Introduction. (Qualities and Defects)
JUPITER ASCENDING is a movie I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for the last five years. Not because of how sadly predictable its poor turnout was, and not even because of its thrilling, singular action that is so risky and specific it seems to be rendered in real time.
No, it is because of the startling, unexpected symmetry that writer-directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski embed into the narrative fabric. Almost improbably, they weave a fragile, uncomplicated resolution into a sensory-annihilating cosmic opera. In their mastery of outrageous spectacle, they manage to protect and maintain their most precious ideas. When those central themes arrive intact, their existence feels so miraculous that they strike with an even greater efficacy than they would otherwise.
Telling the story of a middle-class Russian immigrant named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis)–who happens to be the genetic “recurrence” (i.e. reincarnation) of an intergalactic matriarch–JUPITER ASCENDING certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of plot or ambition. But, by using the device of the “recurrence” to express a moving universality (which itself is nested inside a class exploration), the Wachowskis’ intimate and widescreen vision becomes undeniable and endearing.
This is why the film is more than a curious fiasco–more than a garish financial failure on a blockbuster scale. As much as it is powered by delight and camp, it transcends those traits, making it even stranger as a result.
It’s hard enough for most audiences to accept meticulous tonal shifts let alone the idea that a motion picture can be both campy and profound. So, when these attributes show up in JUPITER, it is not easy to acclimate to. The fact that the film is still being discussed shows how fans and non-fans are regularly engaging and wrestling with that confounding mix. Yet, hopefully the passage of time will allow viewers to recognize the film’s simultaneously thoughtful and “kitchen sink” approach, which deserves celebration over shallow dismissal.
To paraphrase Guillermo del Toro’s HELLBOY (perhaps another fine mess), we like people (or in this case films) for their qualities, but we love them for their defects. Yet, JUPITER ASCENDING isn’t so much defective as it is odd and aesthetically original, which is a quality that has only worked to its benefit in an age of relentless sequels and lucrative nostalgia.
After a brief prologue at the film’s start (the tragic-meet-cute of Jupiter’s parents), we get a dreary look into the monotony of the titular character’s daily life. She, along with her mother and aunt, wake up at 4:45 am every morning to begin their day of cleaning upper-class Chicago homes. Jupiter lags behind, cocooned in her bed, whispering “I hate my life” in montage. She is imprisoned by obligation and dissatisfaction. The notion of the unhappy protagonist is familiar at best, but the Wachowskis at least embrace it wholeheartedly, leaning into the archetype as a way to slightly subvert it.
Unlike perhaps Cinderella, Jupiter Jones doesn’t choose to live in the proverbial castle by the end. Even though she embraces her love interest, he is at least refreshingly and aggressively anti-royal. JUPITER ASCENDING is more than a mere variation of the fairy tale dynamic though, it is also an update.
At the center of the parade of alien locales, ornate spaceships, mech warriors (“Warhammers”), and human-animal-hybrids (“Splices”), are two absurd families that somehow exaggerate each other’s silliness. There is the ostentatious, space-faring Abrasax family and the uncouth, Earthbound immigrants of Jupiter’s family. The Abrasax siblings float about in reflective, gold attire–speaking in a sophisticated dialect, discussing who gets what planet to “harvest” with a telling boredom.
Meanwhile, Jupiter’s mother, aunt, and cousins passionately shout over each other and argue who gets what house for their cleaning business. While the decibels are much higher and the general decorum much lower in Jupiter’s home, we get our first hint that the emotional overlap between these two clans is greater than expected (despite the obvious, surface differences).
They both argue and fight, just with a slightly different vocabulary. While the Abrasax siblings traffic in breathy backhanded compliments, the Joneses outright curse to each other over dinner. But make no mistake, the depictions of these groups are completely over-the-top in their own special ways. Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) stiffly struts around like he’s always posing for a painting while his younger siblings Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) seem to think they’re in a soap opera version of SOYLENT GREEN.
