Directed by The Wachowskis
Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth
Screenplay by The Wachowskis
PG-13/M, 127 Minutes
I honestly haven’t gone to see a movie in a while. The cinema tickets are too expensive for my current budget, there’s just not enough time to catch them all, and frankly almost all of the must-see titles have bored me, especially the Academy Award nominated and winning ones. Movies just haven’t been as fun an endeavour, lately, and I’ve wondered if that’s because of myself or the industry. It’s probably a mix of both. Luckily, Jupiter Ascending is a refreshing breath of air that I sorely needed.
There’s been a lot of buzz around this film, about its quality varying from audience to audience, how most find it dull and insipid while others latch onto it as their precious jewel. It’s interesting to note the gender differences in these voices, as most men I’ve talked to about the film have either found it to be a droll affair or a so-ridiculous-you-have-to-laugh piece of entertainment. Meanwhile the women I know, be they cis, trans, or non-binary, have much more nuanced views on it while also being much more diverse. I’d like to think the Wachowskis had this in mind when making Jupiter Ascending, while it is both a sincere love letter to space opera fantasy and romance chock-filled with references to other properties, I felt it was also a direct response to the plots we’re much more accustomed to in fiction of this kind.
We have an intergalactic plot revolving around planetary real estate, titles, and inheritances, a capitalistic and hedonistic progenitor alien species with shady motives, a story of rags-to-riches involving our protagonist who gets swept off their feet by a powerful, smart, and beautiful bodyguard-later-love-interest who lets them touch the stars they look up at every night. It all sounds pretty generic, very stock-standard, and what you can find when you pick up the nearest Young Adult fantasy novel at a bookstore; however Jupiter Ascending has one major difference: it puts a woman into the spotlight of the protagonist.
For once it’s a nice change of pace to see a young woman in the place where a boy normally would be; a working class nobody who dreams of bigger things, but is trapped in their circumstances. The eponymous Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) being an illegal immigrant raised in America, living with her large and boisterous family from Russia, having no real prospects for her future as she spends her days earning her keep scrubbing toilets and cleaning the homes of the wealthy Chicago elite alongside her mother and aunt. Being an illegal immigrant she ponders where her real home actually is; the Russia her mother left behind when Jupiter’s father died, the cramped house she squeezes into every day with her family in America, or some place else she just hasn’t been able to discover yet. She professes each morning, bleary-eyed from underneath her blanket and pillow, “I hate my life,” and is seen fantasising about the life of luxury whenever dusting the wardrobes of the socialites she works for. Sadly the closest thing to a hope she has is a hairbrained get-rich-quick scheme her cousin employs, and even then that’s just for her to afford a telescope like the one her father used to own. Jupiter is at the bottom, with every rung on the impossibly tall ladder in front of her taken away.
This all of course changes once the mysterious and brooding Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) enters her life. He is a genetic “splice,” a human combined with wolf DNA and trained to be the perfect hunter, the best soldier, and the most efficient killer. With dashing facial scruff, pointed ears that twitch at the slightest disturbance, a keen nose, and loyal personality he quickly becomes Jupiter’s own personal guard dog as he whisks her away for greater things beyond our own little world amongst thousands of trillions. However, all of these vicious and animalistic traits hide a softer touch, a heartfelt personality that rumbles beneath Caine’s hardened exterior. He doesn’t force Jupiter to do anything; he even gives her his gun to let her feel more in control of the situation. He never once raises his voice at her, and despite any of his misgivings he sticks by her at all costs. Both he and Jupiter are kindred spirits, both yearn for a better life, but neither one knows what that is.
