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Mila Kunis vs. Space Vampires or: Bad Movie, Great Art — “Jupiter Ascending”

Jupiter Ascending antigrav boots chase

by Gabriel Valdez

Action movies are often criticized as being “color by numbers” and following the same, basic plot we’ve seen dozens of times before. What happens if you take all the color by numbers pages you have, crumple them together, and glue like a madman? Some parts might be recognizable, but the seams where the pages meet won’t make any sense.

It’ll be a surreal mess, but it might still be fun to look at. This is the approach Jupiter Ascending takes. It follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young girl with a tragic past who works as a house cleaner, but is really the reincarnation of one of the universe’s most powerful CEOs. Before we get the chance to know her, she’s targeted by bounty hunters and saved by a hunky space wolf played by Channing Tatum. We take it on faith he’s a space wolf despite the only evidence being pointy ears and the occasional growl, but everyone in the movie keeps telling us he is, so why not? Oh, and he has anti-gravity boots that let him speed skate through the air at jet speed.

Have you seen Underworld, Stargate, Dune, The Fifth Element, or Star Wars? Read any Douglas Adams? Seen any Disney princess animation ever? Good, because they’re all smashed in here. Do you want a movie that makes a lot of sense? This isn’t the place. Do you want one that crazily shoves every sci-fi cliché into a blender and holds on for dear life? Welcome to Jupiter Ascending.

You can’t take the movie’s surface seriously. It’s thoroughly B-grade. There’s a sequence where Tatum fights aliens on earth, hops onto their frigate, rides a wormhole through space, and then raids an intergalactic thunder palace – all without putting on a shirt. The number of costume changes Kunis undergoes, from hospital gown to space jumpsuit to ever more extravagant and revealing evening gowns, becomes a running joke.

Jupiter Ascending space vampires

Jupiter Ascending is trolling science-fiction and our expectations of it, trying to get a rise by being like everything and nothing all at once. It’s more along the lines of directors The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer than The Matrix. Does that make it as good as either? That’s complicated. It’s constantly skirting the line between clever and disastrous. It’s a worse movie. It’s better art.

Kunis anchors the film by playing straight man to the film’s zany antics, and she’s better than expected. Tatum is too glum for the kind of chances the film is taking and Sean Bean nods and winks his way through a paper-thin mentor role. The biggest shortcoming is Eddie Redmayne, currently up for an Oscar for The Theory of Everything. It’s difficult to overact without being campy, but he finds a way, mumbling half his lines away.

The movie’s biggest problem is a lack of signifiers in the action scenes. We need to know where everyone is so we can marvel at the amazing visual effects and feats of heroism taking place. When our heroes hijack an alien fighter over Chicago, for instance, we’re treated to a few minutes of high-speed chase. The only problem is that all the fighters look exactly the same and have extra moving parts that distract the eye. This is Grade-A Transformers disease: which fighter are we rooting for in the mess of fantastic visual effects? Who knows? We’re rooting for the effects, I guess.

The solution is as simple as painting a red streak on the side of our heroes’ fighter, or lighting the cockpit a different color. Audiences thrive on context, and lacking it is a mistake Jupiter Ascending makes repeatedly. The movie gets a pass on being zany; it doesn’t get a pass on bad fundamentals.

Jupiter Ascending makeup

Characters, realizations, and scenes don’t emerge; they crash into the rest of the plot. The film’s latter half revolves around the intergalactic espionage surrounding who owns Earth: it’s Jupiter and her space wolf versus the infighting dynasty of space vampires. Think the shenanigans of Twilight meeting the corporate metaphors of Dune, if you can do so without your brain breaking. The movie starts becoming more solid as it becomes clearer just how big of a riff it all is.

Jupiter Ascending is a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. I want to like it more than I actually do. In this case, that makes the difference. Maybe it’s Kunis’s charm, or the Wachowskis’ kitchen sink approach. It could be the costume drama antics or the blue collar message it trumpets throughout. The movie’s multi-layered anti-oligarchy conceit is brilliant, it’s just not as brilliantly fused together into a cogent whole. Right now, it’s a lot of really good ideas sprinkled around.

It’s just insane enough to make me applaud its ambition. It stands out not because it achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but because it wants to accomplish so much. Falling on its face makes me admire the movie a lot more than if it didn’t try at all. Is it a good film? Absolutely not, but it is relentlessly interesting. You have to know what happens next. It’s a fine line to walk, as if the Wachowskis took the “There is no spoon” line from The Matrix and applied it to a movie instead of silverware.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Jupiter Ascending have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter. Tuppence Middleton plays space vampire extraordinaire Kalique Abrasax. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Diomika Tsing, a capable captain in what amounts to the space police. Doona Bae plays bounty hunter Razo. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Famulus, Lieutenant to one of the space vampire sons. Jupiter’s own immigrant family may be patriarchal, but is dominated by women – her mother and aunt, especially.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yep.

