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JUPITER ASCENDING – Michael Giacchino

February 13, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

jupiterascendingOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

An ambitious, noble science fiction failure, Jupiter Ascending is the latest film from the Wachowski siblings, who rose to massive fame and critical acclaim in the late 1990s with The Matrix, but have never been able to recapture that lightning in a bottle in any of their subsequent projects. The sprawling, complicated plot involves Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a simple house cleaner in modern day Chicago, who suddenly finds herself involved in an intergalactic adventure concerning three members of the massively powerful Abrasax family (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton), who originally ‘seeded’ the Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago, and who are now battling for control of its resources – all without the knowledge of the inhabitants of the planet itself. Caught in the middle of all this is a half-human half-wolf disgraced former soldier named Caine (Channing Tatum), who is sent to find and rescue Jupiter, but quickly discovers that his task is much more complicated than he originally thought.

Jupiter Ascending is visually magnificent – the production design, costume design and special effects are all staggering – and there are nuggets of brilliance buried within its convoluted and occasionally cornball screenplay. There are touches and ideas I loved: the throwaway ‘origins’ for the traditional grey aliens and how crop circles are made, the amusingly simple explanation for how dinosaurs went extinct, the background characters that build on the concept of gene-splicing humanoids with animals, the fact that government bureaucracy is just as bad in space as it is at the DMV. Even the central issue of who the Abrasax family is, and what they are doing, is fascinating (more so than Jupiter herself) – I was actually more interested in exploring the depth of their sibling rivalry than I was in watching Mila Kunis fall off something for the fourteenth time. However, all these glimmers of intelligent sci-fi are likely to be lost amid the juicy reporting of the interminably confusing action sequences, Sean Bean’s unintentionally hilarious revelations about bees, and Eddie Redmayne’s whispery petulance which makes him seem less like a sinister space villain, and more like a kid with a bad case of Saturn strep throat. Someone get him a bag of Halls lozenges!

Other than the visuals, the one other aspect of the film that works extremely well is Michael Giacchino’s score. Giacchino appears to have replaced Don Davis as the Wachowski’s composer-of-choice, having previously worked with them on Speed Racer in 2008, and their faith in him has been rewarded by music of genuine magnificence. Interestingly, part of the score for Jupiter Ascending was written and recorded before the film was finished. In an interview with SFX magazine in August 2013 Giacchino said “We’re actually recording all the music first, before they’re even done shooting. It’s been done sort of backwards, and it’s much more freeing doing it that way. I’m not locked down to any specific timings and what the film is doing. I can do whatever I want. It opens up a lot more possibilities”. While I normally dislike this approach, as I often feel that it gives the score less focus, I have to admit that on this occasion the decision to work this way appears to have been the correct one. Giacchino’s score is full of life and energy, developing organically from within itself, like a concert piece, moving in a direction dictated by its own internal structure, rather than by edits within the picture, or the need to hit certain beat points within a scene. The score is fully orchestral, recorded in London by two conductors, Ludwig Wicki and Robert Ziegler.

The first four cues, amounting to just over 17 minutes of music, represents Giacchino’s original recording of the score prior to the film’s final edit. The four ‘movements’ introduce the score’s main recurring elements – the rich, bold orchestral textures; heavenly choral accents, including a three-note motif for a boy soprano that eventually becomes Jupiter’s theme; the dark and malevolent descending brass motif that becomes the theme for the Abrasax family; the moving, elegant theme for strings and woodwinds representing the relationship between Jupiter and Caine; the dense and complicated action music that underscores many of the film’s fight sequences and space battles.

