Have you ever asked a five-year-old to tell you a story? Because if you see Jupiter Ascending, and I truly hope that you do, you are essentially asking a super-creative five-year-old to tell you a story. What if a werewolf who’s also an angel and, like, a space warrior had to fight Lord Voldemort and Dorian Gray for the love of Cinderella? Well, add in some fabulous eyeliner and a suspicious amount of crystal, and you’ve got Jupiter Ascending.
This movie is for sci-fi fans who enjoy their class critique and rickety world building to be well-cushioned in loud, fun, explody action sequences. Did you like Pacific Rim? You’ll probably like this movie. Did you feel that The Fifth Element was, at times, almost too restrained? You’ll definitely like this movie. Do you think Karl Marx had some swell ideas? You’ll like this movie. Do you want to see a big Hollywood movie that’s all about the evils of anti-aging schemes? You’ll looooove this movie.
So, about the plot. We don’t really need one of those, do we? There’s a Chosen One, a Fallen Hero, a couple of morally-ambiguous bounty hunters, a decadent triumvirate who are battling each other for control of the earth, an explanation of what happened to the dinosaurs… but none of it really matters. Here, I’ll try to summarize anyway:
Belam, Tuitus, and Kalique—three siblings of the House of Abrasax—are locked in a power struggle. Ostensibly, it’s the struggle to control different planets across the galaxy (including our Earth) but honestly they’re fighting over supplies of cosmic Youth Dew. Eddie Redmayne plays Belam while channeling Gary Oldman playing Christopher Lee playing Voldemort, and he whispers his lines and flutters his fingers in the air to pass death sentences. I want to marry the shit out of you, Eddie Redmayne. Douglas Booth plays Titus, the younger brother and requisite deviant wastrel, and Tuppence Middleton plays Kalique as a slightly defanged Margaery Tyrell. The three have wonderful portentous conversations that go nowhere, and I really really really want them to have their own Christmas special.
The actually important part of the film is the exploration of class. Our Cinderella, Mila Kunis, is an illegal immigrant who works as a housecleaner along with her mother and aunt, who fled Russia for Chicago. Her name is Jupiter Jones—Jupiter because her dead father was an astronomer (and seemingly her aunt is into astrology although that’s never really dealt with), and Jones because she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Russian. She hatches a scheme with her cousin Vladie to harvest her eggs so the two of them can each buy the thing they want most: for Vladie, a giant flatscreen for videogaming, and for Jupiter, a telescope for dead-father-related-purposes.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the Abasax siblings are after her genetic code (kinda) and the Earth is actually just an alien stock farm (sort of) and she might actually be intergalactic royalty (in a way). Like I said, none of this particularly matters. What matters is that Jupiter goes off on an adventure with werewolf/angel/space-cop Channing Tatum, and what really matters is that Channing Tatum is playing Charlie Hunnam, and that he needs to wear eyeliner at all times. Did I mention that his character is named Caine Wise? Also? Sean Bean is a fucking bee farmer. And there’s a PG-13 space orgy. And fluent Russian is thrown around casually. And this is a film that thanks Swarovski Crystal in its closing credits.
This film is essentially all your favorite sci-fi movies smashed together, playing at warp speed, and I’ve never personally done angel dust but I feel that also might make a good reference point. There are bits of Soylent Green, Pacific Rim, Brazil, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Matrix, The Avengers, Labyrinth, Dune, probably a splash of Zardoz, all mushed together into a bright blue and orange exploding Koosh ball of a movie.
The film does actually have a couple of big ideas, and three serious points.
Serious Point 1: As usual, the working-class, queer-friendly, Wachowskis want to kick capitalism in the nards, and do so quite skillfully. Jupiter’s life as a housekeeper sucks. It isn’t just that she has to scrub toilets and make beds—the real problem is that the rich people she works for view her as a thing that is there to be used. During one of the key scenes in the film, her rich employer asks her if she’s ever been in love. This invasive question isn’t an awkward attempt at intimacy, though; the woman thinks that the rich-single-guy-under-thirty that she’s currently got hooked might be about to propose to her, and she needs a sounding board. Should she say yes? Should she try to get him to wait, while still hanging onto him as a future investment? Of course she’s asking this while she runs around her giant bedroom in her underwear, not minding that Jupiter is in the room because it doesn’t matter if you’re naked in front of the help. She just needs to figure out which McQueen to wear to dinner. This is a snapshot of Jupiter’s daily life, and it tells certain people everything they need to know about this movie.
Serious Point 2: The one commodity that truly matters is time. Its price is above gold, above jewels, even above cosmic Youth Dew. One of the recurring images in the film is Jupiter’s morning routine: every day her mother’s alarm goes off at 4:45am. This again, is vitally important. Jupiter, her mother, and her aunt are trying to squeeze every spare second of sleep that they can out of each night, but they also have to be up before 5:00 to start their housecleaning rounds. In much the same way that we get the sense of how much Earth time Matthew McConaughey is losing each time he gets stuck in Interstellar, here we have a sense of a poor immigrant family eking out every possible moment of rest before their slog of a day.
Serious Point 3:
This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh.
Jupiter has to learn to appreciate what she has, and see the beauty in her life, rather than reciting her mantra of “I hate my life” each day.
So it should be obvious that I liked the film quite a bit more than other reviewers, but there are flaws. There’s a long sequence with Sean Bean, Bee Farmer, that basically feels like it was lifted from the farm sequence in Looper mashed up with The Wicker Man, and goes on waaay too long. There is also at least one giant aerial chase too many, and a few too many moments when metal platforms collapse out from under key characters. (Mila Kunis’ arms should snap off in the first ten minutes of this film, but if that’s the sort of thing that’s going to bother you, this is not your movie.) We also get introduced to roughly eight billion characters in the first few minutes of the movie, but since most of them don’t matter in the long run, the problem sorts itself out.
This is also a story of a Cinderella who doesn’t want to be a princess. Normally in these movies the dudes are heroic and the women are beautiful and good, and get rescued. Even in The Matrix, Neo had to save Trinity. Jupiter is beautiful and good, but for large stretches of this film, she’s her own damn hero. She’s willing to make tough choices for the good of the many, because she believes that outweighs the needs of the few, no matter how special the few may be.
One of my problems with The Matrix was that it seemed to buy into revolution hinging on one person, special and chosen, to kick off the change and lead people into battle. Here the special person isn’t really chosen, she’s randomly generated, and she doesn’t lead a revolution. She protects her home, then goes back to work rather than being dazzled by the promise of being a space princess. I’ve already seen a few reviewers fault Jupiter for being too passive as a character, but I don’t think that’s the point. She’s more like Sansa—a young woman, with no real political training, who is suddenly expected to do strategic battle with three royal siblings who have all been fighting each other for millennia. Literally, millennia. Of course she’s dragged from location to location, and of course she’s confused. The part that matters is the choice she makes when she’s finally totally alone, with no back up, no one to help her or tell her what her best course of action is, and she’s presented with a choice that is at best morally grey.
So I’ll end here? If you like crazy movies, weird sci-fi, original storytelling, class-conscious twists on archetypes, you should go. This movie’s getting slaughtered, which is frustrating since it’s an original, overstuffed space opera. We need more movies like this one! It’s the only thing that will fight off the horror of more Transformers movies.