As it turns out, the galaxy supposedly has an answer for the two. Jupiter apparently is what is known as a “recurrence,” a genetic reincarnation through sheer chance and probability of the highest matriarch of the stars. With this legacy, she inherits all of the now-deceased queen’s titles, property in planets such as the Earth, and social standing as a royal. To her, it finally means a place where she can belong, an anchor in her life, maybe even a fresh start for her to make a new home. For Caine too, it means great things as he will be exonerated of any previous transgressions and will thus be reinstated to the military once more with a clean record and commendation. However, they both realise what the price is for the ability to have what they assume is a better life. Jupiter must face the reality of what the galaxy’s greatest and most precious resource is—a gruesome yet revolutionary science—while Caine has to sacrifice whatever bond he’s formed with Jupiter, as the two no longer fit together in terms of intergalactic social statuses.
I sincerely liked the dynamic between the two, which surprised me because while I’ve enjoyed Tatum in his more comedic roles, I wasn’t quite sure I’d be sold on him in such a straight-faced role. As for Kunis, I’ve just not been a fan of her in the past; I wouldn’t ever say she’s a bad actor, but until now I just was never sold on her or the characters she played. Here they both bounce off of each other as naturally as can be expected for these two thrown in such a situation, one just finding out that there’s life beyond Earth and the other trying to keep everything smooth so he can safely escort her. There’s a good amount of awkwardness; they fumble with words, Caine frequently at first remarking that his training never prepared him for this and Jupiter still adjusting to a whole new universe she’s been thrown into. However, they acclimate, they come to enjoy finding out more about one another, and neither one begrudges the other’s presence that feels forced purely for the sake of tension.
One thing I have to credit to the movie for is how it handles Jupiter’s discovery of these fantastical worlds. It’s obviously a major shock to her system, and it takes getting used to, but when she has to face the facts and deal with it, she takes it in stride. Jupiter doesn’t spend the entire movie wide-eyed and naive. She grew up having to ask the right questions to get her way in her family and this translates to the situation she’s in now with intergalactic politics and bureaucracy. However, she does fall for some of the villainous plots by the royal trio of siblings who essentially run the galaxy, the children of the queen she is a reincarnation of. That’s not to say, though, that she is completely without agency. While she has to be saved in these circumstances, she is not crying out for her dashing knight to rescue her from the tower. She struggles and tries to escape by her own means, which just happen to coincide with the more bombastically heroic attempts by Caine.
Caine himself is also an interesting character. I saw him very much as an examination of what it means to have an object of the female gaze front-and-center in a movie, on purpose, with zero irony or snark. He’s brooding and dangerous, but he has a good heart and gentle demeanour with those he loves and respects. He’s a loner, but not by choice, as he lost his pack in the battlefield and now he yearns for one, a family to call his own. He’s muscular and unshaven, but lean and athletic as well as well-groomed with a healthy application of mascara and eyeliner. He’s a juxtaposition, a melting pot of the most stereotypical straight teenage girl fantasies. I barely held in my joyous laughter at how blatant it was, especially with Jupiter’s response to him being a genetic splice that’s half-wolf being a whispered, “I love dogs!” He is ultimately a dream, an ideal, a fun little someone to gawk at and fawn over, and Tatum delivers in every respect.
In fact, this is the dynamic between most of the men and women throughout the movie, the men being shallow fantasies and caricatures. Caine’s former commander Stinger (Sean Bean) is a gruff military man and father with a heart of gold who only cares about his sick daughter. The eldest royal son Balem Abrasax (Redmayne) is very much a corkboard of various weak-bodied, but cunning strategic villainous business men stuffed together. Balem’s brother Titus Abrasax (Booth) continues this collaged theme as the handsome playboy sleaze living in opulence and hedonism every day of his life, with a silver-Loki-esque-tongue.
