Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

The Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending experienced an underwhelming opening at the American box office this weekend. It succeeded to a much greater degree on the international market, but the vultures already have their talons out, declaring the science fiction epic a failure and a bomb.

I find it funny -- and by funny, I actually mean sad -- how many writers permit a movie's box office estimates and ultimate weekend total to dictate how they judge or consider its creative qualities.

While Jupiter Ascending is not the Zeitgeist-changing masterpiece that was The Matrix (1999), nor the cerebral and lyrical structural and narrative experiment that was Cloud Atlas (2012), it does nonetheless thrive on a more straight-forward level: it’s a rip-roaring and original cinematic space adventure.

On the surface level you expect of such films -- namely action and special effects -- the film is quite accomplished, and also intense. One character, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) skates the skies on gravity waves, and the effects are stunning. 

Indeed, I would recommend Jupiter Ascending for its technological legerdemain alone. The film delivers on a visual level precisely the values one would expect of an original work of art in the mold of Star Wars (1977), or more accurately, David Lynch’s Dune (1984).

But because this is the Wachowskis we’re discussing here, Jupiter Ascending simultaneously operates at deeper-than-surface level too.

For these directors, this is clearly a transitional film, with all the gender-bending that the word “transition” implies these days.  

After charting the male “hero’s journey,” or Monomyth in both The Matrix and Speed Racer (2008), the directors here gender-bend the familiar Joseph Campbell story to apply to a memorable and female “Chosen One.”

I have written before of my general ennui with the Hero’s Journey (“I’ve Seen This Hero a Thousand Time,”) but just consider cinematic history and convention for a moment.

How many times before have movie audiences been afforded the opportunity to watch a female character undertake this brand of cinematic journey, and with the big budget resources behind Jupiter Ascending?

The Hero’s Journey has been repeated so many times on screen, often mind-numbingly so, and yet I can remember only of small handful of films that feature a woman as the central hero, and one who undertakes a great, civilization-altering quest.

And even better, the Wachowski’s gender-bending of the over-used formula also over-turns a key aspect of the myth.

In the typical hero’s story, the “Chosen One” is important because of blood lines or genes, not because of personal agency.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix Trilogy is the latest edition or reincarnation of “The One” that can re-set the Matrix cycle. He fulfills that destiny, and re-sets the Matrix, in a (hopefully) more humane iteration.

Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars possesses the highest Midichlorian count in the history of the Old Republic. He fulfills the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force, as befitting someone of his "nature" with the Force.

But Jupiter Ascending’s lead character, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) -- a “resurgence” or genetic duplicate of a former galactic aristocrat herself -- sets out to immediately overturn the system that brands her as special and unique merely by dint of DNA. 

Instead of accepting her “right” to own the Planet Earth and her birthright of aristocracy, Jupiter utilizes her humanity to defeat the Old Guard (standing in for patriarchy, no doubt...) that values only genetic perfection, and not freedom of choice.

This would be like, approximately, Luke or Anakin rebelling against the Force itself. 

Or Neo failing to be the repairer of the breach between the machines and the humans, who exist symbiotically in the Matrix. 

In terms of Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter’s journey is actually that of an “anti-princess," not a princess. 

She could be a princess, merely by buying into the pre-existing power structure, but she chooses not to go that route. In accordance with Campbell’s point-by-point myth, Jupiter hears the calling, refuses the calling, and then -- dramatically -- rewrites the calling so they conform to her own personal ethos or standards.  

Explicitly in the film, Jupiter steps away from a (deceitful) marriage with a slick and handsome Prince Charming (a fellow named Titus Abarasax) and chooses to pursue her own path, shattering restrictions of class, and even the order of life in the larger universe. 

In the end, after defeating the villain (without the assistance of any male figure),  Jupiter puts on the male action figure’s gravity-skating shoes, and assumes the mantel of not just hero, but action hero too.  The act of putting on these gravity boots, means, metaphorically, that Jupiter has stepped into the role heretofore reserved most often for men.

Jupiter Ascending thus successfully rewrites the old, tired Monomyth, co-opting some aspects of the formula and creating new ones simultaneously. The film also operates on a relatively sophisticated level of pastiche, combining visual elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, and The Matrix in a knowing fashion that walks up to the edge of parody, but not almost never trips over it.

While I still await the science fiction film that breaks out of the tiresome Monomyth mode all-together, Jupiter Ascending modifies it to the degree that the enterprise feels both innovative and fresh. 

