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Box Office: What the Hell Happened With Jupiter Ascending & What Does It Mean for The Future of Sci-Fi?

Posted on the 11 February 2015 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

When Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow flopped last summer despite an almost euphoric response from critics ( 90% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes) and fans (90% of RottenTomatoes readers "liked it") it was easy to crack a joke like, "You see, America, this is why you can't have nice things!" Warner Bros. had thrown dang near $180 million at making this thing, probably somewhere in the $100 million territory to market it, a ton of money for something which though adapted from a generally obscure Japanese young adult novella turned manga felt more like an original property, a humans vs. aliens sci-fi story featuring a Groundhog Day-like time loop. It was a big budget star vehicle for Tom Cruise like we used to always get as opposed to the modern trend of big budget films in which the franchise or intellectual property is the star, not any of the actual actors (see Chris Hemsowrth's continual struggles to find a hit outside of Thor for proof of that). It also happened to be a dang good film with a kick-ass performance from Emily Blunt, intelligent plotting which didn't speak down to the audience, and plenty of comedy via clever editing, mostly tied to the various ways Cruise's character dies during the time loop. These are all good things we claim to want more of, yet here was Edge of Tomorrow limping out of the gate to such a degree that no amount of positive post-opening weekend word of mouth could save it. For shame, America! For shame!

Well, last week there were those who wanted to prevent history from repeating itself. Warner Bros. has again thrown around $180 million at making and $100 million at marketing another highly ambitious, original-seeming science-fiction film from people we've liked in the past. This time it's Jupiter Ascending starring Mila Kunis as a Chicago housemaid whose unique DNA makes her "the lost relative of intergalactic heirs that own planets the way wealthy humans in our world own estates," with Channing Tatum and Sean Bean sent to protect her from those who seek to push her aside in their quest for power. It's directed by the Wachowskis, to whom we forever bow for having made The Matrix. Unlike Edge of Tomorrow, this one's a genuine original concept not adapted from anything though the Wachowskis' have copped to lifting ideas from The Odyssey, Star Wars, Dune, Terry Gilliam movies, and The Wizard of Oz.

Big budget? Original concept sci-fi? This is the type of film we should be supporting, dangit, just as we should have supported Edge of Tomorrow. Marvel, Fox, Sony, and Warner Bros. are going to crank out comic book movies up to 2020 and probably beyond, revisionist fairy tales are all the rage thanks to Frozen and Maleficent, it really seems like not even Paul Walker's death will derail the Fast & Furious movies, and although no one seems to be asking for them we are definitely getting another Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean, and probably another Transformers. There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of that, but it's not the type of product that inspired the Wachowskis to make The Matrix. As they told The Wall Street Journal, they grew up adoring original stories created solely for film, Raiders, Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Back to the Future, etc. "The last 15 years have all been about derivative material and things we keep rebooting again and again, like children with bedtime stories. When we were young, it was people like Gene Siskel driving us, saying: 'Why should I see a movie based on a book? I know what's gonna happen.'" Now, that has shifted to, "Why should I see something not based on something I might already know? You've got to do something like to get my attention if you want me to turn away from video games and TV, and even those options are being overrun by derivative content right now."

There's a small problem, though: It turns out that Jupiter Ascending isn't a very good movie. To be fair, some of the things critics are picking on are more simple genre conventions than actual defaults, such as the fact that this is a basic hero's journey in which "a lovable every-person protagonist with a dead-end job gets plucked out of obscurity by a space warrior, who reveals that the protagonist is actually some kind of chosen one." See: Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. At least this time the hero is female. However, there are aspects worthy of more serious criticism, as Devin Faraci argued in his BadAssDigest review:

Nothing in Jupiter Ascending works, beyond the production design. The space ships and the Jovian refinery and the bizarre creatures and baroque costumes are incredible, the stuff that makes a "The Art Of..." book mandatory [...] But everything else... The script is dead, a series of scenes of expository dialogue where Mila Kunis, grotesquely miscast, parades through various quadrants of the galaxy while everybody tells her who she is, what she means and what they want. She has almost no chemistry with Channing Tatum, trapped in a humorless role as the dog man Caine Wise. Their love, which must be the engine for the plot (such as it is) generates less heat than your phone. Tatum often seems to be tolerating his leading lady. And the action - how many sequences where the CGI camera weaves through CGI action until Channing can save Mila at the last minute can you stomach? I hope it's more than five. Many more than five.

