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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Jupiter Ascending movie review: princess drearies

Jupiter Ascending red light

Sees no need to engage metaphor or dispense with cliché, so when you haven’t seen it before, you can’t believe what you’re seeing. And not in a good way.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for movies about women

I’m “biast” (con): science fiction isn’t treated so well at the movies these days

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Oh my god, hooray! A space adventure with a woman at its center! And it’s Mila Kunis, who is awesome! She’s gonna be like a new Luke Skywalker, whisked away from a boring life on Tatooine– er, Earth for more exciting interstellar horizons beyond! Woo-hoo!

Yeah, not so much, as it happens. What happens is more like: Kunis (Annie, Blood Ties) gets drugged, attacked, chased, menaced, threatened, rescued, kidnapped, chased some more, rescued again. Rinse and repeat for a good hour and half. At which point she finally makes her first authentic decision… though it isn’t even one that has any impact whatsoever on the story. At this important juncture in what she now knows to be galactic affairs of enormous import, Kunis’s ordinary 21st-century Chicago gal Jupiter Jones, suddenly finding herself on a spaceship in, like, outer space and everything, decides to change her clothes.

To be fair to Jupiter, two previous wardrobe changes were affected by others upon her person while she was unconscious. Two! So this is a big step up for her agency and self-determination.

Welcome to the movie with the weakest protagonist pretty much ever. Jupiter doesn’t drive the story here: she is yanked around by it. That’s not fun, and it’s certainly not interesting. She’s like a rag doll in the hands of writers and directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (Cloud Atlas, Speed Racer). Luke Skywalker wouldn’t stand for this.

Now, arguably, it was the very first “decision” Jupiter makes in Jupiter Ascending that sets everything in motion, but damn, is this one icky. She lets her cousin — her male cousin — coerce her into agreeing to donate her eggs to a fertility clinic. Because he wants the money. Wait, what? Jupiter herself asks the idiot why he gets two-thirds of the $15K this donation will bring to the family, and he offers her a bullshit answer… which she just shrugs and accepts.

So right from the beginning, it’s clear than Jupiter is not going to be a very gutsy or formidable sort of person. So why should we hang out with her for two-plus hours, then?

(Oh, and while Jupiter and her idiot cousin might not realize how involved egg donation is, the movie should know better than to depict it as simplistically it does. It doesn’t pay that much either. But these are the least of the movie’s problems.)

But Jupiter making un-thought-out decisions on the spur of the moment sets the stage for the course of Jupiter’s story in Ascending: the few times she gets to actually chose a path for herself (beyond the wardrobe change), she will need to be rescued from the results of her choice. For, as it transpires, the fertility clinic is how the Aliens, who aren’t really aliens at all but humans too, find out that Jupiter is basically a princess of their people, which makes her a target because Reasons, which necessitates her being rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum [The Book of Life, 22 Jump Street] with Spock ears), who is a for-real, legit, actual lone wolf in a way possible only in overly literal SF that thinks it’s being clever and sees no need to engage metaphor or dispense with cliché.

Later, Caine will rescue her from becoming a princess bride, because Jupiter’s decision — pretty much the only other decision she gets to make in the movie — to marry a dude out in space goes bad, too. But not before we get to behold Jupiter in her wedding gown! Thanks so much, Wachowskis, for confirming Hollywood’s supposition that the only possible reason a woman might be at the center of a story is if she’s a princess and has a wedding. (I suspect the Wachowskis might think they’re subverting clichés. Except they aren’t.)

Ascending hasn’t even gotten off planet Earth before it goes from seen-it-before — a standard SF dogfight all over downtown Chicago — to some genuine risible WTFery; oh, how I scoffed at alien-soldier-on-Earth Sean Bean (Mirror Mirror, Game of Thrones) informing us that if you’ve never been stung by a bee, you’re galactic royalty (I wish I was making that up). Then there’s some overdesigned and bloated space gothic stuff padding out the middle bits, complete with Lucas-esque vistas crammed with so much crap you don’t know what you’re looking at, a “soylent green is people” shock-not-shock, and Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables, The Other Boleyn Girl) camping it up as a space prince. (If the people voting for the Oscars see this before they get to the Best Actor category, he can kiss his Theory of Everything win good-bye.) There are some big reptilian guys whose dialogue it is impossible to understand, which isn’t as fun as it sounds. There’s not a hint, in fact, of charm or intentional humor. Until, that is, the movie takes a weird detour into another movie entirely, a Terry Gilliam retro satire on bureaucracy that doesn’t work at all in the larger context of the universe the movie is trying to create. And yet the Wachowskis think this is so clever that they actually cast Terry Gilliam in it; Gilliam reenacts a scene that was apparently left over from a fan mashup of Brazil and Life of Brian. (Again, wishing I was kidding.)

Just about when your brain has come to terms with the fact that this detour is really happening, it’s over, and everything reverts to deeply solemn, deeply terrible galactic soap opera, and it is never spoken of again. It’s as if the movie is embarrassed by itself. As it should be.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Jupiter Ascending for its representation of girls and women.

