The past year has been an interesting and diverse one for fans of cinematic science fiction. We’ve had Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, if flawed, Interstellar, and Alex Garland’s fascinating Ex Machina. Right at the moment, cinemas are sporting two further major releases that do what all good science fiction does: reflect the concerns of the present in visions of the future.
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland are both visually stunning, but their similarities go deeper than that. Both films depict an alternate present instead of a distant future, albeit both warning in their own way of how our own present could go. In doing so, they become fables, trying to make their points symbolically, with characters who represent much more than the journeys that they go on. A central theme of both films is the need to avoid giving up, to retain optimism and humanity in the face of cynicism and despair.
But for all of the similarities, there are multiple differences too. Most glaring is their storytelling success—Fury Road is good enough that it’s hard to pick holes without coming across as petty, whereas Tomorrowland struggles to avoid being dragged back down into the summer blockbuster mire. Taking a look at the differences between them might help to illustrate this.
One definition of insanity is to repeat the same activity and expect a different outcome. A modern variation on that might be to go to a Wachowski Siblings movie expecting something akin to The Matrix. Watching Jupiter Ascending last week, I wondered if this was a case of optimism triumphing over experience or a more simple case of refusing to heed the signs.
This is not to say that The Matrix is a perfect movie—it hasn’t aged well. Nor is it to say that the Wachowskis haven’t done anything else of worth—their movies have remained visually imaginative and have never shied away from incorporating big ideas. All the same, the shadow of their game-changing early success seems to weigh as heavily on them as it does on their audience.
So what do we get with Jupiter Ascending? We get a weirdly unbalanced mix of overstuffed science fantasy, underplayed “big ideas” and a selection of narrative cliches that combine to waste just about everyone’s time. It’s remarkably ambitious, but it doesn’t seem to be ambitious to do anything in particular—it’s happy enough to just be ambitious.
To trade in spoilers for a little while, one of the nicer things about Jupiter Ascending is its heroine. Mila Kunis is a Russian emigre housemaid, cleaning the toilets of the super-rich in Chicago. Essentially, she’s a romantic comedy character who suddenly finds that not only is she in a science fiction epic, but that she’s genetically destined to be the ruler of the Earth. Actually, she’s the genetic owner of the Earth, rather than its ruler, but the legal basis for that, as well as just how she came to inherit her genetic payload (if it wasn’t just random chance), is one of the many things that Jupiter Ascending skips over rather than engages in.
So what is the galactic civilisation that she finds herself a player in? Well, you could watch the entire movie and not really have a clue. There’s a galactic police force that mostly exists to give people a spaceship to fly around in (because they’re certainly not enforcing any laws). There’s a bureaucracy borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, to the point of including a bizarre cameo by Gilliam himself. And there are the main antagonists, who are competing over a valuable youth treatment—not that there seems to be anyone around to actually buy the stuff.*
This absence of context infects the entire movie, making it feel oddly hollow even as it tries its best to fill itself up with incident. The main victims of this include the aforementioned antagonist family: Of the three of them, one is shunted off the stage after explaining the plot to the heroine, another has an interesting scheme that he abandons at the end of the second act, and the last just pouts and scowls in the background until it’s time for the big finale.
If the movie had the confidence it desperately needed, it wouldn’t have felt the need to fire off every arrow in its quiver in one go. Whereas The Matrix was a focused, low-stakes, personal story—which led to the sequels increasingly revealing the lack of a coherent universe—Jupiter Ascending puts the fate of the Earth at stake from the start, leaving it nowhere to go but sideways.
So what about those big ideas that the Wachowskis like to play with? Well, they’re there, sort of. As mentioned, there’s the Soylent Green-style youth serum, but as it’s embodied in just three people, none of whom are given any depth as characters, it’s a rather one-sided critique of capitalism. (There’s even a wedding two-thirds of the way through the movie where the crowd are all robots.) Beyond that, well, aren’t the chase scenes and the explosions nice? Certainly, there’s nothing like The Matrix’s juxtaposition of an appealing simulated world with a grimy reality. Both movies might count as high concept, but The Matrix’s high concept informs the entire film. Jupiter Ascending’s high concept drifts out of sight for long stretches of time and is entirely absent in the finale.
Whatever flaws there are in the film though can’t be blamed on the actors. Eddie Redmayne happily chews away at the scenery as the final boss, and Douglas Booth is surprisingly good as his kid brother and the penultimate boss. Kunis and Channing Tatum are likeable enough leads, if never particularly believable in their underwritten romance, and Sean Bean commits to his supporting role as well as he ever does. The sad fact though is that there’s no one else in the film of note. This is a very, very empty galaxy.
