Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
I’ve supported the Wachowskis through each of their rather subversive project decisions.
And that fully includes Speed Racer.
Having started off with Bound, a crime thriller that boldly and unapologetically explored sexuality, the siblings decided to experiment with science-fiction that was as fearless with questions of existentialism as was sensational with the thrilling action set-pieces throughout its runtime. Its sequels may not have gotten the kind of response that the makers would have wanted them to, but the voice – the sharp questions of human existence – remained, in spite of the trilogy’s largely unoriginal finale, which never could do the first two the kind of exhilarating justice the movie really needed.
Speed Racer thus came into focus. And instead of bowing down to the audiences’ demand for a particular template from the makers, they decided to go ahead with what they thought was right for the film – an inherently faithful, sincere and heartwarming adaptation of a film that – for all it could be – was filled with some really over-the-top visual effects that oftentimes reflected some stylistic elements of its source – the animation series that went by the same name. Dare I say, this was a powerful, mostly successful film by measure of its own art form.
People who knew the Wachowskis’ constant ability to experiment shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d next choose to adapt and – alongwith Tom Tykwer – direct David Mitchell’s Booker Prize nominated Cloud Atlas. Subversive as the book was, the film held on to its tonality (not structure) by taking in the superficial six-degrees-of-separation motif, thereby succinctly connecting and making human life a singular, never ending thread that’s as connected as ever.
It’s no surprise then that despite the overwhelming negativity surrounding Jupiter Ascending, I had full faith on it. From the looks of it, the movie definitely looked like it was going to be an enjoyable space romp full of spectacle and the usual experimentalism that the makers are actually known for. And knowing them, I left a whole chunk of my mind open to any route the makers would take, fully believing, however, that they’d never take the safest.
Life has some spectacular ways of betraying you though.
What’s it About?
And it is this nasty betrayal that life put on Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis; Third Person) when she was born. With no father, no country, and practically no identity to boot, her life moves on, until one fine day, she’s suddenly the target of many an extraterrestrial being and evolved human for but one uncanny quality she doesn’t know she has:
Her body possesses the same genetic code as – hold your breaths – the queen of the entire universe.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The movie was never going to be The Matrix. I guess by now we’re all supposed to have understood that, if only through the rather radical project the siblings have worked on since. And from the looks of it, I didn’t mind a fun space romp at all.
And from the very strong, albeit generic, start, the viewer understands that despite not being completely original, the movie’s creating a tone for itself. The first fifteen minutes or so are taken to build the little details of the different worlds that surround the movie’s universe (this time in full literality), and once the first major action set-piece kicks in, you know you’re in for a spectacle worth holding your breath for. Superiorly shot, and choreographed and composited to perfection by the visual effects artists, this is the extreme high-point of the film. And for good measure, considering this set-piece was clearly the most difficult of all to have been shot and completed any sooner than it did; the duo shot every day for six long months.
Immediately after the spectacular rise that is this set piece, however, comes the spectacular fall that is the inconsistent writing. Andy and Lana Wachowski create around the rather raging themes of the film a questionably lazy set of plot points that feel like they’re out of a checklist. Seemingly closer to a futuristic young adult trope than anything remotely unique, the movie unfortunately feels very simplistic in nature. And its quite ironic that a young-adult franchise like The Hunger Games has been more effective in its voice against capitalism than this one.
The Wachowskis might have championed the narrative of the ordinary-protagonist-who-is-actually-special. What they might not have taken into consideration is the thousands and thousands of story arcs in the thousands of other films that have – of late, and post The Matrix – taken an exceedingly similar route. Kunis’ Jupiter Jones, thus, lacks originality. Which is okay, save for her character has little to do throughout the movie other than spouting wisecracks and sharing a rather uncomfortably abrupt chemistry with Tatum’s Caine, adding to which, she is also irritably – like lord Titus in the film aptly phrases for her – “gullible” throughout the film. The primary antagonist – Balem – is otherwise supposed to be a powerfully written force. A force he isn’t; he’s shown to be a very petty person, fighting with his siblings over – drumroll – property. This is, unfortunately, how the rest of the film goes too: a sorta-kinda chess game everyone plays to get Jupiter’s attention to acquire Earth, which is apparently the most special of the planets in the universe.
