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The latest sci-fi spectacular from the Wachowskis is one of the few original blockbusters of recent years. It has a troubled history, having been pushed back from its original release date of July 2014 to the studios’ dumping ground of the following February. It is an overblown smorgasbord of plots and plotting, dazzling spaceships and alien technology, weird creatures both humanoid and otherwise, high camp performances and heady themes about one’s place in the universe, duty and loyalty, consumerist greed, immigrant status and gender relations. It combines elements of Star Wars, Stargate, Flash Gordon, The Fifth Element, Soylent Green, Brazil (complete with a cameo from Terry Gilliam) and probably others, yet manages to maintain a distinct identity of its own. It is narratively unwieldy, conceptually confused and rather a lot of fun.
Overall, Jupiter Ascending is a case of more being less. The film would have benefitted from being more streamlined and having a less complex fictional world, as this would reduce the need for lengthy exposition and plot-necessary kidnappings. Equally, it could have been an hour longer, allowing more time to display and explore the power structures and political infrastructure. And it would have been fascinating as the first instalment of a franchise, focused on a specific event that would have wider ramifications. The film’s financial failure makes this extremely unlikely (although never say never, this is Hollywood after all), but Jupiter Ascending remains an entertaining and remarkable noble failure.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.