Jupiter Descending

Aww shit. Even after the six-month delay, rumours of reshoots and re-edits, a poor preview showing at Sundance and reviews charitably described as ‘savaging’, I was still looking forward to this film. The Wachowskis hold a special place in my generation’s hearts, being responsible for our childhood classic The Matrix, which may just be the perfect action movie for teenagers (though that discussion’s for another time). While the sequels were less than great and I still haven’t seen Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas was a modern classic and in my opinion their magnum opus. So when they announced a $175m space opera starring Mila Kunis, with Channing Tatum as some sort of wolf-man I was intrigued, their blend of crazy and optimism seeming like a bright spark in a world where Superman destroys cities. A spark I just watched being pissed on for two hours.

So, the plot. Jupiter Jones, a toilet cleaner and second-generation illegal Russian immigrant, finds out she’s actually the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family, an interstellar human-farming business which minces people to provide life-extending drugs (are you getting this subtle anti-capitalism message kids?) and she’s targeted by bounty hunters sent by her three heirs (as she left herself the earth in her will). One wants her dead, one wants to marry her and you can see the problem with this already, can’t you? So much happens in this movie, it collapses in on itself almost immediately. Every possible idea is thrown at the screen: genetically-engineered animal people, robots with human faces, people refineries hidden inside Jupiter (the planet, Mila Kunis is sadly not eating people), space weddings, Russian family comedy, egg-donation hijinks and it’s all too much from the get go. The first five minutes show Jupiter’s parents meeting, discussing what they’ll name her, dad getting shot by the mob and mom’s emigration to America in a shipping crate. It’s like if someone tried condensing Dune into two hours – oh wait.

The first half hour feels hacked down and I’m not sure it’s for the worse. I reckon there’s a 2 1/2 hour cut out there somewhere, but I can’t begrudge Warners for saving us from the wacky comedy hijinks of Jupiter’s Russian family, who act like no human beings in existence. I’m guessing Tom Tykwer directed the funny parts of Cloud Atlas, as this film has no sense of comedic timing. The latter acts feel more complete, but nothing could make up for how disjointed everything is. We never get a feel for the greater picture here, and so the universe feels paradoxically tiny and condensed. We only ever hear of the Abrasax clan, so are they the only power in the galaxy? Well no, because we also meet the space police (or rather one space police cruiser), siding with the heroes for some reason, but do they have power over the villains or is this a Chinatown situation? There’s a galactic bureaucracy in an extended Brazil homage, complete with Terry Gilliam cameo and few laughs, but how does this factor into the grand scheme of things?  For all the endless detail thrown our way there’s very little worldbuilding, despite the endless expository dialogue on that very subject.

Regarding characters, the film is all over the place. Channing Tatum’s dog/human hybrid hunter Caine (subtle) gets his dark past relayed to us and that’s about it, which is true for pretty much all the good guys. Everyone speaks in flat exposition or attempts at humour, leaving bugger-all room for character development. Two of the three villainous heirs are completely superfluous, one existing to exposit and show off her rear end before disappearing after five minutes, and the other just for a retread of Shrek, with Caine and Sean Bean (whose death I can only assume is on the cutting room floor) having to crash the wedding before she says ‘I do’. Eddie Redmayne’s makes surprisingly little impression as the main villain, despite a performance you’d expect to be a camp classic, but the weirdest is Jupiter herself. Despite supposedly ascending over the course of the film she has no real agency in it. She’s kidnapped repeatedly and tossed between bounty hunters, has to be rescued before marrying Lord Farquaad and doesn’t even really get a final confrontation with Redmayne, who just kinda drops out of the movie. She’s more of a human MacGuffin than a lead.

This movie is a perfect example of what happens if you have no limitations while making a film. When every idea in your mind can be realised on an unlimited budget, your imagination just runs away with you. It’s the Wachowski equivalent of Sucker Punch, where Warners hit it big with a director and just threw money at their pet projects to try and recapture that success, climaxing with disastrous, indulgent sci-fi mashups of whatever the director thought was cool at the time (though with great action scenes). This film marks the nail in the coffin of the Wachowskis getting this kind of creative freedom and budget again, and I think it would be good for them to make a small, $15-20m movie set in the real world, just to regain a sense of perspective. Given Snyder’s track record though, I think it’s more likely we’ll be seeing a Wachowski Aquaman in three years time.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn is a man permanently caught between being a twelve-year-old who just discovered ultraviolence and his interest in girls, and an adult with the self-awareness to frame his baser instincts within a more mature framework. What results is this interesting mishmash of films constantly walking a tightrope, between adolescent, laddish fantasy on the one hand and more intelligent, ‘ironic’ (as I believe cretins call it these days) examinations of that on the other. Kick-Ass’ teenage fantasy was juxtaposed with the hero getting way out of his depth and repeatedly almost murdered, and First Class’ political commentary teetered over into bizarre cheesecake, as if Vaughn had been dared to disrobe every actress at least once. It’s all rather like if Zach Snyder dropped his artistic pretensions.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is his latest such blend, adapted from another Mark Millar comic (after Kick-Ass, which was far nastier than its film version) which I won’t pretend to have read, and tells the story of Eggsy, a chav recruited from his dead-end life by Colin Firth into a secret, elaborate and remarkably snobbish spy agency his dad worked for years before. He finds himself caught in the throes of an elaborate, world spanning conspiracy and you can predict half of what follows just from reading this sentence (and the rest by the 30 minute point).

The plot (and much of the cast) are a bundle of spy clichés, played with a winking nod and smile that brings an anarchic sense of fun to the proceedings, but which makes the running gag of setting up clichéd bond scenarios before a character quips ‘this isn’t that kind of movie’ feel a little hypocritical. Firth is the only real stand-out performance here (also getting an action scene on par with anything in The Raid 2), and while the action and humour are very solid so much of the rest is rather mediocre. Samuel L Jackson plays the requisite supervillain determined to succeed where hundreds of shitty nineties anime villains failed (although his henchwoman’s prosthetic sword legs are officially the coolest things I’ve seen in some time), but he consumes scenery like this in his sleep and his gimmick of being a genocidal psycho who can’t stand blood could’ve been played funnier. The weirdest role however, goes to the the female lead played by Sophie Cookson, another Kingsman trainee and training rival to Eggsy. Not in the sense her character is unusual in any way, but that she’s probably the most thankless female role outside of Nolan’s dead wives collection. The story would play out identically in her absence, and her baffling amount of screen time makes the finale really weird when it dispatches her on a narratively pointless side-mission and then completely forgets about her.

Kick-Ass is the most obvious comparison and I’d say it’s probably the better movie, largely by being more even. It’s highs were never as high as Kingsman’s (even Hit Girl’s best moments never approached Firth’s shootout here) but the lows were never as mediocre, and the comic book nerd power fantasy was nicely balanced by Hit Girl inflicting most of the violence. Strangely though, the filmgoing experience Kingsman most reminds me of is Skyfall (whose seriousness it mocks at one point), as once the initial stratospheric emotional high came down, the central uncomfortable re-affirmation of a violent and sexually creepy form of masculinity became painfully obvious, with Kingsman ending on a misstep like walking off the Grand Canyon, by closing on what’s essentially Skyfall’s infamous shower scene but played for laughs.

I have to recommend Kingsman in the end as it is a damn good time at the movies, but it’s the kind of film I doubt I’ll watch again (though I will watch Colin Firth murder the shit out of the Westboro Baptist Church on Youtube from time to time).