The score proper begins with “The Houses of Abrasax,” and offers a brief devilish action sequence in “Scrambled Eggs,” before exploding into the first performance of the 7-note Abrasax theme in “The Abrasax Family Tree”. The theme insidiously snakes its way through the entire cue, appearing as a mysterious motif for woodwinds and chimes, as an ominous throaty vocal piece reminiscent of the Emperor’s music from Return of the Jedi, and as a beautiful but slightly unnerving boy soprano solo, before concluding as the cornerstone of a massive, percussive action sequence of great power and authority – the great, beefy, ragged horn phrasing here is magnificent. Further performances of the theme in cues such as “The Shadow Chase,” “One Reincarnation Under God,” and “Family Jeopardy” keep the Abrasax family and their nefarious plans at the center of the entire film.

Jupiter’s theme is less prominent than the Abrasax theme, tending to play in subtle second fiddle to other elements. It is performed with a greatly increased tempo in the bouncy scherzo “I Hate My Life,” receives an understated performance on chimes at the end of “A Wedding Darker,” and is heard again underneath the chugging cello ostinatos three minutes into “It’s a Hellava Chase”. Its performance in “Abidcate This!” is very clever indeed, especially when it plays in choral counterpoint to both the Caine & Jupiter love theme, and the menacing motif for the Abrasax family, underscoring the epic mano-a-mano confrontation between the heroine and the film’s primary antagonist. However, for quite a lot of the time it is actually somewhat muted, sitting quietly beneath all the orchestral histrionics without really calling attention to itself – if you didn’t know what it sounded like, you wouldn’t be able to pick it out of cues like “Scrambled Eggs,” for example, despite it basically being the first thing you hear, a quietly sinister little chord for piano and choir.

The action music is, by and large, gargantuan, full of unrestrained thrusts and explosions of volume which combine bursts of thematic resonance with a vast array of orchestral and choral highlights. Giacchino usually builds his action music around recurring rhythmic ideas which jump around the orchestra from percussion to cellos, and then expands from there with all manner of different textures and ideas. What’s fascinating about them is how the rhythms keep changing speed and tempo, perpetuating the idea of constant forward motion. Listen for the raspy brasses and whooping string cascades in the fabulous “The Shadow Chase,” the insistent drive and Abrasax theme variations in “Mutiny on the Bounty Hunter,” the almost John Williams-style xylophone-led rhythmic ideas in the showstopping “It’s a Hellava Chase,” the boldly heroic “Family Jeopardy,” and the bravura dissonance towards the end of “Flying Dinosaur Fight”. Some of the action music does have a compositional similarity to that heard in scores like John Carter, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and especially his two Star Treks, but this is to be expected: all composers develop a style and a signature way of doing things as their careers progress, and Giacchino is now in that stage where his is becoming more solidified and recognizable.

At the other end of the scale, pieces like “The Titus Clipper” are serene in an almost John Barry-like way, perhaps alluding to the romantic spaceflight parts of his classic James Bond score for Moonraker, with elegant woodwind lines and moving string sequences that also recall some of the more emotional writing from the TV series Lost. The light tribal percussion in the cue’s second half even threatens to enter Out of Africa territory, giving the piece an exotic expansiveness that is thoroughly engaging. Later, the light harp performance of the Jupiter and Caine love theme in “Digging Up the Flirt” makes the hesitant romantic relationship between the pair seem sweet, while the final cue, “Commitment,” features a lovely cello-led performance of the love theme that ends the score on a high note.

There is so much to enjoy about Jupiter Ascending, and several specific things are worth mentioning. First, the woodwind writing Giacchino employs throughout the score is interesting and varied, encompassing the entire section, and a multitude of different timbres and tones. He writes for menacing bassoons in “The House of Abrasax,” playful oboes in “I Hate My Life,” uses them as rhythmic devices in “A Wedding Darker,” and gives “Flying Dinosaur Fight” a bank of John Williams-esque fluttery, flighty flutes. The choral writing is also diverse and creative, ranging from staccato chanting in “I Hate My Life,” to regal crescendos in “One Reincarnation Under God” and “A Wedding Darker,” angelic cooing in the first few moments of “It’s a Hellava Chase,” and imposing outbursts for the full complement in “Family Jeopardy”. Finally, the percussion writing is also very dynamic, jumping from tapped snares and lighter wooden implements, to heavier and more imposing timpani hits and pounding bass drums, as each cue demands.