Meanwhile, the women aside from Jupiter are powerful, elegant, maybe not as fully-explored or given as much screen time as I’d like, but they feel just as memorable as the men if not more so. There’s Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton) who is the sister to the Abrasax siblings. Her brothers take pride in pointing out that she hasn’t inherited their departed mother’s cunning, wit, or grace, and yet she is unperturbed by what they deem as valuable traits and then proceeds to outsmart and outpace the two by getting to Jupiter first. She also seems to be the only royal family member without malicious intent on her mind, more redemption and reconciliation with the mother she never connected with, hoping to do so by proxy through the young Jupiter. The supporting cast of women are just as strong too, with excellent portrayals by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nikki Amuka-Bird as powerful black women in this galaxy. Famulus (Mbatha-Raw) at first appears to be merely a secretary to Titus, but proves herself to be an even more capable variation on the Pepper Potts-style of character with a mix of business chic and femme fatale flair. Meanwhile, Diomika Tsing (Amuka-Bird) is the capable and stern commander from the Aegis, a branch of space authority in this universe. She’s a good, practical, and moral center for the starbound cast, delivering wry remarks about the bureaucracy of the galaxy, putting the crew and civilians on her ship before herself and the mission, and offering words of hope and courage to those in need of it.
That’s not to say there aren’t low points in Jupiter Ascending. The writing tries, it really does, but when it falters even a bit it becomes clunky and stilted. There are very ham-fisted examples of dialogue, but I actually enjoyed those due to the actors’ delivery of them and because of how sincerely silly they were. It’s more the overall plot that gets muddled up; so many elements are introduced at once that each scene is a shotgun-blast full of revelatory information that it becomes hard to process. While other films may drop names or hints about the inner workings or past history of their fictional universes, Jupiter Ascending does this, but then feels the need to try and explain nearly every single mentioning of something, and when it doesn’t it just feels like the Wachowskis are adding to a pile of fictional battle names, places, and currencies that just grows and grows. This leaves the overall writing in a state not unlike that of a near-completed game of Jenga, still standing but barely and with lots of gaps with a shaky foundation.
That said, I just can’t help but smile and appreciate what the movie tries so hard to do. It’s sincere and unapologetically fun. The fight sequences do go on for too long, and I feel that the film could’ve been shaved down by twenty or so minutes, but it’s admirable just how much it crams in and keep each scene going with a spring in its step, never weighing the movie down too much and never boring the audience. Visually it’s stunning, the art direction is eye-poppingly gorgeous with every costume and prop having so much care put into them. These visual elements also help tell you more about the universe, with the Abrasax siblings each molding their home planets and styles after distinct art and historical periods; from Kalique’s Greco-Roman pantheon of a palace, to Titus’ modern art-deco space pleasure cruiser, and Balem’s grimy Industrial Revolution-inspired homebase in the Red Spot of Jupiter. Contrast these celestial bodies of artworks hurtling through space to the much more practical and rundown designs of everyday starships we see in this world, with the tightly armoured and hunkered down Aegis vessel to the numerous junkers and transports we see at Ores, the intergalactic capital.
On Ores this visual theme continues, while working in harmony with the extended bureaucratic sequence of inane tasks that Jupiter has to go through to officially inherit her title, a scene very much a love letter to Brazil even going so far as to include Terry Gilliam in a cameo. Here we see how convoluted and messy the system is, with numerous files and forms and documents and stamps and signatures and identification numbers required. In the background we see how archaic and mechanical this whole process is too, with the machinery and technology used more akin to 19th century banks than interstellar futuristic societies. Every little piece of technology screams form over function, which extends even to the more effective and practical elements of this society.
Overall, I consider Jupiter Ascending operatic fun. It’s a heartfelt attempt to engage with an audience demographic that gets pandered to far too often without ever really engaging with them, while also tackling some themes of anti-capitalist and anti-materialism nature. I felt those last two could’ve been hit harder, as it really only comes to fruition briefly in one Network-inspired speech at the end, but at least it’s there and for whatever small ripples the movie makes, it’s at least comparable to waves in a genre within an industry that barely ever tries in its mainstream big budget productions.
It’s not perfect and I think there’s plenty of room to improve on, but when Jupiter Ascending hits its high notes, it does so with a certain amount of gusto and heart I’ve felt has been lacking in any sci-fi or fantasy plot for a while. I heartily recommend seeing this with your partner/girlfriend/wife; it’s a fun romp that will make your date night worthwhile, with the added bonus of amazing art direction and earnest world-building.
3.5 out of 5 stars