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New films: Jupiter Ascending vs. Seventh Son

“Jupiter Ascending” and “Seventh Son”

Picking between these films is a little like staring at the muffin and the bowl of cereal at a motel breakfast bar when you’re both gluten and lactose intolerant. Neither is substantial to begin with and both are inherently flawed options.

Having watched both, choosing between them is difficult and subjective because they each fail for very different reasons – and I find myself siding with “Jupiter Ascending” although my usual preferences would seem more inclined in the other direction. In very simple terms, “Jupiter Ascending” is a grand story told poorly while “Seventh Son” is a dull story told relatively well.

I’ve seen references to the original screenplay for “Jupiter Ascending” having 600 pages. To put that into perspective, it’s like five fairly average films added together. It tells the story of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who makes a meager living doing custodial work with her mother and other members of her Russian refugee household. Unbeknownst to her, she also happens to be the perfect genetic match for a dead matriarch and queen of a rich family of interstellar merchants, and an alien tracker (Channing Tatum) has been sent to find her. Adding to the complication is the fact that the product that has made the other-worldly family rich is the distilled essence of human lives that are harvested to make wealthy clients virtually immortal, with the Earth as a particularly large and potentially profitable farm.

Aside from recycling some of the humans as natural resource elements of their earlier films (“The Matrix,” “Cloud Atlas”), The Wachowskis have created a vast universe of characters and intrigue that might very easily consume 600 pages, if that report is even accurate. It’s rich and colorful, as well as having classic themes that remain current, with the rich and knowing exploiting the poor and unknowing –almost like a rallying cry for the “Occupy” movement as well as a satire about both bureaucracy and law.

However, the problem is that very little of that bulk ends up on the screen. It feels as if we’re constantly fast forwarding or skipping over entire scenes and conversations. It doesn’t render it incoherent, but it feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of itself.

When I was about 12 or 13, I read James Clavell’s epic novel “Shōgun,” thoroughly enjoying the depth and detail that comes from over 1,100 pages of dense cultural detail, treachery and adventure. Years later, I was excited to discover it being adapted into a (not very mini) mini-series on television. But for those who couldn’t last through more than nine hours of material, there was also a two hours, highly edited movie version which skimmed across most of the major events and probably left viewers who only saw that gutted version questioning all the enthusiasm for the book. “Jupiter Ascending” feels like the two hour version of what could or should have been a nine hour mini-series or trilogy. It’s the exact opposite of “The Hobbit” which feels like its content has been stretched way too thin in the process of producing three movies.

By comparison, “Seventh Son” feels relatively complete. There’s also some world-building, but nothing as ambitious. We’re essentially in a land that looks like medieval England, but with significantly more witches and dragons. In this particular mythology, the seventh sons of seventh sons (which demonstrates the insufficiency of the title) are somehow gifted with strength and capability that makes them suited to be trained to combat dark witches. Thomas Ward (Ben Barnes) is one such seventh seventh, and finds himself apprenticed to (actually purchased by) legendary ‘Spook’ Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), who is apparently the last of his kind with a storied record of dead previous apprentices.

The primary problem in all of this is that it’s so stunningly ordinary and familiar. It’s hard to even corral all the films and stories it seems to borrow from and the combination of the timing and casting doesn’t help as it ends up feeling like some kind of “The Eragon Giver’s Apprentice” mashup – and those films already felt derivative.

I knew nothing about the source material and, unlike “Jupiter Ascending” which is an original if also somewhat familiar screenplay, “Seventh Son” is based on the first in a long series of books. The first of these was titled “The Spook’s Apprentice” in the United Kingdom and retitled “The last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch” for the American market. In reading a plot synopsis (thanks Wikipedia), the most notable change in the adaptation is that Tom Ward, who is played by 33 year old actor Ben Barnes in the film, is only 12 years old in the book. There also appear to be numerous other quite substantial changes that convert a fairly simple story about trickery into a grand attempt at a CGI creature feature.

However, it’s the age of the central character that seems both most surprising and most disappointing. Perhaps there’s some trepidation after seeing the success of the Harry Potter series but the collapse of the Percy Jackson films that makes building a franchise around a young boy seem like a huge crapshoot – but that’s standard for the industry as a whole. And there’s always the risk of being labeled a copycat project, but “Seventh Son” hasn’t dodged that bullet either, feeling like a copy of a copy like “Eragon.” So a story that might actually have had some sense of wide-eyed wonder and excitement, as well as the improbability of a small boy fighting withes and monsters, just ends up feeling either unremarkable or remarkably ordinary with a grown man doing all of those same things.

There’s also another factor that comes into play with the character of Tom Ward that makes his abilities supposedly even greater – but which also make the longevity of the witch fighting order of knights seem even more in jeopardy. It’s one thing to have the order’s lore maintained by a knowledgeable teacher, it’s another thing to have the lore practiced by one who comes to the skillset somewhat naturally and who may or may not be good at passing that knowledge along.

The films also share other characteristics, aside from appearing to be competing for similar demographics to the extent that they seem like an odd pairing of films to open on the same weekend. Both films have performances that are likely to compete for bad reviews, albeit perhaps not entirely fairly as they may very well be extremely close reflections of what the respective actors were asked to deliver. In “Seventh Son,” Bridges seems to be channeling some kind of drunk or exhausted (or both) English accent, spoken around an obstructed mouth or a paralyzed tongue. It’s imprecise enough at times to be hard to understand and generally seems unnecessary in the context of surrounding performances (Barnes, Julianne Moore, and Djimon Hounsou among others) that are generally utilitarian and underwhelming. The likely target of most scorn in “Jupiter Ascending” is the performance of Eddie Redmayne as one three heirs of the rich, human-farming Abrasax family – in the style one might imagine if Eddie Izzard played Maleficent. It’s entirely over the top, but it complements the other two siblings (Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton) who are each depicted as slightly less flamboyantly evil, and suits the scope and scale of the projects extravagant art direction (one area in which it might even be deemed award worthy).

And so we’re left with this unfortunate choice between what feels like a shallow glimpse of an epic creation and a relatively thorough introduction to something entirely unremarkable. Normally, I favor solid and coherent storytelling over rushed or inconsistent attempts. Yet in these examples, I found the scope of the Wachowskis’ exotic universe of perverse trade and oligarchy to be more appealing. It’s full of flaws, aside from the narrative structure: There are far too many lengthy, seemingly climactic action sequences that reinforce the idea that the project might once have been conceived in multiple parts – and Mila Kunis manages to be both the most perfectly made-up toilet scrubber and the least emotionally affected alien abductee. But it’s so visually grand and potentially complex that I actually wished there had been more of it – it would have made a better Netflix series to binge-watch, for example, than a single movie – and a nine-hour directors’ cut might even be appealing.

So pick your poison. Both films are likely to disappoint fans of grand fantasy or science fiction, respectively, but for different reasons. “Seventh Son” seems more likely to spawn sequels but I’d be more inclined to watch more of “Jupiter Ascending.”

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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