Not that there aren’t any good moments: the dialogue, particularly during times of witty wisecrack, is quite well-written and entertains. Should the wisecracks and spectacular visual effects have made a movie great, however, we’d all have been hailing the Transformers franchise as a great action drama on the human psyche. Which this film should have been.
Or which I probably desperately wanted this film to be.
The costume designs are fantastic, and great attention to detail is paid to the worlds that are built – like we’ve always expected the Wachowskis to. However, the film feels like it’s in such a hurry to force-feed us all this information that would probably have required more time and space (pun intended). I have a sneaky feeling that should a director’s cut be released, the film would turn into more than just a barely-tolerable VFX showreel. There’s a lot that needs detailing, and there’s a lot that is just present without any background information that is specifically needed for some organic creatures that exist throughout the film’s runtime. Unlike the initial Star Wars trilogy (which is clearly one of the major inspirations of the makers of this space opera), which actually paid enough time to build a world around itself for the understanding of the audience, this feels like an elongated middle-episode of a series that started quite a while ago and – the rest of which – nobody knows how to access.
Michael Giacchino’s score is stupendous in individual creation, but acts out in the film to mixed results, oftentimes devaluing a rather emotionally potent dialogue between two people. VFX supervisor Dan Glass returns to collaborate with the Wachowskis and once again helps direct some of the most spectacular visual effects we’ve seen in a film in recent times. These assured visual effects are helped only by the specific production design the film has in its entirety. The edit decisions are fine, except for some rather abrupt cuts through the film that jump in time, making you wonder what just happened. John Toll, who helped bring out paradoxical beauty amidst ravaged war grounds in The Thin Red Line, helps pitch the movie on a visually pleasing pedestal. There are a lot of dynamic shots that offer depth to the film. While this may also be the result of the various visual effects artists working their way through the film’s visuals, one cannot but see how helpful the production designer and the cinematographer would otherwise be in this situation.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Mila Kunis delivers a sincere performance, hitting bullseye on a lot of the film’s restrained comedy. Her act, unfortunately, quickly turns one-note, and that might not be her fault; her character arc is so callously written anyway. For a film that focuses on a prime female protagonist, pushing her to become a damsel-in-distress for more than three quarters of the film may not be the best move one can have made. And normally I would take this lightly, except the Wachowskis have made some fairly strong female characters in Bound, the Matrix franchise, Speed Racer AND Cloud Atlas. What a shame that the titular character in itself isn’t able to hold herself in the film at all.
Channing Tatum is slightly better, mainly for the amount of action he’s put to. His role is not the most unique by the last half of the film – as his character’s majorly devoted to saving Jupiter’s life till the climax. Sean Bean is a nice watch and performs pretty well. Douglas Booth (The Riot Club) is in complete form, and Tuppence Middleton (The Imitation Game) is alright, but just as suddenly, disappears.
The real disappointment here, however, is Eddie Redmayne’s performance. A terribly inconsistent one, he sleepwalks through his act like he doesn’t care if he’s the main antagonist. Throughout the film, he does nothing but dramatically blurb some dialog, with an occasional fake rise in pitch to forcefully express anger. Anger will, however, be risen through the hearts of the viewers for the simple reason of having to watch him perform his way to failure.
Speed Racer has a section of its fan-base that fondly claims the movie grew onto them headily with each viewing. This might be a possibility with Jupiter Ascending, and I’m not ruling that out. You’ve got to admit, however, that the film consists of one of the laziest, most hurried writings the screen has to show. This is a space opera a la Star Wars that basically betrays a possible checklisting of all the tropes that could ensure a safe ride through the waves of the box office. That would normally be an understandable decision, save for one very important characteristic of the Wachowskis: they’re never safe.
Watch it if – and only if – you’re a fan of singularly watching some spectacular visual effects on screen. For all the money that you’d have given to the Transformers franchise, throwing some more on some of the most genuinely inventive visual effects compositing on-screen wouldn’t harm, would it?
Star Rating: 2 / 5
PS: I’d still buy this on Blu-ray, if only for the most GORGEOUS action sequence I’ve seen on screen in a while.