Space opera fans rejoice! JUPITER ASCENDING ascends to great heights!
D.G.D. Davidson’s excellent review of Jupiter Ascending persuaded me to go see it. It did not disappoint. I haven’t had this much fun at a movie since, well Insterstellar, but Insterstellar was fun more like carefully assembling an intricate model kit is fun, whereas Jupiter Ascending is action figures and nerf guns and silly string and too much sugar kind of fun.
“Jupiter Ascending: Beauty and the Beast/Snow White meets Warhammer 40,000, with fewer skulls for the skull throne,” was what I immediately blurbed upon returning from the theater, and that’s a pretty good starting point. Our heroine, Jupiter Jones of Earth, finds herself caught up in intergalactic intrigue after it is discovered that she shares the exact genetic code, and therefore in the eyes of Space Law, identity, of the recently murdered matriarch of the Abrasax family, who control the production of
Spice Soylent Green an unnamed blue rejuvenation goo. Bathing in the stuff restores youth and health, only downside is that it’s made out of freaking people. In the eyes of the Abrasax siblings, Earth is a particularly rich farmland waiting to be harvested, and Jupiter standing to inherit the claim on it, due to her legal identicalness to Mama Abrasax, presents a problem. Balem Abrasax, played with equal parts effete creepiness and evil overlord hamminess by Eddie Redmayne, wants her dead and out of the way. Titus Abrasax wants her wed and out of the way. Kalique Abrasax…actually, near as I can tell, she just wants to save Jupiter from her brothers’ schemes. I don’t recall that she actually does anything to harm our heroes, but she’s still cool raking in the profits from and operating a business that kills people and turns them into immortality juice, so still evil. EEEEEVILLLLLLL.
The first act is quite a lot of well staged chases, escapes, rescues, and betrayals as the various Abrasax and their agents try to corral Jupiter where they want her, all while Cain, a half-wolf disgraced supersoldier originally in the employ of Titus; and Stinger, a grizzled ex-cop Sean Bean; along with Aegis, the Space Police, try to protect her and bring her to the Planet of the Bureaucrats where she can claim her new inheritance and become a Space Princess. This they do, resulting in a wonderful montage resembling a mashup of Blade Runner-meets-Diagon Alley by way of Douglas Adams. Then more betrayal, as Jupiter is once again kidnapped by an Abrasax. Of the second act and onward, I shall not spoil.
This film is space opera-y as all get out. It throws every pulpy sci-fi trope in the book out there and then some. Space Princesses? Check. Hybrid supersoldiers? Check. Intergalactic intrigue? Space Dragon Minions? Hover boots? Check, check, check. It is also very much a faerie tale. A princess who spends her days cleaning, unaware of her great heritage? Check. Dashing prince who is also a cursed beast? Check. Court intrigue? Dragons? Seven league boots? Check, check, check. Jupiter Ascending is a wonderful science fiction faerie tale smoothie of an action flick.
Visually, this film is a treat. I’m tempted to to just post a raft of stills from the film and say no more, but I feel that is the film critic equivalent of bludgeoning someone over the head with a stale baguette and going, “See! See?”. Plus, it would spoil the fun. On the other hand, it’s part of what got me into the theater, so I’ll limit myself to one.
I saw influences from Lynch’s Dune to Jodorowsky’s Dune to The Dark Crystal to Blade Runner to Aliens to The Road Warrior to Star Wars to Moebius to Mignola to the Baroque period to the Gothic period to Period Costume Dramas to Warhammer 40,000 (but I repeat myself). After seeing plenty of more realistic and grittier worlds in films like Interstellar, All You Need is Kill, Elysium, Dredd, and District 9, it was refreshing to see a sci-fi universe stuffed to the gills with lavish, elaborate, rococo sets, costuming, and props (though the military hardware maintains an appropriately, relatively spartan look).
The action is also well filmed and choreographed. My only nitpick is that sometimes there is too much laser fire filling up the screen, obscuring and distracting from the nicely choreographed action. And such action! When your hero has rocket boots, a blaster, a laser shield, and a portable portal, and your villains are winged dragon henchmen, batlike spacefighters, guns-for-hands-robo-gorilla-men, and various bounty hunters with sonic blasters and speeder bikes, you can do a lot of cool stuff. Combat environs in this film include downtown Chicago, corn farms, palaces, the void of space, and an Evil Factory of Evil hidden in the raging storm that is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Did I mention the factory was exploding?
I was also pleased with the film’s affirmation of the intrinsic value of human life and criticism of attempts to bring it under technological domination. Jupiter Ascending draws parallels between its space civilzation’s thirst for ever more life and beauty and riches built on the corpses of slaughtered worlds and our own world’s present day tamperings with human life. The word ‘harvest’ is used to refer both to the act of rendering humans into immortality juice ingredients, and to the removal of a woman’s eggs when she sells them to a clinic. A bit of an extreme comparison; I think embryonic stem cell harvesting would be a more accurate comparison, but either would serve the film’s critique of commodifying human life. Even the gene-splicing technology that gives us our kick-awesome hero is shown to be utterly dehumanizing. Cain was the runt of a litter bred for the military and was sold off to the police, where the stress of being separated from the pack he was designed to be with, and his killing of an aristocrat due to a genetically misprogrammed bloodlust, resulted in his transformation into a disgraced, cold hunter-for-hire.
