Review of Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Seen in 2020.
It’s quite a lot like the The Matrix (1999) and its sequels. The core part of the worldbuilding is the same: Real-world human life is recontextualized as a farming operation for the benefit of nefarious non-human forces who maintain the illusion of normalcy. In both cases, the farming operation is nonsensical. In The Matrix, it was about electrical power or some fantasy equivalent, whereas here, it’s about the elixir of life, though the script never actually uses that term. The elixir is extracted from trapped humans at the cost of their lives. Perversely, the script likens this farming to the extraction of real human eggs from a donor.
The main difference in worldbuilding is that the bad guys of Jupiter Ascending run an interstellar economy, operating on the scale of the galaxy across a billion years, rather than merely running a computer simulation in the post-apocalypse on a largely isolated Earth’s “desert of the real”, as in The Matrix. Alas, the film’s galactic economy is a brainless crossing of A Wrinkle in Time (1962) with Dune (1984). The visual effects are uncommonly dull. Some of the steampunk designs look neat, but out of place.
What really separates this from the Wachowskis’ earlier epic SF is not the worldbuilding but a shift in target audience, indicated by a corresponding shift from the androgynous hacker Neo of The Matrix to the young woman named Jupiter in Jupiter Ascending. The most interesting thing about her is that she works as a cleaner, a job that is actually shown. It is shown repeatedly, realistically (she doesn’t mop floors in the dark), and without disparagement. This alone is a rare sign of compassion by Hollywood standards.
Jupiter’s womanhood is more central than her job. Her function in the narrative is that of female love interests in old SFF adventure narratives and fairy tales: She’s actually a wealthy princess but she’s weak and naïve, so the hero has to burst in–usually literally–and rescue her with violence, time and time again, and they fall in love and live happily ever after. It’s the same template as A Princess of Mars (1912/1917), the difference being that the female writer-directors apply a female gaze. The action hero wears eyeliner and goes bare-chested like a romance novel cover, while she wears clothes. He flies gracefully through the air with hypertechnology, like a figure-skater, one of the more sexually objectified sports for a man. When he’s wounded, the heroine patches him up with a menstrual pad, and this is framed as a joke at the man’s expense, not as a serious attempt to save a life. In the epilogue, she tells him that being called “Your Majesty” works for her, in the sense that she finds it arousing. It’s all the egotism of the male gaze, flipped to objectify men. I’m not the target audience for it, but I think it’s more clever than a gender swap.
A female-gaze space opera about economic equality is a good idea, and some of it is competently executed. Alas, the action scenes are many and they are bad, just CGI cutscenes. In the first big fight, the baddies strafe what appears to be an operating passenger train, presumably killing many, but this is PG-13 violence for the sake of spectacle. The possibility of deaths is therefore ignored when the conspiracy is revealed and the damaged buildings are quickly repaired. In effect, the action scenes do not have consequences. The Grey alien crews of the planes in that first fight are a reference to UFO conspiracy lore, and there’s even a shot of running from them through a farmed field, perhaps alluding to Signs (2002). Conspiracy theory is narcissistic, and with the Greys in Jupiter Ascending it’s treated partly as a plot convenience, partly as a joke, with the result that it feels like the creepy fantasy of a schizophrenic with paranoia. Called “Keepers”, the Greys are one of several humanoid species in galactic society, but none of these are interesting or plausible.
Thus the core themes are almost buried under allegory, pageantry and camp. It’s hard to believe that the young female target demographic would prefer camp to the level of seriousness exhibited in The Matrix, but apparently they did.