The following contains spoilers for Jupiter Ascending. You have been warned.
Have you seen Jupiter Ascending yet? We have, and Erik, Tyler, and I got together to talk about it. And The Matrix. And Star Wars. And quite a bit about Guardians of the Galaxy. But mostly about Jupiter Ascending. Mostly…
Tim: I’m not really sure what people were expecting of Jupiter Ascending going in. A little over a year ago, it graced our “Most Anticipated of 2014” list…shortly before being pushed to 2015. I’ve already weighed in on the quality of the result to some degree, but let’s start with a baseline from you both on A) what you were expecting from the movie, and B) what you got from it.
Tyler: It’s funny you mention expectations because despite the number of delays and the track record of the Wachowskis pretty much since the end of Matrix Revolutions, I was actually looking forward to this – it was my most anticipated of February 2015. Despite the negative hype I was hoping for a fun, high sci-fi adventure, especially with this being the Wachowski’s first original film since Matrix Revolutions. Unfortunately for me, everything we know about blockbusters pushed to early in the year was true here as well. While I actually liked the first 30 minutes or so – basically until they leave Earth – the rest of the movie lacked any stakes, rendering it pretty useless.
Erik: I thought the movie looked pretty bad from its first trailer – from an aesthetic point of view at least. Also, considering the Wachowskis’ track record…you know the term “one hit wonder.” That’s how I’m starting to feel about Andy and Lana Wachowski. That said, they can shoot a pretty good action scene or two (which is what got me through the Matrix sequels) so I thought if worst came to worst I could just sit back and have some fun. But even the action scenes in Jupiter Ascending didn’t do anything for me. I will say that as far as subverting my expectations in a positive way, Channing Tatum wasn’t as lifeless as I expected him to be.
Tim: Ok, so we’re sort of running the gamut from “disappointing” to “was always going to be bad,” which is about what I think public reaction at large has been. Tyler, you mentioned the first 30 minutes in particular, and I definitely want to take some time to talk about that part. I was getting ready to be really pleasantly surprised by this movie. The opening sequence introducing Jupiter (Mila Kunis) was kind of “whatever,” but I really liked the back alley scene that introduced Caine (Tatum)! I was so excited to get to know that trio of bounty hunters, and then they only turn up once more the entire rest of the movie and prove to be completely irrelevant. That annoyed me to no end, I was so ready for an almost good natured fight between them and Caine over Jupiter.
Tyler: I wish I could say I enjoyed those three bounty hunters but because they were barely in the movie, I can only say I enjoyed their potential. I was prepared to learn more about them and expected there to be history with them and Caine, as cliche as that might have been, I was ready for it. I also thought the chase/dogfight throughout the Chicago skyline was a lot of fun.
Tim: I liked the dogfight, and it was well shot – I liked the elasticity and agility of the ships – but that’s also one of the spots that Jupiter Ascending really showed a division between its imaginative and its more uninspired sides. There were parts of this movie, like the bounty hunters, that were familiar to the sci-fi genre but had enough personality to them that I was all ready to buy in. The ships felt a hair generic and the dogfight too predictable.
Tyler: I could have used a few more genre cliches throughout the movie, then I could at least say that Jupiter Ascneding was some good mindless fun. This is the Wachowskis though, and everything has to have a larger scope. I would like to address one part of that first 30 minutes that didn’t work for me and was a through line in the plot. The three siblings. I don’t know what it is but the Wachowskis – at least in their original scripts – have this fascination with aristocratic royalty that can be very alienating. Do you guys see this too?
Erik: Yes, because it’s a familiar archetype. And that’s what the Wachowskis love: archetypes, and tropes, and iconic images, and moments from fantasy, and sci-fi, and Hong Kong action, and Wuxia, and anime. The evil high society/aristocrat/royal shows up in some variation in almost all of those things. The problem is, the Wachowskis may love these things, and thus want to share their love with the world by putting them in their movies, but they don’t seem to know (most of the time) how to fit them together so they make sense or have the right effect.
Tim: I’m going to stick up for the Wachowskis a bit on this point, because while I’ll agree they didn’t make good use of it here, the idea of a genome was underlying this entire universe. So it’s not that there’s an aristocracy that’s inherently better than the low people in the same way that The Matrix makes “The One” integral to its story. I think it’s a really interesting idea to mix some codified notion of reincarnation into a world where genetic manipulation is so common. I guess I haven’t really gotten back to the three siblings complaint, but they seemed to fit in with that broader notion of the universe that was being created.