Similarly, Jupiter’s mother is hilariously quick to unleash exasperated exclamations (“Stalin’s balls!”) at the slightest hint of dissent or disagreement. These same rebuttals ignite bossy cousin Vassily, who demands “English please!” whenever the table descends into the mother-tongue. The resulting cacophony unfolding with the ease of a Three Stooges bit. In both cases, the discourse is so heightened that any sense of naturalism is quickly jettisoned, as if to prepare the audience for the onslaught of colorful weirdness and bizarre imagery.
It is high-brow and low-brow verbal parrying. Yet, in this hyperbolic bickering, the Wachowskis still manage to lay out the opposing philosophies of the movie: the currency of lies of the Abrasax children and the more intrinsic honesty of Jupiter’s family. This is echoed later by Stinger Apini’s (Sean Bean) claim that “Bees don’t lie” when convincing Jupiter of her inherent majesty. Stinger correctly guesses that she’s never been stung in her life, because bees are genetically engineered to recognize royalty.
Additionally, Titus Abrasax later gloats to Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), saying “Lies are a necessity. They are the source of meaning. Of belief and hope.“ Ultimately, these behaviors speak to their essential outlooks. To the Abrasax siblings, family is an obstacle–one that can be overcome with false smiles and strategic scheming. For Jupiter and her home, it is a mandate–but it is also community, connection, and loyalty.
As exaggerated as the dialogue and visuals are, they are arguably only there to encourage the actors to rise to their level of garishness. Kick Gurry (who plays Jupiter’s cousin Vladie) and Eddie Redmayne (Balem Abrasax) aren’t the only cast members to embrace this over-the-top approach, but they’re two of the best examples. They recognize that understatement is all fine and good (in most movies), but it’s not necessarily the best direction in one that will repeatedly steamroll over those choices without even trying. For example, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum deliver lovely moments of authentic emotion throughout, and they’re not wrong or bad for doing so. Unfortunately, they are frequently competing with cartoonish androids and elephant-men that don’t even have to say anything to highlight how incongruous those more naturalistic performances are. Outright frivolity is welcomed here.
In hindsight, and especially through the lens of the aforementioned actors, it’s not difficult to see why JUPITER ASCENDING was off-putting to general audiences. It coats so many of its most pointed ideas not just in an alien but an alienating veneer, often by way of the eclectic performances.
To see this, look no further than cousin Vladie. He’ll arrogantly point to himself with finger guns and pop the words from his mouth with a groan-worthy sleaze. He’ll even move and speak like a Looney Tunes character. The sheer awkwardness of these choices can be uncomfortable, and you almost have to laugh at your own discomfort to get through it. To Kick Gurry’s credit, he commits so strongly that his performance becomes funnier and more likable with each viewing. It’s what Film Crit Hulk calls an “aching sincerity”–a quality that pervades most Wachowski work. When taking this into account and placing it next to the biggest and best performance of the movie (Eddie Redmayne’s magnificent, go-for-broke Balem Abrasax)–it’s not difficult to imagine how these particular cast members saw JUPITER for what it was.
Frankly, Redmayne should have received his Oscar for his turn in JUPITER ASCENDING, not THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. As impressive as the actor so often is, his portrayal of Balem makes the rest of his body of work look tame. The way he evaporates into and ignites the eldest Abrasax is a Day-Lewis-level feat. Granted, it’s easy to write him off for his outrageous, Nic Cage-adjacent moments, but those are mere punctuations that highlight the quiet, thinly-assembled psychosis of an Oedipal heir. His explosions can overwhelm to the point that it’s easy to forget his default setting, which is a creaking, reptilian whisper that seems to be our one clue that (while his body is mere decades old) his soul has been aged and poisoned by millenia. It is so effective, in fact, that revisiting on-screen interviews with Redmayne becomes jarring because his real-life buoyancy is so deeply and rigorously repressed. Suddenly, that disturbing repression explains the ghastly eruptions he infuses Balem with.
Yet, because Gurry and Redmayne are the exceptions, they’re indicative of the film’s persistently bizarre, rigid tone that is seemingly in conflict with itself. To again quote Film Crit Hulk, “[Redmayne] was the only one who really knew what movie he was in. He wasn’t pushing it too far; everyone else’s plasticity was weirdly holding it back.” This uphill battle is only exacerbated by Lana and Lilly’s inextricable reverence for THE WIZARD OF OZ. As Lana explains on the Blu-ray special features, OZ is a “heavy touchstone film” for them. When combined with their love of hard sci-fi/action cinema and anime, the sum doesn’t exactly equal accessible box-office gold. However, if you can tolerate or accept these stylistic marriages, you’ll be rewarded with the clarity of their messaging.