Couple that fresh paint-job with the superb special effects and production design, and there’s simply no reason not to appreciate the film as a welcome entry in a format currently out of vogue (at least until The Force Awakens arrives): the galaxy-spanning space opera.

“Some lives will always matter more than others.”

A poor house-cleaner in Chicago, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is unexpectedly swept into matters of cosmic import when a lycantant or tracker, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) foils an attempt on her life, and reveals to her the nature of life in the universe.

Jupiter learns that she is the genetic “resurgence” of an aristocratic ruler in the Abrasax family, one who owned the entirety of planet Earth. 

Unfortunately, the children of that dead ruler -- Balem (Eddie Redymayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) -- all have plans to control Jupiter, and plot see to it that they don’t lose their profit margin to a wayward genetic resurgence.

Jupiter also learns that Earth is but a farm of the Abrasax, a world and population to be harvested so the family and other aristocrats can remain immortal.

When Bardem abducts her Earth family, and wants to make a deal for ownership of Earth, Jupiter must decide what she wants to do, and who she wants to be...

“You’ve been searching for one thing, your whole life.”       

Jupiter Jones, the protagonist or hero of Jupiter Ascending’s narrative, features all the characteristics of Joseph Campbell’s hero, and more than that, a generation of male movie heroes to boot.  

We know she is special, for instance,  and destined for greatness because she possesses an alliterative name.  Like Clark Kent, or Peter Parker, Jupiter Jones sounds like the moniker of a hero.  

Similarly, Jupiter arrives on Earth courtesy of an unusual or remarkable birth. Anakin had an immaculate conception apparently, and Kal-El came to Earth on a rocket, the last baby of Krypton.  

But Jupiter is the product of true love, born between states, on the sea, as an (illegal) “alien,” as her voice-over notes.  Unaware that she is special, Jupiter is called upon to live a life of drudgery, as a maid, cleaning toilets in Chicago.

Again, think of Luke Skywalker, spending his hours and days tending to droids on a moisture farm on backwater Tatooine, or Clark Kent coming up in Smallville, not able, even, to play on the high school football team. 

And just as those limiting experiences aid Luke in becoming the hero he can become (he can target wamp rats -- or Death Star vents  --that are only a few meters in size from some distance, for example), Jupiter’s experience cleaning toilets and “hating” her life have significance in her calling as the Chosen One.

Specifically, Jupiter finds herself thrust into a “larger” world very much like the one she emerged from.  

In the greater galaxy, wealthy aristocrats control all the wealth and resources (actually owning whole planets), and not because of talent or merit, or hard work even...but because of inherited wealth or family name.  Like those whose toilets Jupiter cleans on a regular basis, this one percent of the galaxy controls who lives  and who dies, and decides how to best use resources.  

The ultimate goal in this galaxy? Higher profits for individual aristocrats and business owners.

It is no accident, one must assume, that the larger universe -- the realm of the Abrasax Family -- is visualized in terms of the architecture of European nobles from generations past. The spaceships and cities are all Gothic in nature, like flying, mobile castles. The starships and citadels of the family feature ribbed vaults, spires, and other ornate flourishes. The minions of these architects resemble stone gargoyles brought to fearsome life.

Remember, the Gothic architecture of Europe was, when first undertaken, considered barbarous and rude.It was described by some with the description “goth,” meaning, roughly, “vandal.” The fiefdoms and vessels of the Abrasax are similarly ostentatious, and the family might be described as the vandals of the galaxy, flouting the law of the Aegis (the police), and wreaking havoc on worlds that they feel belong to them. 

Europe's nobles, historically speaking, looked down on their workers and considered them no better than cattle.  In the Abrasax's eyes, humans are, literally cattle. That's the driving metaphor or political statement of the film.  

The 1% owns not just Earth, but the universe itself.

In this case, the set and spaceship designs tell audiences what they need to know of the world that Jupiter visits.  And she too recognizes the aristocrats for what they are, because she knows their kind from her work as a maid for the rich and famous.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Jupiter is faced with this world, and with the reality that Earth is just a farm to be harvested by the Abrasax, and she recognizes the injustice of it. The larger world recognizes her as special, one-of-a-kind even…a queen, or “your majesty.” But Jupiter has no use for titles or kingdoms and sees that the universe is built on the exploitation of life-forms for profit.  So she throws a wrench in the works, and challenges the Abrasax, and their very way of life.

In doing so, Jupiter explicitly rejects the universe that has recognized her, and stays true to her roots as the child of two modest individuals who -- though they had no money -- shared a deep and intimate love.