Erik: Perhaps. And I won’t say that the Wachowskis are ever short of interesting ideas. However, I also didn’t think it mattered how well the siblings fit into the universe, because they were terrible villains. It was such a surreal experience since Eddie Redmayne give one of my favorite performances last year in The Theory of Everything (and I didn’t even particularly like that movie).
Tyler: I have to imagine we are all on the same page with Redmayne’s performance but I want to go back to the three siblings. Erik, you seem to be familiar with the Wachowskis’ influences. Is there a significance to three siblings that I’m missing? Because I thought that there was at least one too many characters there.
Erik: Three shows up all over mythology. In Shinto there are three major sibling gods who represent the sky, the earth, and the underworld. There’s the three sisters of fate in Greek mythology. The maiden, the mother, and the crone, in (I think) Celtic myth. And so on, and so forth. They usually represent three opposing but still connected concepts.
Tyler: Gotcha. I found there being three to hurt the overall structure of the film and confused me as to what the non-Redmayne siblings were after, exactly.
Tim: I didn’t see any thematic significance to the presence of three siblings here, and my guess is that it had more to do with convenience in the initial conception of the story. Although now that I think about it, I suppose they do represent very different character types, at least in the most superficial of ways. At any rate, that wasn’t going to come through with any more depth unless all the characters were more tied to Jupiter’s fate. It feels very much like Andy and Lana were given free rein initially to invent story beats, and then eventually asked to pare it down to something feature length. Oh, and since we already mentioned Redmayne, I’m pretty sure there was a subplot cut about him being the one Caine bit. The voice seems too affected for the directors to insist on without some sort of connective backstory.
Erik: The audience is left assume so much, because so few things were properly developed. It felt like they took an entire season of a television show and squished it down to a feature film. I’d be curious to know how many pages the first draft of the script ran.
Tyler: This seems like a good jumping-off point for a larger question I had coming out of this movie. Do you think there is a way that high science-fiction (particularly space operas) that require so much world building, can succeed with a large audience. Of course we’re coming off a year when Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest movie of the year, but I get a sense that these movies get lost in their lore more often than not.
Tim: Personally, I didn’t care much for Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’m a Star Wars nut, so I guess I’m still qualified to take a hack at this. Look especially at the original Star Wars and you see how much of it is rooted in characters. There are three locations the entire movie: the first act is on Tatooine, the second is on the Death Star, and the third is Yavin/in space near Yavin. It hints at a much larger world (Droids and Wookies and a Rebellion, oh my!) but it doesn’t have to explain most of that and can focus on the relationships. Jupiter Ascending not only used a confusing number of settings, but was constantly shifting the type of story it wanted to be. There have been a ton of vastly different stories told in the Star Wars Universe, but they don’t all have to be contained in a single exposee.
Erik: Here’s what it comes down to: Jupiter Ascending didn’t fail because it was a space opera with lofty goals, it failed because it was poorly written. Star Wars (the originally trilogy) was well written. Guardians of the Galaxy (I had problems with the pacing, but I think that came down to the directing more than anything else) had a decent script with some entertaining characters. Jupiter Ascending had ineffective, non-threatening villains, a terrible, boring protagonist, clunky dialogue, and poor attempts at humor.
Tyler: I agree that the execution of the mythology falls far down the list of Jupiter Ascending’s problems, below all the things you just mentioned. I ask about the genre because I recently re-watched Guardians with some people who hadn’t seen it before, and while they enjoyed it enough, they found the countless aliens, races, planets and other genre vernacular to be off-putting.
Erik: That’s part of the reason Guardians works though. Because you don’t have to completely understand the vernacular or memorize the names of species to understand the stories and character motivations.
Tim: Actually that was exactly one of the problems I had with Guardians: it required you to roll with so much stuff that didn’t tie back into its immediate story. But we’re talking about Jupiter Ascending so to bring things back around, I think that’s not actually Jupiter’s problem so much as it’s just trying to do too many things narratively. Erik, you mentioned that the problem comes down to execution on each point. That’s absolutely true, but in this case I don’t think the execution problem is in anything so specific as “the dialogue was bad” or “the climax didn’t have punch;” instead, it all strikes me as symptomatic of trying to do too much. The characters are terrible, yes, but they’re never given an opportunity to express themselves because we’re sprinting from one loosely connected plot point to the next.
Erik: Maybe for me it’s just a matter of what I look forward to in a film. I can get behind a movie with an awful, convoluted plot if the characters are enjoyable, or if the dialogue flows well. If Jupiter had been the exact same movie, with the exact same events, same pace, and plot developments, and whatnot, I could have forgiven some of those problems if they’d just given Jupiter (the character) and Caine something funny or interesting to say.