There’s a scene in the first act of the movie where Jupiter and Vladie are crafting a scheme to sell Jupiter’s eggs, but they instantly hit a snag. “Why do they have to use words like ‘harvesting’? It’s just creepy” says Jupiter. Additionally, Vladie is walking away with the lion’s share of profits–double Jupiter’s take in fact. When she pushes back on this, he says to her, “That’s capitalism, babe. Shit rolls downhill. Profits flow up!”
It’s in this clandestine arrangement that Lana and Lilly begin to illustrate a strong connection between those who provide a product but do not benefit from it (i.e. entire planets that are involuntarily farmed), and those providing a product/service who do not get their fair share (i.e. Jupiter selling her eggs but her cousin getting twice the pay).
It is an extension of the film’s opening parallel (the exploitation of planets for House Abrasax and the fight for upper-class clientele among Jupiter’s relatives). The stakes are as high, and as normal, as they could be for both parties: the Abrasax dynasty maximizing their gain through the lower and middle class, and the Joneses doing the same in the opposite direction.
Maybe this is starting to sound familiar.
Sadly, this kind of pertinence is likely lost or ignored due to its peculiar and grandiose presentation. It is an unfortunate dismissal, because it’s a theme that’s probably more relevant now than it was at the time of the film’s release, especially as it relates to a deepening, widening divide in the United States. It is Class Exploitation in extremis: profiteering on the interplanetary scale of repetetive genocide, as well as the individual level of a woman’s desperate lack of resources.
Thankfully, the filmmakers waste no opportunity to convey the inhumanity and disconnected justifications of both scenarios. From Kalique assuming those harvested feel no pain. To Titus passing the onus on to those who personally do the killing. To Vladie’s oversimplifying the selling of the eggs (“You go in, cash comes out”)–all of it points to a willfully ignorant and complicit attitude.
Balem–easily the most transparently sinister of anyone–has the most calloused and dubious perspective of all when he says “Most of them were miserable in their lives, and what we do for them is a mercy.”
The cold, impersonal breakdown of ReGenX–the luminous liquid resulting from a harvest that literally keeps House Abrasax young–emphasizes this even further (“each unit is refined from approximately 100 human beings”). It is an “ever increasing demand for more time” as Titus describes it. However, a royal (or “Entitled”) can only extend their clock, they cannot remake it.
As much as the lower and middle classes are abused and killed, there is at least some solace knowing that the rich and powerful can only delay the same fate. Nor can they take the accumulation of their materials with them. As much as they literally bathe in the finely rendered residue of those who didn’t win the birth lottery, they’re still human.
Despite, or rather in addition to, this deliberate social commentary, JUPITER ASCENDING never takes itself too seriously (which is merciful considering there’s a rat-faced henchman named Mr. Night). However, the strange mix of OZ-like wonder, unfashionable sincerity, and balls-out, theme-park-ride action can feel contradictory. That unusual concoction becomes even stranger when the audience is introduced to “The Ascension Process.”
Amid the iridescent body paint, cyber-punk paraphernalia, and ornate soaring cathedrals, JUPITER ASCENDING also floats on the absurdity of the mundane: the dull repetition in cleaning rich people’s homes and, eventually, the infuriating minutiae in officially becoming an Entitled.
Throughout the first half of the film, Jupiter balks at others recognizing her apparent royalty, but the further she is steeped in the vastness of her inheritance, the more she realizes how similar her new world is to her old one. Though her external settings have expanded, her internal state is unchanged. Nowhere is this as potent as it is during the sequence of Jupiter trying to receive her birthright (a.k.a. Earth).
The desk-ridden, maze-like process spotlights the cognitive dissonance of bureaucracy–where the simplest, most linear solution is never the correct one. It is fitting then, as the Wachowskis intended, that Jupiter’s final gatekeeper is played by Terry Gilliam–director of the sci-fi satire BRAZIL–which mines much of its comedy from similarly maddening circumstances.
