(THIS FILM REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Jupiter Ascending is the story of a poor, undocumented house cleaner (Jupiter Jones, played by Mila Kunis), who finds herself hunted by aliens. She is rescued by Caine Wise (played by Channing Tatum), an ex-military superhero with both human and wolf DNA — and flying boots! — who rescues Jupiter again and again as the movie progresses.
Why is Jupiter in so much danger? It turns out that she is the genetic reincarnation of the head of the Abrasax clan, and therefore heir to a vast, vast amount of wealth, including our dear planet Earth.
It is Jupiter’s new Abrasax family that wants her dead, so that they can keep her vast, vast fortune. A fortune that turns out to be built on planet-wide genocide, “harvests” of healthy cellular tissue used to make a serum that both heals wounds and regenerates lost youth. One can live forever with enough supply of this medical marvel, but every bottle represents the deaths of a hundred innocent people. The stakes are high, with Jupiter’s Earth family and all of Earth scheduled for imminent harvest unless Jupiter can outwit and outgun the other three Abrasaxes.
Sounds great, right? Well, not a lot of people thought so. Jupiter Ascending was roundly panned by critics, and audiences didn’t like it much better.
But I liked Jupiter Ascending. I would give it a solid B+.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is deeply problematic. Mila Kunis is not a bad actor, but she couldn’t make me believe she was an undocumented immigrant, birthed in a shipping container in the mid-Atlantic, and employed in scrubbing toilets. She’s too pretty, too poised. I believe Kunis as the ruler/owner of a large portion of our galaxy that she becomes, but her beginnings are just too humble for her to pull off. The whole movie gets off on the wrong foot with that one slip up with casting.
Too bad they couldn’t land Natalie Portman, their first pick. Or maybe the Wachowskis could have centered their story around a Latina undocumented immigrant. That would have increased the relevancy of the film and put some people of color directly in the spotlight. Not that this movie wasn’t heads and shoulders above most big budget blockbusters in its diversity. The Wachowskis usually have a greater-than-average number of characters of color, and female characters with real agency. But even they are loathe to put people of color in the starring roles, and I think that’s a shame.
Channing Tatum is likewise a good actor, great in Magic Mike, but he’s not good at being a hardened bad-ass of few words.
The casting was better for a lot of the side characters, but it’s fair to say the casting failed. So did that awesome-sounding plot. It played out without much consideration for pacing, major scene following major scene without transitions or character development. Jupiter is literally handed the world, and given no time to react. The action scenes focused too much on the surroundings and not enough on the characters experiencing the action. Caine is so overpowered with those flying shoes that he makes Jupiter look like a damsel in distress — even though she can handle herself just fine on the rare occasion when Caine doesn’t swoop in to save her. And why does he save her so very often?
Love. Love based on nothing but the adrenaline rush of nearly falling to death over and over, which kept nudging out the rather more interesting philosophical and political intrigue. It was the thinnest plot that could possibly have been concocted to show off an absolutely stunning universe — but here is where I get to the good stuff.
The visuals. Oh my god, the visuals! The costuming, the sets, the sci-fi technology, the creatures — all of that was lush, abundant in imagination, full of weird little details that tugged and teased at my attention as the movie progressed. The world(s) and space that Jupiter comes to inherit is fascinating. I want to know more about the Splices, the Sims, and the Abrasaxes. I want to spend more time with all the cool side characters, and learn about their lives and motivations. I want to read the book this movie is based off of — but it doesn’t exist.
The world around Jupiter and Caine took my breath away. And so, despite the dull, awkward center, I like this movie. I like the story it tells, even though it tells it in such a rushed and stilted manner. And really, that’s the problem. Jupiter Ascending is rushed.
Jupiter Ascending should have been a trilogy.
It was, in fact, supposed to be the first of a trilogy, but I mean it should have been a trilogy in and of itself. There are so many characters and so many ideas crammed into this one film that it really should have been three. That would fix everything. Even the awkward casting would have been mitigated by more screen time for Kunis and Tatum.
Despite the flaws, I absolutely recommend that every speculative fiction writer, artist, and filmmaker see Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis served up a heaping dish of inspiration, and you really should go check it out.