3. About something other than a man?

They rarely talk about men. The film’s biggest accomplishment is that Jupiter is the same person whether she’s cleaning toilets and getting yelled at by her family, or deciding the fate of Earth. This is a strong female character who always seeks to sacrifice for the greater good, even at the expense of herself or her family. It doesn’t matter if she’s discussing financial woes or intergalactic economics.

On the whole, I oppose character development the way we use it now. We’ve taken an element of storytelling that is a tool and, in Western narratives, we’ve turned it into all but a requirement. It’s like asking we build our houses out of hammers and screwdrivers instead of wood and brick. Character development is a great tool when used in the correct circumstance. It is not the essence of narrative.

The few times when we are gifted with characters who don’t develop, it’s because they’re thrown into a world where their personal strengths are turned from uselessness into dominance: Mel Gibson’s Max in Mad Max, Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, and the progenitor of all these steadfast characters in American film – Clint Eastwood in any Western or Dirty Harry movie.

These are stories where unhealthy traits are suddenly turned into heroic qualities because the nature of their world demands it. It’s no mistake that the unhealthy traits that are presented as heroic almost always belong to male characters.

Rarely, do we see a normal person on film whose world is turned upside down, yet who is healthy enough to end up the same on the other side regardless. Almost never is this character a woman.

When this happens in Jupiter Ascending, it’s not stressing the need for dominance or vengeance or violence as strengths. It’s stressing empathy and confidence, the courage to understand something wholly separate from your own experience and meet it on its own terms rather than trying to conquer it on yours.

Jupiter Ascending Mila Kunis

The ideas inside of Jupiter Ascending, especially as they pertain to gender dynamics, are some of the most exquisite and complex you’ll find on film. Does the film live up to those ideas? Enough to communicate them successfully if you’re willing to watch with an open mind, yes.

Our hunky space wolf does rescue Jupiter on more than one occasion. Sometimes it’s needed, but at least once he bursts in and impressively kills dozens for a rescue that’s completely useless. Jupiter’s perfectly fine. Whoops.

Later, he’ll burst in and rescue Jupiter when she’s already won the day. This isn’t to say she can claim what we think of as a classical movie victory – she’s made the decision to sacrifice herself and others in order to save billions of lives. She makes the right decision in a no-win scenario, and more to the point, she’s made the kind of decision people who clean toilets for a living already make every day, and not the one her aristocratic corporate space vampire opponents can even grasp as a viable option. So yeah, she does win, and in case you don’t get it, she’s given the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the villain later on anyway.

So the hunky Channing Tatum space wolf (who she’s hitting on from first meeting rather than the other way around) does get to rescue her in classical movie form, often as she’s falling out of buildings, but it’s usually after she’s claimed the kind of victories we rarely get to see in movies, the kind that are far more impressive than all the speed skating anti-gravity boots in the galaxy.

Chris Braak writes more on this in an article that considers the feminism in Jupiter Ascending and how the film’s messages may reflect on co-director Lana Wachowski’s gender transition.

IN CONCLUSION

This is one of those films that the more I write about it, the more I think about it, the more I find in it. I can tell I’m not done writing about it by a long shot. Roger Ebert once said that you have to rate a film based on its own terms. Not is it good or is it bad. Does it succeed at what it’s trying to be?

It’s very difficult to tell what Jupiter Ascending wants to be. Earlier, I said it’s a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. It’s five star performance art. It’s a six star discussion topic. It’s seven star feminism. It’s an eight star science-fiction conceit. It’s just very hard to get at those other things because it is a one star movie on the surface.

Where does that leave it?

As a box office flop (at least in the U.S.) that mainstream criticism will reject. And you can’t really blame them because their jobs are to rate movies as movies, not as discussion topics or meta commentary or performance art. That’s the critical industry dragging its heels on responding to the way movies are changing, and I’m not about to blame individual critics for rating movies as movies first.

As an inevitable cult classic a few critics will be championing for years, to either be remembered for how ambitious it was in reaching so far beyond the theater, or to be forgotten for how it failed to sell itself well enough inside the theater.

Where does that leave me?