This is where the film probably goes off-the-rails (or comes to a screeching halt) for many. Despite the unironic mix of winged lizards, anti-gravity roller skates, and sparkly costumes, JUPITER ASCENDING maintains a high and frequent degree of action to at least keep casual viewers engaged. So, when the filmmakers apply the same attention and verve to what could easily be called a visit to the Intergalactic DMV, it’s destabilizing.
However, it’s a key event in the story, and without it, the audience’s level of empathy wouldn’t be anywhere close to where the filmmakers want it to be. We wouldn’t understand Jupiter’s befuddlement at how anticlimactic it all is, which is of course the point. As Jupter says to Caine (after finally receiving her Title and Signet), “It doesn’t change the things that matter to me or who I care about. I’m still the same me.” It’s as if Jupiter finally understands what Stinger was trying to say to her earlier in the film: “It’s not what you do. It’s what you are.”
Shortly after confiding in Caine, Jupiter invokes “The Entitled Code” in her formal meeting with Titus. There, she quickly displays her mechanical understanding of the byzantine rules and laws she’s adopted, but the emotional truth is all that matters and remains. Now, she must reckon with the truth that new-found wealth, power, royal genes–even functional immortality–have done nothing to fundamentally alter her morality or desires.
Language, Intent, and Greed.
What Lana and Lilly Wachowski may lack in subtlety they make up for in pure function and clarity. The trouble arises when those qualities are awkwardly disguised. Similar to the indignant but evolving attitude regarding the STAR WARS prequels, JUPITER ASCENDING has a difficult rhythm to adapt to because its outlandish aliens speak with wooden colloquialisms. They speak with contemporary verbiage that doesn’t have the immersive benefit of existing alongside invented language (i.e. Klingon, Na’vi) or fictional jargon (i.e. Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY).
It can be a grating choice that bumps up against the conventional wisdom that out-of-this-world sci-fi requires those qualities. But it’s also not inherently wrong. In many ways, it is simply a stylistic choice, and one that works given the film’s mythology that the human race was born long before (and far away from) Earth.
Which leads into the final act of the film, where Jupiter and Balem’s negotiation for Earth grows more and more tense. Jupiter reminds the eldest Abrasax that “I am not your mother.” Balem, almost inaudibly and without even facing her, remarks “No, my mother never cleaned a toilet in her life.” Without hesitation, Jupiter replies ”Maybe that was her problem.” There’s a debatable clunkiness to the exchange, but similar to an increasingly popular REVENGE OF THE SITH quote (“So, this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”), it is counterbalanced by the clarity of the intent behind it.
While Jupiter is referring to her regal doppelgänger, she could be speaking to every Abrasax. To every billionaire. To every heir and heiress. To every “self-made” child that go their start with a “small” million dollar loan.
To every Kardashian, Kushner, and Trump.
In a single retort, she offers a sound theory for the timeless pox of greed and wealth disparity. In traditional Wachowski fashion, it is plainly hopeful, offering the idea that if the ultra-rich had exercised the tasks of the lower-class at some point in their lives, their capacity for empathy would expand the scope of their altruism. They’re not misguided to suggest or imply this, but it is an unabashedly optimistic and caring belief. As Jupiter says, “The more you care, the more the world finds ways to hurt you for it.” In other words, the Wachowskis know that giving a shit (and the potential pain of doing so) is the necessary emotional gamble of making progress.
The heartening flip-side to this is that, though money can create influence towards imbalance, it is not the engine that drives change. Change often comes from vision and desire, and fulfillment from execution of process through passion. Naive as it might seem, the cost of this belief is how hard it can be to genuinely arrive at it. Much like Jupiter in the film’s final act, we have to experience these insights firsthand (often in brutal fashion) for them to be learned.
I can still vividly remember seeing JUPITER ASCENDING for the first time on opening weekend. The towering scale and volume of the IMAX experience was an intoxicating match for the maximalist ethos of the film–the pummeling chase through a dusk-shrouded Chicago being an immersive highlight. Another high point: the climactic brawl between Jupiter and Balem, but not because of any intricate, satisfying choreography. Rather, it’s an appropriately messy encounter since neither character is ever portrayed to be a warrior. As Lana Wachowski notes, “[Jupiter] doesn’t have to beat people up to be the main character.” So, when she finally brings Balem to his knees, he pleads with her by reciting his last exchange with his mother (who he still conflates with the title character), right before he murdered her:
“We were fighting. Do you remember what you said? I remember what you said.”