Jupiter Ascending features the call to action (Jupiter’s acceptance of her “destiny”), her rejection of the call (her refusal to marry, or to take up the family business of harvesting human beings), and her own rewriting of destiny (her choice to save her family and planet Earth from the harvest).  Jupiter also meets with a mentor in the form first of  Caine Wise (Tatum), and also in Sean Bean’s Stinger, who also doubles as “the betrayer” or “traitor” in the Monomyth, but later redeems himself. 

In terms of the film’s presentation of Wise, the most important thing you need to know about him -- and squarely in keeping with the idea that this is a hero’s story involving a female perspective -- is that the filmmakers adopt the female equivalent of the “male gaze” when considering him. 

Here, the audience is put in the perspective or eyes of a (heterosexual) woman, in other words, and the camera zeroes in the parts of Wise’s body that might be considered sexual, or highly attractive. Wise spends a good portion of the movie with his top off, engaging in fisticuffs or movements that demonstrate...his physical fitness, and athletic physique.  

For some reason, I'm reminded of the idiom: what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Since time immemorial, we have enjoyed the male gaze in our science fiction movies. Remember Princess Leia lounging on her cell bed (platform) on the Death Star in Star Wars, or her in golden bikini in Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi (1983)?  

Or think of Trinity in her all-leather body-suit, kicking ass in The MatrixJupiter Ascending continues the tradition, but changes the sexual triangulation, so-to-speak.

Similarly, in addition to being man-candy, Wise becomes a secondary hero, subordinate to Jupiter, because of his nature as a Lycantant. He is, essentially, a humanoid “dog,” one programmed for loyalty in all cases. 

Wise's one task is to be at the side of his pack, and he identifies (early and permanently), Jupiter as being a pack member. He isn’t a damsel-in-distress to be rescued, but his options are similarly limited.  He can do only one thing: showcase constant, unswerving loyalty, while Jupiter makes the big, tough decisions. 

To put it another way, Jupiter Jones must deal with the whole universe, whereas Wise’s whole universe is her, being close to her. He is defined by her, as female characters in sci-fi films have historically been defined by their love of the (male) Chosen One.  

Again, consider Trinity in The Matrix. She knows Neo is the one because she loves him.  That’s her purpose, to love him.  Wise is an exact corollary in Jupiter Ascending.

Indeed, the turning point of this Hero’s Journey in Jupiter Ascending occurs when Wise attempts to step out of his role as loyal sidekick, and tell Jupiter what to do.  

She faces him and tells him that she appreciates the help and guidance (he doubles as the mentor, int he formula, remember...), but that the choice -- the decision -- is hers, not his, to make. 

From that point forward, Jupiter goes up against the film’s villain, Balem Abrsax herself, while Wise is literally locked out in orbit. He ultimately retrieves her from harm, it’s true, but not before she decides how to proceed, and dispatches the villain.

While establishing the parameters of a female hero’s journey, the Wachowskis also find time to genuflect cinematic sci-fi tradition.

Wise looks like a blond-haired Mirror Mr. Spock, down to his pointed ears and goatee. He also has half-human, or hybrid qualities. He's not part Vulcan-part human, but part dog/part human.

Likewise, An elephant-man Aegis officer resembles something out of the Star Wars universe, which has so far given us Salmon People (Admiral Ackbar), Teddy Bear People (Ewoks), and Walking Carpets (Chewbacca).

And the bejeweled, gilded-aged members of the Abrasax family seem very-much like the Landsraad families of Dune.

All these familiar influences and ingredients get thrown into the pot and stirred around, but the action remains, as it should, firmly on Jupiter and her choices. One of the best interludes in the film -- a visit to galactic bureaucracy -- similarly feels like Douglas Adams meets Terry Gilliam, and is superbly and humorously vetted. 

Commendably, the Wachowskis similarly seem aware that all this action in outer space must relate to us here, down on terra firma.  They provide the film with menacing creatures called “Keepers,” who seem to be the source of our stories about alien abduction. They are monstrous, skittering gray-like beings sent to track and retrieve special humans. One scene, in which they attempt to assassinate Jupiter in an operating theatre, is a tour-de-force in terms of special effects and stunt choreography.

Similarly, interventions on our world by the Abrasax are “deleted” from our collective memory, except for a few who are immune to it…and then belittled by the rest of us as freaks, or conspiracy theorists.  

That idea fits in very well with our Zeitgeist now, and the obsession with looking at all of life, but especially government action, through a crack’d mirror of conspiracy.

