Very often, actors will turn in an amazing performance, something so mind-blowing or unexpected, that they begin to receive critical acclaim and audience raves. Or, it might be a performance so different from anything they have done before that they receive a lot of positive press. Sometimes, this renewed interest and positive acclaim results in an Academy Award nomination. And just as they seem to be a sure lock for an Oscar, another film they appeared in, something that was either very bad, put on the shelf, or exactly the type of project you expect, is released just as the votes are due for the very Oscar they are in the running for. When this bad film is released, the people voting for the award suddenly get their collective memories back and a long-shot wins the Oscar instead of the shoo-in.
Case in point? Eddie Murphy. He turned in some of the best work of his career in "Dreamgirls" and earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination. He was the one to beat. Until "Norbit" was released. "Norbit" is a dreadful film and only served to remind the members of the Academy what Murphy's work is usually like. He lost the Oscar.
This year, both Eddie Redmayne and Juliane Moore seem to be locks for their respective Oscars (side note: a few years ago, they co-starred as an incestuous mother and son in "Savage Grace") and both are featured in troubled, big-budget films being released this weekend. I wonder if the quality of these performances and films will serve to derail their chances for an Oscar. I haven't seen "The Seventh Son". There is no way this film is any good, it sat on the shelf for over a year as the producers changed studios. If it was any good, Warner Bros. would have fought to release it and Universal Studios would have rushed it into theaters to capitalize on the great work. But because it sat in a type of limbo, this seems to show even the studios don't have any faith in the film.
I just saw "Jupiter Ascending", the new film from the Wachowskis ("The Matrix", "V for Vendetta", "Cloud Atlas"). Eddie Redmayne plays a key role in it, basically the villain, and his performance, strange, over-nuanced and very bad, is one of the many factors why this film doesn't work. I just hope it doesn't derail his chances of receiving an Oscar for his superb work in "The Theory of Everything". But he isn't the star and he isn't the only reason "Jupiter" doesn't work, so let's start at the beginning.
Very often, I criticize films because the filmmakers seem to have spent too much energy on the special effects, trying to show off what they can do with all of the tricks in their toybox to the detriment of the narrative. Usually, this happens when a first-time director (or Michael Bay) has been given the keys to kingdom. But when you have a director (or in this case, two) who have worked on a number of films, and created one of the most memorable sci-fi films ever, you expect more, you hope for better.
The Wachowskis, the brother and sister team, have been making films for a long time and their work is spotty, at best. It seems like a lot of time has passed since they created something truly memorable. The second "Matrix" sequel was a mess, "Speed Racer" was a bomb and "Cloud Atlas" was too complicated for the masses. I appreciated the sheer scope of the storytelling in "Cloud Atlas", so it wasn't a complete failure in my eyes. But "Jupiter Ascending" is simply not good. Originally scheduled for release last summer, it was delayed to "work on the effects" and scheduled for release in February. Now, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Just as with "The Seventh Son", no studio will ever move a film from a prime release date if they have any confidence in it. "Jupiter" is a sci-fi film made for the same people who made "The Matrix" a hit and the same people who flock to every Marvel superhero film. If you release this film in the summer, all of the teenaged boys have the opportunity to go and see the film repeatedly during the week. In early February, not so much.
The key problem with the narrative? There is an awful lot of 'telling' us information. In a sci-fi film, especially one with such an interesting vision, you want to see most of the key elements of the story. You don't want characters standing around telling Jupiter (and therefore, us) key elements of this backstory. There is a pretty significant prologue showing us how Jupiter's mother came to America and Jupiter's (Mila Kunis) life as a young adult. But as soon as the other worldly beings enter the picture, there is a lot of oral exposition.
Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a member of a race born to be warriors, but he is also crossbred with a wolf-like species, arrives on Earth to find Jupiter and protect her. She needs a little convincing (surprisingly little) to convince her that she is the heir who owns Planet Earth, the most valuable planet in a system of planets owned by the Abrasax (Redmayne plays the older, evil brother, Balem; Douglas Booth plays the younger, pleasure-obsessed, bi-curious Titus; Tuppence Middletone plays the sister, Kalique). Each owns various planets and Balem doesn't want to let Earth out of his grasp, threatening to 'harvest' it before he let's Jupiter have it. Sean Bean plays Stinger Api, another warrior (without the cross-breeding) who is Caine's ally and friend.
After Caine and Stinger convince Jupiter she is the heir who owns the Earth, various creatures appear, at the behest of the various Abatrax siblings, prepared to either defend her or kill her, depending on who they work for. This keeps Caine and Stinger very busy.
It's an interesting story, an interesting concept and holds a lot of promise. But as soon as they start telling us about various things in the backstory, everything quickly becomes boring. It is a difficult feat to make something, with so much going on, so boring. There is some great CGI work at play in the film (for some reason that I don't recall, Caine has the ability to skate through air, quickly gliding around). But boring it is.
A significant part of this boredom comes from the pretty bad performances. Mila Kunis doesn't really have the personality to be a leading lady. Clearly, the filmmakers were hoping to discover the next Jennifer Lawrence. But to be the next Lawrence, you have to be able to act. And display some presence. In a film like this, with so much going on, Kunis doesn't command our attention, as a star would. She disappears into the background on far too many occasions because she simply can't compete with all of the other stuff going on around her.
There is also a pronounced lack of chemistry between Kunis and Tatum. They have a few moments when they show hints of chemistry, as evidenced by Tatum's brief, but recognizable smirk. But the moment when they fall in love, and everything in their lives becomes about the other, failed to register on me.
Then, there is Redmayne. Ostensibly the villain, his performance is both odd and very old-fashioned, in a bad way. Throughout, Redmayne seems to be barely able to stay awake, his speech pattern is laconic and his eyes seem heavy, ready to close and send him to Sleepy Time Village at any point. And just as he is about to put you to sleep, he starts shouting at the top of his lungs, until he becomes tired again and starts speaking in a slow, methodic pattern of speech. You see, he's meant to seem villain-ish because he is sooo laid back. Someone who is so laid back could never be evil, right? So, this inconsistency in his character is meant to make him scary. Unfortunately, this same style of acting went out of favor with bad James Bond villains. When it is done, it is usually much more natural than Redmayne's work here.
There are also a lot of different creatures throughout the film, interesting to look at, but because no effort is given to establish who they are, or what their place in this universe is, they ultimately serve as bad window dressing. The only effort to establish any background for the aliens comes with the brief, cryptic explanations of who Caine and Stinger are and also who the Abrasax siblings are. Why go to the effort to create so many different characters if they have no meaning to the viewer? And the only way they are going to have any meaning? If the Wachowskis showed any interest in them.
Even the beauty of the film, and all of the effort spent in creating the various worlds and space ships, becomes an exercise in tedium when they really don't have any significance. Each or the Abrasax siblings lives in a different world, but they all seem the same. And no significance is given to the differences (such as they might be) between each world.
Because Jupiter's parents are Russian, when the narrative shifts to modern day, these characters are able to provide many bad stereotypes. Thank goodness for that, because there wasn't enough to criticize about this movie already. It's almost like the Wachowskis heard my plea to give me more to criticize.
I could go on. And on. But I feel it best to help put "Jupiter" out of her misery and simply try to forget it. I assure you that Tatum, Kunis and the Wachowskis have already started the process of forgetting this blotch on their respective careers.
And all of the planned sequels? Not a chance.