I know that I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to build up my credibility when it comes to talking about movies, and I know that basically everyone (including some critics that I almost always agree with, like Walter Chaw and Genevieve Valentine) hated this movie, and so I’m going to burn that credibility by saying that I loved it. I just saw Jupiter Ascending on Saturday and I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun at a movie. (No, wait, I can, it was Wreck-it Ralph. I really liked Big Hero Six, but if I’m being honest, I had more fun more consistently watching this crazy tower of excellence).
What follows is a partial list of things about Jupiter Ascending that are perfect and amazing.
The Best Things About Jupiter Ascending
Eddie Redmayne whispers like a cut-rate Voledmort for the entire movie, except for the times when he explodes in high camp melodramatic screaming.
Channing Tatum is a half-wolfman, half bionic-space-eagle who has rocket-powered rollerblades and a gun that fucking barks. (BECAUSE HE IS A HALF WOLFMAN)
Mila Kunis’ extended Russian family that seems like someone was at least 1% interested in what the immigrant experience in America was like (up to and including dealing with traditional patriarchal cultural values in America and coping with the grotesque and colossal waste of human talent that our two-tiered system of legitimate labor yields).
Extended rocket-boots versus invisible fighter plane dogfight throughout the skyline of Chicago where everything gets wrecked.
Mila Kunis treating Channing Tatum’s injury with a maxi-pad.
Sean Bean is a man with the genetics of a bee so that he has the loyalty of bees. At one point, he musters up every ounce of working-class Yorkshireman gravitas to deliver a monologue on the virtues of bees.
(In the background of his house, which is covered with bees, there are jugs and jugs of honey, which I assume he can get drunk on, and in the five-hour directors’ cut [WHICH I KNOW MUST EXIST AND I WILL BUY, WACHOWSKIS] I must believe that he gets drunk on honey and his bee monologue goes on for thirty minutes.)
Extended five-minute interlude into a pitch-perfect Terry Gilliam homage that ends with actual Terry Gilliam.
Consistently eroticizes male nudity but de-eroticizes female nudity (Vanessa Kirby is in her underwear at one point, and Tuppence Middleton is naked, but the camera both sort of treats them as though this is ordinary; Kirby is just standing around looking at clothes, Middleton is walking out her bath, and it’s just regular nudity; but Eddie Redmayne gets naked too [glimpsed briefly in his bath] and Channing Tatum gets his shirt off, and the camera positively swoons over these guys. I don’t know if it represents a legitimate interest in sexy men, or if it’s a conscious flipping of the traditional space opera script, or both or neither, I don’t know what it is but it’s great).
Space alien humans who believe that “genetic recurrences” are basically reincarnation, and so they include their future selves in their own wills.
One of the villains has a spaceship adorned with gold statues on the outside, and whose hangar bay is lit by crystal chandeliers.
Sean Bean and Channing Tatum flying winged robot battle armor through ten million geometry space-mines to stop a space-wedding in which an evil aristocrat tries to marry the reincarnation of his dead mother.
Oedipal space-wedding is attended solely by an audience of robots.
Nikki Amuka-Bird as a Captain of the Space Police, who is just straight-up competent and good at her space policing job. Her pilot has an elephant head.
Channing Tatum uses rocket boots to karate flip kick a dragon man on a secret refinery on Jupiter.
The refinery looks like Notre Dame cathedral if it were also a city and a mountain; the dome that protects it has vaulted ceilings.
Eddie Redmayne has a gigantic room in his palace that has nothing at all in it except columns and one floating hover bench at the far end, that he can sit in and watch the refining. The floor can turn invisible so that he can look into his torture chambers.
Eddie Redmayne’s uptight villainous kid-Voldemort is COMPLETELY INEFFECTIVE when it comes to actually physically fighting with anyone. Mila Kunis just kicks his ass repeatedly, including one point where he attacks her with a pipe and then she takes it away from him and beats him senseless with it.
Despite everything she has seen and been through, Mila Kunis refuses to kill anyone, not even Eddie Redmayne. She doesn’t even make a big deal of it, she just beats him up and doesn’t kill him and considers the fight over.
When given the choice between saving her family and preventing earth from being harvested (i.e., everyone gets killed and turned into bathwater for vampire space-Bathorys), Mila Kunis is straight up ready to let her family die.
(I am not sure that people are thinking enough about how rare that is in movies; obviously, no one in the movies ever REALLY makes the choice, because it the bad guy’s plan always gets foiled. But usually we always save the people close to us, and then have to find a way to protect the common good, rather than protecting the common good and then finding a way to save our families.)
