Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó stunned the cinema world a couple years ago with White God, a film that - not content just to break the “never work with animals” rule - featured dozens, maybe hundreds of dogs overrunning a dystopian Budapest. It was such a staggeringly ambitious film that any subsequent film would be viewed through a comparative lens. And yea, so it is that Jupiter's Moon suffers the unfair fate of all follow-ups to masterpieces.
The title of Jupiter's Moon refers to Europa - you know, the one with liquid oceans that could support life. But Jupiter's Moon is not about Jupiter's moon. Instead, the title serves as an implied metaphor for Europe, a continent that, for hopeful refugees, is exactly the kind of life-supporting beacon that Europa might be to someone in the vacuum of space.
With that metaphor in mind, we head to Eastern Europe, where Syrian refugee Aryan (it’s a legit name, but the historical connotations are intriguing) is trying to get into Hungary, via Serbia. Shot, captured, and separated from his father, Aryan's immigrant experience is defined by violence and dehumanisation. Boldly opening with a confrontation between border guards and refugees, Jupiter's Moon stakes its claim early as a story about immigration in the Trump era.
But there's more to Aryan than just a refugee background. Early in the film, in the first of many bravura special-effects/stunt sequences, it quickly becomes clear - even if the reasons why don't - that Aryan possesses the ability to levitate and effectively fly at will. He's then smuggled out of the refugee camp by a prison doctor keen to use his talents for his own purposes. Tracked by a grizzled detective, the pair go on the run, chewing over weighty themes along the way in classic Eastern European sci-fi fashion.
Among those themes - hammered home repeatedly - is religion. Doctor Stern uses Aryan for extortion, presenting him as a visiting angel and invoking the awe - or fear - of God to swindle people. Perhaps presenting Aryan as a false god is meant to reflect immigrants’ presentation in the media as false devils. Perhaps Aryan’s levitation is genuinely of divine origin. Perhaps there’s an element of passion play at work, with Aryan’s persecution and exploitation meant to reflect that of a Messiah - or to serve as a stand-in for all immigrants. It’s hard to tell, and I'd hate for it to be spelled out, but the thematic references are so scattershot that at times it feels like lip service. Most likely, there's some region-specific context that I, a citizen of not-Eastern-Europe, am missing.
This heady material faces off against a staunchly world-weary detective story. It's by far the least successful component of the movie; every time the film cuts to the police, we're left yearning for more of Aryan and Stern's weird adventures. Curiously, almost all the film’s dialogue appears to have been dubbed in post - either in a different (mostly non-English) language or dialect, or by different actors. That only becomes super-clear in those detective sequences - in large part because they're mostly talk.
But how about those flight sequences? Accomplished with entirely practical processes, Aryan’s levitation is truly something to behold. His movements - and the camera's movements around him - share a bewitching grace, twirling about in balletic unison. Together, they soar above cities and forests, any sense of conventional gravity completely upended. One incredible scene sends an entire apartment's gravity tumbling about its axis, with crockery and props flying and shattering even as Aryan hangs suspended in midair - again, all accomplished in-camera. Some one-take sequences, such as a frantic late-film shootout, are so well-choreographed you barely even notice they're “oners” at all.
Many of these elements work on their own, even reaching a kind of cinematic ecstasy in the more graceful moments. But Jupiter’s Moon’s disparate themes never quite fully connect with each other, often talking around an issue without addressing it directly. It’s a frustrating watch as a result, with virtuosic filmmaking that fails to serve a larger purpose, and an ending that leaves you wishing for a clearer statement.
Jupiter’s Moon was sold, in its festival introduction, as being even more ambitious than White God. In some respects - its approach to religion, its depiction of the plight of immigrants, its incredible practical effects - it is. But each of those ambitions tugs in a different direction, resulting in a film that feels like half a dozen big ideas awkwardly taped together. One thing's for sure: there's no describing Jupiter's Moon as succinctly as “the one with all the dogs.”