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Jupiter Ascending is pure space opera cheese brought to us by the Wachowski siblings, and it is a very Wachowski film, with all the good and bad that entails. The Wachowskis offer us a visually stunning world with a fascinating concept, in which Sean Bean doesn’t die (biggest spoiler of this review, right there) and Eddie Redmayne gently nibbles on the scenery, in which there are anti-gravity roller blades and bioengineered angels—and then they make it torturously boring. With added bees.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an ordinary woman, the daughter of a Russian immigrant, and spends her days cleaning the houses of anyone wealthy enough to afford a cleaning service. Rather than dreaming of a better life, she’s too exhausted to get much further than hating her current one. Early on, she is manipulated by her cousin in to donating her eggs under a false name at a fertility clinic, despite the fact that he will get the vast majority of the money from the venture. In the clinic, she’s attacked by gray aliens and saved by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an alien ex-soldier who is a genetically engineered cross between a human and a wolf.
The reason for the attack and then the many action sequences that follow is that through complete genetic accident—basically the odds just catching up with her in the universe—Jupiter is a perfect genetic copy of a woman who was recently murdered, probably by one of her three creepy, bickering children. Earth isn’t actually the source of humanity, but a factory of sorts designed to produce more humans, and owned by the Abrasax family. Jupiter being genetic royalty throws the entire clan into disarray, because among other things it means she now effectively owns the Earth.
What follows are a series of political machinations by the Abrasax siblings: Titus (Douglas Booth), Balem (Eddie Redmayne), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton, distinguished by being a woman and played by the actor with the coolest name in a cast filled with remarkable names). Caine and his fellow ex-legionnaire Stinger (Sean Bean) must prevent Balem from murdering Jupiter, Titus from marrying and murdering her (even creepier when one considers that she is genetically his mother), and Kalique from… offering her cosmetic tips and apparently frank girl talk. Just to raise the stakes a bit more, Balem kidnaps Jupiter’s family and also plans on “harvesting” the entire Earth the very next day—because it turns out that humans on Earth are being bred so that they can be turned into an elixir for immortality, to be used by other humans.
The greatest sin of Jupiter Ascending is inarguably that it takes the above plot and manages, for a good two thirds of its 127 minute running time, to make it boring. As science fiction wannabe blockbusters go, two hours is not a terribly self-indulgent running time, but the movie feels far, far longer when being watched. The movie is at its snappy, entertaining best when it shows rather than tells, offering wonderful visual notes like a spaceship lifting off after a battle in a cornfield and leaving a crop circle behind. Unfortunately, most of the front of the movie is spent telling rather than showing, with Jupiter acting as the expository sponge, transported from scene to scene so she can ask what is happening and then listen to the explanation in confused disbelief.
While some exposition is no doubt necessary in a world build with this much history, its clumsily handled and often unnecessary. The best example of this is the bees. When Caine brings Jupiter to his old friend Stinger, there are quite a lot of bees around, apparently because Stinger is a genetic mix of human and bee. Yes, you read that correctly and no, at no point is the audience actually graced with the location of his stinger, more’s the pity. The bees begin to act strangely around Jupiter, and Stinger informs her—and the audience—that this is because bees have been genetically engineered to recognize royalty. Yes, you read that sentence correctly as well. This is a scene that takes up a not insignificant amount of running time and seems to indicate that this is an important point. Yet except for one instance of attack bees in the fight scene that immediately follows, this fact is never used again. The existence of bees is, frankly, superfluous to the film, particularly since Caine and Stinger already ought to have known why everyone was after Jupiter. Many of the expository scenes in the movie fall into this trap, where the detail laid out in them is ultimately unimportant and never mentioned again.
It’s not until Jupiter gets off world and takes her rightful legal place as the heir to the dead Abraxas matriarch that the plot begins to pick up. There’s a delightful scene in which she goes through the byzantine bureaucracy to claim her legal rights, which any human being who has interacted with the Department of Motor Vehicles or a health insurance company will find deeply hilarious. And it’s this scene that exemplifies the movie at its best—when the plot is simply allowed to unfold and the characters are allowed to interact with the world rather than explain the details, it works beautifully. Unfortunately, those scenes are few and far between.
