By Scott Interrante
When I was in third or fourth grade, I started writing a novel—as third or fourth graders who are too frequently told by family members that they’re smart are known to do. It was about a Normal Young Boy who finds out he’s actually the royal heir to the planet Neptune, then the second-furthest planet from the Sun in our humble solar system. I, predictably, didn’t get very far in my opus, but I bet he would have gone on some crazy adventures. I bring this up to say that, much like my would-be elementary masterpiece, Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ first ‘original’ film since The Matrix trilogy, is not particularly original.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a sad but pretty (and they’re always pretty) child of an American astrologer and a Russian national living in Chicago working with her family as a house cleaner. She has a catchphrase: “I hate my life.” That is, of course, until she finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic property dispute between royal siblings, herself revealed to be the reincarnation of their mother and the rightful owner of planet Earth. (Keep up, it’s only getting more convoluted from here). See, Earth and most other human-inhabited planets (and yes, there are many others) are populated only to be harvested, the native humans dissolved into some sort of gene-restoring fountain-of-youth for the elite. After the Abrasax matriarch is murdered, the three remaining children are fighting over ownership of Earth, which involved either killing or marrying Jupiter Jones. Balem (Eddie Redmayne) goes for option 1 while Titus (Douglas Booth) hires a splice (a human with a few wolf genes) named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) to save Jupiter and bring her to him so that he can convince her to marry him and put an end to the harvesting (a humanitarian effort he clearly has no intention of carrying out, as signified by his slicked-back hair). Honestly I’m not sure what Kalique’s (Tuppence Middleton) angle is; I think she’s just there to get naked, but more on that later.
Dense and complicated (though not nuanced) it may be, but original it is not. This is not, however, why Jupiter Ascending is bad. The Matrix, really the Wachowskis’ only great film, practically reads like an undergraduate non-major Survey of Western Philosophy course set to a Lewis Carroll plot and doused in too much Biblical imagery. In fact, Alex Rallo argues effectively in a piece for PopMatters, the references in Jupiter Ascending are too frequent and direct to be anything other than a design feature. Rallo details numerous visual and thematic nods to classic science fiction and fairy tales, and there are also more heavily-played allusions throughout.
There’s an entire sequence in the middle of the film where Jupiter is comically forced to navigate bureaucratic hell to claim her inheritance in an almost shot-for-shot tribute to a similar sequence in Brazil. To make the point clearer, Terry Gilliam himself makes an appearance as the final paper-pusher Jupiter and Caine need to appease. Similarly, if the housecleaner-to-royalty plot didn’t ring any of your bells, the Wachowskis include dialogue about Cinderella to ensure you didn’t miss out. This all in addition to the liberal borrowing of ideas from their own Matrix trilogy. Rallo argues that the Wachowskis use this web of cultural references to both expedite world building and also to act as a backdrop for a metanarrative on science fiction and fairy tale tropes. As someone who happily subscribes to postmodern arts criticism, I buy the argument, but not necessarily that it does anything interesting as a result.
Before dissecting this point further, it should be said that Jupiter Ascending is not a great film. We knew that going in. The pacing is strange, the dialogue stiff, and the acting underwhelming at best. Still, it accomplished a lot of things very well. The visuals, of course, though often derivative, are wonderful. The action scenes are engaging, well-choreographed, and fun. Again, just as you’d expect from the makers of The Matrix. Where the action scenes stretched on long enough to forget the plot, Jupiter Ascending becomes thoroughly enjoyable. But then we are inevitably dragged back into awful dialogue and frequently laughable acting (with Academy Award nominee Eddie Redmayne as primary offender, going to show how much of a difference a good script and director can make). But if Jupiter Ascending is a space opera commenting on space operas, what does it have to say?
From the beginning, gender seems to be a focal point: The opening scenes show Jupiter’s father senselessly murdered by Russian thugs, flipping the typical dead-mom trope of the Disney fairy tale. Then Jupiter, while playing out her woe-is-me provincial life, gets pushed into a hero’s journey, turning Cinderella into Luke Skywalker. Except, in the complex web of fight sequences and dirty politicking, Jupiter is never left alone long enough to become that hero. Caine leads her throughout most of the film, often literally carrying her on his back. The few times the two get separated, Jupiter acts as receiver of exposition from one of the Abrasaxes, or in the case of Kalique, the receiver of a gratuitous nudey shot (because why shouldn’t this film have the most powerful woman in the universe just get naked?). When Titus tries to convince Jupiter that he has honorable intentions with his marriage proposal, the audience believes that she is not dumb enough to fall for this. She is! Caine needs to storm into the wedding hall, The Graduate-style (if Dustin Hoffman were able to break through that glass he was banging on with cool anti-gravity boots) to save her. The climax of the film finds Jupiter stranded on a collapsing ledge as Balem’s weird floating city burns down around her. Don’t worry, female, Wolf-boy is on his way!
There are a few points in the film where Jupiter manages to get some agency. She’s the one who initiates the romance with Caine, and even though the two have very little chemistry and honestly the film would be more interesting without a love story tacked on, it’s nice. Jupiter also has the ultimate choice between saving her family by giving up control of Earth to Balem or saving humanity by keeping it, a replay of Neo’s choice at the end of The Matrix Reloaded. However, Jupiter chooses differently than Neo and saves humanity (in both cases everyone gets saved, so does it really even matter that much?). After this choice, she comes face to face with Balem, who reveals he was the one who murdered his mother. Jupiter has the opportunity to kill him, but refuses to, snarking “I am not your damn mother.” Rallo concludes that in doing so, “she effectively vanquishes the figure of conservative enslavement that had previously murdered her in her previous existence.”
But if, right after sparing Balem’s life, she needs to be rescued by Caine, how much ascending does she really do? How much revision is really going on when the film still feels the need to validate the stoic male’s heroism? Rallo claims,
When the protagonist ascends, it’s not to the throne, but to a new vision, a better comprehension of the inner mechanisms that govern her world. Jupiter represents the active heroine: empowered, able to make her own choices and go against the pre-established rules of the genre. However, this does not mean that she becomes a fierce warrior overnight, but rather that she takes advantage of Caine’s functional heroism to survive through the hardships and steer her story towards the direction of her choice.
I’m not sure we ever see how empowered she is, though. Sure, she’s genetic royalty (as the characters discover because a cloud of bees respect her?), and she learns to use those cool flying boots in the film’s last scene. She gets the wolf-boy of her dreams, her cute Russian family gets to live, and Earth won’t be harvested (at least not until she dies and the deed is up for grabs), but very little of this is her own doing. Her family would have died if Caine hadn’t flown through Jupiter’s eye and crashed into the floating city. Jupiter would have died if he hadn’t flown in to save her. The bureaucratic hell scene is simply a more concise representation of Jupiter’s position throughout the entirety of the film, going where people tell her to go to do what people tell her to do, whether she really understands why or not.
Perhaps in a sequel we’ll get some more ascension.