Monday, February 9, 2015

Just Because 'Jupiter Ascending' Is Bad Doesn't Mean It's Not Fun


I want to get one thing clear before we get going. I do not, under any circumstances, think that Jupiter Ascending is a good movie. Like, no way. Not even a little bit. It's awful. This does not, however, mean that I think you shouldn't go see it. You should. It's awful and cheesy and dumb and you need to watch it right now because it's going to bring you so much joy.

Was that confusing? Well so is this movie.

The film, which is an original science fiction piece from the minds of Andy and Lana Wachowski, is very had to summarize, but I'll do my best. The story follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), an undocumented Russian immigrant who lives with her mother and cleans toilets for a living - the American dream! Her life is dull and miserable until one day she tries to sell her eggs for cash and nearly gets abducted by aliens. Fortunately, a different alien, Caine (Channing Tatum), rescues her and they go off on a cross-country road trip of exposition.

It turns out that aliens are after Jupiter because she is the genetic reincarnation of the deceased matriarch of a very important space family. Said family is one of industrial, capitalist space vampires who harvest DNA or genes or souls or something from planets and then bathe in them so as to stay alive forever. And they see no moral problem with that because they themselves planted life on those planets in the first place.

Earth, it seems, is one of those planets, and its owner, Balem (Eddie Redmayne at his scenery chewing-est), wants to harvest it right now. But before he can do that, he has to kill Jupiter, because as his mother's reincarnation, she is entitled to an inheritance. And that inheritance is Earth. Because of reasons. Shut up and don't try to introduce logic into this movie.

Balem's siblings, Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) both make their play to get Jupiter, and therefore her inheritance, on their side, while Balem keeps trying to kill her and Caine generally moons around repressing his love for Jupiter while angrily challenging everyone to a fight. Jupiter herself is mostly a macguffin meant to keep the plot, such as it is, moving, and there are no less than two sequences wherein Caine must race to stop Jupiter from doing something stupid and arrives just in the knick of time.

In the end, and trust me this really isn't a spoiler because I promise none of this plot matters at all, Jupiter manages to survive her space adventure and returns home to her argumentative Russian family, having decided that her life really isn't so bad. Plus, now she has a hot space boyfriend and secretly owns the planet. Not bad.

Like I said, the plot is definitely not this movie's strong point. What it does have going for it is, first, that it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, and, second, that it is the most entertaining experience you can have in a cinema right now. No, it's not good or even comprehensible, but it is savagely fun. Why? Because this movie has no idea what it is, and that is not a bad thing. Here is a list of things that actually happen in this movie:

-There are space bees that have been trained to recognize royalty. For some reason.

-Titus tries to marry the reincarnation of his mother.

-A space werewolf fights a dragon in an exploding DNA refinery. In space.

-Sean Bean plays a soldier who is part bee (named Stinger). Stinger betrays our heroes because his daughter has space cough and he needs space medicine to save her.

-There is a ten minute sequence of Jupiter and Caine navigating the space DMV.

-Two androgynous bureaucracy robots get into a staring contest.

-Jupiter mops up Caine's injury by sticking a sanitary napkin to it.

-Caine's motivation in the film is to get back his bionic angel wings which were taken from him.

-Jupiter is kidnapped no less than five times. Possibly more. I lost track.

And so much more.

My point here isn't that Jupiter Ascending is a good film, because it very patently isn't. Rather that good and entertaining are not necessarily the same thing. I might still be confused on what the actual plot of that film was, but I had a hell of a time watching it.

And to some extent, it is worth mentioning that there are some themes, and by and large they're compelling ones. Jupiter starts the film as an openly materialistic and relatively shallow person. She's obsessed with getting her way to a new life, because she's deeply dissatisfied with the one she has. Which is fair, because her life sucks. But as she discovers that she's space royalty and heir to a great fortune, Jupiter matures and discovers that being rich comes with its own set of problems. At the end, she's genuinely grateful for what she has and realizes that her life is actually kind of awesome.

I mean, the end of this movie is that our heroine goes back to her job cleaning toilets and arguing in Russian with her extended family, but there's something satisfying about how subversive that is. The whole film is, after all, a critique of capitalism*, and it's very pointed to see that in the end, Jupiter gives up all the wealth and title to live humbly as a maid because she has determined this is the better life.

No, it's not particularly subtle, but it is a nice message. Wealth and fame really aren't all they're cracked up to be and you're probably much happier cherishing what you have. It's nice to see the movie not pull any punches with that message, or try to get past it in some way. It makes for a strange ending, but a satisfying one.

