Jupiter Ascending: Have the Wachowskis lost their way?

There’s a moment in the Wachowski siblings’ latest epic film where the main character realises bees respond to her and protect her. It’s quite tender and touching. A quieter moment in an otherwise epic – and thoroughly bonkers – sci-fi action film.

To say Andy and Lana Wachowski have been getting weirder of late is an understatement. Either that, or they’ve got to the point where they can now – as Sinatra once said – do it very much their way. A couple of years ago they tackled a book widely considered unfilmable (Cloud Atlas) and did a commendable, perhaps even brilliant, job. They delved into some big themes, jumped across time zones and dealt with constant shifts of tone, all whilst keeping the focus on the human side of things. And of course we all know just how good the first Matrix film was. Great concept, great story, with some exhilarating individual moments and scenes.

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And so on to their latest… Jupiter Ascending. One of their hits or a giant misfire? Well the truth is it’s somewhere in-between. Plot wise it’s utterly ludicrous. Although perhaps no more so than other sci-fi films, so maybe it’s the way it’s told and the performances, which we’ll come to in a bit.

After a bit of setup backstory we quickly meet Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), living out her life as a cleaner. We jump between her grim life and also get introduced to ‘the bad ones’ of the film, three siblings from the Abraxas family, a bunch of power-hungry, rather mad intergalactic royals; Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth).

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Through certain events the Abraxas lot discover Jupiter is the descendant/reincarnation (or something like that) of their family line, and she actually stands to inherit the earth ahead of all of them. Earth being the most profitable planet in their collection in terms of ‘mining raw materials’ (see the film to understand those quotation marks).

Obviously Jupiter has no idea about any of this until handsome splice (part human, part wolf) soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) walks into her life. He thens whisks her into space for further adventures (with his top off a lot, naturally). Let’s leave it there plot wise, shall we? Beyond that it starts to go off the wall and then some.

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Getting a handle on a Wachowski film is the thing. With most directors you’ve got an idea of their style and material they get drawn to. With these two, the best you can say is they like characters that are fluid in terms of their sexuality and gender and race and colour and all that stuff. They love sci-fi and pushing the limits of what special effects can do. However, this does not make a good story, it just augments it.

I think, what it looks like they’re going for with Jupiter Ascending, is a fun thrill ride. A space adventure – and a bit of a love story. In that respect it delivers. It is fun, and thrilling and adventurous. It has funny moments and a few really odd ones (a sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy/Brazil moment in the middle of the film is, tonally, very confusing and kills the pace of the movie dead). On the plus side, it looks gorgeous. The sets are beautifully detailed and stunningly realised. And the effects are thoroughly immersive (particularly Caine’s rather fetching anti gravity boots).

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By and large, the characters are not vastly fleshed out. They probably suffer in that respect due to the vast amount of world building the Wachowskis have to do in the film’s first third. Kunis and Tatum are compelling enough leads (albeit largely lumbered with some particularly clunky, soap opera-esque dialogue, particularly Kunis) and Redmayne, after the emotional heavy lifting he did as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (which recently won him an Oscar), is clearly having the time of his life as the big baddie, really cutting loose going full out Emporer Palpatine. With his creepy, withered voice you half expect him to say something like, ‘Oh, I’m afraid the Death Star will be fully operational when your friends arrive.’ It’s that sort of performance.

His siblings, Titus and Kalique fare less well. Or just have a lot less to do. Each gets a scene or two, but it’s not much, after which they’re pretty much forgotten. You half wonder if the Wachowskis overcomplicated it having three siblings. Why not just have Redmayne’s Balem as the main antagonist and give him more scenes facing off against the strong and silent Caine? Actually, come to think of it, the same happens with Sean Bean, he turns up for a few scenes as Caine’s buddy Stinger (half man, half bee… keep up), then he bows out for an early bath and an easy pay cheque.

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Tonally, the whole thing feels like it sits quite well with the first Star Trek film of recent years (the J.J. Abrams’ one) or a slightly more melodramatic (less funny) Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly, it’s no Matrix, but then what is? However, if you judge it on its own terms as a bit of a caper in space with some fun action set pieces, you’ll probably enjoy it.

So, get in the popcorn, leave your ego at the door and sit back and take it all in.