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Jupiter Ascending (2015)
US/Can release: Feb 06 2015
UK/Ire release: Feb 06 2015

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, threat)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Enjoi1991

    I’m still going to give this a shot.

  • RogerBW

    The Wachowskis really are George Lucas for this generation: some early forgotten films, a huge wildly popular hit or two, then, oh dear…

  • Beowulf

    There’s a reason this baby was moved from a summer release to a February one, and it wasn’t to make it even more awesome!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Ding ding ding ding ding!!!!

  • RogerBW

    I wonder whether we’d look at it differently if it had come out before Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar?

  • I_Sell_Books

    It looked terrible and nonsensical from the trailer. Batshit insane, actually, and not in a good way.

  • dear Hollywood: give me 100 million dollars and I can make a more coherent sci-fi movie with only a 5-page script. I await your call.

  • I doubt it. This bears no resemblance on any level or in any way to either film.

  • David

    Look at the bright side: when this movie bombs the executives will all say that it’s because people don’t want to see female led films. BTW, the scuttlebutt on the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters is that the script is terrible. They’ll prob say the same thing about that movie if it bombs.

  • Elwood

    Torn because I love seeing my hometown on screen, Mila Kunis and Ned Stark. But this confirms everything I feared from the trailer. Someday I guess this will be on some cable channel after midnight and I will use it to treat insomnia.

  • That’s not a bright side.

  • Bluejay

    the scuttlebutt on the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters is that the script is terrible


  • AugustDays2014

    We that’s disappointing. Why can’t someone come up with a female heroine that actually has a backbone?!?!

  • Bluejay

    They can and they have. Just not in this movie, apparently.

  • Jurgan

    I just looked through this guy’s post history. Now I know whom not to pay attention to.

  • Jurgan

    Ooh, are we going to get a “where are the women?” on this?

  • Absolutely. I’ll post it on Monday. (I’ll sometimes space out the ones for the major films that are just opening in order to give people time to see it. And hopefully to generate a little more traction for it.)

  • Danielm80

    Slightly off-topic: Are you going to review the Doctor Who Christmas special, or have you given up on Moffat’s version of the show?

  • I hope to get to it soon. Though with all the people who’ve told me to give up writing about it, maybe I should.

  • Beowulf

    Ditto, my dear Watson.

  • CB

    So, even taking the “‘soylent green is people’ shock-not-shock” as non-literal (but even more so if it is) then this sounds like a bigger, louder, dumber, and infinitely worse version of the NeoSeoul sci-fi sub-story in Cloud Atlas which was only one thematic thread of a larger interwoven tapestry. Meaning if I’m in the mood for non-Matrix Wachowski sci-fi I should just watch that again. Good to know that what the trailer seemed to be telling me was true.

  • David

    Fine, then look on the other bright side: you only have to wait another week for the next female led movie, 50 Shades of Grey. You know, the movie based on the book that made Twilight look feminist.

  • David

    Cracked podcast. Episode, the year in movies 2015.

  • Bluejay

    Meh. I checked it out, and the guy talking doesn’t specify which version of the script he supposedly read (it’s very early days, scripts change all the time, and comedies rely a lot on improv that isn’t necessarily indicated in the script). I wouldn’t pass judgment on it until I actually see it.

  • Still not a bright side.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I was not aware that there was talk of an all-female remake of Ghostbusters. But then I still remember one liberal blogger’s sarcastic response to all the talk about how hard it was to imagine a Ghostbusters sequel without Bill Murray or the late Harold Ramis in which the blogger wondered out loud why no one in Hollywood seemed to have any trouble imagining a Ghostbusters sequel without Sigourney Weaver.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Your duty as a critic is to call ’em as you see ’em, not to play Professor Pangloss for all the would-be Candides out there in fanboyland. If you wish to stop writing about the show for your own reasons, that’s one thing, but please don’t let anyone — even me — force you to stop writing about something you’re obviously so passionate about just because you have nothing positive to say. After all, the most informative reviews are not necessarily the most positive reviews.

    Besides, I’m kinda curious to know what you thought about that episode and there’s no way my curiosity is going to be satisfied on that score by your rivals on the A.V. Club site.

  • ZZMike

    “Caine” – as in “canine”? That’s pretty original.

  • Bluejay

    It’s more than just talk, it’s happening.


  • Bluejay

    Have you already seen it, MaryAnn? I read somewhere that the director made changes to the story (over the author’s objections) to give the woman more agency and control over what happens to her. Would be interesting to see if that makes the story any more palatable. (I haven’t read the book.)

  • It’s not screening for critics in London, as far as I’m aware. I’ll see it on Friday.

    I have read the books, so I’ll be able to compare. But I’ve heard that the author had total control over everything in the film, so I’d be surprised if the film deviates much from the book.

  • Danielm80

    I just read the Entertainment Weekly review. Surprisingly, it was written by Lisa Schwarzbaum, who left the magazine quite a while ago.


    Apparently, there are two major changes from the book.

    (1.) Anastasia no longer says “Holy crap!” every few minutes.

    (2.) The sex scenes are much tamer.

