Poor Lana and Andy Wachowski. After the beating they took with Cloud Atlas, they’ve just dropped another bomb with Jupiter Ascending. Here’s a typical reaction, from Nick Schager writing for The Daily Beast, “Jupiter Ascending, from The Matrix masterminds Lana and Andy Wachowski, is a stew of sci-fi blockbuster cinema clichés drenched in high-tech razzle-dazzle.” I’ve written a lot of screeds against movie crap lately, but here I’d like to defend the Wachowskis, up to a point. Jupiter Ascending is a mixed bag to be sure, but I don’t think it really falls down until the last act. True, there are too many over-the-top chase/fight scenes that go on for too long, but that’s true of just about every Hollywood CGI extravaganza these days. Another common fault is showing us many gorgeous fantasy vistas crammed full of amazing detail, only to whisk them away after 2 or 3 seconds. Would it kill the Entertainment Complex to let us drink in the detail for another 3 or 4 seconds? Apparently, yes.
On the other hand, Schager sounds like too many American critics when he complains about “the monotony of lengthy chats about royal lineage, intergalactic economies, and other fairy tale nonsense” and “dialogue equally defined by ridiculously fanciful terms and leaden exposition.” How a filmmaker is supposed to present a rich fantasy world without fanciful terms or exposition is beyond me, and I’m getting tired of the stubborn inability of even educated and intelligent viewers like Schager to sit still and listen for a few minutes.
Besides, Schager’s “fairy tale nonsense” has a political edge that I think works in in the Wachowskis’ favor. For the villains are super rich one-percenters that harvest whole planets full of human beings in order to produce a fountain of youth serum. Such a cruel economy is an all too believable foundation for the deceit and the violence that fuels the movie, and the villains are not the problem. The problem comes with the heroine, and I’ll take brief walk through the complicated plot, spoilers included, to explain why.
Poor Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a maid in Chicago who spends her time cleaning other people’s toilets. Her mom is great (she left Russia after house robbers murdered Jupiter’s father), but her family is obnoxiously uncouth, as only an extended ethnic family can be. And she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Not surprisingly, she hates her life. Happily, she is saved from this tedious hell when space aliens attempt to assassinate her: because she is then rescued by a handsome space bounty hunter named Caine Wise (played by dreamy Channing Tatum, who looks great. Even with pointy ears.) Through him, she learns that she is the exact genetic double, a “recurrence,” of a recently murdered space queen. As such, she is entitled to inherit said space queen’s property, which includes the valuable “estate” that is the planet earth. The problem with this rags to riches development is that the queen’s oldest son has no intention of letting Jupiter get her grubby little hands on all the goodies he murdered mommy for. (Oops – spoiler alert.) His name is Balem Abrasax, and he’s played full-out by Eddie Redmayne in a much derided performance that I actually enjoyed.
Caine Wise. Part man, part wolf. All hunk!
Caine saves Jupiter from death again and again, and in the process kills or wounds about 332 opponents. So Jupiter falls in love with him. Usually I gag at this sort of thing, but I have a big crush on Channing, so I’m just as guilty as Jupiter here. I’m also OK with the fact that Jupiter is not an expert kung-fu warrior, so she needs to be rescued when professional killers are sent after her. Where I do have a problem is that she is such an aw shucks, down-home, just-plain-folks kind of girl that the big picture implications of her changed estate never dawn on her. All she can think about is Caine’s apparent coldness, so she has no brain room left for something as abstract as the fate of the planet earth. The tragic irony here is that he, of course, is in love with her. Only now that she’s a member of the power elite of the universe, how can he, a lowly bounty hunter, hope to win her heart? He can’t, and so he blows her off when she throws herself at him.
After many, many chase scenes, and an amusing satire on bureaucratic red tape, Jupiter officially claims title to her property. But she is then faced with a cruel choice, because Balem kidnaps her horrid family and threatens to murder them if she doesn’t turn over the property to him. At this point she knows what people like Balem do to the planets they own – so she races off, alone, to his citadel in Jupiter’s red spot. Surrounded by his henchmen and completely in his power, she is about to sign over her inheritance, when it finally dawns on her that he will harvest the entire population of earth to process more eternal youth serum. I’m happy to say that she then refuses, and is rescued once more by Caine. Belam falls off an exploding space platform and (probably) dies.
Now we come to the big, happy finish where a revitalized Jupiter realizes she actually enjoys cleaning other people’s toilets! I kid you not, she goes back to her old life. (I’m all for celebrating the worth of blue-collar labor, but really?) Her awful extended family seems to have been replaced by space clones, and they are now thoughtful and considerate. Even better, she now has a boyfriend – because Caine isn’t blowing her off anymore! We close with them light-heartedly zooming around the skyscrapers of Chicago using hyper-advanced space technology.
Wait, doesn’t that mean that thousands of office workers will see them zooming around? Yes it does, but earlier in the movie we learned that the super advanced space humans that “own” the earth routinely erase our memories whenever we witness their hyper-advanced technology. And now Jupiter owns the earth, so…Is this kind of twisted power play the real reason she smiles when she cleans the toilets of the rich? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s right here that Jupiter Ascending finally lost me.
Hollywood giveth with one hand, and it taketh away with another. All the class-conscious political savvy of the set up is undermined by making Jupiter Jones such a dim bulb. This movie was planned as the beginning of a franchise, so maybe they delayed giving her an intellectual awakening for a future installment. Ditto any temptations or dark emotions. And so Jupiter as a character is dramatically inert, and her movie gets sucked into a gravity well of dopey sentimentality.
Ah, but she snags that dreamy boyfriend, and this is enough to win the movie at least some fans. As Hitflix.com reports, “Jupiter Ascending” has broken new ground by becoming the first cult classic sci-fi film that will be buoyed into infamy by young women… Every woman who ever wrote herself into her favorite universe via fanfic, every girl who created an amnesiac elven vampire princess and role-played in a chat room, every chick who ever wanted a blaster by her side and a submissive werewolf boyfriend at her back, every one of them whispered, “Finally. It is our time.” – Well, I wish they’d hold out for a better heroine, but it could be worse. Caine could be like the entitled billionaire “hero” in Fifty Shades of Grey.
One’s a dreamboat. The other’s a villain.
Postscript: It would have been nice if at least one (non-villain) character in Jupiter Ascending was gay.