I will admit I was not impressed when I saw trailers for 2015’s Jupiter Ascending. Still, reaction to the film was varied enough that I decided to give it a chance. (Only on DVD, which may have been a mistake. More on that later.)
What I found was a movie that kept me entertained for a couple of hours, a movie that reminded me very strongly of a particular Hugo-winning novel (or two) … but also a movie that broke one of the fundamental rules of movie story-telling.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an illegal alien who makes a meagre living cleaning other people’s toilets. Jupiter Jones is also a space princess who, if only she knew how to assert her rights, owns the entire planet Earth and everything on it.
The first fact keeps Jones relegated to low pay and subject to constant risk of deportation. The second puts her life at risk.
While few on Earth are aware of this fact, we are all property, a crop seeded and built up over thousands of years for the benefit of the Abraxas Clan. We are the stuff from which immortality serum is made. I am sad to report that we are but raw material and will not survive the harvesting process. On the plus side, we’re still a few generations from being ripe.
Earth’s humans are by no means the only humans in existence. There are countless worlds out there with their own human populations, all seeded from the same homeworld (which is not Earth—take that, palaeontologists and the overwhelming evidence of the fossil record1!). If that mind-boggling fact were not enough, we learn that genetic engineering has allowed the creation of a vast number of human/animal hybrids. Just in case the viewer misses the point, the hybrids tend to be named after the animal part of their heritage: Sean Bean’s half-bee half-man is named Stinger.
Subtlety is not a primary goal for this movie.
As preposterously unlikely as it is for two unrelated people to have exactly the same genes, Jupiter is genetically identical with the late matriarch of the Abraxas Clan. Thanks to a ludicrously contrived galactic legal system, that means that Jupiter is considered the matriarch reborn and thus entitled to all of her property. This makes her valuable to/a threat to the matriarch’s three children, Belem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth).
Jupiter has no idea of her significance to the Abraxas Clan until Titus’s half-man, half-dog agent Caine (Channing Tatum) rescues Jupiter from assassination at the hands of Belem’s covert agents. Even then, she has no idea which of her growing ranks of allies she can truly trust and which of them are merely feigning sympathy for their own ends.
And on Jupiter’s ability to tell friend from foe (while mastering an alien legal system on the fly) rests not just her life and the lives of her family, but the lives of everyone on Earth.
A note about big screen versus DVD: this is another movie with scenes lit so dimly I found it hard to make out what was going on, even when I watched the movie in a pitch dark room. While I will admit that my lousy eyesight might play some role in this, it is my impression there is something about how films are encoded in DVD that makes scenes darker on the small screen. Informed comment invited.
Now for the broken rule of movie story-telling. If you cast Sean Bean, you are morally obligated to kill off his character.
Jupiter Ascending violates this principle. I am as shocked and horrified as you are.
Similarly, while the film’s costuming of its various POC actors leans towards the … let’s say unchallenging … the Wachowski siblings (who wrote and directed the film) don’t show any tendency to treat their (visibly) minority cast members as designated cannon fodder. That is also in contravention of standard Hollywood practice.
While I was watching the film, I was haunted by the sense that I had seen or read something that also drew on the idea of an interstellar hegemony that depended on lethally processing an intelligent race for an immortality serum, some work that also depended on the protagonist’s genetic identity with a powerful matriarch. I did eventually work out what memory was niggling at me:
On reflection, I realized that there’s another well-known book about an heir to a powerful family whose wealth depends on an immortality serum, a book whose setting also features vast, shadowy instrumentalities that exploit half-human, half-beast slaves … a book in which the heir proves to own the Earth itself:
I would not be surprised if one or both of the Wachowskis own the Vinge novel, but I would be a bit surprised if they had the Cordwainer Smith book. But that’s irrelevant, really, as I don’t think this movie is derivative of either book. It just arrived at a similar place thanks to parallel world-building choices and a shared conviction: it is wrong for the great and powerful to treat those around them as resources. Or, to quote Jupiter’s uncle Vassily (Jeremy Swift):
“You don’t treat your cousin like a chicken!”
Of course, Jupiter’s uncle is wrong. People do. They just shouldn’t.
Jupiter Ascending is not burdened with such luxuries as character development, but it does have a plenitude of chase scenes, plots, betrayals, and several hours of Mila Kunis falling off tall structures. And explosions! So many explosions.
It also has a hunky, brooding wolf-man flying around on anti-gravity roller skates, which is not something you will see in most films.
I have seen this movie denounced as a fourteen-year-old girl’s space fantasy filmed on a nearly two-hundred-million dollar budget. Well, I can see how people would think that. But even if I grant the point, the result is firmly within the mainstream of science fiction, sharing themes and ideas with several Hugo-winning works. In any case, the film is a pleasant change from the usual SF movie fare: a fourteen-year-old boy’s space fantasies filmed on a nearly two-hundred-million dollar budget.
Jupiter Ascending was written, produced, and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and should be available from wherever people get DVDs these days.
1: This seems as a good a time as any to mention that Stinger’s belief that the dinosaurs were around a billion years ago falls somewhat outside the scientific consensus.