Big-budget sci-fi often does well at the box office, but Jupiter Ascending’s $179 million budget wasn’t enough to prevent a disastrous opening weekend that grossed just $19 million and set off sirens that were loud and clear in Hollywood: With all the superhero films that are bludgeoning our brains with expensive computer-enhanced special effects, is the public on the verge of losing interest in such cinematic spectacles?
The next Star Wars film might be the genre’s savior — or it could be the final nail in the seen-it-before coffin. What Wars filmmakers and all the others should be talking about is whether a reliance on green screens and motion capture is making fight scenes less gutsy, less physical and less technical. It’s obvious that the fine art of fight choreography is being underappreciated and shortchanged.
Between the 1960s and mid-1990s, Chinese martial arts action films evolved. It took Rumble in the Bronx (1995), The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to wake up mainstream America and show the public how far kung fu films had come since Bruce Lee made his classics.
But as The Matrix Reloaded (2003) showed us, the ascending fight sequences of yesteryear are now descending into CGI mediocrity. After Keanu Reeves’s stunt double Chad Stahelski did the fights in that film, Reeve’s face was digitally placed on Stahelski’s head. Few know that this is why Jet Li didn’t do the movie — he was concerned that someone else’s face might end up on his body.
Although Matrix directors Andy and Lana Wachowski may have thought they were pushing the envelope, they were beginning to close it.
Want to see how these movies should be made? Watch the mesmerizing battle in Jet Li’s Swordsman II (1992) involving a disfigured swordsman and five fighters as they leap and fly in all directions while attacking and defending. What viewers don’t see is the off-screen maneuvering of the five wire teams that had to jump off ladders, pull on ropes and scurry all over the place to bring to life this meticulously choreographed “wire fu” moment in which each fighter seemingly defied the laws of gravity. One is awestruck by the sheer physicality of the action that takes place on a real outdoor set.
Since The Matrix, each Wachowski film has featured progressively less groundbreaking martial arts action and progressively smaller box-office numbers. The budget and opening weekend gross for V for Vendetta (2005) were $54 million and $25.6 million, respectively. For Speed Racer (2008), the numbers were $120 million and $20 million, and for Cloud Atlas (2012), they were $102 million and $9 million.
Considering the pedigree of the fighting talent involved with Jupiter Ascending, the doors were wide open to create imaginative and clever martial arts choreography. Instead, even the few fisticuff exchanges and slow-motion capoeira-like kicks were camouflaged behind explosions, tight camera angles, ray guns and labored green-screen action.
But there is still hope in the action-movie universe: Thank goodness for the latest Keanu Reeves film John Wick (2014)! Directed by the aforementioned Chad Stahelski, it features creative physical action based on demanding fight choreography. Obviously, all is not lost — yet.
(Jupiter Ascending photos courtesy of Warner Bros.)