Calling Jupiter Ascending an original movie is perhaps disingenuous. While it is among those increasingly rare science fiction blockbusters that weren’t adapted from comic books, novels, video games, or television shows, it is, like Pacific Rim before it, a hulking labor of nostalgia for an incredibly specific genre of film, the technicolor fantasia of the space opera. A dazzling array of humans, aliens, and spaceships pass before the eye, each of them unique and carrying loads of often unexplained baggage, but there’s hardly one that doesn’t have a corollary in Star Wars, Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or something decidedly stranger, more off-beat. Andy and Lana Wachowski have always worn their influences on their sleeve, but here, with the gross domestic product of several small nations at their disposal, they are bearing their hearts, both of them glittering machinations assembled from the detritus of what used to be called nerd culture and what is now just culture. By making a film so decadent and doomed to failure, they seem to have laid claim to that tiny parcel of the collective imagination that is still yet unconquered by the spandex-clad horde.
None of this is to say that Jupiter Ascending is any good. In fact, most of it is very bad. An array of beautiful images crudely hacked apart and stitched back together in the editing bay, to describe any aspect of the plot here as presented is to sound like one is making assumptions of a very long film after catching the last five minutes on television. Here goes nothing. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an undocumented Russian immigrant unsatisfied with her life cleaning toilets in Chicago. One day she is selling her eggs to a fertility clinic, which is surely a first in an action film. The next, she finds out that, through accident of birth, she is the exact genetic duplicate of the matriarch of clan Abrasax and the rightful owner of the planet Earth. This places Jupiter in the middle a family war between a hedonistic prince (Douglas Booth), an eternally young princess (Tuppence Middleton), and their ruthless industrialist of a brother (Eddie Redmayne), her only sure protection in the galaxy (which she will span in its vastness) being a soldier-turned-mercenary human/wolf/insect hybrid (Channing Tatum) first seen smelling her name on a sheet of paper at the clinic. There is a team of bounty hunters. There are little grey men. There are gigantic lizard men. There is the crew of the ship. There are robots and bureaucrats and the individual members of Jupiter’s family. All of them matter. Some are, it seems, audience surrogates, just as confused as we are about the world beyond our world that dances among the stars to an ancient song that can only be heard by those with access to its score.
Luckily, the Wachowskis are keen to overshare. Large stretches of Jupiter Ascending exist just to fill in the details, coming so hard and heavy that even Jupiter, with her fate and the fate of the world on her shoulders, breaks down and says she doesn’t care about any of it. The other characters know so much and Jupiter so little that she frequently feels like a character without agency, falling for obvious ploys and needing constant rescue from Tatum’s Caine Wise, who has this neat trick where he is rescued from every conceivable deathtrap by the magic of coincidence and given all the credit. This is something of a disappointment, as Jupiter Ascending is, at times, nearly a Marxist, feminist manifesto shrouded by the glitter and doom of a summer blockbuster. Though doing so, I realize, is futile, I keep imagining Jupiter Ascending getting a summer release in a year that wasn’t overburdened with light, spectacle-driven sci-fi, having the billion-dollar success that was envisioned when the project was greenlit. Hundreds of thousands of men watch a woman struggle with the decision to sell her eggs, are enraged for her when her cousin negotiates a large cut of the profits. The working class grow angry with the film’s end boss, his speaking pattern belabored by a state of agonizing, near-constant orgasm as he lectures Jupiter about the need to convert humans into capital. A laugh is had as Jupiter negotiates the bowels of galactic bureaucracy with an over-taxed droid. A moment of silence is shared as a bottle of human goop—the liquid that allows the intergalactic ruling class their millennia-spanning lives—falls to the ground and is shattered.
But I’ve mentioned a hoped for billion-dollar success, which spoils even my utopian ideal for the film. The larger engine at work throughout Jupiter Ascending is its naked desire for a sequel, the further adventures of Jupiter Jones in space or on Earth or wherever the focus group found itself most pleased. While my brain keeps twisting small moments in Jupiter Ascending into larger academic points (the CGI reconstruction of Chicago, just razed by a CGI spacechase, as a commentary on the vapid nature of such sequences, for example), the Wachowskis bumble about like Tobias Fünke, Yes, Anding themselves to the point of insanity. Jupiter is rescued from little grey men by a disgraced bounty hunter. Yes, and they fall in love. Yes, and their romance is complicated by issues of class. Yes, and there’s a marriage where one of the evil princes tries to marry an exact genetic replica of his mother. Yes, and that is spoiled by the bounty hunter, who was initially hired by the prince under the pretense that he would be reinstated to the military. Yes, and members of the military have wings! Yes, and, without his wings, the bounty hunter has these boots, these anti-gravity heelies that make it look like he’s tearing ass through the mall, even when his life is in danger. Yes, and, uhh, something about bees; an entire house covered in a honeycomb! Yes, and… uhh, wait, bees? Did you say bees? Yes! And, I dunno, maybe Jupiter’s scummy cousin buys a flatscreen TV?
On and on and on, until the perfunctory action sequence brings us to the required Disney princess ending, which is some weird combination of The Secret and that old, classist pablum that one should be happy with what one has. Here, that means waking up at four in the morning to clean the toilets of the wealthy despite owning the deed to an entire planet, being okay with one’s place in a machine so large that even a Jupiter-sized refinery represents but one small cog within it. Recently, I saw a headline in my Google news feed that asked if Marvel could “save” the Wachowskis. Jupiter Ascending suggests not, as, despite its trappings, this is essentially their Marvel film, disguising the same mostly white, mostly male exceptionalism coded within the MCU with the same safe message that no, really, everybody can be special, the princess or the soldier (never both, and never something else). That’s a marketable idea, but not one the Wachowskis or their film seem to believe in. No, the heart of Jupiter Ascending, beating faintly under layer after layer of bloat, belongs to Terry Gilliam, sniggering maliciously as he affixes a rubber stamp to the deed that awards Jupiter Jones ownership of Earth. It’s a fine dream Jupiter has, of liberating her and her family. How easy, Gilliam’s appearance suggests, for that dream to become madness.
Jupiter Ascending. With Mila Kunis (Jupiter Jones), Channing Tatum (Caine Wise), Sean Bean (Stinger Apini), Eddie Redmayne (Balem Abrasax), Douglas Booth (Titus Abrasax), Tuppence Middleton (Kalique Middleton), and Terry Gilliam (Seal and Signet Minister). Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, from a screenplay by the Wachowskis.