There are indeed those who can enjoy Jupiter Ascending for its visual splendor as well as those who simply don't care about any of that and just want to appreciate Jupiter Ascending for the glorified, goofy B-movie that it is, particularly reveling in mocking Eddie Redmayne's odd accent. However, rallying people to support Jupiter Ascending at this point seems like a lost cause because A) It's not great; B) It's box office fate has already been sealed after a dreadful domestic debut barely over $18 million. When Edge of Tomorrow flopped it at least made $28m in its opening weekend, just barely making it to a final total of $100m domestic due to strong word-of-mouth, something which Jupiter Ascending most definitely lacks. But, wait, it gets worse. According to Deadline, Jupiter Ascending's official production budget of $178 million is crap. It actually cost north of $200 million to make even though its original budget wasn't supposed to exceed $130 million. Then the visual effects were taking too long, and audience awareness was scarily low. So, WB delayed it from its summer 2014 release to this past weekend, throwing more money at it to finish the VFX, raise audiences awareness through marketing, and give the Wachowskis time to fix it.

Jupiter Ascending was, in effect, a lame duck film which had been greenlit at the treatment stage by Jeff Robinov, the then WB studio chief who had once been the Wachowskis agent before making his first splash at WB as one of the studio suits behind The Matrix. There wasn't even a Jupiter Ascending script yet, and the Wachowskis were handed a $130 million budget to work with as well as final cut approval These are the same Wachowskis whose recent films, Cloud Atlas ($130m worldwide against a $100m budget) and Speed Racer ($93m worldwide against a $120m budget), lost tons of money.

Giving the Wachowskis such a sweetheart deal for Jupiter Ascending is the type of thing only someone who owed his career to them would do, and it's not surprising that Robinov didn't survive in his post at WB long enough to see it through. His replacements are the ones who delayed Jupiter Ascending just as they are the ones now trying to spin the film's box office into a positive considering it's okay international debut (over $30m from 65 territories), conveniently leaving out the fact that they're only going to see 25% of those ticket sales from China and 40-42% of ticket sales from all other foreign markets.

The Wachowskis know better. This is a flop. Even before it came out, they told WSJ, "We've been lucky. People at studios have been interested in our crazy, strange brand of complexity. And we've been allowed to keep making them. Will that continue? Probably not [...] But it was a good run."

What's scarier, though, is what this means for the future of big budget, original science-fiction. Warner Bros. has been stung now by three such films now, Transcendence, Edge of Tomorrow, and Jupiter Ascending, all of which were greenlit by Robinov. They've also been behind or at least partially behind Interstellar (which they split with Paramount), Gravity, and Pacific Rim (which was financed by Legendary Pictures, who've since left WB for Universal). However, as FilmSchoolRejects put it, "The lifeline for original science fiction filmmaking isn't a healthy one, and the numbers point to what studios have been trying to tell us for years: that originality comes with risks that adaptation and rebooting don't. Having a smash hit or a depressed failure is essentially a coin flip unless your project comes stamped with the word Nolan on it."

All of this is currently presenting science-fiction fans with a conundrum: Should we support Jupiter Ascending as a way of supporting original science-fiction filmmaking? If so, we're a little too late on that. This was all so much easier when it was Edge of Tomorrow. At least that turned out to be a really good movie.

This Weekend's Box Office Top 10 Actual Totals (2/6-2/8) 1. Spongebob Squarepants: Sponge Out of Water (First Domestic Weekend) 2. American Sniper 3. Jupiter Ascending (Opening Weekend) 4. The Seventh Son (First Domestic Weekend) 5. Project Almanac 6. Paddington 7. The Wedding Ringer 8. The Imitation Game 9. Black or White 10. The Boy Next Door

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