Tim: And all I’m saying is that in this particular case it seems like there’s so much jammed into this movie that one necessarily follows the other. To get the dialogue in, you have to cut down the plot enough to pause for some character moments. But I take your point.
Tyler: I actually appreciated the moments when Kunis tried to lighten the mood with one of Jupiter’s one-off remarks. If the movie was going to jam so much into the movie, some extra humor and cheese would have gone a long way.
Tim: I do want to make sure and ask you both about one of my favorite sequences in the movie: the DMV bit when Jupiter is trying to claim her title. Narratively it didn’t do much for me, but I absolutely loved the look of it. Nothing is wholly original anymore, but the visual and technological basis for that sequence was interesting enough for me to want to spend more time there.
Tyler: It was the one time the movie acknowledged that there were citizens of this world who weren’t directly connected to the royal family or merely alive to be harvested later. I thought it was a funny sequence, but I spent half of it trying to put together why they were there.
Erik: The sequence was fine, and it looked nice, but it perfectly encapsulates the Wachowskis’ problem of just putting things they like in the movie. They probably liked Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, so they threw something Hitchhiker/Brazil-like in there despite the fact that the sequence’s look and tone didn’t fit with the rest of the film.
Tim: And from favorite to most confusing: can either of you explain to me what the hell was going on in that Star Fox-style sequence where Caine is shooting his way through that ever shifting pattern of little robots? Why do they move? Can’t he just go around?
Erik: Because it looked cool. Shut up and be impressed.
Tyler: Haha. In all seriousness, I got the impression that it was a blockade of some kind. Going back to Guardians I thought it was supposed to be something similar to the ships that conjoined to keep the larger ship from crashing into the city or just mines.
Tim: That was my general impression. I’d forgotten all about that part in Guardians though.
Erik: As long as we’re asking questions that will never be properly answered (partially because there is no possible way this is the start of a new franchise), can either of you tell me what was the point of having human-animal hybrids in this film? Did Caine and Stinger’s supposed animal abilities ever come up. Aside from Stinger bowing to his queen (because only bees can recognize royalty) or Caine biting someone’s throat out (which was never really explained).
Tyler: I know this! I know this! Caine and Stinger are genetic hybrids of humans and wolves/bees that were created to be a type of soldier that could use the hunting instincts of those animals. The wings were pure invention given to those soldiers.
Tim: Which is why everyone also needs antigravity boots…
Erik: And while we’re on the subject: no, Caine is not more dog than human. What was that line about? He looks like David Bowie in the middle of a costume change, not The Wolfman.
Tim: It looks cool. Shut up and be impressed.
Tyler: They also need it to not be weird when Jupiter falls in love with someone who is half dog.
Erik: I almost forgot about the romance (I wonder why). Even at their best, the Wachowskis don’t do romance well. I’m surprised Jupiter didn’t say she loved him because an oracle told her she would. And then Stinger had to tell the audience – I mean Caine, he was in love with her too?
Tim: Wait, I completely missed that. Stinger professed his love for Jupiter?
Erik: No, Stinger delivered that speech that started, “I know you can’t express your feelings because you’re a soldier…”
Tim: Ohhhh right. Hey, Sean Bean didn’t die in this movie!
Erik: I thought he was going to be the Obi-Wan too, turns out he was the Han Solo. Shifting gears completely, I read an article basically saying what a tragedy it was Jupiter Ascending bombed, because (despite how unwatchable the film is) it means studios will basically never take another chance on an original big budget concept, and they’ll stick even closer to adding on to pre existing franchises. Any thoughts on that?
Tyler: While Jupiter Ascending will add to that belief, I don’t think it’s going to be the reason that happens. There have always been big blockbusters that fail financially. I would point to last summer’s Edge of Tomorrow – even though it’s based on a book – as being a bigger tragedy because that was actually well made. We are definitely moving towards an industry that will stick to established franchises but we shouldn’t encourage movies with basic story problems to succeed just for the sake of them being original.
Tim: Yeah, this sort of doomsaying seems to crop up every year, we’re just getting a jump in February instead of May this year. I think what studios will eventually learn is not to throw $175 million at crappy scripts. Smaller films are successful when they’re tightly conceived and produced. Edge of Tomorrow was successful as a film because it executed well on a particular concept rather than using so much money to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen. Will we eventually see the sort of paradigm shift that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted a couple years ago? Maybe. Is it because a bad movie like Jupiter Ascending failed financially? I doubt it.
Erik: Despite all I’ve said, I actually like the Wachowskis. They have some very cool ideas bubbling in their heads, and like I said, they can film a pretty good action sequence. Hell, it’s clear they’re inspired by a lot of the things I love. I just hope on their next project they stop being so insulated and get a third party to rewrite their script.