The Wachowskis might never make another Matrix, but that’s hardly a criticism—few filmmakers ever make a film that has such impact. But their triumph is also their curse. Knowing what they’re capable of, we’re always going to hope, if not expect, that they’ll reach those heights again. Jupiter Ascending aims for that, but it never even comes close.
Films that are worth talking about are worth seeing twice. Sometimes the second viewing can open up a film, revealing just how good it really is. On the other hand, it can confirm that despite all its promise, it somehow falls short of being truly great.
So far I’ve only seen Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar once, so I can’t say for certain where it falls on this scale. All I can say is that it is worth talking about. Rather than a review, this is going to be a critique, a musing on certain points, and thoughts about where Interstellar fits into the history of science fiction cinema.
Spoilers, obviously, but not too many.
With Interstellar, I made as much of an effort as I ever have to avoid learning anything about the film. It wasn’t an entirely successful effort. Thanks to Facebook and RSS feed summaries, I ended up learning about the movie’s main scientific conceit and the surprise cameo. Thankfully, neither of these are key to what the film cares about: it’s a space opera rather than hard science fiction, despite its trappings, and the cameo is, well, a little pointless.
When it comes to space-based science fiction films, two great films loom largest for me: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. Like Interstellar, both of them focus on humanity against the background of space and science, yet they present this central obsession in different ways. 2001 universalises its humanity, to the point where Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman becomes an everyman, no more specific than one of the apes who encounters the monolith at the start of the film. Interstellar’s debt to 2001 is everywhere, from its use of music and model work for effect to scenes that harken back to specific scenes in 2001. It’s a very high bar to aim at, but Nolan has never had a problem with ambition.
Moon, on the other hand, makes its humanity intensely personal, and in Sam Rockwell it has an actor whose agonies are always believable. It’s a much more focused film than either 2001 or Interstellar, and its use of science is limited to its setting and the twist that sets its plot in motion. Interstellar bears no specific debt to Moon, but it is as just as emotional and its science is if anything relegated even more to the role of window dressing.
The problem with Interstellar is that it falls between two stools. Despite an excess of verbiage (something neither Moon nor 2001 could be accused of), there are some fine performances here. the emotional heart of the film falls by the wayside in the second act and only really comes into focus in the third, by which point it’s too late to sell it. And in trying to restart that emotional heart, it abandons its efforts to say something all-encompassing about humanity apart from a vaguely voiced notion that we’re going to save ourselves. For Nolan, who mastered the difficult art of the closing scene in Memento and Inception, Interstellar feels like it just peters out, unsure of what it’s trying to say.
A larger problem in terms of Interstellar’s potential to become a classic of the genre is the fact that, at its heart, it’s an American film, not a universal one. The Dust Bowl theme standing in for environmental collapse is one thing, the self-mythologising tendency at its heart, the repeated moments of folksy wisdom, and the cowboy hero of the last frontier that it can’t look away from is quite another. That last one is perhaps Interstellar’s biggest problem. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is the ostensible hero, and his adventures are certainly the most cinematic and visually interesting aspect of the film, but the focus on him detracts from the role of his daughter Murph, played with equal weight by Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy. Her struggle becomes incidental, when it could and perhaps should have received equal billing.
This may seem like a negative article so far, but in balance of that, remember that I had big expectations when it came to Interstellar. Nolan’s record is as good as anyone’s at the moment, and I’ve only seen it once (and my initial reaction, before I’d had a chance to think about it, was a lot more negative). On the plus side, it looks beautiful, even though there are a few points where the models look a little too model-like. Hans Zimmer’s score hits the high notes too, as ought to be expected of him by now. Now that I’ve had a chance to read a few reviews, it seems that mixed responses are the order of the day.
Bear in mind too that 2001 was met with similarly mixed responses when it first appeared and only ascended to its towering role within the genre over time. Interstellar may well have a similar path ahead of it. I doubt I’ll ever love it as much as I do Moon though. Whether it’ll improve on second viewing will depend on whether, behind all of its verbiage, there’s brain to match its heart.
Edit: So I went to see Interstellar a second time (this time in IMAX). And while I’m glad I did, it didn’t change my mind much. It’s a fascinating, ambitious, flawed film, notable as much for its tendency to hammer you over the head with its themes as for the epic sweep of its visuals. For all its focus on delivering an emotional, almost mystical experience, there’s only one point where it succeeds in truly touching the heartstrings. That particular scene though is the one part of the movie that is a classic piece of cinema, and while I won’t spoil it by describing it, I will say that it involves a countdown.
Until relatively recently, Dublin had no IMAX cinemas. These days it has two, one in Cineworld, one in the Odeon at the Point. Hollywood releasing movies created with IMAX in mind is another relatively recent development—when the format was first introduced, it was filled with short novelty films, often in 3D. Well, full 3D IMAX films are here now, and Gravity is their standard bearer.