    I wonder if a low-budget film company will make a porn version of the movie.

  • Jen Frankel

    Going to see this Thursday. Must admit, I had higher hopes – that it might wash away the frustration of the passive, selfish heroine of The Hunger Games who gets held up as a role model but does pretty much nothing. Sad that there’s more of the same here.

  • Bluejay

    So here’s what I saw in Time magazine:

    [Director Sam Taylor-Johnson] thought she saw how to address the troubling power dynamic in the book: give the control to Anastasia. Put her in charge of her own odyssey. “This is the emotional journey of somebody who doesn’t seem as strong as she becomes,” she says. “And by the end of the story, she holds all the power.” […]Taylor-Johnson’s take obviously required some adjustments to the script […] perhaps the most substantial change is the scene in which Anastasia and Christian negotiate the contract under which she will become his partner in a submissive-dominant relationship. The novel’s Anastasia wangles a few minor compromises in a restaurant. The movie’s Anastasia is much more assertive, proposing that they meet at his office and wittily insisting on edits.”For Sam and I, it was always really important to maintain the integrity of Anastasia throughout her sexual exploration,” says [actress Dakota] Johnson. “She’s not a naive young woman. She’s not passive. She has self-respect.” […]While these sound like minor changes, they drew the ire of [author E.L. James a.k.a. Erika] Leonard […] Taylor-Johnson and Leonard often tussled for control.

    Would be interested to see if you think the film changes the power dynamic as significantly as the article seems to suggest.

  • The contract is the least of the story’s problems.

  • Tonio Kruger

    One would think that an assertive submissive would be a contradiction in terms but at the risk of echoing MaryAnn, I would not be a bit surprised to find out that that aspect is the least of the film’s problems.

  • Danielm80

    I know a few submissives. Even though they get pleasure from being dominated, they actually have a tremendous amount of control over the relationship. There tends to be a lot of discussion between partners about what sort of treatment the submissive considers acceptable and what’s totally off limits. If the dominant person doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what the submissive really wants, it can become an abusive relationship–which some people say is what’s going on in Fifty Shades of Grey.

  • LaSargenta

    There already have been porn films of it. Not providing links for obvious reasons, but they aren’t hard to find.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’m really disappointed in this movie. After getting dumped from mid-summer to February, I was hoping for an epic, “Battlefield Earth”-style train wreck. What we got was just sort of meh. Maybe my expectations were actually too low, for a change.

    It’s a shame too. As others have pointed out, there’s some interesting world-building in the script, which doesn’t deserve the plot it gets saddled with. The literal farming of human civilizations, who don’t even know they’re being farmed until they’re summarily wiped out: kinda scary, especially when we first see the deserted city on a recently harvested planet. Genetically splicing species together to create better tools: a lot of intriguing bioethics ideas there. The power interplays between the oligarchy/monarchy, the bureaucracy, and the police state: some good stuff there, even without the “Brazil” rip-off sequence. The idea that, with a population many orders of magnitude greater than the Earth’s, human genetic diversity starts to reach a breaking point, and identical twins can be born millennia and light-years apart: awesome!

    Except the Wachowskis do nothing with it. Other than a physical resemblance, which we’re never actually shown, there is no indication that Jupiter is the genetic twin of the most ruthless monarch/business magnate the human race has ever seen. Jupiter appears to have no talents nor ambitions of her own, beyond getting a telescope like her daddy’s and not cleaning toilets (neither of which she appears to really want all that badly, given how the movie ends).

    Here’s how Jupiter should have been written: let’s just concede the “Cinderella” story aspect. But even then, rther than simply bemoaning her lot in life, Jupiter should have been in the process of attending night school, after her days of cleaning toilets, working on her law degree. She should have been shown as having an inherent, almost preternatural talent for negotiation, legal argument, and manipulation (but not to the point where she hurts people; Jupiter should have a “good heart”). The otherwise utterly pointless interlude with the younger brother and the wedding should have been Jupiter’s turning point. She should have outmaneuvered him, revealing that she had everything under control when Caine arrived to “rescue” her.

    Eddy Redmayne’s performance may have been campy, but it ws at least consistent. I think he was quite good, for what it was.

    And you know who I didn’t hate? Channing Tatum. He just focused on a straight-forward delivery of a military type, rather than trying to create a “character”, and it worked. It seemed like it was in flat-out defiance of what the Wachowskis envisioned, what with the stupid backstory (an albino, runt, packless wolf with a murderous dislike of royalty) and the melodramatic reactions that everyone describes Caine as having, but which Tatum just refused to show.

  • Danielm80

    The film that produced this toy should have been much more interesting.


    Maybe it should have been a musical.

  • given how the movie ends

    Can you imagine if *Star Wars* ended with Luke going back to moisture farming? People would have *rioted.*

  • Samuel Mazzuchelli

    I liked it…a lot. Get over yourselves.

  • No, I’m afraid it’s you who must get over yourself. It’s fine to disagree about a film. It’s not fine to presume that your opinion is fact and everyone else’s opinions are something we need to “get over.”

    If you would like to continue commenting here, don’t do that again.

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