See it. Be prepared to dislike it. Be prepared to love it. Go in with no expectations. Be prepared to not understand how a friend can feel the exact opposite of you after you watch it. Either way, you’ll be discussing it long afterwards. Be prepared to dislike it and love it in the same breath. Be prepared to see it and think I’m an idiot. Be prepared to see it and want to write 2,000 words on it. Be prepared to think it’s genius. Be prepared to think it’s trash.

In the end, do not try and rate the movie. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

What truth?

There is no movie.

There is no movie?

Then you’ll see, that it is not the movie that’s awesome, it is only yourself.

Or something like that.

What Went Wrong — Lea Michele’s “Louder”

Lea Michele Louder lead

by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez

What happens when you take a Broadway singer and stuff her into a Katy Perry pop mold? Some good things, some bad.

Louder is Lea Michele’s debut album (free of Broadway or Glee soundtracks) and she uses 29 writers and 21 producers in just 11 songs. Or maybe they use her.

When it was released on February 28, Michele was roundly trashed, getting 1.5 stars (out of 5) from Rolling Stone. Idolator was the kindest around, rating Michele 3.5 stars. Very occasionally, they even remembered to grade the album, too.

They were in the ballpark, though. The album has some disastrous moments. So what went wrong? That’s easier to find if we start with what went right.

“Cannonball” is a strong opener. It hits listeners with Michele’s Broadway chops via the repetitive chorus: “I’ll fly like a cannonball.” This is an appropriate metaphor. As any Glee viewer can tell you, Michele is best when she’s allowed to sing to the back of the room.

Pop star Sia Furler wrote “Cannonball” and Norwegian duo Stargate produced it. They’re smart to strip the power ballad to basics: Michele’s only accompaniments are canned drums set to 1980s riff and a walking synth line that revisits the same five chords for three minutes straight. Soft electric string tones join in the middle to add a cathartic note (literally, they add only one note). An airy piano, which hands the walking line to the synth at the beginning, returns at the end to reflect Michele shedding the song’s dark, depressing opening lyrics and finding strength.

With the most basic level of instrumentation, the song is forced to rely on Michele and her background singers. This is great: it fits into Glee‘s semi-a cappella mode that’s been designed for Michele over 121 hours of TV. There’s nothing extraneous in “Cannonball,” and that puts the burden on her vocals.

(More voice means more emotion. This was the theory when Peter Gabriel and Real World Studios first re-engineered pop music around canned drum cycles in the mid-1980s.)

Portamento (pitch sliding) is not Michele’s forte. She hits a note perfectly, but when she’s asked to slur from one to the next in a single syllable, it doesn’t often sound right. More consistent production could have done a better job of hiding or orchestrating around this, and the best production on the album does.

Not surprisingly, the songs written by Sia are the album’s standouts – “Cannonball,” “Battlefield,” “You’re Mine,” and “If You Say So.” Not all of them were originally written for Michele, and maybe that’s why they work.

Lea Michele

“Battlefield” is also the only song produced by Josh Abraham. He began his career in the production booth for heavy metal groups Danzig and Orgy and rap-rock bands that don’t know how to spell Limp Bizkit, Staind, and Linkin Park. Love or hate them, these are all bands that limit the number of sounds that take place in their songs. They’re loud, but they’re not complicated. There’s no Wall of Sound to deal with.

“Battlefield” is Michele accompanied by piano and drums. There’s also an African chorus that feels like it entered the wrong recording booth, but it finds its way out quickly enough. “Battlefield” is the song that feels closest to a Broadway solo.

“You’re Mine” sounds more like a Selena Gomez song. Michele’s wanting portamento is replaced with quick, staccato note changes. She’s accompanied by canned drums, emotive strings (synthed), and occasional piano. This is one of two songs on Louder that Chris Braide produced. He’s previously produced for Sia, Lana Del Rey, and Malaysian singer Yuna. His synthesized strings are a trademark.

As he does for those artists, he makes sure to keep the instrumental elements in the background, supportive of Michele. The drums use reverb to complement Michele’s ability to assertively hold notes, and pull back to soft clapping for a relaxed three-quarter break. The strings are held to a walking series of choruses so they can’t become a focus. Like “Cannonball,” “You’re Mine” rightly places the weight of the song on Michele’s aggressive delivery.

“If You Say So” is a good performance in the wrong song. Unlike “Cannonball,” Sia wrote it with Michele in mind, but it feels like it was written for Sia by Sia. Lyrics like “I check my phone and wait to hear from you in a crowded room” could ache with Sia’s delivery, but feel misplaced with Michele’s. Michele is still singing to the back of the room. Sia would sing it to herself. It’s the difference between a performance (even though it’s a good one) and a heart wrenching personal portrait.

