June 7, 2015 by bck1402
Some stories take place in specific times and locations. The worlds our characters inhabit often have to be built to a certain extent, especially if they don’t live in current contemporary times. Fantasy writers tend to be great world-builders. They pull the reader into wholly magical and strange worlds, even if the politics within those world might remain the same as ours. In science-fiction, these worlds are often distorted mirror images of our worlds, pushed to a certain degree. Towns and cities are built from the ground up; odd customs and even languages created; multiple genders and sexual orientations if need be.
World-building for a story can be a daunting task, and often quite fun. Getting the reader or viewer into that world, however, can be a difficult thing. Sometimes, you want to slowly bring them into the world, reveal it in drips and drabs. Alternatively, you might throw your reader or viewer into the deep end.
So, why am I swinging between reader and viewer?
Because this article is about two movies and the worlds they created.
John Wick is a retired assassin who’s wife recently passed away. Before she died, she made arrangements for Wick to receive a puppy. It was a way for him to deal with his grief. That is until he is attacked at home and beaten up. The puppy is killed and his car is stolen. Wick, being the badass that he is, sets out for revenge.
While the movie is set in our contemporary world, there is an underworld in which John Wick and his contemporaries exist, and this is revealed to us in a deliberate manner. The first hint are the gold coins that appear after Wick digs up his buried war chest, and the coins appear again in the safe of a Russian mobster. They are an oddity at first, gleaming gold in a dark and sombre world. It isn’t long before we discover they are a form of currency in a shadow world, and we begin to wonder what other services are provided in exchange for one of those coins. This is when we are thrust into the underground world in John Wick where these professionals exist.
Most of what happens in this underworld revolves around their safe haven, The Continental. A hotel in the middle of the city where these killers and assassins can unwind and let their guard down thanks to some firmly-adhered-to rules of conduct. These same rules give these characters a sense of elegance and honour. It also helps lots by having some awesome character actors fill in key roles such as Ian McShane as the enigmatic owner, Winston, and Lance Reddick as the hospitable Manager, Charon. While the rules keep things civilised, we also see what happens to those who break the rules of The Continental.
This underground world gives the movie a surreal quality that enhances the reality John Wick lives in. It’s clear how these professionals would earn the gold coins and their uses are many, from clean up, to medical and even laundry service, although there are limits. What we get is enough to understand the world these professionals live in, and it leaves us wanting more (so, how cool is it that a sequel is in the works).
By contrast, Jupiter Ascending drops us on a whole other planet before we see the scale of the universe that is the playground for the movie. The Wachowskis are quite gifted world-builders where their movies are concerned whether their movies are set primarily in a couple of adjoining apartments (Bound), or a desolate post-apocalyptic world where humanity lives within a computer generated reality (The Matrix trilogy), an cartoony anime-inspired hyper-reality (Speed Racer) or even spanning centuries from the 19th century to a futuristic Neo-Seoul and beyond (Cloud Atlas).
Even though it is set in our contemporary reality, Jupiter Ascending has an epic-scale overlay unlike John Wick’s underworld. Genetic manipulation allows for an array of fascinating make-up effects and CGI creatures that populate the worlds and the screen, even lending themselves to certain earth-bound myths and legends. Caine Wise is a half human-wolf hybrid which could give rise to a werewolf myth. On an aside of sound design, the sound effect for Caine’s gun when firing sound like dogs barking! There are other genetic mixes as well; Stinger Apini is part bee and he moves as fast as one, Kalique’s advisor, Malidictes, is part owl, while Chicanery Night appears to be part rat. It’s not that they haven’t tackled such ideas before as evidenced primarily in The Matrix Reloaded.
In addition, many of these characters have costumes designed to their animal aspect, so Malidictes, being part owl, has a gown that would resemble the feathers of an owl. This doesn’t entirely apply to the crew of the Aegis where there is a pilot called Nesh, who has the face of an elephant, perhaps quite intentional too.
There are other creatures with greater mixes, so a fearsome character like Greeghan appears to have the physique of a gorilla, proportional bat wings, a lizard’s tail and a face of a snake, perhaps. In addition to these creatures are the robotic characters who may be androids or cyborgs, or both, such as Advocate Bob and the numerous bureaucrats of the home-world, Orus. Intriguingly, after the seemingly endless paper pushing and red-tape, holding court in the centre of the bureaucracy, is the seal and Signet Minister, played ironically by Terry Gilliam.
The designs don’t stop there either as there are a group of aliens known as The Keepers. These are the aliens that supposedly clean up any messes that occur on Earth when the rest of the galaxy comes calling, and they are designed to look like the typical grey aliens of lore. The spaceships don’t use conventional engines, and instead have some other pulse force in use, so certain parts of the crafts are not necessary attached to the ships. They also leave behind quite recognisable tell-tale patterns on the ground. It was probably quite intention to have that scene occur in a cornfield too.
You can view some of the set, costume and production designs here.
For me, both movies are enhanced by the layered worlds presented. While John Wick kept things grounded, Jupiter Ascending’s other-worldliness may have proved to be too much for a causal viewer. Both movies have mixed responses from critics and viewers, although it would seem John Wick had better success at the box-office, only because the expectations weren’t as high as they were for Jupiter Ascending. It feels like The Wachowskis were trying something new by creating a whole new mythology, but then grounded the story into something a little more familiar, if not utterly cliched, according to some. People expected the complexity of The Matrix, and what they got was a more straight forward space-faring adventure of “a girl and her dog”.
However, I believe the layered worlds in both movies would lend to their longevity, more so with The Wachowskis’ movie. Jupiter Ascending spent a lot of time focussing on Jupiter’s legacy and the single family business that she is tied to, but the hint of more worlds and a much larger universe to play with is too intriguing to be left behind because of the bean counters’ unreasonable expectations. I don’t want to say that most sci-fi adventures that reach for other worlds tend to fail, but the track record is littered with cult favourites that just can’t catch enough of a break to proceed further, even though most of them aren’t really as bad as they may seem.
It is often in these worlds that we find the most creative designs too. Worlds built and more waiting to be explored.