My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Honorary Pick, Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending:
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So we arrive at the second of our four honorary picks on my list. The actual Number 59 is the Disney classic The Parent Trap – which you can read my original review of here. With these honorary picks, I divide them into two sets. Both Mindhunters and this film today were good concepts that could have been much more solid with a few changes here and there. I can watch both and still feel as though they have some merit to them in places. Mindhunters in particular had a couple of really good touches – and it’s a shame that the rest of the film wasn’t as good. Jupiter Ascending is one of those films that’s…well I still feel like ‘so bad it’s good’ isn’t quite the proper expression to use. When I say that, I think of something like The Room or Showgirls – which are just fascinating to watch because of how awfully they’re made. Jupiter Ascending is not bad enough to qualify for that – since the whole film is actually pretty well made. When I watch Jupiter Ascending, what I mostly think of is potential – some of it tapped into, some of it barely touched and some of it completely missed. Shall we waste no more time?

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As far as context goes, I feel as if it’s the genre I should be trying to explain. Jupiter Ascending falls under the category of ‘space opera’. That was a subgenre of science fiction that started popping up in the 19th century. With mankind now knowing so much more about the world, some writers started imagining what might be happening in the world beyond our own. You can thank Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter of Mars for really popularising the tropes of exotic planetary civilisations and funky alien cultures.

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Exhibit A.

It should also be noted that until Star Wars brought the subgenre to the mainstream, space opera was viewed very negatively by the public. The hint is in the name – which was used in the same derogatory manner as ‘soap opera’. The space operas were seen as pulpy, melodramatic and fanciful; something you’d only read if you wanted to rot your brain. You can thank Star Wars and to a lesser extent Star Trek for bringing space opera as a whole out of that ghetto. While it’s not exactly a viable property, we still got the occasional notable film like The Fifth Element, or else cult TV hits like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate. But the Wachowski siblings got inspiration for this project from an unlikely source.

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If you think about it, it does make sense. After all, a regular human being introduced to a world full of funky characters and grand plots is an easy concept to pull off. Or so we thought. Let’s just go ahead and start the movie already.

We open with a narration detailing the heroine’s backstory. Her father was a kooky astronomer who met the mother while stargazing one night in Russia. Daddy was British and mommy was Russian. Daddy is played by James D’Arcy and mommy by Maria Doyle Kennedy. This pairing becomes hilarious if one is familiar with two hit network TV shows – Agent Carter and Downton Abbey.

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Now there’s a power couple.

Mr Jarvis Jones is one night killed by thugs while his wife is pregnant. The bastards also steal his prize telescope. We’re shown an extended scene of the widow giving birth to a daughter, whom she names Jupiter in honour of her husband. Jupiter Jones? Now that actually is a pretty badass name. She grows up to become a lonely and bored young woman who’s stuck cleaning houses for a living. And she’s played by…

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Mila Kunis? I don’t mean to discriminate against house cleaners, but I’m having trouble believing that Mila Kunis can’t find any other work. Sure, modelling and acting are hard areas to get into. But someone with her beauty could easily be hired as a receptionist or some kind of PR figure. Mila Kunis counters this by saying that Jupiter is too lazy to improve her life, and that does admittedly fall in line with what we see.

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Here we have the film’s main glaring flaw. Going back to The Wizard of Oz analogy, the Wachowskis said they wanted a heroine like Dorothy. They didn’t want a gender-flipped Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger – but rather a heroine who used empathy and compassion to solve problems. Whilst their intentions are good, the result is a heroine who is well…

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Perspective.

Jupiter is almost comically passive. There’s one line from another character that says “It’s not what you do; it’s who you are” – and that sums up the problem with Jupiter as a character. She has no ambitions – except to buy that telescope. She has no skills. She has no agency in the story. She literally bounces from plot point to plot point, things happening to and at her, and barely doing a damn thing herself. Dorothy meanwhile is different. She had a goal and a set of ambitions. At the start, she wishes to run away and have adventures – but is quickly convinced to return home when she hears of her aunt’s illness. As such, the whole trip to Oz represents Dorothy realising internally that she doesn’t want adventure after all. And she’s not passive.

