Jupiter Ascending (2015, USA)
Director: Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowskis)
Writer: Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowskis)
Women in the crew: Lora Kennedy (casting); Kym Barrett (costumes); Karen Lynn Accattato (key makeup artist); Demetra Diamantopoulos (production manager); Marianne Jenkins (post production executive); Abby Mills (assistant director); Kim Whittaker (second assistant director); Emma Horton (key second assistant director); Ayesha Corn (additional second assistant director); Emma Gunnery (crowd assistant director); Irene Díaz (crowd assistant director); Katharina Hofmann (second assistant director: crowd); Beatrice Manning (second assistant director: second unit); Patricia Ordás (third assistant director); Kristin Aasen (VFX coordinator). Also across art, make-up, visual effects, sound, and production departments, and additional crew.
This review contains **SPOILERS**
The major issue with Jupiter Ascending was that it needed to be at least a trilogy of films, if not a long running TV series (#6SeasonsAndAMovie). There just wasn’t enough space or time to really explore the Wachowski sisters’ phenomenal cosmic narrative world in a movie’s itty bitty runtime. It has the same zany, glorious incomprehensibility that made films like Tank Girl (Talalay, 1995), Barbarella (Vadim, 1968), Dune (Lynch, 1984), and Labyrinth (Henson, 1986) such cult classics. Once you accept that you can’t follow all of the narratives on your first watch of the film you just get to enjoy it. When I have taught classes on Barbarella (and Blade Runner too to be honest) I tell students to focus on the world and not the narratives at play. For Jupiter Ascending instead play spot the reference or cameo, and marvel at the production design. It’s made – like many epic space operas – to be watched more than once.
To be honest I think Jupiter Ascending works better if you actually read the spoilers first. Part of the remit of the #WomenMakeSF project is to make a record of these women-directed SF films, so I’ll have a go at giving some of the plot (corrections welcome[ish] in the comments…). Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the genetic reincarnation of and heir to Queen Seraphi Abrasax who was killed by her son Balem [a major plot point I totally missed the first time I saw the film and still enjoyed it. It shows how accepting I am of incomplete narratives in visually stunning SF…]. The antagonists are a trio of siblings who fight over the inheritance of their mother Seraphi’s assets: Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth). Jupiter is an undocumented Russian immigrant living in poverty in Chicago and working with her mother Aleksa Bolotnikovas (Orphan Black’s Maria Doyle Kennedy) as a maid cleaning rich people’s houses (mostly toilets) and hating her life. Her father Maximilian Jones (James D’Arcy) is fridged in the opening scene, before she was even born and after which her mother fled to the US. Jupiter ascends from being a Dreamer (without citizenship, literally born between nations) to becoming the protector and proprietor of the entire planet Earth. In short, people try to fuck/marry/kill Jupiter for her inheritance. She’s the heir to an intergalactic industry that makes a youth serum that is actually made from people (Soylent Green is PEOPLE) and in the end she chooses not to be queen and returns to her life on Earth (cleaning toilets).
In the world of Jupiter Ascending genetics determine the destiny of individuals as well as entire planets’-worth of people. The Abrasax intergalactic space dynasty (Abrasax Industries) have essentially made themselves immortal with a youth serum called RegeneX. ‘The Entitled’ class use RegeneX to extend their lifespans, but it is revealed to be the result of harvesting entire human populations (Jupiter only finds this out much later in the film). Earth is just one of many human colonies set up for this purpose. Once Jupiter is recognised as the heir, Balem sends assassins disguised as medics to kill her (there’s a subplot with her uncle selling her eggs at a fertility clinic) but as part of his plan to marry (his mother reincarnated, ick) and then murder Jupiter for her claim to the throne, Titus sends Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) the half-dog, half-man bounty hunter to rescue her. They escape but must hide from Balem’s agents at Stinger Apini’s (Sean Bean) farm, a half-human, half-honeybee exiled-soldier and the Aegis’ (intergalactic police force) Earth Marshal. Stinger recognises that Jupiter is royalty (because bees can tell) and calls for police back-up. But more bounty hunters arrive (including Bae Doona as Razo) who take Jupiter to Kalique’s palace on the planet Cerise in exchange for youth serum. Kalique shows Jupiter the amazing effects of the youth serum (not revealing how it is made), her only concern being maintaining access to RegeneX. The Aegis arrive and transport Jupiter to the planet Orous so she can be formally recognised as Serephi’s ‘reoccurence’. Titus kidnaps Jupiter and proposes marriage.