It’s the mistake the whole album makes. It isn’t Michele’s fault. She’s stepping into unfamiliar places by recording an album and putting herself in the hands of so many different writers (29) and producers (21). By relying on so many different personalities, though, too much gets asked of Michele. The picture she’s trying to paint is too big, and looking closely reveals gaps in detail.

Michele had a hand in writing two songs on the album, “If You Say So,” and “Cue the Rain.”

“The city was on fire for us
we would have died for us
up in flames
cue the rain…”

It’s the kind of nonsense Michele can make you picture. She’s a cinematic singer, but like most pop stars, she has a big Achilles heel in her delivery. Michele’s happens when singing introspectively.

Britney Spears can pull off mess like “I know my heart’s too drunk to drive,” but Michele can’t. Britney is an introspective singer (stylistically, not effectively). Michele is the polar opposite.

Consider the Lecture Hall Test. If Michele’s at the front of a lecture hall and pointing at you and singing about fire and dying and rain, you’re not looking anywhere else. You’re thinking, this is going to be an awesome semester. If she’s boring holes through you with her eyes while she goes on about her heart getting a DUI, you’re heading to the academic department and hoping the add/drop deadline hasn’t passed.

The best pop singers can sing to the back of the room and to themselves, depending on what the song needs. For all the other faults in her music, Katy Perry’s ability to shift gears quickly and effortlessly is why she dominates the field. She can overcome the kind of lackluster production Michele faces on “On My Way,” “Louder,” “Don’t Let Go,” and “Empty Handed.”

Lea Michele Glee 1

Anne Preven is one of the most constant producers on the album. She’s worked extensively with Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. These are singers geared toward safe, radio-friendly songs whose direction is decided more by orchestration than by vocal. Michele isn’t suited to that kind of quick, hoppy delivery. She doesn’t know how to follow her instrumentation, and her stage and TV experiences have offered her next to no training in how to do so. She leads the charge; all her experience is in orchestrations being built around her.

Our hope would be for a second album to settle on a more limited field of writers and producers. And maybe that was the purpose of this album – to see who Michele works best with and what direction offers the best musical future.

Our hope? “Thousand Needles” works because Michele’s strong voice lends itself to the instrumental spareness, elongated delivery, and emotional catharsis of R&B. It’s Michele’s best vocal delivery on the album and it’s the only one in which her portamento isn’t brutal, perhaps because the tempo isn’t rushed.

It’s also the only song Ali Payami produces, and one of the few Kuk Harrell has a hand in. Payami is a deceptively clever remixer of club and house music. Harrell has produced for Rihanna, Usher, and The-Dream. He also has a hand in producing “You’re Mine” (pro) and “On My Way” (con). We think he needs more opportunities with Michele.

“Cannonball” is produced by Stargate. When writing this article, we kept e-mailing each other, “You know who should produce for Michele? Whoever did Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It.’

Turns out that’s Stargate, too. Great minds, people, great minds…

Stargate is a Norwegian production team composed of Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen. Their experience mixing R&B with hip-hop and the electronic nuances of Scandinavian pop lends well to Michele’s strengths, but they rarely produce an entire album.

A cut down lineup of producers Abraham, Braide, Harrell, and Payami would help to focus the direction of the album, with Stargate engineering the intended singles.

As for writers, Sia needs to stay, but this is a no-brainer. She’s one of the most sought-after writers in pop music, and four of Louder‘s best songs were written by her hand. Michele needs to keep hitting up Scandinavia – “Thousand Needles” was cowritten by Tove Nilsson (Swedish pop star Tove Lo) while Stargate helped write “Cannonball.” Michele also needs to take a stronger lead in writing her own material, becoming more aware of the big, sprawling, cinematic metaphors that play to her delivery and the personal, everyday, in-the-moment images she doesn’t perform believably.

Many of the writers and producers we haven’t named here come from a Cyrus/Lovato/Kelly Clarkson/American Idol/America’s Got Talent background. They can’t return. Michele needs to be treated more experimentally – some combination of Broadway, R&B, and Scandinavian pop. Anything country or folk needs to be kept very far away from her.

There’s a clear path forward for Michele’s inevitable follow-up to Louder, which wasn’t necessarily a bad album. It was just one half of a very good album and one half of a soporific disaster. Very few efforts this year so starkly demonstrate the influence that writers and producers have in how a pop album comes together…or doesn’t.

What Went Wrong/What Went Right will be a returning series that puts the emphasis in music criticism on the music itself, and not the celebrity or lifestyle behind it. If you enjoyed it, please check back, and feel free to browse our music video criticism in the meantime.

Lea Michele Louder cap