When it comes to cinema, people are split into two camps: just as passionate, but ultimately discordant. There are those who love the Wachowskis, and those who don’t. There’s no room for ambivalence, there’s only a fiery enthusiasm or an equally zealous dismissal. I am firmly and unabashedly in the former group: I love the Matrix films, I love Speed Racer, I love Cloud Atlas, I love Sense8.
At the same time, these films inspire just as much frustration as enchantment. I find myself gnashing my teeth and rolling my eyes, annoyed by the waste of potential. These are sumptuous films with gorgeous special effects and dizzying, multi-layered storylines, but they have a tendency to trip over their own grandeur, sacrificing storytelling for artifice.
I felt this this sense of loss with Jupiter Ascending more than any of the Wachowskis’ previous films. Because Jupiter Jones has the potential to be a glorious sci-fi heroine – she’s an ordinary girl fighting to save her planet from a dynasty of aliens infatuated with youth and beauty. It’s a brilliant, lofty concept. But instead of being given the film she deserves, Jupiter is miscast, displaced, ultimately let down. And so are we.
When the film begins, Jupiter Jones is a modern-day Cinderella, a girl wasting her life as a maid, cleaning rich people’s toilets and being around their wealth, but never being a part of it. It should be hard-hitting, or we should at least feel a little sorry for her. She’s an illegal immigrant, without a father or a true home, who keeps meeting the wrong men and who seemingly has no friends. Instead, her entire life comes across as a thinly-plotted fairy tale.
It’s not that beautiful girls don’t have problems because that would be stupid. But the fact is, Mila Kunis is gorgeous, even in a plaid shirt and jeans, with no make-up. She looks amazing. The film would be much more believable if Jupiter was a girl who doesn’t look like a model, who has bad skin, or who struggles with her weight, or who doesn’t have a symmetrical face.
This is where the film fails to connect because from the outset nothing about Jupiter is believable. The set-up feels fabricated and every scene feels like it’s been scripted. The Wachowskis had a chance to show what it’s really like for working class women, who make a living scrubbing people’s toilets, cleaning their clothes and and making their beds. What it’s like to be looked down upon by people who are wealthier and more fortunate than you, to be taken for granted and never feel like you fit in.These are the characters we sympathize with and learn to love, because they’re like us.
Jupiter is supped to be a disillusioned dreamer, lonely and adrift. She is apparently mistreated by men, but we never see the loneliness or heartbreak. She has a burgeoning interest in space, but we’re only given one scene where she looks at a telescope on eBay. She feels so helpless she has to sell her eggs to make some money, but we never see her making any effort to improve her situation, whether it’s trying to get a better job or educate herself.
Instead, we’re given a beautiful woman who gazes vacantly into the distance and spends the film’s running time looking beautifully confused.We never feel her desperation or her longing for a new life because she’s hollow.
There are things about Jupiter Ascending I like. At its best moments, it shows how the female body is defined, moulded and abused by men. Jupiter’s creepazoid cousin pressures her into selling her eggs, not once offering to sell his sperm. Her uncle tells her that men don’t like smart women, and he criticizes her for being materialistic yet another male manipulates her into marriage so he can steal her inheritance. At the clinic, she tells the doctors she’s changed her mind and (apart from them being murderous aliens), they ignore her struggles. She’s a typically hysterical woman, just sedate her.
So Jupiter can sell a part of her body, but it’s okay because her cousin gets a big TV and lots of gadgets. She can be toyed with, lied to and murdered because she has something others want, whether it’s money, land or her DNA. These are moments that can easily be overlooked, lost among the copious CGI and dazzling fight sequences, but they speak to women and highlight the ingrained inequality women have to tackle on a daily basis.
Despite all of its potential, the film is bludgeoned by the arrival of the heroic male: Channing Tatum. Caine is the half-breed alien, another character who is rejected and ostracized, and who doesn’t have a home. But he’s still strong and gorgeous, heroic and brave. He still saves Jupiter at least three times during the film’s running time, always there at the last minute to literally sweep her off her feet. Maybe it would have been better without him. Maybe it would be easier to sympathize with Jupiter if we were given the chance to see how vulnerable she is, to see her bleed and fall down and cry, with no one to rescue her.
The truth is, there won’t always be a beautiful, heroic guy to save us. Critics liked the film because it fulfilled girlhood fantasies, of finding out we’re special and of meeting our very own Prince Charming. But girls need more than the fantasy. We need characters that can inspire us, that boost our self-confidence and show us we don’t need a man to feel fulfilled.
I’m not looking for Jupiter to be the ultimate strong woman or to be infallible. I’m looking for her to be realistic and complex. Jupiter can feel scared and she can make wrong decisions; this is what it means to be human. And yes, she can be saved sometimes because there are times when we all have to be, but maybe she could save herself as well, to know that she can rely on herself.
There are moments when Jupiter is brave – she stands up to Balem during the wedding ceremony, telling him she doesn’t consent, and she’s willing to sacrifice herself and the people she loves if it means the world can be saved. Here is an inner strength that doesn’t involve combat of any kind.
And Jupiter has glimpses of agency: making the decision to sell her eggs and take charge of her own body isn’t something we usually see in Hollywood films. But it’s not enough, and it doesn’t make up for all the times she is rescued mid-explosion or swept through the air in the arms of her muscular beau.
Strange: Jupiter Jones is a character I love in a film I don’t particularly enjoy. The film tackles ambitious themes – capitalism, greed, how the rich continuously exploit the poor and how the human body has become a commodity. But Jupiter Ascending should be about a girl who learns to love herself, who finally realizes she doesn’t have to be ‘special’, have lots of money or be with a man to be happy. But this doesn’t happen. The film disintegrates into an interplanetary Romeo and Juliet, and everything interesting about Jupiter melts away. Ultimately, Jupiter doesn’t ascend, she falls.