See It Instead: Jupiter Ascending
Time once again to scour the bargain bin and bring you excellent films from yesteryear. When you want the big time feel of the theater without the big time price of a 3D, surround sound, feel-around butter flavored blockbuster, turn to See It Instead for three quality flicks that deserve your attention instead!
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Early in the life-cycle of modern Sci-Fi, the term “space opera” was coined to insult particularly daft pieces in the genre that were melodramatic, gaudy, silly, and overblown. Well, Jupiter Ascending is certainly a space opera then. If you want to know more about the Wachowskis’ latest eyeball bursting trip through Eastern Religions 101, you can read all about it in my Least Anticipated Movies of 2015 diatribe. Here, I want to talk about how Sci-Fi managed to turn the ugly phrase space opera into a well established and (mostly) respected genre. Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Gallactica all improved upon early pioneering work started by campy serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The plots of the movies became a touch more serious, the visuals became better able to create and immerse an audience in a strange world, and the space race turned speculative Sci-Fi into a mainstream concern. The dramas began to resemble classic tales such from Greek mythology and Medieval folk tales (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader as an inverted King Arthur and Mordred? Star Trek as the Odyssey in space?), and rose above the cornball plots of evil space Emperors and mindless Robot armies…well, mostly. So this time out, we’re going to look at Sci-Fi films that got the high romance and sweeping drama of the space opera right.
The Serious Pick: Dune (1984)
Turning Frank Herbert’s genre defining and mind-erasing epic series, Dune, into a watchable film has been the holy grail for many a director. Many ships have sunk upon the jagged rocks that surround this incredibly dense, meticulously plotted and astoundingly long spanning series (just for a reference, the first entry in the series takes place roughly 15,000 years after the launch of sputnik…and has detailed histories that span roughly another 10,000 years in either direction. Fuck.) Enter director David Lynch, noted eccentric and visionary. How he settled on this project, and who let him sink his teeth into is beyond imagination. So is his vision of Dune.
Long, long, really long story short: The drug that lets humans travel through space only exists in one place, the planet Dune. The space empire exists pretty much solely to distribute this drug. Rival clans all aspire to control it. Some for good, some for evil. The Atreides want to create peaceable order. The Harkonnens want to create suffering and chaos. They are intentionally set at odds over administering Dune by the Emperor who fears the growing power of both groups. The young scion of the Atreides, Paul, watches his father and household murdered by the Harkonnens shortly after moving to Dune. He escapes with his mother, a former priestess/witch, who has trained him to be the pinnacle of human genetic potential. He regroups and unleashes a metric ton of ass-kicking on his enemies.
There is a lot to criticize this film for: uneven pacing, questionable over-dubbing of narration (which is essentially the only way to really understand the labyrinthine plot) and some janky visual effects. But there is so much more to love about this film: a thorough yet abbreviated plot full of back-and-forth politics, an ambitious attention to detail, fine acting (Jurgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Kyle MacLachlan, Max Von Sydow and even Sting turn in great performances,) an electrifying soundtrack featuring Toto, and some daring and technically stunning visuals. This may not be the best version of Dune fans could have hoped for, but it is a damn fine Sci-Fi epic.
The Lighthearted Pick: The Fifth Element (1997)
Multi-Pass? Hell, yeah, this film gets a pass from us, as it features Bruce Willis and pre-Resident Evil Mila Jovovich traveling across the galaxy, kicking butt and trying to thwart a sentient pain planet which is seeking to destroy all advanced life in the universe. So basically Transformers: The Movie, minus Kurt Bush’s “The Touch,” but plus Gary Oldman.
In the future, mankind has spread to the stars and joined an intergalactic community. Things are peaceful and dull, until an ancient evil attacks, effortlessly destroying a human war ship. The president of Earth (what a shit job THAT must be!) is informed by an odd pair of priests that the evil has appeared before, and was ultimately stopped by an alliance of aliens and humans using 5 elements. They attempt to reassemble the elements, but are ambushed by a wealthy arms merchant named Zorg (Gary Oldman) who has been corrupted by the evil force. The only survivor is a genetically reconstructed girl, Leeloo (Mila Jovovich) who has no memories, but a penchant for martial arts. She escapes and runs into a washed up ex-special forces agent who drives a cab for a living (Bruce Willis.) The priests, the girl, and the cabbie must all recover the relics and defeat the evil planet…by going to a literal opera in space. It gets weird.
The charms of Luc Besson’s flick are the well crafted action sequences (as you would expect from the man who brought you La Femme Nikita and The Professional,) Gary Oldman chewing scenery as a wonderfully dastardly villain, and the unabashed homages to classic space serials from the 40’s and 50’s. If Flash Gordon flew his rocket chariot through this film, you’d hardly be surprised. It’s a bit cheesy in places (looking at you, Ruby Rhod) but is a lot of fun.
The Unconventional Pick: Serenity (2005)
Serenity, the ultimate gift of director Joss Whedon to fans of his short lived television series Firefly, is a dedicated space opera that draws equally from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the American Civil War. Mal (Nathan Fillion,) a former commander in the brown shirt Colonial militia that attempted to secede from Alliance control, is a smuggler and petty criminal, who attempts to make ends meet in space, along with a crew of other misfits and former Colonial soldiers. Into their desperate wanderings arrive a pair of siblings from the Alliance, a brilliant doctor and his apparently psychotic younger sister. The sister (Summer Glau) was the victim of Alliance genetic and mental conditioning who switches at random between a pitiless killing machine and a terrified young woman. They convince Mal to shepherd them to a distant Alliance world that may have answers about the human weapons program, as well as a way for Mal and the Colonials to finally get a bit of well deserved revenge for losing the war. They only need to survive mindless space cannibals and a suave but ruthless Alliance assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is amazing, as usual.)
If you ever wondered what Star Wars would have been like if you got to spend the entire film watching events from Han Solo’s perspective, Serenity is for you. The dialogue is crisp, intelligent, and wickedly funny. The dramatic situation of the universe is compelling and well thought out, even if you don’t have any knowledge of the TV series’ back story. The characters are all significant and lovable, and the movie is not afraid to put them in real peril. The Sci-Fi elements of the show are a blast to behold, mixing fantasy and history into a blend that feels authentic. If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss was about for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Serenity is a great summary/continuation of that lovingly crafted universe.