Jupiter Ascending probably could have used a few more brawny and imaginative scenes, like the one involving galactic bureaucracy, and there are some performances, particularly among the cast members playing the Abrasax, that play as  poorly modulated, and tend to spoil the tone.  

But other than those deficits, Jupiter Ascending is enormously entertaining if you don’t go in expecting a world-changing film like The Matrix, or Star Wars.

Instead, Jupiter Ascending takes an old story, the hero’s journey, but corkscrews it with invention and dazzling effects. The film’s tagline is, appropriately, “expand your universe.” 

That’s a tough task for any movie to accomplish, but at the very least, Jupiter Ascending expands -- if not your universe -- a familiar formula, and injects a sense of freshness and newness to it in the process.


  1. Yours was one of the single most awaited reviews of this film for me.
    Seriously, I have been reading negatives for weeks. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a splat.

    Despite all the naysayers that trailer just had me in awe and it remained high on my list.

    Your review (one that had the audacity to use the word legerdemain - wow! Loved it) was the one that cemented my desire to place a copy of this in my science fiction collection. I'm still hoping to get to the theatre for it next week but at the very least based on the strength of your review I know it's a keeper.

    The Wachowski brother/sister(s) are at the very least pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and convention and for that you have to give it them. They never stop challenging themselves or us. I really enjoy that about them.

    Anyway, it's a great review and comforting to know it's not the failure to be discarded that so many writers have been willing to cast it as.

    I will certainly be descending on this one soon and I also hope to rectify the business of not seeing Cloud Atlas upon the strength of your previous review for it.

    Thanks for covering this one so soon.
    All the best

    1. Hi SFF:

      Thank you for the comment, my friend. I felt I had to cover Jupiter Ascending quick, while interest is high, and maybe some minds can be swayed. It's a film worth seeing.

      I suspect you will very much enjoy Jupiter Ascending for what it is: a space opera that flips on its head gender conventions.

      Jupiter Ascending features amazing special effects and action sequences, and is highly entertaining to boot.

      Think of it as being somewhere in the "pack" with John Carter of Mars, Dune, or even The Fifth Element.

      An interesting, original, and yeah -- quirky -- science fiction epic, that works hard at world building, and features a coherent new mythology based on canny visuals and entrenched subtext.

      Critics had their knives out for this one, but an original, big budget space opera that undercuts our culture's princess fetish is something to cherish, or if not, at least meet half way...

      I'll be curious to read what you think of it!


  2. 1

    I'm not as jaded with the Hero's Journey monomyth as you seem to be. I merely regard it as form of auxiliary language or semiotics-through-storytelling; a series of archetypes and universal thematic gestures that allow one to communicate across language/cultural boundaries. Waiting for the day when some epic sci-fi/fantasy sheds this framework is a tad counterproductive, methinks. It's not the language that is tiring, but writers and filmmakers not having anything interesting to say. By contrast, Jupiter Ascending proves this point, as you've reviewed.

    It proceeds proper from conventions of the monomyth, yet to its own ends, which is not a success despite said structure but precisely because. As a movie, it's one big hot mess.

    Overstuffed, harebrained and ploddingly prosaic as anything ever before produced by the Wachowskis. It's also kinda awesome. Let it not be said the sibling directors left anything wanting here; any stone unturned. This is not some superficial mockup space opera like last year's overrated Guardians of the Galaxy—this isn't a joke. You might laugh at its often unintentional silliness, granted, but it never laughs at itself with hipster snark. No, this movie cares deeply and sincerely about every last fabric of its story. It is fantasy world-building bar none, gone for broke.

    If the various space-scapes and vast panoramas of cosmic civilizations are perhaps over-designed, they're also lovingly designed, richly inspired with gothic & baroque futurism that you pointed out matched with Moebius eccentricity that truly glaze the senses (I saw this bitch in 3D, for the better), and where starships and winged fighters are rendered stained glass art in motion. Speaking of motion, the Wachowskis remain one of its few mainstream masters in cinema. They are fluid editors with a combined instinct for pre-vis sequencing, and whose signature style in elaborate staging and choreography never gives way to the stock polish ubiquity of pro 2nd unit directors and FX supervisors.