The movie is ruthlessly anti-capitalist: space-vampire capital class that exploits (re: devours) billions of people to maintain their lavish, hedonistic lifestyles; people being dehumanized (by literally getting spliced with animal DNA) in order to perform their jobs and roles more efficiently. Mila Kunis’ character wins the genetic lottery (literally), her exaltation to overlordship has nothing to do with merit, ability, destiny, any of that shit.
The plot of the movie is essentially the traditional plot of a Regency Romance, with a girl being plucked from obscurity, introduced to a world of aristocracy, almost getting tricked into marriage with a charming monster, being threatened by a charmless monster who resents her intrusion into his world, and eventually winning the heart of an emotionally-unavailable man who learns to feel again.
Mila Kunis straight up wanting to jump Channing Tatum from minute one, actually trying to seduce him and all but saying, “I want to bone you.”
ETA: I forgot about Eddie Redmayne’s bare-chested space gown with giant arm sleeves that makes him look like a fucking BAT!
This Sounds Amazing!
Because it IS amazing! So, why does no one like it? I don’t know! I cannot think of one thing wrong with it, or even any constellation of things wrong with it, that doesn’t exist in equal numbers in Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Matrix, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, or any other science-fiction-related adventure movie that people thought was great (clunky dialogue? Too much exposition? An implausible premise? Guys, be serious here). I got a couple guesses though.
One is that I think people mistake it for being self-serious — though I don’t completely get how anyone can think that. Sean Bean is a bee man who has a monologue about bees and says “Beeswax” instead of “Fuck”; there is a Terry Gilliam Interlude; when the main alien planet is revealed, there’s this trumpet sting, and then three seconds of silence, and then a second, louder trumpet sting, like maybe the movie could tell we weren’t sufficiently impressed and wanted to let us know what was going on. I think the idea that this movie isn’t actually super-duper serious, even though everyone in it is behaving very seriously, is all over the place, so, I don’t know. It may just be that when we think of “not self-serious” what we really mean is “has a bunch of quips”, and it’s true that this movie doesn’t have a lot of quips. The characters, in other words, don’t seem to know how ludicrous the movie they’re in is, so they never look out at the audience and say, “Can you believe this shit?” But I think the Wachowskis clearly know how ludicrous this movie is, they aren’t making bones about it.
Two is its straight-up Regency Romance formula. This is very different from what we’re used to, I think, and it may just seem weird because it’s unfamiliar — Mila Kunis’ accidental space princess is 100% the most important person in the movie the whole time, despite Channing Tatum doing most of the fighting. Even though Kunis doesn’t necessarily have that much to do herself, the movie clearly revolves around her, in a way that even many movies with Strong Female Characters don’t.
Should she have more to do? I mean, I think there’s plenty of room for her to have done more (I expect that in my Five Hour cut there’s a whole subplot about her being a super-genius, which goes to support that point about American capitalism’s lies about meritocracy actually wasting genuine human genius, and I think that could have probably contributed some stuff to her actions), but on the other hand, she DOES do a bunch of things, they’re just not fighting things. She makes decisions about accepting a wedding proposal, about getting a pardon for Channing Tatum and Sean Bean, she makes the key moral decisions that the end of the movie hinges on. I actually don’t have a huge problem with a female character who doesn’t do very much fighting, or even contributes necessarily to the action of the movie, as long as she contributes to the story.
(Consider Natalie Portman in Thor: The Dark World, she’s definitely there, and important in the, “we have to protect the princess” sort of way, but her involvement in the plot comes from the fact that the plot was specifically arranged to make her a part of it, not because her inclusion in the plot was in any way essential to the story it was trying to tell.)
If anything, I wish that the movie had leaned into that Space Romance even more — I know that they couldn’t know this was going to be dumped in the dead of winter when no one would see it, but that being the case, I wish it’d gotten an R rating and we’d gotten some actual sexing going on (in no small part because auggggh the evil space aristocrat having a juicy sex scene with the reincarnation of his dead mother come ONNNN you guys that is amazing). Also, I think there was room for a sword duel in there.
Three is its ruthless excoriation of capitalism. I mean, I know that we get a lot of stories where corporations are the bad guys, we’ve seen that before. And we’ve even seen ones where corporations are more than uncaring, but actually specifically make their fortunes via murder. But I don’t think it’s very common that we get a movie whose premise is that all human life is part of a system of ruthless exploitation that explicitly connects genocide to the accumulation of capital. And there’s a lot of historical evidence for a connection like that (some real interesting arguments, for instance, that the violence of World Wars I & II was connected to the fact that Germany was largely excluded from the mercilessly violent and cruel colonialization of Africa).
