By the time Jupiter Ascending actually hit cinemas, most of us expected the worst. It was delayed several times for ‘script improvements’ and other vague problems as a result of performing not so well for the studio’s focus groups. As the countdown to the release continued, reviews started piling in declaring it a kind of beautiful mess – visually stunning with a plot that made absolutely no sense. So you might wonder why I was still excited to see it.
I love science fiction, particularly space operas (sure, space opera does lean towards fantasy but I’m ok with that, I love fantasy too). I love it when filmmakers take risks to create a very different, interesting film amongst all the rehashed shit the rest of Hollywood seems to churn out. So this, for me, is a film all about possibilities. As Wired points out, even if Jupiter Ascending is batshit crazy, people need to go and see it so that studios actually back some interesting films and auteurs every now and then.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a cleaner. She hates her life and wishes there was something more out there for her. While attempting to make some extra cash on the side, strange alien creatures attempt to assassinate her. Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) a genetically engineered wolf human comes to her rescue, employed by a member of an important galactic family, Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth).
Jupiter is a genetic match for the fallen matriarch of the Abrasax family. With her reincarnation, she can claim her inheritance, giving her control over Earth. Unfortunately, the Abrasax heirs are in competition with each other, each trying to outdo the others. Jupiter is stolen by each Abrasax heir in turn, with first heir Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) being the biggest threat.
A stunningly realised universe
The Wachowskis are unrivalled in their ability to create a fictional universe so beautifully crafted. Every piece of the confusing puzzle that is Jupiter Ascending looks incredible. There is a great deal of detail in their batshit crazy fictional universe – from the space cops, to the government bureaucracy, from spaceships, gravity boots, and portals to epic family battles and royalty. Like any science fiction with a convoluted and strange set-up, there is a lot of exposition. Of course, this can hardly be helped when setting up so many alien concepts. It is just unfortunate that it comes at the cost of character development.
Is there an actual person in there… anywhere?
There is so much happening in this film, with the plot moving faster than the Millennium Falcon that we are left wondering what the hell happened to this little thing called ‘characterisation’. Jupiter is meant to be our protagonist but is given zero agency in the entire film. No one could really blame her given she’s never allowed any time to actually understand what the hell is going on, what choice does she have but just go along with whatever her next kidnapper tells her? How is she to know what is truth and what is lies? But that doesn’t really help the audience get on her side. We want to see her learn and come to a realization of her own and then take that knowledge to town on her enemies. Be it with clever use of legal clauses or some kind of awesome, badass fighting ability, we don’t care, we’ll take what we can get.
Jupiter isn’t the only one who doesn’t find time for developing a personality on screen. The motivation of all the characters is thin at best. Sure, family feuds are easy things to understand, and when it comes to a big dynasty of rich corporation-style siblings it is easy to invoke Dynasty and be done with it. But it would have been nice to get an understanding of why each Abrasax sibling chose to approach the problem in the way they did. And what happens to Kalique? The first Abrasax to kidnap Jupiter seems completely ineffectual, never once showing up again.
Then there’s the problem with the love interest – lovable rogue and half-wolf Caine. He hates royalty but sees Jupiter as different, but, ummm… am I asking too much to know why he hates all royalty? I get it, sure, they’re bastards, but he seems to have a particularly personal issue with the family that is never explained. That seems like a pretty important thing for you to explain if you are going to hang the unusual relationship he has with Jupiter on the fact that she’s a royal he actually likes…
Oh so many questions and so very few answers!
Less is more
The trouble with this film is that there are some great ideas and beautiful world-building that gets lost by being squashed into a single film. There is so much of it that is like Star Wars and could easily have appealed to Star Wars fans if they had approached it as a trilogy, for instance. The first film could have set up the extraordinary world the protagonist found herself in, while the second film she learns more as the threat increases, and by the final installment she has taken control of her life and become a total badass, ready to take out Balem when the time comes to face him. Sounds amazing right? And yes, very much like Star Wars. But hey, I’m ok with rehashing old ideas as long as there’s a helping of new ones along the way.
The trouble with Jupiter Ascending is that it really could have been so much more. All the right ingredients were there for creating a truly magical movie experience. But it was squandered by trying to force it on the audience all in one go. If they’d tried to get less of the world into the one film, and spent a little more time developing the characters before delving deeper into the universe lore, perhaps we would have had a cult classic on our hands instead of a flop.
But here comes the crazy part. Despite being almost universally panned, I actually enjoyed Jupiter Ascending. The film is definitely flawed, but I don’t think it deserves as much ire as it has been receiving. Sure, there are common tropes of science fiction and space opera in there, and it isn’t as groundbreaking with its ideas as The Matrix. But it is unfair (and pointless) to insist that the Wachowskis constantly try to emulate that particular success. At it’s core, this is a fun, action-packed sci fi. I only wish they’d made it into three films instead of one.
Verdict: Fun, beautiful, and full of action. But the plot is a mess. I recommend seeing it just to support the kind of filmmaking it represents, and honestly, it isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. There’s plenty to sit back and enjoy even if you just take in the stunning visuals.