Dorothy for one knows that she wants to get home, and she actively seeks out the only way she knows how to do so – this way being seeing the Wizard for help. And she’s the one who convinces each of her three friends to come with her. So while she’s not action oriented, she still influences her story in some way. Other examples of such heroines the Wachowskis were trying to emulate include Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. She volunteers for the games to save her sister and then gets caught up in this rebellion that she ends up as the face of. She’s the face of it not for her fighting skills, but because people are impressed by her compassion. But again, she still *does* things unlike Jupiter.

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See, the Wicked Witch didn’t melt herself.

Another example is Tris Prior from Divergent. This is an example of the ‘non-action girl has to get tough’ arc that works really well; Tris has to work for her spot and go through the training – and she too gets caught up in the chaos that’s going on around her. She does this so that she doesn’t have to rely on other people to bail her out. Another example of a pacifist female who still saves the day is Disney’s Pocahontas. As she’s the one with the knowledge that the settlers are just misguided – and her love for John Smith – she’s the one who can stop the execution and prevent a war. There are countless other examples, and Jupiter is unfortunately too passive to hang with the best of them.

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She does have a better wardrobe though, and that’s the important thing really.

Thank God for Mila Kunis though. She really tries her best. The story going on around her is quite interesting, and she’s not given a lot to work with in terms of the script. But she gives Jupiter something resembling a personality. And while you don’t buy her as the lowly toilet cleaner, she’s believable as an Earth girl swept up into all this madness. She doesn’t ruin her scenes by trying to take them too seriously. The same can’t unfortunately be said for…

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It’s at this point that we meet our villains – and there are three of them. Well, two and a half. The third is technically evil or at least morally ambiguous – but she’s the only one who isn’t actively trying to murder our protagonist. They are three siblings in the Abrasax family: Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Balem (Eddie Redmayne). The first two actors are some of the bright spots in the movie. They get what kind of project they’re making, and they relish in playing fabulously evil space aristocrats. Poor Eddie Redmayne though. If you wonder why you never see him play villains, well this is why.

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We’re next shown a trio of alien bounty hunters – all with very funky character designs and rather interesting gadgets. One of them has a robotic eye that acts as a scanner, and another has a hovering jet ski that can turn her invisible. They’re hunting someone – a Katherine Dunlevy – but they soon discover that someone else is also looking for this person. They’ve apparently been hired by Balem but it’s Kalique they contact. She tells her PA to “make the deal”. Then cut to Balem’s estate on the planet Jupiter.

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Okay, so the visual stuff is the film’s main selling point. A lot of these designs are spectacular. Lots of creativity was put into coming up with some unique designs for the spaceships and the architecture – and even the supporting characters. If only the same effort had been put into the story too. The film then gives some eye candy to the select few in the audience who wouldn’t be satisfied just with Mila Kunis – while they’re recovering from their concussions anyway – in the form of the Katherine the bounty hunters were tracking.

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She’s perfectly happy walking around in her underwear in front of her cleaning lady, not to mention asking her for advice on love/marriage/all that jazz. Before Jupiter can give much advice, she witnesses a group of aliens examining Katherine. But they appear to wipe both women’s minds and leave. We cut to a dinner with Jupiter’s very large family. I have to say that it’s weird to have Maria Doyle Kennedy speaking Russian, and the rest of the family insisting on speaking English. After all, Mila Kunis is fluent in Russian and yet hardly speaks any in the movie. Anyway, her brother wants her to sell her eggs so they can get some nice cash.

It says volumes about the laziness of this girl that she’d rather sell her eggs than try to find a job that pays better. But she wants to buy a telescope that’s worth about $4000 so I guess she needs a quick buck. Too bad she doesn’t have a baby she can sell too. I’ve heard those go for a hefty sum. It turns out that she actually gave her name as ‘Katherine Dunleevy’ on the forms, which means that it’s her the aliens were after. Luckily she has that other dude who was hunting her to the rescue.

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“I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum and I just spat my gum out.”

Meet Caine Wise, played by Channing Tatum. Can we just say that Channing Tatum is awesome in this? He is one of many buff young studs who found himself typecast as either a meathead or beefcake love interest – but eventually proved his worth with the likes of 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike, Foxcatcher and yes, that awesome cameo in This Is The End. Oddly enough he is a meathead love interest in this, but he just rolls with it and brings a lot to the character.