Many of the characters in the film are non-human or genetic chimera (splices) and a hierarchy is created between ‘pure’ humans – split into immortals who can buy RenegeneX and those who can’t – and those created in labs spliced together with a variety of different species including canines and lizards and bees (oh my). Again there is a hierarchy with the Saurosapiens (sentient flying lizards/dragons) as the most powerful, but they are all under the control of Balem. Caine was bred for combat, but errors in the lab lead to genetic ‘imperfections’ that make him difficult to control (bad dog); he is expelled from the Legion for attacking an Entitled and stripped of his military-issued cybernetic wings. He is therefore forced to wear rocket rollerblades instead – the shame. Caine becomes a bounty hunter working for Titus. Once Caine finds out who Jupiter is (queen), he believes that Titus just wants to marry her and honorably help her to dismantle Abrasax Industries as his mother wished (before she was killed). When Caine is told that the plan is actually to kill Jupiter, he becomes her protector (good dog). Caine is literally shot out into space at this point so that Titus can marry Jupiter. Caine survives after being saved by the Aegis (space police) ship under the command(ing presence) of the excellent Captain Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and rocket-boots back to fetch Jupiter and stop the wedding.
The Aegis take Jupiter back to Earth, but when she gets there Balem’s minions are waiting with news that her family are being held for ransom at the Jupiter Refinery in the Red Spot of Jupiter (the planet). She has to go with them or her family dies. She does. But the Aegis and Caine follow them to the heavily guarded refinery and use a secret portal to transport in and out just before the refinery is destroyed. Jupiter goes back to her old life working with her mother as a maid – she rejects the materialism of the Abrasax family for a simple life with her family, even though she is still the rightful owner of Earth.
So, I scraped the surface of that plot. There are so many subplots and characters and backstory for everything, and it all gets delivered at a blink-and-you-miss-it speed. There is a wiki you can work your way through that goes on for eons should you so wish.
Jupiter Ascending explodes onto the screen, a space opera in the truest sense, but one that is not embedded into an existing franchise or adapted from a recognisable object (not even a theme park ride). This originality is something that aligns it with the majority of the #WomenMakeSF films I’ve found so far (always on the lookout for more). It is – like Paradise Hills, Sea Fever, Level 16, Little Joe… – an original concept movie. Rarely trusted with huge franchise films, women are forced to write, pitch, (self) fund, and produce their own imaginative storyworlds. Women are seen as a risk. Of course, the Wachowskis were not unknown at the time of Jupiter Ascending; where other women, however, needed to show originality to get the freedom to work in genre fiction, the Wachowskis’ success allowed them the freedom to create stories beyond the confines of the male-dominated (in production and reception – although we were more of an unspoken audience) expectations of SF.
Jupiter Ascending took the road less traveled, into the wish-fulfilment of prepubescent girls… Every woman who ever wrote herself into her favorite universe via fanfic, every girl who created an amnesiac elven vampire princess and role-played in a chat room, every chick who ever wanted a blaster by her side and a submissive werewolf boyfriend at her back, every one of them whispered, “Finally. It is our time.”
The not-made-by-white-men movie worlds that we are seeing in #WomenMakeSF offers something different from the heroes’ journey and the ‘chosen one’ narratives that sustain man-made SF. Jupiter rejects her status as ‘the chosen one’ and the burden of being Seraphi’s recurrence. This is a science fiction made for women (or rather not for straight white man audiences) – a neon tinted, teenage fever dream of intergalactic (yet sadly unconvincing) romance between a genetic reincarnation of an alien queen and a half-man half-dog shirtless Channing Tatum. Not only does Jupiter Ascending not have a male protagonist, it is an SF film where there are lots of roles and speaking roles for women across the movie. The women characters are complex, even Kalique shows nuance as her desire for RegeneX is not to stay young and beautiful (she has, as Titus creepily puts it a ‘fetish’ for wrinkles) but to live forever in her carefully cultivated palace planet. But her (literally belonging to her) perfect world comes at the cost of others’; a sacrifice she is willing to make. She’s not a goodie, she just has layers (‘everybody likes parfait’). Instead of mocking or ignoring them, Jupiter Ascending celebrates and recognises its non-cismale audience and their SF fantasies.
