Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore are this year's Oscar favorites for a pair of performances in which they recreate what it's like to be in the grip of devastating diseases. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne plays the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking through different stages of his physical deterioration due to ALS, showing impressive control and precision. In Still Alice, Moore portrays a brilliant linguistics professor and mother of three grown children who finds her memory, then her awareness, then her very identity slipping away because of early-onset Alzheimer's.
They're both nuanced, tasteful performances from drama's classiest redheads, which is why there's something especially delightful about seeing the same pair camping things up so spectacularly in a pair of doomed fantasy and sci-fi spectaculars coming out this week. As far as Academy Awards campaigns go, Redmayne and Moore would probably have preferred their respective turns as the villains in Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son not see the light until after the Oscars. It's not like anyone's been in much of a hurry before — both films arrive in theaters having already been subject to major delays. Jupiter Ascending was pushed from July of last year to February of this one, while Seventh Son was originally slated to open in theaters back in 2013.
But them's the breaks, and this vamping from both Redmayne and Moore is a vivid reminder that, despite what the industry pretends this time of year, Hollywood does not exist entirely on exquisitely rendered suffering, and thank god. Jupiter Ascending is a beautiful, sometimes brilliant mess and Seventh Son's a garbled, nonsensical helping of generic fantasy soup, but Redmayne and Moore are both tremendous fun as the films' villains, cinched into elaborately regal goth outfits and chewing scenery with verve admirably equal to that with which they approach their more serious work.
Moore plays Mother Malkin, the witch queen, in Seventh Son, which is based on the first book in Joseph Delaney's Wardstone Chronicles series and is directed by Sergei Bodrov (Mongol), who has managed to make a movie that simultaneously looks very cheap and very expensive. Malkin is a witch scorned, which is an incredibly disappointing motivational reveal for someone who is otherwise so fabulous. As Malkin, Moore swishes around her mountain hideaway in a black gown with a giant feathered ruff, wearing removable claws and winged eyeliner no period setting will take away from her. After spending years imprisoned in a mountain, the "blood moon" makes her powerful enough to escape and seek revenge on her ex John Gregory, who's a "Spook," a hunter of dark magic creatures, and who's played by Jeff Bridges in what's basically a reprisal of his Rooster Cogburn performance in True Grit.
Among her other gifts, Malkin can turn into a dragon, redecorate her lair using magic, and suck the life out of people, a talent that goes unexplained even after she uses it on Kit Harington, who was less famous and therefore more disposable back in 2012 when the movie was shot. "I like boys," she hisses before she does it, because being betrayed by John Gregory won't stop Mother Malkin from getting back out there. Malkin wasn't always so evil, Gregory tells his apprentice Tom, played with an utter lack of distinguishing characteristics by Ben Barnes. But she's decidedly, deliciously evil by the time the movie starts, if not for any terribly clear end goal beyond revenge. As Malkin summons her surviving relatives and themed henchmen (among them Djimon Hounsou and Alicia Vikander), the movie seems like it'd be so much better off just basking in her company and forgetting the whole quest/fighting/training aspect. "Help yourself to the blood cakes," Malkin murmurs to one of her guests. Don't mind if we do!
Redmayne speaks in a desiccated whisper throughout most of Jupiter Ascending — like he's just crossed the Sahara without even bothering to pack a water bottle — though he's capable of achieving a shriek when the emphasis is needed: "I create life," he howls, before murmuring, "...and I destroy it." As Balem Abrasax, the eldest of the three siblings making up the conniving space aristocrat family into which naive earthling Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) has been sort of born (it's complicated), Redmayne throws himself wholeheartedly into his role as the perfect embodiment of monstrous intergalactic capitalism. While his brother Titus (Douglas Booth) is the suave playboy and his sister Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) the forever debutant, Balem's the dedicated businessman whose life is apparently drained of any humor or aesthetic enjoyment, and whose only emotional connection was to his dead, and perhaps now reborn, mother.
Jupiter is only half serious when she compares the long-living members of the Abrasax family, which maintains ownership of multiple planets (including Earth), to vampires. But from the way Redmayne rises from his rejuvenating bath high over the planet like he's rising from a coffin, to the reptilian way he carries himself, hooded eyes blinking languidly, it seems to be the main reference point from which the actor is working. Balem broods and pouts, swanning around in some intense sci-fi finery that includes high collars and kimono sleeves, and, despite moments of being seriously aestheticized, maintains an aura of sexlessness, as though he never reached that part of his life or has left it far behind.
It's a performance that can be laugh-out-loud silly, as Redmayne modulates between sibilant mutterings and the occasional wail, but it's also breathtakingly committed to the heightened universe the Wachowskis have created. Redmayne's genuinely trying to get inside the head of someone who's barely recognizable as human, even in the most generous space opera sense of the word. Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son may be destined to be nothing more than pricey blips on the theatrical schedule's February doldrums, but their villains steal the show in both — and as Moore's and Redmayne's more earnest work goes up for Oscar consideration, it's a scream to be able to see them in roles not nearly as dignified, but certainly less emotionally wrenching to watch.