If you, like me, love science fiction movies–hold them close to your heart–then I know that every time a preview for something like Jupiter Ascending hits your radar, you hope against hope that it’s going to be great. That it’s going to deliver an amazing new world and innovative technology and incorporate elements we’ve never seen, never imagined. That we’re going to watch a story unfold on the edge of our seats, find new Luke’s and Leia’s and Han’s and Darth Vader’s to love and hate and love to hate for years to come.
That we’ll once again discover a whole new universe we’d like to live inside, to know every nook and cranny like we know our own. Want to be the characters, and be friends with them, and kiss them silly.
I’m sorry to report that Jupiter Ascending is not going to give you all of those things.
It’s also not going to give you none of those things, but the components its lacking do not make up for the ones it delivers in moments of stunning originality. In fact, the film’s failures cast the enormous amount of wasted potential in harsher light and make me angrier than I would be if the entire thing had been a laughable wash.
This is becoming sort of a trademark feeling for me with the Lana and Andy Wachowski’s films (V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas, and the Matrix films – though I know many fans will disagree with me on the latter) – that sense that so much more could have been if they’d revised that script just a couple more times.
But let’s get down and dirty with Jupiter Ascending.
Three siblings (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton) in a powerful royal family called the Abrasax are all interested in owning the earth. They, along with all intergalactic royalty, buy, trade, populate, and “harvest” lesser planets filled with lesser beings in order to keep themselves perpetually young. As they state in the film, their superior genetics and technology and years of knowledge have taught them that there is only one commodity worth fighting (and killing) for–time. They harvest the genetic material of their subjects in order to buy it for themselves and make a profit selling them to others.
Earth was the property of the family’s matriarch (who is never named), a woman who died under mysterious circumstances after living a mere nine hundred and ten thousand years, but it passed to her eldest son Balem upon her death. He’s planning on harvesting the huge investment in the near(ish) future when it comes to his (and his siblings) attention that a genetic recurrence of their mother’s exact genetic code has been born on earth. We would call her a reincarnation, perhaps, but when you live as long as humans in this film it’s not unheard of. Which means the mother left arrangements for her future self–including the title to her previous holdings, which included the earth.
The ever-stunning Mila Kunis plays Jupiter, the unwitting genetic recurrence of a long-dead, much-loved queen. She’s dragged into the fray and tugged back and forth between siblings who want to either marry her (ew?), try to coerce her with kindness, or outright kill her to retain what is now theirs. She earns the loyalty of one gene-spliced licen-men-soldier (Channing Tatum) and his band of merry outsiders, who strive to (sort of) teach her what she needs to know to claim her birthright as an Abrasax without giving away the souls of earth in the process.
What I liked:
I loved the idea of the warring siblings, and that they all had different approaches in the attempt to win Jupiter to their side (or eliminate her). I absolutely loved the setup, actually, and the harvesting of genetic material to achieve immortality–it’s totally the kind of thing people in power would do if they could, and a stroke of brilliance for the film.
I loved the concept of regeneration and recurrences, and that people would provide for future versions of themselves. I also loved that the film made it clear that the Abrasax family was only one of many royal families (though the most powerful), because it set up a complex universe that we should have been ready to demand more from at the close of the film.
What I didn’t like:
Here I go, getting on my feminist horse again, but seriously? This movie is named after Jupiter, she’s supposedly the one that they’re all after and the one with the thing everyone wants, but the girl has zero agency from top to bottom, back to front, and all the way up and down both sides. She’s saved countless times by Channing Tatum (I can’t even remember his name in the film. He’s just Channing Tatum). Not only is she saved by him repeatedly, she does nothing to even try to save herself as she wanders blindly around waiting for him to save her. Um, how about you find a gun? Or, you know, look for a space ship or a pair of those handy gravity-displacing boots you might be able to use to get yourself out of the burning person refinery before you die? UGH. You guys. I cannot even explain how frustrating her lack of motivation was, and all I kept imagining was Princess Leia literally beating her head against a wall over the repeated demise of her legacy in science fiction films.
Jupiter had only a few moments of actual thought and impact on the film, once when she shot Balem (but just in the knee, for heaven’s sake) and once when she decided not to sign away the souls of all of the people on earth for the lives of her family. She never asks questions (like, why should I go with you, vaguely dog-like Channing Tatum?). Later, once she learns who she supposedly is and what belongs to her, she doesn’t ask questions about the dynasty she’s part of, or about their lives on their planets and ships, or about her responsibilities or holdings or the goddamn rules of engagement. Her only question–literally–is about why Channing Tatum was courtmartialed and thrown out of the military establishment.
Head. Freaking. Desk.
In a similar manner, the one Abrasax sister, Kalique, has no purpose or point except to look pretty and briefly give us some backstory. Blah.
The instalove is strong with this one, folks. We get no real glimpse into the connection between Channing Tatum and Jupiter, he simply saves her life and then they are in love. Pining, aching, throw away your life for the other person kind of love. It’s a problem. We wasted ten good minutes at the beginning of the movie getting Jupiter’s backstory which never matters in the grand scheme of things at all. Those precious minutes could have gone to shore up some of the other gaping holes in character development.
