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.

Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

aka MI-5

2015 #139
Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

The BBC’s long-running spy thriller series Spooks (aka MI-5 in the US) came to a close a few years ago, and instantly sparked rumours of a big-screen continuation. Unlike most such rumours, that one actually came to fruition: this result hit UK cinemas in the summer, and is now making its way across the pond — under that Mission: Impossible-esque title, of course.

The TV series is probably best remembered for the way it regularly killed off its leading characters in shocking fashion, thanks to the most infamous of them all: the “deep fat fryer incident” from the second-ever episode. It was about a lot more than that, though. Beginning in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, a series about the security service defending the country from terrorism couldn’t avoid being ultra-relevant, and it ran for a decade during which such issues never ceased to be pertinent (and haven’t since). That other famous British spy institution, James Bond, was at the tail-end of the Brosnan era when Spooks began, and the lower-key TV series was — like Tinker Tailor and others before it — pitched as a “real world” version of what the security services got up to. Storylines were “ripped from the headlines”, often with eerie prescience: after one early episode, the series’ lack of end credits led some viewers to believe the real BBC News bulletin that followed was still part of the drama.

Early seasons focused at least as much on things like the mundanity of spycraft, or how one went about having a personal life while also being a sometimes-undercover agent, as they did on the exciting action of counterespionage — as evoked in the memorable tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5”, of course. As the years rolled on, things got increasingly outlandish and grandiose, just as almost every spy series that starts out “grounded” is wont to do. In season three, an entire episode was spent on the moral dilemma of whether it was acceptable to assassinate someone; a couple of years later, assassinations would just be a halfway-through-an-episode plot development. The one constant through all this was section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the M figure to a rotating roster of “James Bond”s, including Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen and Rupert “Whitechapel” Penry-Jones, as well as other actors who didn’t go on to lead Jack the Ripper-derived crime series, like Richard “The Hobbit” Armitage.

Now, a couple of years since the TV series wrapped up its ten-year run, Spooks has attempted to make the leap to the big screen. Although they’ve roped in the fella who directed the first-ever episodes, the screenwriters are the final two seasons’ showrunners, so the movie follows on from where the series ended up rather than re-establishing itself in where it all began. What does that mean in practice? Sub-Bourne action in a film that often appears more like a well-budgeted TV movie than a proper feature film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with Harry running an op that goes wrong, during which terrorist Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) is sprung from custody just before being handed over to the CIA. Cue international incident. Naturally the blame is pinned on Harry, who consequently throws himself off a bridge. Except no one buys that, so they drag in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), a disenchanted one-time protégé of Harry’s (i.e. the series’ latest “younger man who can do the running around”). He knows nothing about it (obviously), but they want him to track Harry down nonetheless. Turns out Harry suspects there’s a mole in MI5 (because it’s a spy thriller — there’s always a mole) and it might be one of the very people who brought Will in (who include David Harewood, Tim McInnerny, and Jennifer Ehle). Harry and Will must work together to, a) find the mole, and b) stop whatever atrocity Qasim has planned next.

In case it isn’t clear, you don’t need to have seen the TV series to follow the plot, which is standalone in every aspect that seriously matters (there are certainly nods to the show, especially to its final season, and one fan-pleasing cameo. More would’ve been nicer.) However, a familiarity might help manage your expectations: The Greater Good feels like a wider-screen, (slightly-)bigger-budgeted version of the show, for good or ill. “Good” because, well, it should really, otherwise why call it Spooks? “Ill” because anyone expecting an action-packed thriller to rival Bond, Bourne, or Mission: Impossible will come away disappointed.

The trailers attempt to promise some of that kind of action, but they’re a bit of a cheat: what adrenaline the film has is mostly released in tiny bursts, scattered throughout. That strategy is fine if you’ve got the money to make each little burst a solid sequence, but when the entirety of some sequences is “jumping through a window” or “climbing a wall to get into a flat”, well… Sure, it looks good in the trailer — it promises lots of action in different places at different times — but that’s also a promise the movie can’t fulfil. The Greater Good certainly isn’t just a low-rent action movie — it’s driven by its plot — but if they’d saved up the filmmaking time, effort, and expense afforded to those single-dose action moments and poured it all into one sequence (in addition to the two or three fully-realised action sequences that the film does have), it might’ve paid dividends.

So what of that plot? As mentioned, the exciting contemporaneousness of Spooks’ storylines went increasingly AWOL as the series wore on, trading real-world issues for ludicrous government conspiracies or revived Cold War rivalries. Unsurprisingly, given the writers involved, the movie continues in that latter tradition. That’s a shame, because Spooks’ ability to engage with real-world issues in a thriller context was one of its best elements. It’s not as if we’re lacking in spy-related storyline-fodder in the real world — something Edward Snowden-y or about radicalised nationals would’ve been a good starting point. (Based on his accent, I guess Qasim is supposed to be an American who was converted, but that facet of his character isn’t explored.) At least they try to sub in some thematic relevance, raising questions related to doing what’s right versus doing what’s expected. Sadly that dichotomy isn’t explored as fully as it could have been either, but it’s definitely a constant and repeated factor.

You might not believe it from this picky review but, fundamentally, I did enjoy the Spooks movie. It largely retains the feel of the TV series (albeit without the moderately-memorable theme music — honestly, it’s like someone forgot to compose anything for the title credits. What were they thinking?!), and if they manage to produce a sequel then I’ll be sure to see it; but in this outing I can’t help spotting ways I thought it could’ve been even better. Consequently, as a film in its own right it comes across as a Bourne wannabe. On the bright side, it’s still better than The Bourne Legacy.

3 out of 5

Spooks: The Greater Good MI-5 is available in the US through DirecTV from today, and in theaters and on demand from December 4th.