Imagine that your novel gets a $176 mil. movie budget. Once you recover from the expensive champagne and endorphin induced hangover, you suddenly realize that your story is half-baked at best! Huge gauges peer at you from the pages of your manuscript in plot (characters do things for no apparent reason), structure (climatic sequence keeps crying ‘wolves’ on the reader, and whenever the sheep is finally eaten, we just don’t care), and you are hard-pressed to figure out the genre go your creature. There are two possible explanations:
A. You are a genius who created a potentially misunderstood masterpiece.
B. You are a lazy genius who spent too much time developing things that you enjoy, and brushed through the rest.
Of course, the likelihood of getting yourself on such a conundrum for a novice writer is slim, but we can learn something from the epic screw-ups of the greats: The Wachowskis!
Yes, those very Wachowski siblings who masterminded “The Matrix” and forever changed the way we film action sci fi and even how we see the reality (admit it, you at least once felt like Neo chasing the ‘white rabbit’ trying to figure out what’s wrong with this world).
After their debut and stellar success with The Matrix, Wachowskis were pretty much writing their own ticket and were allowed to play with sky soaring budgets, and reasonably succeeding at it. That is up until their delayed 2015 release of “Jupiter Ascending.”
As a matter of fact, the 6 months extra time they were forced to take to revisit, reshoot, and reboot their widely marketed creation, should be the sign. I remember my cooking class in the 5th grade. Did you have those in your countries? In mine, we had a class in the curriculum that was supposed to teach us the ‘life skills’: girls were taught cooking, sowing, knitting and other ‘proper’ vital girly disciplines, and boys, respectively, worked with wood, metal and what not. That one time when girls were assigned to cook a meal, I drew a particularly unlucky lot of teammates, the kind that the cruel 5th graders shamelessly call ‘losers’. I have to own to the fact that at that particular assignment I was just as much of a looser, as my teammates, and even worse. I took upon myself the role of the crow that professed a dooms-day to our enterprise, running around and ‘encouraging’ everyone with dramatic exclamations: “We are so screwed!”, “The other teams already finished the first course!”, and finally, the most memorable one, “Save the salad!”. The reason why that phrase was so memorable, was because it caught attention of a teacher, who was serenely reading her magazine in the next room. When it was time for presenting our meals, that particular phrase was especially noticed by the reacher. She refused to sample our salad, because if it needed “saving” in the first place, it could not be good.
The teacher was right about the salad, and it was flushed down the toilet. In a weird way, “Jupiter Ascending” has a lot in common with that failed salad I cooked up in the 5th grade. First of all, the movie is a salad, a mix of appetizing ingredients, only the way it was mixed, made it unpalatable. Second, in words of my wise teacher, if the salad needed saving in the first place, it can’t be good. Something went terribly wrong with the “Jupiter Ascending”, and only the laziest critic did not take a stab at attempting to find out what went wrong with the recipe in the first place. […]
We know that it was surely not the lack of talent. Written and directed by the Wachowskis, the movie features such trendy names as Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth etc.
And it was not the lack of funding. It is hardly a shoe-string budget when you get a check of $176 million with no strings attached to the artistic vision.
And it is not the lack of imagination. Every movie hater was forced to admit that the attention to detail is stunning.
And of course it is not the lack of visual effects. Everything, from costumes and makeup, creatures and characters, to the fight scenes and the technology, was simply impeccable.
So what was it? Here is a snippet of what the critics say:
“Jupiter Ascending” asks the audiences to check their brains at the door and settle for candy-colored riffs on overplayed damsel-in-dresses gimmicks. – Peter Debruge, Variety, Feb.2, 2015.
Ouch. How dare you criticize the art! Or not? Isn’t it odd that in 2015 we still expect certain obedience to the rules of classical storytelling and impose certain standards on the plot, characters, world-building etc., in other words, – we refuse to check our brains at the coat rack? Looking at the more successful sci fi writing debuts of 2015, “Ex Machina” and “The Martian”, the two definitely require some brains, and used substantially smaller budgets. Here is my humble opinion on what in a world went wrong with the movie.
“Jupiter Ascending” Commercial Failure: 5 Lessons Learned for the Sci Fi Writers:
Lesson #1. Plot. Jupiter Jones is the descendant of a Russian mother and a British father, who was killed before Jupiter was born, which drove Jupiter’s mother to seek luck in the United States. There, a young beautiful woman Jupiter (Mila Kunis) makes living cleaning apartments of the rich and dreams of making money for a telescope.
In a middle of her trying to make money for the expensive purchase through selling her eggs to the fertility clinic, she is nearly killed by the aliens, and magically is saved by a Vulcan-looking young lad, a genetically engineered human-wolf space hunter.
Jupiter finds out that she is a reincarnation (or genetic recurrence) of a queen of a superior human species, and as a result – heir to rule the Earth.