The romance just did not work for me at all. I would have preferred it as a subplot, much like in Star Wars, but instead it (poorly) informed all of Jupiter’s decisions. At the end of the film, knowing everything that she now knows, she’s content to “own” the earth and fly around Chicago with her alien boyfriend, knowing there are countless other planets full of countless other people who are going to die in the name of immortality. She never mentions it. Doesn’t bother her, I guess, but if the Wachowski’s wanted us to be salivating for another story in this world, they would have done well to set up larger scale stakes. All it would have taken was a line from Jupiter at the end (well, and her giving a shit the whole time) about wanting to learn everything she could about the family and their world so that she could figure out how to use her newfound power to put a stop to their way of life.
She didn’t. Some heroine.
What I liked:
I actually thought the world the Wachowski’s built in this film was brilliant, and the special effects backed it up beautifully. It had the sweeping, epic feel of a Star Wars, with each of the siblings planet’s decorated with a distinct look and feel that reflected their personalities to a T. The ships were interesting, the Roman-derived society fit into space like a hand in a glove, the space police concept worked very well. The different species that popped up here and there, the genetic splicing sub-plot that created characters like Channing Tatum’s, all gave the film a sort of Star Trek like feel and forced us to accept that other people from other planets in the universe had been co-mingling for quite some time and none of this was new to them. It had a very established, easy feeling about it, this world, and it’s hard to find fault with it (even for a writer).
There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about the world building in this movie. I would have liked some hints as to the larger scale, problems with the other royal families, etc – and maybe a bit more interaction from the siblings themselves – so that we could have guessed at other duties, other troubles, and their positions would have seemed more three-dimensional, but that’s a small complaint in the grand scale of the movie.
They impressed me. I’m impressed.
Various Other Things:
What I liked:
I really did love the derivatives from the decadence of Ancient Rome. I’m have a master’s degree in ancient history, and if you’re going for lush, brutal, ruthless ruling classes, you don’t have to look much further.
Eddie Redmayne (though occasionally over the top) played a frightening villain in Balem. I wanted more from him, but as with Darth Vader, I think we’d need more time, more movies, to plumb those depths.
Douglas Booth, as the brother Titus, was frightening in a completely opposite way that might have been even more chilling. Loved it.
There’s a scene where Channing Tatum and some other guy realize that Jupiter is the recurrence of the queen, and they do so because the bees on his farm recognize her. It’s a really beautiful scene, and a beautiful analogy about bees inherently knowing royal blood since they’re trained to follow it, and that people never do anything quite so easily. It’s a really unique thing (as far as I know), bees commanded by royalty, and it played perfectly.
The movie is visually stunning and, for the most part, they did not skimp on special effects. You can expect to feel transported to space, to other planets, and aboard ships during your time in the theatre.
What I didn’t like:
There was no comedy or comic relief. Someone needed a sidekick.
The lack of explanations at the beginning. The whole setup is rushed, actually, and when Jupiter is almost killed and then rescued by Channing Tatum, she’s ready to hop on a spaceship with him to another world without even asking why those men were trying to kill her (seriously). I leaned over to my boyfriend at one point to ask if I had missed that part. I hadn’t. There was a lot of stuff with her family that took up unnecessary time and if they had hired me to critique the script, I would have suggested they cut Jupiter’s family all-together. They were completely unnecessary as she could have been the exact same character without them, and if they need leverage for her to have her “big” independent thinking moment (snort) later, they could have just used Channing Tatum at that point.
Because, you know, apparently the lives OF THE ENTIRE EARTH wouldn’t have been enough to convince her. Christ on a cracker.
The utter lack of strong female characters.
And, okay, I know this one is personal to me because I’m partial, but I hate that they named the brother who has more interest in all of the pleasures life has to offer than ruling Titus. The (later) emperor Titus of Rome had a similar reputation as a youth, but if whoever chose the name would have bothered to read beyond his Wiki page, they might have discovered that he later reformed and became one of the best-loved and most responsible emperors Rome ever knew. He also happens to be my favorite emperor. Ahem.
There were too many fight scenes. I counted at least four before we even knew what anyone was fighting about, or why Jupiter was being chased. We get it. Channing Tatum can fight.
The romance was tone deaf but insisted on hogging center stage all the same. Cringeworthy.
To make a long story short (I know, too late):
It might sound like I hated Jupiter Ascending, but that’s not really the truth. I’m disappointed by it because, with the world they imagined and executed, it could have been so much more. All it needed was a tighter script featuring more believable characters and relationships between those characters to be something that I would have walked away from wanting another film or five or six, and the fact that the finished product strikes me as lazy makes me both angry and sad.
Because it’s not enough to have a great idea. Any writer will tell you that great ideas are a dime a dozen. The magic doesn’t happen until you get it all out of your head, and when it goes into someone else’s mind, they think it’s still a great idea.
Magic, people. It does exist, but it seems it’s getting harder and harder to find in Hollywood’s version of science fiction films.