It’s kind of funny, because the Wachowskis made The Matrix, which was about human beings getting used as a resource by an exploitative ruling class, but everyone sort of thought it was a metaphor about machines and AI and like that, so I like to imagine that they were just sitting down and said, “Hey, how can we make it real clear this time? I know! The ruling class is genocidal space vampires.” “Should we give them, like, good attributes or something?” “No.”
I think we don’t get that very often and I think that a lot of critics are instinctively reacting to the fact that this premise is unequivocal to the point of being actual Marxist parable (see again all of the human beings literally dehumanized to fulfill specific roles in society) as being excessive. In my personal opinion, however, we can never be too excessive in our condemnations of capitalism, so maybe that is why I’m better-disposed to it.
Four is that it definitely has an episodic quality to it. Some space bounty hunters show up, do a thing, and then disappear. We never find out what the deal is with the little gray men, or what the evil Abrasax sister’s interest in all of this is (though I still hold out for a directors’ cut). People show up, play a short but important role, and then disappear. None of this especially bothers me — I don’t think it’s wrong, I think this episodic quality is part of the same structure that governs old epics like The Iliad (for example, no one ever asks what the fuck happened to Thersites after Agamemnon beats the hell out of him with his Rod of Power), and the Flash Gordon serials that this is clearly meant to hearken back to. It gives the movie a messy, disjointed feel, but only in comparison to movies that are slickly intertwined, and I actually think that this disjointedness serves a valuable purpose: when the movie is filled with things that are evocative but not otherwise connected to the story, it gives us the sense of a much bigger, more open universe than one in which every detail shows up again somewhere in the climax.
Finally, and this is actually probably not motivating anyone, but it is something that I didn’t see a lot of people talking about and I am interested in it. Chaw dismisses the movie as being another “transformation story”, like The Matrix, about a person sort of embracing who they are and finding and fulfilling their destiny, but I think this crucially misreads the actual transformation that goes on in the movie which is: none. Mila Kunis character doesn’t transform at all. That’s weird, I know the rule is that you can’t have a character end up where they started, but I think that there’s something hugely interesting to this, making a story about a person who gains this sort of cosmic awareness of the illimitable horrors of reality and remains a basically decent person.
Jupiter spends the entirety of the movie essentially rejecting the expectations of this universal, colonialist, genocidal kyriarchy. She doesn’t even kill the main bad guy at the end, and not only doesn’t she kill him, she doesn’t even make a speech about it. (Obviously he dies anyway, but the movie isn’t about him dying, it’s about her not killing him.) Not only that, but the end of the movie involves her going back to her job as a maid and cleaning toilets, despite being Space Princess of Earth. There’s a way that this is actually a very wise statement about the fight for social justice — people who make this their mission are constantly trying to find a balance between believing that the system can change, and accepting the fact that the system is never going to fully change in our lifetimes. So, a movie whose premise is, “there is an evil galactic kyriarchy and actually you can’t destroy it, the best you can do is temporarily protect one small little corner of it,” is more honest and more wise than many movies that explore a similar premise.
But that’s not even the thing, the thing is this, I know that it’s not really fair to evaluate a movie based on things I know outside the movie, and I think it’s ALSO not really fair for me to talk about transgender identity like it’s something I know anything about, but I got to admit that I kind of can’t help including the knowledge that Lana Wachowski transitioned largely after she became a semi-public figure; like, she didn’t do it publicly, exactly, but we all knew who she was when she did it, and we all eventually knew that she did it. And so I can’t help being really amazed at a movie that chooses to center itself around a character who wins the genetic jackpot, and then refuses both the expectations and privileges of that identity. I can’t help but think about how much more poignant it is when Mila Kunis talks about everything around her that’s changed, and says, “I’m still me.” That’s interesting to me, and I hope there are more people who are more familiar with this idea who will be better able to talk about it.
So look, maybe that part is off base, but nevertheless, even discountimg that, I think it’s really refreshing to see a movie that both exposes a universe of galactic horror and then states pretty straightforwardly that you can’t save the whole thing, you can’t even get away from your shitty job as a maid to rich people. The best you can do is live your life, and find your own personal rocket boots and half-wolfman, half bionic-space-eagle boyfriend, and maybe that’s all that life is.