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In contrast to Jupiter, who suffers from too little characterization, Caine you could say suffers from too much. His backstory is as follows: he is a genetically engineered ‘splice’ who has human and canine DNA fused together – hence the pointy ears. He was in the space military but got exiled for biting someone’s throat out. That’s not all – he apparently used to have wings too. Those of course were cut off when he was exiled. Oh and he has a keen sense of smell that allows him to track a scent through the galaxy. The best part?

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“Space Roller Derby Champion a hundred years in a row, thank you very much.”

He also has a funky holographic shield, which he puts to good use when they’re ambushed by Balem’s goons and Caine’s ship gets destroyed. The next five minutes or so consists of our two leads zooming around Chicago on the gravity boots – where poor Jupiter becomes a distressed damsel about three times. During this time, they hijack a ship and lose it as well. This sequence took six months to finish and involved a lot of complex helicopter camera rigs. The result is a thrilling action sequence that leaves the city of Chicago in tatters.

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“Not cool, guys.”

Caine seems to cop on that using a car might be less conspicuous than an exploding spaceship – also informing Jupiter that the building will be rebuilt and the general public’s memories wiped. Caine drops the exposition that we need to understand what’s going on: the three Abrasax siblings have been squabbling over their inheritance, and Balem is the one who currently owns the Earth. Titus is the one who hired Caine. Jupiter does her first useful thing at the thirty-three-minute mark – bandaging one of Caine’s wounds with a tampon. Caine then takes her to see an old friend…

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Stinger Apini is his name. Movie, you officially got 10% better by casting Sean Bean. The bee thing actually comes in handy as, while he’s ready to fight Caine due to some old issues, he changes his tune quickly. He knows who Jupiter is. Or rather, what: she’s royalty. Space royalty. He knows this because apparently bees recognise space royalty in this universe.

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So yeah, it’s at this point that the movie feels very…’fan-ficcy’. Another of the major criticisms hurled at it is that the story comes dangerously close to reading like some teenager’s fan fiction. So far we have:

  • Supposedly average heroine, who just happens to be stunningly beautiful, that’s actually space royalty.
  • She is saved from her attackers by a hunky monster guy, who’s just human enough to have sex appeal.
  • She’s instantly loved and attended to by all, despite displaying no particular skills or qualities to make them do so. The only ones who don’t love her are the villains (sort of).
  • She later gets the chance to dress up in fabulous gowns and command her own ship.
  • Interesting yet underdeveloped side characters.

I’m going to go against the popular opinion here and say that the story itself is not the problem. There is actually a good story in here somewhere. But the way it’s presented is where the movie kind of falters. Harry Potter actually does this kind of story very well; Harry finds out he’s a famous wizard, and doesn’t know how to cope with the sudden change of worlds. His status as this famous figure makes up a good part of his character conflict in the early books. The story gives balanced views of how someone thrust into the limelight would deal with such a thing – showing that there are advantages in addition to the drawbacks. It’s a similar deal with Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. There’s the bare bones of an interesting story here but the movie doesn’t tap into the potential – not using any of these revelations for character conflict other than the standard ‘save her from the baddies’ plot.

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Although there are a *lot* of baddies to save her from.

Caine strips off so that Stinger can heal his wound, and he stays shirtless because by God they paid for Channing Tatum and he’s going to show his physique off. It also gives us the chance to see the stubs where his wings used to be. Sean Bean doesn’t get a shirtless scene however; he just tells us that his wings are gone too – as a result of taking the fall for Caine’s aforementioned throat-ripping thing. As he’s Sean Bean, he also can’t resist dropping some background info: humans originally came from a planet called Ourus and they bred their DNA with that of the native populations on other planets. Oh and they also wiped out the dinosaurs.

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“Been there, done that.”

They can’t talk any more for now because the bounty hunters attack. Although Stinger and Caine (and the bees) try, Jupiter gets captured when two of the bounty hunters turn on the third. If I go back and try to figure out why this is, the hunters appear to have initially been hired by Balem. But upon finding out who Jupiter is, the two instead switched allegiance to Kalique. As their ship takes Jupiter to her planet – and we get to see some rather impressive visuals. It’s quite obvious what the film’s $176 million budget went on, and it is actually extraordinary.

