Jupiter Ascending (2015)

2015 #169
The Wachowskis | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Ah, the Wachowskis. They made Bound, and no one much cared. Then they made The Matrix, and they were the biggest thing in blockbusterdom since George Lucas took us to a galaxy far, far away. Then they made the Matrix sequels, and no one cared again. Following a period when I don’t think I was alone in wondering if they were ever going to make anything else, they managed to return to the realm of mega-budgeted sci-fi action (I guess the Matrix sequels cleaned up at the box office and that’s all that matters). First there was Speed Racer (which I called “a candy-coloured masterpiece”), then Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t got round to still), and most recently Sense8 (which I certainly haven’t got time for — there’s way too much promising telly to spend time on a show I haven’t heard anyone talk about since its release day).

And earlier this year there was Jupiter Ascending, best known (as far as I’m aware) for provoking speculation it would cost Eddie Redmayne the Oscar for Theory of Everything because it came out during voting season and he was so gosh darn bad in it. And it’s also known for being just generally dreadful and universally disdained.

But, hey, look — Channing Tatum! 2015 is (as mentioned) the year of Channing Tatum for me. And this is a big sci-fi blockbuster, so chances are it would cross my visual cortex eventually regardless (though there are so many sci-fi blockbusters these days that they don’t feel nearly as precious as they did even ten years ago). And the universal disdain wasn’t actually universal — I have actually seen some people praise this film. I know, right?

Sadly, I still thought Jupiter Ascending was awful.

The plot… oh, do I have to explain the plot? It’s some rubbish about a cleaner (Mila Kunis) getting attacked by aliens and some alien crossbreed in magic flying shoes (Channing Tatum) coming to her rescue, and taking her to a half-bee man (Sean Bean — there has to be a “Sean Bee-n” joke here…), and then into space, because she’s… nope, not the Chosen One (makes a change, at least) but a reincarnation of someone important, and her surviving family members (Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Eddie Redmayne) have a vested interest in her — which may or not be that they want her dead (again).

You might thank me for clarifying that, because it’s mindbogglingly messy in the telling. A sheen of originality, partially aided by world-building so dense it’s conveyed in massive infodumps that blur into incomprehensibility, tries to mask the fact that Jupiter Ascending is immensely derivative, including of the Wachowskis’ own work. One of the best bits, a gently satirical sequence of red tape and bureaucracy, is all but lifted wholesale from Hitchhikers or the films of Terry Gilliam — who turns up in a cameo as if to underline the point. Elsewhere you might recall David Lynch’s Dune or The Fifth Element — the latter in particular, although there the campiness was deliberate.

Some praise the visuals, claiming the film at least looks fabulous. Parts of the film carry a level of extravagance and detail thus far found exclusively in a certain genre of sci-fi novel cover art, presumably because CGI has finally reached a point where it can replicate all that on screen in motion. I guess it works for some people, but while it’s not bad, it also didn’t do much for me. And every time something almost works, something else undermines it, like Tatum’s make-up, or his flying boots, or Redmayne’s bizarre, affected performance. Though, to be honest, I think he’s so bad he’s good, a phrase you often hear bandied around but rarely see actually happen.

All things considered, the worst part of Jupiter Ascending is its first half-hour or so. Once it gets past that dreadfully messy first act, it settles down into something that works as passable entertainment. Sure, you might spend the rest of the time (and it does feel like a long time) playing “spot the influence”, or wondering just how exactly Redmayne’s performance came about, or, if you’re versed in British TV, going, “oh, it’s them, from… um… that other thing!” (Eventually there’s a whole spaceship full of “people off British TV”.)

But hey, at least it’s not dull.

2 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending debuts on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 4pm and 8pm.

Speed Racer (2008)

2010 #21
The Wachowski Brothers | 135 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

Speed Racer feels like an unfair place to kick off these half-arsed efforts because, despite the critical and commercial apathy it found on release, I really enjoyed it. This close to giving it 5 stars, I was. Still, it’s my oldest unreviewed film (from this year), so…

Firstly, it’s visually astounding. Speed Racer’s blocks of vibrant colour and computer whizzery are a natural fit for the modern digital experience. Action sequences are mind-meltingly fast, but also incredibly thrilling. When CGI is blatantly used in an attempt to fake something real it can leave an action sequence hollow; but here, everything is pushed to the limit — and, probably, beyond — and so it works.

The plot doesn’t have many twists or turns — at least, not any that are genuinely surprising — and yet it rarely feels boring or stale. It’s buoyed by the crazy action sequences, the likeable characters, the unabashed sense of fun that’s poured into every sequence. Little flourishes mark the film out: the Hallelujah moment with the sweets on the plane; Racer X’s delivery of a simple punch amongst a bevy of complex car stunts; numerous others lost to my memory.

Even some of the performances stand out, not something you’d expect from such a (for want of a better word) lightweight tale. Of particular note are Susan Sarandon as Mom and Christina Ricci’s Trixie, whose huge eyes help render her perhaps one of the most perfect live-action versions of an anime character ever seen. Yes, the characters mostly exist to service their place in the plot, but the odd scene or glance or line delivery adds some subtlety here and there.

The mediocre-to-bad reviews Speed Racer received on its initial release seek to chastise you if you happen to like it — look, Ebert’s already informed us why we’re wrong should we even attempt claims of artistic integrity in the Wachowskis’ work. Maybe he’s right — he can list a whole load of commercial tie-ins at the end, after all. Then again, this is the man who gave Phantom Menace half-a-star shy of full marks, a film that was only a little about story and quite a bit about tie-in merchandise if ever there was one (he awarded Revenge of the Sith the same, incidentally, and has included the granddaddy of all film-tie-in-tat, Star Wars itself, in his Great Movies series). And, to specifically rubbish his opinions here, Phantom Menace is praised for being “made to be looked at more than listened to… filled with wonderful visuals” and condemns Speed Racer because “whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization… you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn’t matter.” Not that Film’s unique factor (over novels or radio or what have you) is its visual sense, and a silent film that can be told through image alone, devoid of any intertitles, was once a lofty aim. I’m sure Ebert could readily explain why Phantom Menace’s visual splendour is a good thing and why Speed Racer’s is so terrible, but, on the other hand… pot, meet kettle.

(For a point of clarity, I normally like and agree with Ebert — I’m sure some previous reviews where I’ve cited him will attest to this — which is why I pick on his pair of opinions here rather than those of some lesser critic who can’t be expected to maintain a critical ideology from one film to the next, never mind two that sit almost a decade apart.)

Back to Speed Racer. In every respect it’s like a living cartoon, and it’s the Wachowskis’ commitment to this aesthetic in every single respect that makes it work where others have floundered. It’s not perfect, I suppose. It may run a little long at two-and-a-quarter hours; but then, it so rarely lets up that I didn’t mind a jot. And the kid is often annoying; but then, as annoying little kids in films go, I’ve seen worse. At times I even liked him.

But, all things considered, when the chips are down, with all said and done, and any other clichés you feel like listing for no particular reason, I found this to be a candy-coloured masterpiece.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Speed Racer is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 26th October 2014, at 6:20pm.