But Jupiter Ascending wasn’t reviewed in the space opera spirit of its creation, or as a subversion of genre, or even as a messy postmodern (sorry) layering of references to the Wachowskis’ love of science fiction. The film becomes (as Lyle and I have previously theorised in reference to Scott Pilgrim) a form of interactive gameplay (enhanced by Jupiter Ascending’s video gameplay aesthetic) where pleasure for the intended fan audience is drawn from spotting, collecting, and discussing those exuberant intertextual moments. But as a follow up to the genre-defining and mind-bending films of The Matrix films and Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending didn’t seem to register with critics as a joyously operatic intergalactic SF pastiche.
Perhaps Speed Racer could be ignored as a contractual blip, but Jupiter Ascending was heralded as the siblings’ new era following Lana’s transition and public coming out. It was judged unfairly especially when compared to films like Kingsman: The Secret Service released in the same season that was critiqued as ‘boisterous hoodie-Bond fantasia’ rather than being reviewed as a serious intervention into pure cinema. It was reviewed as harmless fun (poor representation of women, but the director kingmansplains it as actually celebrating women). Some of the issue here is that many of the major publications sent male critics to review Jupiter Ascending, critics who perhaps expected to be able to read the film along the same masculine, ‘chosen one’ lines as The Matrix (which has since been revealed as a trans allegory). It’s a fun romp, and that’s fiiine.
Do I wish it didn’t have such a forced heteronormative ending? Yes. Do I enjoy watching two hot Hollywood stars fail to be a convincing couple? Also yes. The romance is my least favourite part (I ship Kalique with Jupiter), and yet the awkwardness of the dialogue kinda makes me love it. Would I have preferred to have cut that part of the film? Hard yes.
Yes, the thing with the bees is odd, and the bit where Jupiter’s rejection of the ‘chosen one’ narrative means she goes back to working as a maid despite literally owning the Earth and then goes on a date with a winged lycantant-splice (dog-human/ChanningTatum) is weird and awkward. But I am not here to argue that Jupiter Ascending is a Blade Runner-style misunderstood masterpiece because I don’t think that this was what the Wachowski sisters were trying to do. It shows that there is and should be more space in the SF market for original but silly, fun, and exuberant movies that don’t solely rely on a man’s journey and a woman’s rescue (although I admit JJ gets rescued A LOT – Caine, fetch!), lazy stereotypes and misogyny masquerading as humour. This is a storyworld dying for a redux but this time we want at least 6 seasons and a movie.
What to watch next from Lana and Lilly Wachowski [The Wachowskis]:
Sense8 (14 episodes, 2015-2018)
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Speed Racer (2008) – honestly it’s fun
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix (1999)
Lilly is also a key figure in the documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (Sam Feder, 2020), which is brilliant and available on Netflix
Obviously you should listen the accompanying #WomenMakeSFPod episode with the brilliant Cheryl Morgan talk about Trans Representation in SF.
Cheryl Morgan (2010). Changing Images of Trans People in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. https://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?page_id=9294
Carly Lane (2019). Next Cult Classic: JUPITER ASCENDING should be recognized as royalty. SYFY Wire https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/next-cult-classic-jupiter-ascending-should-be-recognized-as-royalty
Marissa Ballard (2015). Femininity and Toughness: The Women of the Wachowskis’ Filmography. https://ballardwachowskiproject.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/femininity-and-toughness-the-women-of-the-wachowskis-filmography/
Aaron Berry (2019). Defending JUPITER ASCENDING: The Matrix As A Coming-Out Party. Film Inquiry https://www.filminquiry.com/jupiter-ascending-coming-out/
Donna Dickens (2014). ‘Jupiter Ascending’ is the Sci-Fi movie women were waiting for.’ Uproxx https://uproxx.com/hitfix/jupiter-ascending-is-the-sci-fi-movie-women-were-waiting-for/
Emily VanDerWerff (2019). How The Matrix universalized a trans experience — and helped me accept my own. Vox https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/3/30/18286436/the-matrix-wachowskis-trans-experience-redpill
Reiss Smith (2020). 6 eye-opening ways The Matrix is a powerful metaphor for the trans experience. Pink News https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/08/07/the-matrix-trans-trangender-metaphor-allegory-explained-lilly-wachowski-lana/