Film Review: Jupiter Ascending / Seventh Son, or ‘What you had to do to win an Oscar in 2014’

“What in the hell is going on?” 

It could just be a matter of coincidence but it does rather seem that the deal with the devil in order to get the Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Award was to also play a camp villain in a middling sci-fi/fantasy film. Eddie Redmayne’s cape-swirling alien aristocrat Balem Abrasax threatens the earth’s very safety in Jupiter Ascending and in Seventh Son, Julianne Moore plays cape-swirling uber-witch Mother Malkin who probably also threatens the earth although I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what her endgame was. There’s something rather hilarious about watching these performances in light of the Oscar bait that was The Theory of Everything and Still Alice, which is kind of necessary as neither is particularly great shakes.

Jupiter Ascending sees the Wachowski siblings eschew the profundity of much of their oeuvre delve into the realm of the straight-up blockbuster or space opera, but without sacrificing any of the complexity of the cinematic universes they love to create. Problem is though, it’s all rather dense and dull despite the visual grandeur of the special effects – the Wachowskis’ screenplay is complex and unwieldy and frankly just not that interesting. The only thing that kept me going was the bizarrely theatre-friendly supporting cast and cameos – blink and miss Vanessa Kirby here, wonder if that is Tim Pigott-Smith there, ponder if Bryony Hannah’s presence is a nod to Call the Midwife and marvel too at the randomness of Samuel Barnett’s arresting turn(s).

And then there’s Redmayne, oh Eddie Redmaybe with your lovely Oscar. His villainous Balem is a bizarre confection and marked by a vocal delivery that sounds like he’s receiving a blowjob, all the time (or so I would imagine) it is hypnotically so-good-it’s-bad. But it’s not enough to save the film, which relishes its laborious set pieces far too much with over-extended chase sequences put in to show off the VFX rather than serve the story. For my money, Seventh Son was a more effective piece of fantasy storytelling, based as it is on the first book in Joseph Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles (retitled The Last Apprentice in the US) although Matt Greenberg, Charles Leavitt and Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay similarly turns its potential into tedium.

The film has had a troubled history, originally scheduled for release in February 2013 and delayed by all sorts of studio shenanigans, and though it makes good use of its 3D effects, it falls guilty of a rather clichéd approach in a crowded YA market. Jeff Bridges and Ben Barnes play out a gruff master/unwilling apprentice relationship as the last line of defence in these vaguely medieval European times, against a horde of marauding witches who were unable to gather themselves until Julianne Moore’s Mother Malkin was able to turn herself into a dragon and escape her prison cell in a mountain because the moon turned red (I think). Character is again sacrificed for CGI though, which means it’s hard to ever care too much about any of them.

Moore is at least much more genuinely enjoyable here – vamping it up as the malevolent Malkin and making her mark from the outset as she lasciviously declares “I like boys” upon espying the brooding hunk serious thespian Kit Harington and quickly locking him up in a sex cage. Sadly, the film that might have been from this point does not come to pass but that’s the family market for you. We do get some fun Olivia Williams action too, as the mother of the seventh son of the seventh son, Barnes’ bland Tom Ward, but the film misses Moore’s electric charisma when she’s not on screen – Jeff Bridges’ oddly-accented grizzled master never registers strongly enough for a lead character.

So there you have it, two rather unmissable films but two rather amusing performances from actors who will henceforth always be labelled as “Academy Award winning”. You can’t say they haven’t paid their dues… 

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