Jupiter Ascending – directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski

Good science fiction opera has space ships, strange worlds, and a myriad cast of unusual characters; so does “Jupiter Ascending.” In addition to a strong cast (Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean) experienced directors in the genre, and outstanding special effects by Industrial Light and Magic; Jupiter Ascending would appear to have all the elements necessary for a successful run as brilliant science fiction story. The production design by Hugh Bateup (Matrix and Superman) is imaginative and engaging. Photography by Oscar winner John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) is the best I’ve seen in a science fiction movie for at least three years. I did not find the score by Michael Giacchino exceptional although he did win an Oscar for “Up.” Overall, a talented remarkable crew. Then what happened? Why did this film fail (though commercially, it recouped its budget, success in Hollywood is measured by percentages that exceed twenty percent of gross)?

I believe, if you’re going to introduce audiences to a new world (as did John Carter) you must think on a scale that replicates the larger-than-life format. George Lucas did. However, one shudders to think if his first film had been a flop. No more Star Wars. No more science fiction. Finances would have dried up. When Star Wars became such a colossal success, it opened the door for a flood of fantasy/science fiction that followed and a genre reborn to a public bored with outer space. Only two sci-fi formats – Star Trek and Star Wars – have captured the public’s imagination. While this is a review of Jupiter Ascending (which I enjoyed as a science fiction writer), I find this conundrum puzzling. Why haven’t other big budget sci-fi movies achieved the same success?

I believe in this instance, the depth of the characters seemed too shallow and very cardboard cutout characters of previous villains, heroes and interested parties. We’ve seen maniacal galactic emperors (Flash, The Chronicles of Riddick) who get their comeuppance. We’ve also seen confused princesses who come into their own and end up kicking ass in some throne room. We’ve seen hard-nosed sidekicks (Han Solo, etc) who come to the lady’s defense. One of the film’s main premises is that (spoiler) the Earth is a farm from which wealthy galactic citizens derive a serum that prolongs their life (a similar theme in the Matrix where people were farmed as “batteries”). The other main premise is that everything in the universe boils down to one word – profit (greed is good?). How drool. My mother could have come up with better premise than that! Lastly, does every woman in the universe seem as weak as Mila Kunis does? “I will do anything if you release my family…” Don’t we all know that if you drop that gun, or give in, the villain gets his way and kills everyone anyway, that you lose your bargaining chip? Are we the audience that stupid that we haven’t seen this scenario about a million plus times?

I believe that when you write science fiction (as I do), you need to come at the material with fresh eyes, be inventive, try not to use clichés or be repetitious, and most of all try to be unpredictable. While my villainous characters in “Similitude” (shameless plug) are consumed with wealth and profit, they find delight in exploring other worlds other than just to exploit their resources. Villains can’t be imitations of Wall Street barons. You may decry Lucas’ space opera as being simple, but you never knew where it was going or who was going to succeed. Success is measured by failures that ultimately result in triumph – not just good over evil, but good ideas over bad ones. Profit as a motive for success cheapens research and study, for pursuit of knowledge is its own reward. I’d give everything I ever knew for five minutes inside Einstein’s brain. But I would give spit to know what any billionaire knows – how to make money. That would be the most boring of all. Can they write a symphony, solve a complex equation, or study a subject that reveals an unknown quantity? A script, a story must be inventive. I grow tired of the same canned trash dressed in a fancy gown.

George Lucas knew the value of a good story. He continued to surprise us to the end and did so to the strains of John Williams (perhaps one of the key elements to this mystery). Of the three successful fantasy franchises – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Star Trek – you also have three very memorable scores by Howard Shore (Oscar), John Williams (Oscar) and Jerry Goldsmith (Oscar). The acting and special effects were standard. The scores were above the ordinary. So, did the score of those movies place them above the rest? Or, was there something else that doomed this production?

Jupiter Ascending – like Cloud Atlas before it – is the brainchild of the Wachowski brothers (one sexually changed) who also gave us The Matrix. Like Cloud Atlas, the co-directors bit off more than they could chew. Instead of a great science fiction movie, we get little bits and pieces here and there of greatness with long tracks of minutes filled with nothing worth remembering when we – the audience – walk out the door. No tune stuck in my head. No moment of distinction from which I could point and say, “Did you see that scene?” As with “John Carter” you have a finely crafted story, told by Hollywood experts fill with banal spaces between tiny bits of brilliance. Any composer would tell you… that’s a sure fire way to put your audience asleep.