Phasers on '****ing Insane'
By Jove, what's this? Another movie from the Wachowski siblings, consigned to the outer wastelands of the release schedule? (By which I mean February, of course.) At this point, all the quality movies hoping for glory in the awards season have been released (and probably re-released, in some cases), while it's still a bit too soon for even the earliest blockbusters to be coming out. What tend to emerge at this time of year, blinking and unloved, are the films which the studio really don't have much faith in: things which are looking like big-budget follies, in short.
The omens for the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending are slightly ominous, when you look at it that way. This big, lavish fantasy movie was originally scheduled for a release last June, and trailers for it had actually started to appear in front of other films. But at practically the very last minute it was pulled and knocked back to this year, supposedly so it could have its special effects and plotting touched up. Even if you buy this explanation, early February is not a prime release date for a $176 million movie made by two writer-directors of substance.
Oh well. Jupiter Ascending dispenses with the traditional voice-over and/or series of captions explaining its universe in favour of something more quirky and personal, although boiling the plot down into something easily summarised is a formidable challenge. Basically, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young second-generation Russian immigrant working as a domestic cleaner in present-day Chicago. She is not very happy with her lot in life.
However, things change when she finds herself menaced by strange, inhuman forces (she's having her eggs harvested at the time, which I suppose has a vague thematic resonance, but no strong bearing on the plot). Fortunately she is rescued by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a half-man half-Airedale Terrier bounty hunter from space, who zaps the bad guys and whisks her off on his anti-gravity skates, before explaining what's going on.
The truth is simple (if also somewhat bonkers): Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of a 90,000-year-old space princess and, as a result, is de facto royalty in the strange interstellar milieu the movie depicts. She is also the recipient of a prime piece of planetary real estate (here's a clue: you most likely live on it) and an unwilling participant in the power-games of an immensely wealthy family of space tycoons. Chief amongst these is Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), who is most put out to have lost a potentially profitable planet. However, as well as a vast fortune he also has a private army of flying space-crocodiles on retainer, which he is not afraid to deploy in defence of his interests...
You know, I've liked the Wachowskis ever since the first time I saw The Matrix, quite a few years ago now: I was one of those people more than willing to give the Matrix sequels a chance, I thought V for Vendetta (which they wrote) was better than many gave it credit for, and their last movie, Cloud Atlas, was probably the film I enjoyed most in 2013. Anything they do is going to be interestingly different, at the very least.
But this movie? Hooooo boy! Now, I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it, because I did. I went with a friend and by the end we were hooting with laughter at everything unfolding on the screen. The slight problem, perhaps, is that Jupiter Ascending is not really intended to be an outright comedy film. It's just that the film is so, so way out there in some of its ideas, and especially in the way it's unafraid to stack them on top of one another, that it eventually simply becomes absurd.
This being the Wachowskis, the film is never less than ravishing to look at: the special effects, costumes, and production designs are all gorgeous. But it's as though the siblings have availed themselves of a very large tank full of extravagant visuals, bizarre plot ideas, and very bad acting, and are using a high-pressure hose to spray the contents indiscriminately across the screen for 127 minutes. The results are bracing, but also very weird.
There are perhaps a few similarities with their greatest work, as this is the story of an ordinary person who discovers they are actually of great significance in a world they are initially ignorant of, a world in which human life has a slightly sinister quality, as a resource to be exploited. But the rest of it is all over the place: it looks a bit like Flash Gordon and a bit like Dune, there are lengthy discussions of galactic inheritance and tax law to gladden the heart of any Phantom Menace admirer, there's a very Hitch Hikers-y sequence on a planet of bureaucrats that also brings to mind Brazil – at which point, of course, a heavily-disguised Terry Gilliam wanders on for a cameo appearance. And why not? It makes as much sense as anything else. In the midst of all this Jupiter's main preoccupation seems to be coming on to her dogged (and doggy) guardian, in a manner I found slightly needy. Needless to say, he seems to have incipient republican inclinations.
Off on another sound-stage, meanwhile, the protracted squabbles of Jupiter's extended family of comedy Russian-Americans are interrupted by flying space-crocodiles crashing through the ceiling, on a mission from Eddie Redmayne's character. Everyone seems to be assuming Redmayne is a mortal lock for the Best Actor Oscar, for his performance as Stephen Hawking in that film I haven't seen. Well, if he doesn't get it, it may be because tapes of Jupiter Ascending are doing the rounds, as his performance here is quite extraordinarily OTT. I suspect the reason most of the scenery is computer-generated is simply to stop Redmayne from chewing on it, not that anyone in the film is particularly restrained.
It's not immediately obvious whether Jupiter Ascending is genuinely intended to be a piece of soaringly camp nonsense, or if it's just a seriously-intended genre movie which has had something go very, very awry with it. The fact that the plot still doesn't quite hang together suggests the latter, but if the film has a serious message to impart it's not very clear what it is. There seems to be a suggestion that you can be perfectly happy sponging out someone else's bog all day, provided you know that deep-down you're a space princess (personally, I sort of doubt this), while the film does seem to have some interesting, if half-formed ideas about how post-scarcity societies are really going to function – even to the point of implying that a truly post-scarcity society is impossible in a finite universe. This does tend to get drowned out by some bog-standard egalitarian anti-capitalism, which sits weirdly with the generally pro-monarchical tenor of the film (Jupiter gets off on Dog-boy calling her 'Your Majesty').
I remember a review of Spielberg's 1941 wherein the writer suggested the principal pleasure of the film was simply watching the director play with the resources of a big-budget movie like a kid with a train set. I think much the same applies to Jupiter Ascending: the plot is barmy, and in places baffling, but it looks stunning, the action is superbly mounted, and there are so many incidental pleasures along the way (for instance, at one point Tim Piggott-Smith comes on as a half-man, half-badger alien). Jupiter Ascending is probably a terrible film, but it's the most brilliant terrible film I've seen in ages. I hope it does well enough for studio bosses to keep giving the Wachowskis money: the world of cinema would be a much poorer place without their particular brand of inspired madness.