    It's an action-heavy movie, maybe even tiring, but never sloppy or rote. An early on chase set-piece through Chicago's skyline then amidst her downtown traffic is so balletically complex that it alters its own definition: noise and mayhem of Bay's Transformers or Snyder's Man of Steel traded wholesale for a kind of audiovisual symphony where the beauty of flight and free-fall is emphasized over mindless mass destruction. Possibly the best and most fully realized sci-fi gizmo conceit since lightsabers are the antigravity boots seen here, exclusive to Channing Tatum's Cain Wise, allowing the actor to go 'full Neo' by amplifying his innate Magic Mike prowess tenfold into a gliding, whirling action hero. His climactic showdown with a duster-sporting, winged lizard-man anthropoid is one of those kinds of fight scenes that could only exist in a movie of this bizarre nature and proportions, wildly visualized for all its worth.

  3. 2

    For her part, Mila Kunis is at once completely out of her element as an actress yet, oddly enough, apropos for much of the same reason. It's a busy narrative with a ton of plot to cover, and her character's blithe, semi-detached acceptance of the extraordinary forgoes the downtime necessary for human reaction authenticity, instead allowing her involvement with the proceedings to hit the ground running. Kunis' screen persona, which has since matured with a kind of frank demeanor while still vaguely tethered to the frivolous 'Jackie Burkhart' whimsy for romance (read: attention), serves well as the movie's pivot between galactic affairs and lead character intimacy. Tatum does his thing. Sean Bean is soulful. The entire cast works overtime to bring some semblance of truth to the gobbledygook dialogue.

    Okay, sure, on the face of it Jupiter Ascending is pretty damn ridiculous. The exposition is nonsensically earnest, there are countless side characters who appear to have been cross-pollinated from both prom issues of Vogue magazine and 1978's The Wiz (androgynous fashionwear, people with giant mouse ears and elephant faces), Eddie Redmayne elevates absurd villainy to a whole new level of performance art and I dare anyone to take a drinking game shot every time Kunis is rescued by her Twilighted, albino hero. Also, I for one was nowhere near as warmed to its "evils of space-capitalism" pronouncements; catchphrase references to markets, industry and profit were all rather juvenile in my opinion, though, to the film’s credit, it does address overriding monarch tyranny in more illustrative terms.

    Regardless, all of this is woven into the magnificence of the Wachowskis' vision and scope, and with passion to spare. They're totally committed here. I admire the Matrix trilogy’s thematic ambition but was never in love with the end results, and the films have further lost me with their aesthetic techno-cyberpunk datedness. Cloud Atlas rubbed me all wrong ways with what I still consider a pretentious bag of hot air. V for Vendetta edges with equal parts antiauthoritarian guts and the subversive theatrical charms of its lead masked character. I’m willing to rank Jupiter Ascending above all of them (pending a second or third rewatch, perhaps) if, for no other reason, due to its 'kitchen sink' audacity. Only Speed Racer champions it: still the Wachowskis' perfect storm.

    And when you mention a midsection montage comically depicting galactic bureaucracy in the spirit of Douglas Adams meets Terry Gilliam, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that you’re aware Gilliam himself makes a cameo appearance in that very scene! I thought that was a great touch.

    1. The politics of these things do rub me the wrong way.

      Cannon - another fascinating commentary added to this great review.

      You really should have your own blog.

  4. Thanks for the review of this one John. I'm very curious about it. The Wachowski's are a mixed bag for me. But not one of their movies is dull or rote. They go for broke, they go big and they always impress in some fashion.

    To me the trailers made this look like a live action anime adventure. Female sci-fi leads are nothing new to Japanese animation, and you could argue that Kunis kinda has an anime look about her. And since the Wachoski's love their anime, I wonder if other reviewers are missing that key bet of inspiration for this film.

    And since I'm posting, I have to mention Giacchino's amazing score. He is one of my favorite composers for modern films and I always pick up his stuff. He kicks it into overdrive for "Jupiter Ascending" and this may be one of his best works. He did an impressive job on "John Carter" as well. The poor guy keeps getting attached to under appreciated space operas!

  5. Thank you for being a voice of reason among the insanity. It's like there is this mob mentality out there among both critics and fans (I use that term lightly). The second they spot a a perceived weakness, they gleefully lash out declaring a film as the worst thing ever. In a way I fell sorry for them. It's like they go into a movie WANTING it to fail and can't wait to jump online and trash it.

    I agree with everything above and would add the underrated 2004 "The Chronicles of Riddick" as another film it shares a a lot with.

    As noted above "Jupiter Ascending" was maybe two or three great scenes away from being a classic. But it is an immensely entertaining space opera as it is. Mila Kunis is fantastic and the production design jaw-droppingly gorgeous. For me it was like "The Fifth Element" without the over-the-top Chris Tucker character. And as Roman noted, another great score from Michael Giacchino, quickly becoming the modern version of the great Jerry Goldsmith.