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Jupiter wakes up for the second time in an unfamiliar environment with aliens all around her. She meets Kalique, who now explains that she is actually their mother’s reincarnation. She offhandedly also says that she’s over 14,000 years old – and the people have a special vat of miracle juice to keep them young and beautiful. But more importantly, her mother wrote her reincarnation into her will (I’d love to have seen *that* reading) and that makes Jupiter heir to the Earth once she claims her title.

Caine has now followed Jupiter to the planet, and bursts in to rescue her. There’s no need, as Kalique arranges for them to travel to Ourus, so that Jupiter can properly verify her title. We get to meet the space cops that Stinger works for – and he’s there too to put us in a good mood. We get something of an intimate moment between Jupiter and Caine, where it seems that our lowly house cleaner has fallen for the buff space werewolf/angel with rocket rollerskates. Caine tries to tell her to back off with the best exchange in the movie.

 

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Ignoring Jupiter’s possible bestiality – and the fact that the Wachowskis paralleled her and Caine to Dorothy and Toto – she now has to go through an absolutely hilarious sequence to verify her title. As Jupiter puts it “I will never complain about the DMV again” and she then flirts with Caine some more. Caine has to kill the moment not by telling her he’s really part cat, but because he and Stinger think helping her will get them both back in their former positions. They’re interrupted by a good old double cross – which should be expected when you cast Sean Bean in your ‘Downton Abbey in space’ blockbuster.

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Jupiter is brought before Titus and shows that she’s had time to study some of the space protocol – ordering that he fly her home. Caine is locked in the brig, while Jupiter slips on a snazzy black dress to have dinner with Titus. Dude seems to have no problem flirting with the reincarnation of his mother before he drops a bombshell. The fluid that regenerated Kalique’s youth and beauty is harvested from people. Earth is a farm that raises people for this reason.

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I have to say that Mila Kunis gives a very genuine reaction to this revelation. She processes that one hundred people were slaughtered to make the liquid she is currently holding, and drops the vial in shock. She’s then horrified at doing so, as if she just killed those hundred people herself. Apparently Titus is planning to stop the Earth from being harvested, and he needs Jupiter’s help to do so. So he proposes.

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“After all, incest is relative.”

Stinger and the space cops are trying to trace where Titus’s ship is heading, so they can save Jupiter and Caine. And not a moment too soon – as Titus reveals to Caine that he plans to kill Jupiter once they’re married. The reasoning is that the Earth will go to him once the marriage goes through. He then chucks Caine out the airlock. But don’t forget Caine’s miracle boots – as they help him break his cuffs and find a spacesuit to buy him some time. It’s at this point that I’m wondering if Caine is a splice of Rambo and Harry Houdini.

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We return to Jupiter’s colossally large family, who are abducted by Balem’s henchmen. Back to Caine and a weirdly edited shot – where the film awkwardly jumps from him floating in space to being revived on the space cops’ ship. Back on Titus’s, Jupiter agrees to the marriage in exchange for pardoning Caine. Speaking of pardoning, Caine forgives Stinger for betraying him when he learns that it was because his daughter was ill. The two of them have now got a wedding to crash.

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For the love of God, someone please make this movie!

After a few minutes of badassery demonstration, Caine and Stinger interrupt before Jupiter can say her vows. The pardon for the two of them still stands though. Too bad Jupiter discovers that her family have been abducted. Balem’s ultimatum is to abdicate or else her family will be killed. As such, she and the space cops travel to Balem’s fortress on the planet Jupiter. To cut a long story short, the following takes place in the next thirty minutes:

  • Balem is revealed to be the one who murdered his mother, as she couldn’t bear to keep harvesting the people of Earth.
  • Jupiter refuses to abdicate, putting the needs of the people of Earth above her own.
  • Caine rescues Jupiter’s family and gets them to safety.
  • A lot of explosions result in the destruction of Balem’s fortress.
  • Balem falls to his death after a fist-fight with Jupiter.
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They also trash Balem’s spiffy throne room.