I was genuinely enjoying the movie up to this point, but I winced slightly, anticipating what I was convinced were the next lines: “You told me ‘I love you.’”
“You told me you hated your life…”
Oh. That changes things.
“…and you begged me to [kill you].”
That definitely changes things.
Not only does Balem’s memory pay off Jupiter’s intimate mantra from the first act (“I hate my life.”), it cements the conceit of the story, which is that no one is exempt from the sheer terror of being alive. No one is immune from resenting their own life story. The fickle complexity of mental health and self-worth are bigger than class, tangible possessions, abstract statutes, and immeasurable inheritances.
With no flashbacks or any tactile sense of Jupiter’s progenitor, we can only assume up until this point that she was as emotionally opaque as her offspring. She was possibly hiding, rejecting, or completely burying her feelings in her lavish life, which makes Balem’s revelation all the more penetrating.
After all, there’s a certain expectation with a Wachowskis film. An envelope-pushing, cinematic experience that can overshadow their not-at-all-insignificant narrative forethought. A film-tech ambition that, whether their approach becomes influential or not, will always take risks. An aesthetic vision that has little concern for trends or templates (maybe even good taste).
The exceptional shape and size of their canvas can overwhelm and dazzle–sometimes distracting from their consistently strong point-of-view.
The benefit of this spectacle is that Lana and Lilly can stealthily slip the knife of a profound thesis into a gaudy space opera–using your own expectation against you to make the moment of striking symmetry even more cutting.
Take, for example, Balem’s first lines in the entire movie (when he refers to the anonymous victims of the latest harvest). His warped perspective now drips with a pathetic irony: “Most of them were miserable in their lives.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mega-rich can be the saddest of us all, and that misery is likely the motive behind their frequent wickedness.
This kind of inverted symmetry is powerful and deliberate. Jupiter’s cruel affirmation from the opening minutes boomerangs into her enemy’s voice, and she’s finally forced to come to terms with it. Instead of echoing it one last time, she replaces it with her new refrain: “I am not your damn mother.” It is the greatest sign of growth she could likely express as she stares down a neutered Balem. In her final repetition of this phrase, the subtext says it all: I don’t hate my life. Not anymore.
This deviation from her forebearer, as well as all those prior–from her gullibility in almost marrying Titus, to maiming Balem with a gunshot to the leg–subvert each sibling’s assumptions, all leading to this moment of actualization.
It’s the kind of sentiment that disarms with its aching earnestness, with its surprising but inevitable simplicity. A concise expression of how much we think (and sometimes want to believe) that money, power, and status will unequivocally provide lasting contentment.
Or, perhaps more to the point, how we wish those things would erase our insecurities, fears, and wants. If JUPITER ASCENDING wishes to impart anything to its audience, it’s that fulfillment must come from inward for it to be meaningful and real.
In the beginning of the film, we’re conditioned to pity Jupiter’s unsatisfying work and home life. She begrudgingly takes orders, begs for advances, and suffers through loud, cramped dinners. It feels like little more than the directors setting up the heavy contrast between Jupiter’s terrestrial grind and her imminent, space-bound royalty.
“I hate my life” sounds like a cheap joke when it crawls out of Jupiter’s throat at the start of the film–the setup and punchline contained in four short syllables.
But, in its reprisal, the words sting and linger with a swelling melancholy. What was once a morsel of borderline cringe blooms into the entire point of the film–clumsily introduced but precisely re-introduced.
It’s ultimately what makes JUPITER ASCENDING the shimmering, thoughtful oddity that it is. With little warning, a clear and deliberate statement cuts through the din of Splices, androids, Warhammers, and holograms. After extensive build-up and a careful re-contextualizing, the Wachowskis effectively use the set-up for the punchline–crafting a circular, cosmic joke that tells us what we already know in a new way:
That we’re all more alike than we are different.