The Theory of Everything: Redmayne and Jones dazzle and delight

And so there was a big bang and then… A brief history of Stephen Hawking came to pass. An as Englishman I sometimes forget that, as a global power, we punch massively above our weight. Particularly when it comes to producing bona fide geniuses.

In recent months The Imitation Game hit the cinemas, charting the life of the brilliant Alan Turing, the man who cracked the enigma device during WWII – expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

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And now we have another Englishman stepping into the ring… Eddie Redmayne. Putting in a very fine performance as Stephen Hawking. Based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen by his wife Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), we cover a lot in this film. From his early beginnings as a student in Cambridge through to worldwide fame and recognition.

Right from the off we delve straight into the main factors that shaped who he was. His professor (David Thewlis) at Cambridge sets the class a task of ten impossible questions, everyone fails except Stephen who, in a bit of a rush, answers nine of them on the back of a train timetable.

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Within the first few minutes of the film we also meet Jane, the woman who becomes the loving constant behind the man. Felicity Jones is yet to put a foot wrong in her career and as Jane she is perfectly cast: elegant, womanly, beautiful and with a bit of an edge. Stephen, like the rest of us, become instantly captivated. And as a couple they suit each other well, as Redmayne and Jones have a very natural and believable chemistry.

As Stephen’s condition (motor neuron disease) worsens, Jane becomes the driving force of the narrative, caring for both Stephen and their growing brood of young children (apparently sexual organs are unaffected by the disease as they operate using a completely different system).

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Together, the writer Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh weave the story together well. It trots along at a good pace and we’re not overwhelmed by the science and maths of it all. Like Interstellar a few months ago, science serves the story. Indeed, the consultant on that film, Kip Thorne, gets a mention here, as someone with whom Stephen has a bet. The prize being a subscription to Penthouse magazine. This point is telling as we get an insight into Stephen’s character, as he has quite a devilish sense of humour. All the more heartwarming given his condition.

It might seem trite to say but Redmayne really transforms himself, going full Verbal Kint and then some. To give a performance where for half the movie you have to greatly limit the way you speak must have been tough. In some ways it’s like actors who have to wear a mask that covers all or part of their face; in that you have to find other ways to convey the emotions of your character to the audience. And Redmayne does just that, bookish, shy, inquisitive and intelligent and at times intense, yet disarmingly likeable. Characters are drawn to him. This is evident with his fans and admirers, but more specifically with those closer to him: his speech therapist, his professor and old Cambridge friends and, obviously, his wife Jane.

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This is where Marsh treads a masterful balancing act as director, blending together the relationship and affection Stephen and Jane have for each other, whilst at the same time keeping the audience drawn into Stephen’s rise as a world-renowned theoretical physicist.

As far as biopics – and indeed films in general – go it’s spirited, heartfelt, tragic and engaging; part love story part think piece. It’s one of those that will have the words ‘feel good’ and ‘life-affirming’ plastered all over the marketing material. But for once, without sounding cynical, that’s spot on.

Interstellar: Nolan goes intergalactic

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We’ve entered a time in which certain filmmakers – directors and writers to be precise – are being afforded a fairly free license to make the films that they want to make. Films on an epic scale, but with added smarts. The thinking person’s blockbuster.

With Interstellar director Christopher Nolan has firmly left the Batman franchise behind and struck out into bold new territory. You could argue he’s been doing this sort of thing his whole career: Memento, The Prestige, Inception – they all deal, to a certain extent, with time, memory and personal identity. And each film in his filmography is a big step up from the last.

Interstellar begins on an earth ravaged by dust storms, akin to America during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The earth has had it and it’s up to former pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly a spaceship through a black hole in search of a better world.

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So far so epic. The setup has been done before, that’s for sure. But we’ve never seen Nolan tackle it. He starts by setting up the characters on earth, taking his time with them.

We see Cooper’s relationship with his children, particularly his daughter (expertly played by Mackenzie Foy) who seems wise beyond her years. Their relationship is key throughout, so pay attention early on. We also meet old NASA scientist (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), also at NASA. Both attempting to solve Earth’s agriculture and environmental problems as best they can.

Once we head into space Nolan asks us to get our thinking caps on, for this story demands you give it your full attention in terms of space, quantum physics, the relativity of time and the nature of gravity.

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That’s not to say it doesn’t pack emotional punch. With the voyages through space and time families and divided, perhaps to never see each other again, and their limits are tested. This affords the likes of McConaughey some big emotional moments (which we know he can do) and keeps us in the story. Hathaway, too, gets her time to shine.

