sensational. Production designer Hugh Bateup has a field day with the various palatial surroundings in which we find the Abrasax clan; visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and FX designer John Gaeta also do marvelous things, whether wreaking havoc in downtown Chicago, or constructing Balem’s immense “processing facility” deep within Jupiter’s famed red spot.

And, yes, the various melees, chases and action sequences are dazzling and breathtaking ... but they all last much too long. Frankly, it feels like the Wachowskis are trying to take our minds off their abysmal scripting.

This film ultimately ends just as clumsily as it begins, with all sorts of narrative threads left up in the air — some literally — and a “happy” conclusion apparently cemented with the gift of a telescope. (Honestly, I’m not making this up.)

As I’ve observed many times, lazy filmmakers apparently believe that fantasies give them license to make stuff up as they go along. Not true; it’s actually more important to adhere to logic and rigorous plotting, because viewers skeptically begin on the shifting sands of an improbable premise. Get too random, and we simply lose interest.

Sadly, based on Jupiter Ascending, Andy and Lana Wachowski are very, very lazy.

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