The Earth is important, because these advanced human species harvest planets like Earth at a certain point of their social development for some ‘goo’ that is basically an elixir of life.
Three other heirs of the deceased Queen (who is now Jupiter) are trying to trick Jupiter out of her inheritance. Smarmy types, these three siblings. One is trying to kill Jupiter, another to first marry, and then to kill her… It’s all pretty rough, if it was believable.
The plot got the most of the criticism from critics and viewers alike. And, based on this movie failure, this is the most important lesson for the writers. Whether you are an outliner or free form writer, doesn’t matter. Whatever you do, at the end it must make sense and grip the reader in some unique and personal way. “Jupiter” did not grip.
Lesson #2. Structure. The most underdeveloped element of structure was the culminating sequence. On the surface, the danger is escalating, bullets are fired, buildings are crushed, people are thrown out of the airlock… But something makes the viewer roll their eyes. We are distracted on the absolutely phenomenal visual effects, but when it comes to the story, the culmination is just somehow too uncomplicated.
Lesson #3. World-building. “It all comes down to the world-building”, says the Variety movie critic P. Debruge. Or almost all. Why did the audience not feel comfortable in the Jupiter’s world? Why didn’t they believe it? They believed the Star Wars, and The Matrix, and the Lord of the Rings, and the Twilight… Why not Jupiter?
First, there seems to be several separate ‘worlds’ in the movie, that are unevenly patched together:
World 1: Old Russian (Soviet) world with it’s signature furniture, dim film quality, bad Russian accent and such.
World 2: Modern Chicago world, with the skyscrapers, a lot of computer graphics, in other words – gorgeous high-res contemporary filming.
World 3: Modern American-Russian world, that is Jupiter’s family. Harshly stereotypical portrayal of ethnic Russians in the United States, speaking poor English, scrubbing toilets for living, and residing in messy cluttered apartments, again, with the signature goodwill furniture.
World 4: Futuristic world of the Aticus family – different space sights shot completely in front of a green screen, obviously, however, the transition yanks you out of the previous setting to this one so brutally, you loose your bearings.
World 5: Futuristic bureaucracy. So in this high-tech universe, the bureaucracy is very vintage. It is funny, and clever, and… feels as if it it belongs in a different movie (the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy immediately comes to mind). Every creature in that sub-world is like a cartoon character. I think it was intended, and it was done before in other movies, like the 5th Element, but in this one, it just added to the general feeling of confusion.
These worlds have a feel to them as if they are cut from separate movies of different genres. Even the film quality is different. I am sure that is the intended effect, but it makes the viewer feel yanked by the collar and dragged light years across space and time to different places.
Although this effect is unique to the movie as an art form, it also has an application for writing. It seems that as a reader, I prefer to be ‘drugged’ and reside in oblivion to the rest of the world, from the beginning to the end of the story. Sometimes authors use multiple points of view with unique characters’ voices, but the story must still have a unified feel to it.
Lesson #4. Genre boundaries. Throughout the whole movie, I struggled to place it into science fiction or fantasy genre. Actually, it is a mix. It has plenty of precise scientific language, various gadgets and science ideas to fool you that you are getting science fiction, but then, there is that.
Tell me by your gut feeling, what genre these creatures belong to? Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? I don’t know, but even Star Trek creatures looked more believable. Why? Probably they were better developed. Let’s say, Quark or Worf. Both goofy creatures, but hey, they were as real as you and me in their day.
Lesson #5. Character development. Speaking of the characters. Jupiter’s character seems to be the most lacking. She should be this strong female character, but through the entire movie she does not demonstrate any notable assertiveness or strength. She just follows along through everything that is dished to her. If this was supposed to be drama, then yes, it’s ok. But for the sci fi hero flick, no, unacceptable. The only time when she seems to act assertive, is when hitting on this guy:
Heartthrob, isn’t he?
In the end, probably the most vital lesson is, that no amount of cosmetic editing can resolve terminal problems in your story. Also, as important for the writer to be immersed in the story, it is also as important to step back and get the bird’s view of what it is that you cooked up for the audience. It is hard. And we should be empathetic to ourselves as we do that. (I’m facing this predicament myself now). The gauges in the story are not reflection of your talent, as the lesson of the Wachowskis’ duo demonstrates. Failing at the “Jupiter”, they did not become any less talented. Also, failure is a relative term. What is not relative, is the profit. If it’s not there, it is a commercial failure. And for what it’s worth, writers want to pay bills.
In the afterthought, there is definitely greatness in the movie, so go ahead and watch it, if you haven’t. Try to figure for yourself, what turned off the viewers. I know at least one person who has a radically different view and thinks that the movie is excellent, novel, and talented. It probably will attract a small following, mostly eclectic folks who would go to the conventions and buy the merchandise. Take a look at this makeup, for example. Tempted to try? I am.