The denouement shows that Jupiter’s family don’t remember anything from the events, and they’ve even pooled their money together to buy that telescope for her. Cut to her with Caine, where she says that she probably won’t tell them that she now owns the Earth. Oh and Caine now has his wings back…

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So he and Jupiter proceed to fly around Chicago, him on his wings and her on the rocket boots. One has to wonder if she’ll take the time to read up on the politics or foreign policy of this planet she now owns.

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And this’ll be her once she does.

Budget of this? $176 million (not including marketing costs). Worldwide Box Office? $184 million. If that sounds good, movie studios only get half of those profits – so a film needs to make twice its budget to be considered a success. The Wachowskis even admitted that this probably meant that they’d never get to make a big budget film again – but things seem to be going well with their Netflix series Sense8.

Reaction to this film is split down the middle. Most viewers wouldn’t call it good, but the opinion is divided on whether it’s garbage, so bad its good or in need of some fine-tuning. Despite this being an Honorary Pick and not on the main list, I’d lean towards the third option. To me, there is an interesting world that’s been created here. With some crazily fun designs and plenty of characters who warranted more screen time, the flavouring is what gives the movie its strengths. The main issue is with the writing.

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And of course giving direction to do this.

Let’s take some of the great epics that have come out recently. While the worlds and side characters are elaborate, the main thread is always something very simple. Lord of the Rings is mainly about trying to destroy a ring that shouldn’t get into the wrong hands. Star Wars is about bringing down a corrupt empire. Lesser stuff like The Fifth Element also has a conventional ‘stop the impending disaster’ plot. Guardians of the Galaxy, which came out just before this, merely had its protagonists trying to stop a lunatic from destroying the galaxy. Jupiter Ascending has a lengthy and convoluted plot with too many twists and turns. Too many characters come in and out of the story, and a few plot threads are just ignored. This is why A Song of Ice and Fire was adapted for TV instead of film. I feel as if this concept should either have had just one villain – making the story either about stopping Balem or Titus – or been spaced out over the course of a TV series. Our protagonist could probably have done with a few rewrites too. I think this movie may have been trying to go for the ‘shamelessly fun’ approach of Pacific Rim – but at points the story was a little too serious to get there. But then again, if that had been the case, you have to wonder if this movie would have become the cult classic its edging towards now.

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I love grades. I have always loved grades.

*Story? The world is interesting and there are some potentially good plots to use. The movie unfortunately tries to tell too many stories in a format that can’t handle them. C-

*Characters? Jupiter unfortunately feels like a classic teenager’s Mary Sue. She gets better in the third act, but she was in need of some fine tuning in the story department. Caine also didn’t need quite so many tragic things in his past. Supporting characters had loads of potential but the movie handled a lot of them very badly. C

*Performances? Eddie Redmayne was saved by the delay of this movie, and he won his Oscar shortly afterwards, avoiding Elizabeth Berkley type heat from it. Everyone else is actually fine. Mila Kunis is struggling with the script but she prevents the film from falling apart. Channing Tatum does likewise. Douglas Booth is probably the one who does the best job in the main cast, but the film is full of little great performances that warranted more screen time. B-

*Visuals? What the film lacks in plot coherence, it makes up for in looks. Lots of thought and care was put into designing the various fortresses, space ships, alien species etc. They of course went all out and used some very funky costumes, complimented with some artsy shots. A+

*Special Effects? Quite possibly the only area in which this film gets near-universal praise. A+

*Anything Else? N/A

And the grades for The Parent Trap of course.

*Story? A nice family classic with a lot of laughs. Very well-written, even with one or two scary implications in the story. B

*Characters? Annie is a delight, Hallie is a brat of the highest degree. Meredith, Nick, Elizabeth, Martin, Chessie and even Grandfather and the two Marvas are great. A-

*Performances? Lindsay Lohan was killer at everything, closely seconded by Natasha Richardson. Everyone else in the film was brilliant too. Just a cast that all gelled together so well. A+

*Visuals? The movie makes great use of its London and Californian settings, which is very pleasing. B+

*Special Effects? Well this is the film that convinced a generation of 90s kids that Lindsay Lohan had a twin sister. A

*Anything Else? N/A

Returning to the main list, it’s the teen coming-of-age story The Spectacular Now on the way.

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