For that matter, while the whole plot feels contrived and incredibly convoluted, the romance between Jupiter and Caine is remarkably sweet. Dumb and badly written, but sweet. Caine insists that he and Jupiter can never be together because she's so much better than he is (because she's royalty), while Jupiter just absolutely insists that there is no issue here and Caine should kiss her right the hell now. She is not subtle about how much she wants him to get over the whole class differences thing, and it's great. Just because it's not well written doesn't mean it's not fun.

It's clear, at least to me, that no one really knew what to do with this movie, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While this film could definitely use a good editor and clearly has about three different stories vying for dominance, it's also a really unique vision and the kind of imaginative, lush, creative science fiction we all keep saying we so desperately want.

Yes, Jupiter is a total damsel and frequently a macguffin, but we do see the film through her eyes and that's pretty cool. Sure, Caine does a lot more to advance the plot than she does, but we're still talking about a giant Hollywood film based around a woman.

Also, it passes the Bechdel Test in the first ten minutes of the film and has really compelling female character sprinkled throughout the narrative. So while it's not taking Hollywood by storm or anything, this is a movie that cares about diversity at least a little (most of the main cast is white, but the supporting cast is solidly mixed) and has done some tiny things to change the status quo.

To a large extent the film works because the cast is so darn good. Mila Kunis totally sells it as Jupiter, clearly infusing her own actual experiences as a Russian immigrant into the role, because Jupiter is way more compelling and complex than she has any right to be. Kunis even goes so far as to make her character dry witted where the script might make her seem dumb, and overall saves her character from being just another blank face or "neutral mask". Channing Tatum isn't setting the world on fire with his portrayal of Caine, but he does a good job with some very silly material and reminds us all that he can be a good actor when he wants to be.

Even the minor characters, with the exception of Eddie Redmayne who was just having a really weird time in this movie, are great. Maria Doyle Kennedy and James D'Arcy are fantastic and tragic as Jupiter's doomed parents, and Vanessa Kirby is freaking hysterical as a rich woman whose house Jupiter cleans. Nikki Amuka-Bird does a great job humanizing her character as the space cop charged with protecting Jupiter, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is equally good as the nefarious space assistant arranging Jupiter's demise.

And there's something so viscerally satisfying about this story, such as it is. Sure, it's basically a teenage girl's first novel made into a multi-million dollar movie for everyone to see, but that's not really a bad thing. Yes, Jupiter is a Mary Sue, as in a perfect character who is clearly a wish fulfillment fantasy for the audience, but then so is Batman. And yes, the character designs and whole thing where every alien is just a person with some animal traits spliced in is silly, but who cares? It's fun. Just because something is generally associated with teenage girls and/or is a wish fulfillment narrative doesn't mean it's bad or not worth watching.

But all of this gets away from my larger point, which is that Jupiter Ascending is a gorgeous, delicious trainwreck of a film that you should absolutely go see.

It's not even because I think that you'd have fun laughing at it, like I did with the Twilight movies, or even that I think you'll enjoy hating it. Rather, I think that this movie is entertaining the way that abstract art is entertaining. There's a lot of pretty stuff to look at, many fun and/or funny things happen, and at the end your stomach will hurt from giggling and you will feel incredibly good about yourself and the world. No, you won't have any idea what just happened or how the heck this script got approved by a human being who could read, but that doesn't matter. You won't care. You'll still be smiling too hard to even notice.

And isn't that what movies are for, anyway?

Not judging, but was Eddie Redmayne on something while they were shooting this movie?
*The Abrasax empire, as in, the industrial empire that Jupiter's past self made, is literally built on human death and destruction. They harvest the poor and sell them to the rich so that the rich can live forever while the poor die. It's not a particularly subtle metaphor.

9 comments:

  1. Jupiter is kidnapped no less than five times. Possibly more. I lost track.

    Is that a record for one film?

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  2. A comment I saw on another forum - which I'd be interested to see your opinion on - was that this would make a better series pilot than a film - with the series going on to show her learning to navitage the system at large, and eventually take it on at a larger level than she could in the film.

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    1. That has potential to be really interesting. I would watch that show. But I don't really think it fails as a movie. I think it's insane and bizarre and a very strange movie, but not a bad one. Exactly. You know?

      But yeah, if this were a pilot I would totally watch that show.