Also, once she has escaped from Earth, Jupiter is actually allowed to develop as a character, which helps make the movie more interesting as well. Movies with this general trope—most important woman in the world must do a very important thing while protected by a man with a mysterious past and a hefty whack of manpain—tend to be frustrating in the sense that the woman, for all her supposed importance, is ultimately there to facilitate the development of the male protector character. That isn’t the case in this movie, however, perhaps because there isn’t a whole lot of character to be had with Caine. He has a mysterious past that involves attacking royalty and it’s never explained why or made into an actual plot point for this film, and his supposed inner emotional qualities that are effected by his status as part wolf—needing a pack, etc—are also factors we are told about by Stinger while shirtless Caine stares moodily into the distance, and never really shown.
In comparison to Caine, Jupiter does have a decent character arc. There’s a bit of annoyingly standard maundering about her love life, and how important it is to her to find the love of her life, but it seems both superfluous and out of place considering the complete lack of chemistry between her and Caine, and the fact that the important interactions between the two of them aren’t intrinsically romantic. The far more interesting journey Jupiter undergoes is from gullibility to wisdom—she gets manipulated by her avaricious cousin, then she gets manipulated into almost marrying Titus, and then when Balem attempts a very similar manipulation she doesn’t fall for it. She goes from being directionless to self-determined—she decides how to react to Balem’s manipulations and takes direct action to save her family. She affirms her identity—after spending a movie getting compared again and again to the dead Abraxas matriarch and found wanting, she ends up pointing a gun at Balem, and when he sneers at her that his mother wouldn’t pull the trigger, she shoots him in the foot.
Really, Jupiter becomes a very rare sort of female character in movies: self-determined and arguably very strong without ever transforming into a masculine fighting machine. She shoots Balem in the foot and whacks him with a pipe because he keeps trying to kill her, but she gets through the entire film without ever killing anyone herself, let alone becoming an expert in martial arts. It's also interesting to note that while Caine spends a lot of time carrying Jupiter away from danger via his anti-grav roller blades, he doesn't do so in the classic damsel carry; rather she spends her time clinging to his back like a monkey, which ultimately makes more sense because he has his hands free to fight. But it also has the effect of making her less visually damsel-like while still being someone who requires help and protection.
It should also be noted that this film does, indeed, pass the Bechdel test, thanks to a conversation between Jupiter and Kalique, during which they talk about the family business and the dead woman whom Jupiter takes after, before circling back around to Kalique's brothers and Caine. Kalique does perhaps the best expository delivery out of the entire movie, for what that is worth.
Much has been said of Eddy Redmayne's scenery chewing. Really, as far as the space opera aesthetic goes, most of the characters—particularly Caine—could have done with giving their incisors more of a workout. Mila Kunis does serviceable work, but the laconic deliveries from Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, and many of the legionnaire characters come at odds with the grandiosity of the backdrop and the supposed stakes. The most lively characters are really Jupiter's Russian immigrant family, who often skirt the cringe-inducing side of the caricature line. Cool and collected worked well for The Matrix because of its aesthetic; space opera really needs to be, well, operatic, particularly when the plot is already floundering under an expository burden.
At least Michael Giacchino's score is suitably operatic, even if the little pew pew sounds made by the bounty hunter laser pistols feel a bit out of place against that much symphonic power. Visually, Jupiter Ascending seems to take place in a series of John Harris paintings; it's utterly gorgeous, which is really the minimum one should expect of the Wachowskis. The action set pieces are beautiful, also as expected, but tend to go on a bit too long and become visually confusing at times, and the choreography lacks the creative variability that was on display in The Matrix. It seems there's only so much Caine can do with his anti-gravity boots and light shield. The sequences involving space ships become overtly video-game like, to the point where it begins to feel like the characters are moving from one level to another, and this is a demo advertising an upcoming PS4 release.
Over all, Jupiter Ascending may be worth watching because it is gorgeous, and for the golden moments it contains like the implication that there's a reason Earth has so many legends about angels. But more effusive praise or recommendation would unfortunately be about the hopes fans of science fiction cinema had for the film and not the tepid reality on the screen.
Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper sir. She's written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and more. Rachael lives in Houston with her two furry little bastards, where she twirls her mustache, watches movies, and bikes. For more information, see her website.