Finally, I very much enjoyed that Jupiter Ascending was unabashedly happy to be a old-fashioned romantic faerie tale as much as it was a sci-fi action flick. There were no unrealistic or cynical subversions of traditional archetypes and roles. Everyone is given a part to play without taking away from anyone else’s part. You will find here no Dejah Thoris shoving John Carter aside and cutting down the Zodangan soldiery with ease, nor a third act reveal that Prince Charming is actually a scheming dastard. Cain protects and saves Jupiter from physical threats and dangers. She, in turn, saves him from spiritual danger and death. And then she goes on to literally save everyone on Earth from destruction as well, willing to offer up even her own life to protect them (I won’t spoil whether she has to or not, but she is at the least willing to).
Now that I have sung the praises of this great science fiction faerie tale, I must sadly turn to its two flaws. As a science fiction story it has one flaw, and as a faerie tale it has another flaw. The science fictional flaw is this: a central plot point of the film is that Jupiter has the same genetic code as the deceased Abrasax matriarch; this is called a recursion, and is likened to reincarnation. It. Is. Never. Explained. This plot device is used to secure Jupiter’s status as a Space Princess of the Earth and is promptly discarded. We never learn how it happened, or if Jupiter really is a reincarnation of Mama Abrasax (the film acts like she is not, but never tells us why; this after telling us that genes have an”almost spiritual quality” to them). This is frustrating, because given the high levels of handwavium permitted to space opera writers, potential explanations abound. Perhaps Lady Abrasax warped down to earth and impregnated Jupiter’s mom with a clone of herself using her sufficiently advanced technology, then did a memory wipe. Or maybe Jupiter’s dad was actually a spaceman engineered to ensure a recursion among his offspring. Maybe her mom was a Bene Gesserit.
This plot point also raises additional questions. If Cain can track a scent “at the genetic level”, why is he surprised to learn that Jupiter is royalty? Being in the employ of an Abrasax, shouldn’t he have scented at least a similarity between Jupiter’s DNA and Titus’? If recursion really is akin to reincarnation, and given the space civilization’s advanced genetic technology, why don’t more people arrange for it to happen after they die? If recursion is rare, why was Titus bothering to search for a recursion of his mother anyway, and why on Earth in particular?
Now, for the faerie tale flaw. To put it bluntly (and without brevity), given modern storytelling expectations, a faerie tale about a princess persevering through hardships to win her happily ever after needs a lovable, interesting princess we can root for as the universe does it’s darnedest to stop her, and Jupiter Ascending doesn’t have one. Jupiter Jones is dull as a brick. Whatever Mister Wise sees in her, we don’t. The screenwriters do give her some snarky reactions to the space opera tropes that surround her, but the delivery is leaden where it should be lively, and for the most part, in between making important decisions and wonderfully hammy romantic dialogue, Jupiter kind of just lets herself be shuttled from one cosmic vista to the next, which has the effect of making the middle act the least interesting (though those cosmic vistas sure are nice to look at). While her lack of future shock may be commendable, it’s kind of expected behavior for the faerie tale everyman.
Come to think of it, the fact that the film makers are trying to cram Jupiter into both the everyman archetype and the princess archetype is part of the problem. The everyman is supposed to react with a mix of wonder and horror to the strange things he encounters in the Unknown, and lacking any real power, the best he can hope for is to emerge from his adventure safe in body and soul, and perhaps a bit wiser. By contrast, a princess has authority; hers is the power to command the royal guard, or at least the royal woodland creatures. It make sense for Jupiter to play the amazed everyman until she’s officially a Space Princess, but at that point, she needs to change roles instead of trying to do both at once. When brought before Titus, she confidently informs him that she has studied up on the Space Laws concerning the treatment of royalty, yet why did she not in that time also make contact with the starship and host of loyal space marines she is presumably now entitled to? They certainly would have made bargaining with the Abrasax brothers easier (and more exciting). Such a dramatic shift from befuddled everyman to confident princess wouldn’t fly in a more realistic tale, but in a faerie tale such as this, it’s almost a necessity.
Also, minor, minor complaint (and spoiler): a more fitting faerie tale death for the villain would have been for him to get sucked into the immortality juicing machinery of his own factory and rendered into blue goo rather than just having him fall from a height.
The science fictional flaw was mostly fridge logic for me, and didn’t bother me while viewing the film. The faerie tale flaw, on the other hand, was more painful, and damages what is otherwise a highly enjoyable space opera romp. Still, between all of the flashy explosions, breathtaking sci-fi panoramas and baroque atmosphere, werewolf supersoldier vs. dragon henchmen action, strong moral undercurrent, and good old-fashioned heroism, Jupiter Ascending is definitely a must see for the fan of space opera.
Content Advisory: Lots of stylized sci-fi violence. A scattering of foul language that feels very out of place in a space opera. Ladies in skimpy sci-fi costumes. A gratuitously tasteless scene in which a minor character frets about what dress to wear while in her lacy undies. A similarly gratuitous shot of a character’s buttocks as she emerges from a bath, similar to the one in the original Clash of the Titans…not that I spend a great deal of time contemplating the history of cinematography of ladies’ bottoms.
Also, to the CNS reviewer, who wrote that the film has “a benign view towards egg donation”, did you miss the fact that the film uses the “creepy” word ‘harvest’ to refer to both removing eggs from women and rendering human beings into immortality juice, or the scene in which Jupiter’s cousin is violently scolded to not treat his cousin “like a chicken” after it is revealed that he talked her into the idea of selling her eggs?