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  3. And another observation I saw on that forum:

    "Actually, in the light of one of the directors being a trans person, [it could be seen] as a comment on identity in the same way as the 'My name is Neo' moment in The Matrix. This movie presents a universe where people with the power of gods consider genetics to be identity, to the point where being genetically identical to a dead woman is to be that woman reborn. And then it presents us with a heroine who, after having been jerked around by these self-professed sages the whole movie, says 'fuck that.' Her genes doesn't define her. And more than that, her upbringing also doesn't define her - she may be back to scrubbing toilets, but only because she wants time to think about just what she does want to do. And while she's thinking, she'll be goofing off with her cool bird-wolf-alien boyfriend, because she's neither going to reject something on principle nor accept something on someone else's say-so."

    Nikki Amuka-Bird does a great job humanizing her character as the space cop charged with protecting Jupiter

    Is she the blue-haired woman on the space bike?

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    1. That is a really good point. The idea of going against "genetics as destiny." Huh. I hadn't thought of that, but it's totally a valid point about the message of the film. I like that a lot.

      Nikki Amuka-Bird was the badass space captain of the space cops. She was the one who commanded the fleet and kept arresting Channing Tatum.

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  4. I've had a chance to see it for myself now, so I have my own comments instead of other people's :).

    First: Well, that was utterly bonkers.

    Jupiter is kidnapped no less than five times. Possibly more. I lost track.

    On the plus side, it's not really through her ineptitude - she had no reason to suppose the fertility clinic was staffed by aliens, the bounty hunter team was coming from all directions, Titus's team had sudden and overwhelming force (and kidnapped Cain as well), and she went to Balem willingly because he had her family. She's not crap so much as everyone else has been issued two or three more decks of cards than her.

    What bugs me more is two of the terrible siblings managing to gull her. One, maybe, for the level of overwhelm, but two *does* make her look dumb.

    (And a bit repetetive - I'd rather Kalique and Titus had been combined into one character).

    There is a ten minute sequence of Jupiter and Caine navigating the space DMV.

    I have to confess I loved the bureaucracy montage. And that Jupiter saved the Earth by remembering its rules. (Not that I was averse to seeing her lay into Balem with a metal bar too).

    I also liked that in the end, she chose the Earth's population over herself and her family.


    I had a bit of a side-eye at the elephant splice being called 'Nesh - though everything else about him was fun.

    Also amusing was Jupiter's disbelief at saying she liked dogs.

    And Cain's gun making a noise like barking.

    I liked the way the technology was set up, with forcefields so ubiquitous that spacecraft aren't even in one physical piece.

    I like that during the skating scenes, Jupiter is hanging onto Cain rather than him carrying her. It's a slight nod to making her active (minimal, but at least her muscles are doing something), and it makes sense, given Cain gets to use his arms.


    And I think I agree with the poster I referred to, that this would be a better series pilot than film. (Or maybe part one of a trilogy/quadrilogy).

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    1. I'm so glad you got a chance to enjoy the weird for yourself! :DDD

      Yeah, that is a good point. If Jupiter had been constantly falling into enemy hands because she was incompetent I think this would be a much harder movie to like. But yeah. The siblings are just too much to take. Two would have made a lot more sense for the film than three, especially considering how long it felt sometimes and how Kalique really didn't do anything.

      The space bureaucracy was hands down my favorite part. Probably because it reminded me of all the hilarious Roman bureaucracy jokes in the Asterix cartoons from when I was a kid. But also because it's funny in its own right.

      I am glad that Jupiter gets that big heroic moment of self-sacrifice. But I wish we spent more time on it. And I love that she has an upper hand because she actually read the rules! But, again, I wish the film were structured in such a way so as to let that moment breathe, you know? I want more focus on that.

      Agreed about 'Nesh. And Jupiter's facepalm moment. I didn't notice the gun and that's hilarious. The spaceship design was one of the coolest parts of the film. All the art direction was amazing.

      That's a really good point about her physical actions while he spirits her to safety making her more active in her own story. I like that.

      Miniseries?

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    2. It's easily the most unapologetically out-of-its-gourd film I've seen in recent years.

      I also liked the space bureaucracy because it came across how boring and frustrating it all was for the bureaurats too, who after all get to deal with cases like this all day every day, each and every one of which thinks it's uniquely special.

      I know what you mean about the moment breathing. That was her big triumph, even more than the metal bar, because it showed her capable of engaging with this world even on its terms.

      Miniseries is a good call. The Wachowskis have had a string of lacklustre and/or underperforming films - given how well Sense8 is turning out (and it's been renewed), maybe TV is a better medium for them to do their ideas justice.

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