That said, space film clichés remain. With space you’re always going to have someone who’s been left on their own for years and, with no one to talk to, gone mad/insane/to the dark side. You’ll have the desperate quest to get back to earth. You’ll have a few people selflessly sacrifice themselves for the mission.

But, to rein in my cynical side for a moment, it’s a decent film. Tense, thrilling, human, heartfelt. It makes you think and it tests you. There’s a strong emotional pull throughout, although it does have a somewhat melancholy tone, but perhaps that’s in the nature of the message that Nolan is trying to deliver.

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This may seem patently obvious to say, but if you go into the cinema expecting to see Inception – or even Batman – in space, then you’ll be disappointed. However, as a cinematic experience it’s got action and thrill moments (a la Apollo 13 and Gravity), yet it also shares some ground with films like Moon, Sunshine and maybe Event Horizon – although the latter might be pushing it.

There’s a section in the final third where you think maybe Nolan has handed over the director’s chair to Darren Aranofsky, as it gets really quantum and asks the audience to take a bit of a leap of faith (or imagination). This could be considered a brave move, but Nolan is a heavyweight director these days, and more often than not, what he does works.

This could be one of those films in which you have a wholly different experience on a second viewing. Time will tell how it stands up in Nolan’s filmography. But, as far as space films go, it’s an intelligent one that asks a lot of the audience, but does so in a respectful way.

Gravity: the tale of Houston in the blind

gravity-movie-review-sandra-bullock-shiopAlfonso Cuaron drives me nuts. There I’ve said it. His films are so immersive, so real, they frequently leave you gasping for air. That’s very much the case in Gravity when our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is dangerously low on oxygen. In fact, there isn’t a time when she’s not in serious peril. You can see why this film wouldn’t work beyond 90 minutes, it’s exhausting.

Never have I scrunched up my toes for the duration of a film before, dammit Cuaron! What, in essence, I’m trying to say, is that Gravity is a pure sensory experience and the first – and hopefully last – time we’ll see 3D used in the way in which it was probably intended (i.e. in space with things floating around and frequently exploding). I’ve heard this film be described as something of a novelty in that sense, and I suppose it is: other directors take note, don’t make Gravity 2, please.

gravity3To backtrack a moment, plot wise it’s thin on the ground and, from what I’ve read, it’s intentionally this way. We don’t need a vast amount of backstory to sympathise with these characters. We start out with veteran space man Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) helping Bullock’s rookie astronaut, Dr. Stone, fix something. They’re quickly informed some pesky Russians have blown up one of their space stations starting a chain reaction of debris orbiting the planet. Clever plot point, as we get almost regularly timed sequences of mayhem as Stone and Kowalsky spend the rest of the film trying to make it back to earth in one piece.

To keep the experience as immersive as possible Cauron, to his credit, doesn’t cut away to earth to see what Houston are up to, he doesn’t provide flashbacks to tell us why the characters are doiGRAVITYng what they are doing, it’s obvious what they’re doing, trying to survive.

There’s also the fact that, if you avoid these little screenwriting tropes, the tension stays high. Cuaron wants us on edge, he wants us there in space with them. The 3D really helps in that sense, with blobs of liquid and other space paraphernalia occasionally hitting the camera; a nice touch by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, a man known for staggering natural beauty in his shots.

He’s worked with Cuaron before, as well as Terence Malick, making him – along with Roger Deakins – Hollywood’s go-to guy for gorgeous scenery and sumptuous wide shots. A perfect fit for Cuaron’s vision of the vast and eerily beautiful vacuum that is space.

And if we’re talking tone, this is no Apollo 13 but perhaps closer to Duncan Jones’ Moon or J.C. Chandor’s latest All Is Lost; a film where Robert Redford makes up the entire cast and saysandra-bullocks-gravity-interviews barely a word for the duration. It also has elements of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Clearly this is a technical masterpiece and has pushed the boundaries of what 3D – and indeed cinema – is capable of achieving. Hopefully it’s a one-off, but chances are we’ll see various attempts in the next few years to replicate this sort of thing.

In short, this film is a tense and exhausting technical triumph. Praise for Cuaron is entirely justified, as it is for Bullock too. But let’s just preserve and enjoy their work and keep it as that, shall we?