I would have to conclude that Jupiter Ascending is the first truly great score of 2015, and we’re only six weeks in. Despite my usual reservations about scores which are recorded before the composer has seen the film, I have to admit that Giacchino’s instincts in this instance were spot-on, and the subsequent application and development of that initial thematic material is excellent. The richness and variety of the orchestrations, and the power and magnitude of the action writing, are things definitely worth celebrating, while the general tone of unapologetic epic grandeur is something that has been missing from too many big-budget mainstream Hollywood films of late. Like John Carter before it, Jupiter Ascending is likely to be remembered as a failure, critically and commercially, but these matters should not dissuade you from experiencing its score.

Buy the Jupiter Ascending soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Jupiter Ascending – 1st Movement (4:13)
  • Jupiter Ascending – 2nd Movement (3:25)
  • Jupiter Ascending – 3rd Movement (5:55)
  • Jupiter Ascending – 4th Movement (3:26)
  • The House of Abrasax (2:19)
  • I Hate My Life (2:07)
  • Scrambled Eggs (1:09)
  • The Abrasax Family Tree (9:14)
  • The Shadow Chase (5:49)
  • The Titus Clipper (7:05)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty Hunter (4:41)
  • One Reincarnation Under God (4:06)
  • Digging Up the Flirt (2:23)
  • A Wedding Darker (6:07)
  • Regenex is People! (3:22)
  • The Lies Have It (2:21)
  • It’s a Hellava Chase (8:13)
  • Dinosaur to New Heights (0:49)
  • Family Jeopardy (5:07)
  • Abdicate This! (3:28)
  • Flying Dinosaur Fight (5:28)
  • Commitment (9:57)
  • Flying Dinosaur Fight with Guts (2:35) [BONUS]

Running Time: 103 minutes 22 seconds

Varѐse Sarabande (2015)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Ludwig Wicki and Robert Ziegler. Orchestrations by Andrea Datzman, Brad Dechter, Robert Elhai, Mark Gasbarro, Jeff Kryka, Tim Simonec and Chris Tilton. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Paul Apelgren. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

  1. February 15, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Nice review!

  2. February 15, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    I actually did like the movie. It was far less complex and cheesier than expected, but it was good. The entire art department, including Michael Giacchino did a wonderful job. However, there are some songs that are not featured on the movie (The Titus Clipper, two of the Movements and most part of Commitment), and a couple songs that are not included in the album (the song from the wedding is absolutely different than the one featured in the album). And even more disappointing is to hear some of the best tunes, like the 3rd Movement, choppily inserted in the film.

    • February 16, 2015 at 8:03 am

      This is really sad. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I was expecting that something like this would happen. The worst part is that The Titus Clipper and Commitment are two of the best cues on the album (especially the epic finale of the latter), and I think it would really be great on the screen.

      For the good side, I hope that the music editing and mixing on the film is not as horrendous as it is on the Hobbit movies, for example.

  3. February 15, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Great review, Jon. Really excited to hear this, as it sounds right up my alley (however, I think for now I’ll wait till I get to see the film first).

    Anyways, I couldn’t quite tell from your review whether the Whole score was composed before the picture was filmed/edited, or whether it was merely those 4 Movements, and then the rest of the score was actually written to the picture itself? Perhaps we don’t know the exact details, just curious to clarify.

    • February 15, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      My understanding is that the four Movements were written and recorded first, before anything was shot, just based on Giacchino’s reading of the screenplay and thoughts about the project. All the thematic ideas came from there, all the orchestration choices, and so on. Then, Giacchino used those four movements as the basis of the “proper” score and adapted them to fit the movie in the conventional way.

  4. February 21, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Great music, not great movie (although at least it wasn’t as in love with itself as the colossally overrrated “The Matrix”). Why no mention of Tim Simonec as one of the conductors, however (he’s included in the film’s credits)?

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