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This movie manages more astonishing visuals in 5 minutes than many big budget Hollywood tent-poles manage in 90.

Sometimes I can feel it when a movie has the potential to be something I’m going to have to defend over and over again for the immediate future. A lot of the time, these are movies that are declared dead on arrival due to rumors, production difficulties, negative early reviews, and so on. Sometimes, they are movies that are totally misunderstood and eviscerated on release. Too often, it’s a combination of both. That is the case for Jupiter Ascending, a movie that many people do not “get” to such an extent that I’m baffled.

The reviews for Jupiter Ascending make little sense to me when coming from people who grew up in the age of video games, anime, comics, and really wild speculative science fiction (I’m talking Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson type of stuff). There is stuff in Jupiter that we’ve read about, or seen in static images, but have never seen in motion. There’s so much shit going on here, that the only way I can understand the misgivings is that there’s some sort of weird reflexive warding of the most incredibly creative and nerdy shit. If you had an existing superhero attached to this movie, it would have been a sleeper hit.

Even the older critics who may have missed out on that stuff have no excuse, due to the debt that this movie owes to the colorful, ridiculous science fiction books and movies made before Star Wars came along. Speaking of Star Wars, there are too many people out there who will praise the Cantina scene as a masterstroke of small details, cool creature design, and subtle world-building while ignoring how well Jupiter Ascending populates itself will the same kind of thing throughout its running time. I’m talking Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers type of stuff. I’m talking Jodorowsky’s plans for Dune, at least in terms of design scale and bold insanity, and I hope he sees this movie because he will truly get it. For more recent points of comparison, I’d say that Jupiter Ascending is the closest thing to a Saga movie that we’re likely to get. It’s nearest cinematic cousin is The 5th Element, from the vibrant design to the cheesy lightness that informs its plot and characters.

To tie all that together, it is probably best to think of Jupiter Ascending as a highly creative and visually-masterful take on a classic Disney fairy-tale… except re-imagined through the prisms of technology so powerful it borders on magic. Jupiter Ascending is a movie that almost carelessly inflicts creative new things, or new spins on old ideas and images, on its audience. There’s a type of person who will get lost in contextual terminology, all the various cool gadgets and vehicles, etc. But this is a movie for the genre savvy, and it is extremely rewarding for those of us who can immediately go with the ridiculous assortment of science fiction tropes that it depends on. Like Pacific Rim, it’s a weirdly misunderstood love letter to all of us who wished desperately for a movie like this when we were kids. Not only that, but it’s Disney-style plot and themes (which are mixed with trademark Wachowski social commentary) make for an inclusive feel that offers something for everyone. Except the people with confirmation bias and weird hang-ups about Channing Tatum’s ears.

If nothing I’ve written so far does it for you, consider this: Jupiter Ascending is the movie about a toilet scrubber and the badass avatar of Tumblr Otherkin battling the Walmart heirs for the freedom to fly around on anti-gravity boots and actual fucking wings. If that doesn’t sound like something you want to see, try to remember that Channing Tatum fist-fights a fucking dragon in this movie. It’s as cool and ridiculous as it sounds.  Also remember that I have biases too. I have liked everything the Wachowskis have done, and I am exactly the target audience for this movie. But I went into it with diminished expectations and came out in love.

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The Abrasax siblings are basically the Walmart heirs.

The immediately visible issue with Jupiter Ascending is that it relies heavily on exposition. Not unlike The Matrix, which may have accomplished this more successfully, it often feels like Jupiter is trying to find the coolest and most organic way to deliver its world to us. Because Jupiter takes place in a universe with many new concepts, there are probably too many scenes of people explaining those concepts to us. If Jupiter Ascending commits any one cinematic sin, it’s overly relying on telling instead of showing.

Ultimately, I’d say this isn’t much of a problem as for every one thing the movie sits us down and explains to us, there are three or four things it shows us. This works very well for all the cool technology, not so well for describing intergalactic politics of rich assholes so I can understand why the Wachowskis chose to use their time the way they did. That said, there’s an amazing Brazil-inspired sequence of galactic bureaucracy that will probably become a cult favorite once people get over Channing Tatum’s ears. That scene does the job of showing us more about how this civilization works than any other single scene. Taken alongside the frequent conversations about profit and capitalistic supremacy, which are the driving motivations of the bad guys in the movie, it works better than you’d expect based on the sheer amount of exposition.

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This is the kind of movie where you go “cooooool” every few minutes. Unless you’re totally fucking jaded.

I suspect that one of the reasons some people thought the plot of the movie, much less the movie in general, was “stupid” is down to the fact that the bad guys aren’t terrorists trying to destroy the world. They are rich, gothic, aristocratic capitalists. The conflict of Jupiter does revolve around saving the Earth, but the reason its meant to be destroyed is profit margins. I think this bugs people. They want evil empires and Ronan the Accuser at the very least. They don’t seem to want stuffy, pretentious assholes who own planets. More’s the pity.

Does any of that sound like an allegorical device which reflects something about the way we relate to our planet? Of course it does. Much of the subtext of this movie, which is beefier than it had to be, revolves around the “Matrix” of capitalism. As always, the Wachowskis are concerned by the comforting and gratifying lies we tell ourselves or are told by powerful oppressors about what’s good for us, what we should be, and what we should do. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is, like many “chosen one” style heroes and heroines, on a path to piercing the veil and transcending the binary nature of her incomplete reality.

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In her reality, Earth is the only planet with intelligent human life. Life that is about to enter it’s so-called “genetic age”. Earth, however, is a sort of farm for genetic material, which is the quasi-holy currency of the broader universe, a universe dominated by human beings who are actually a much older and more advanced species than is known by earthlings. In that universe, rich job creators harvest and sell raw genetic material to help humans and humanoids (and presumably other alien species, which we see a lot in the film) live much longer. Time, one of the Abrasax siblings explains, is the only thing that has any true value. This sounds a lot like it’s alluding to the hard lessons of Late Capitalism for the working poor.

That the Wachowskis go there is laudable in a movie that could have easily been a rollicking good time with no deeper significance. I’ve heard Jupiter referred to as a YA adaptation of a book that doesn’t exist. That feels appropriate in describing the marriage between the fantastic and the allegorical. Like The Hunger GamesJupiter has just as much fun with its impeccably constructed world as it does with its social commentary. It’s not Matrix or Cloud Atlas level, but it’s got more going on intellectually than something like Guardians of the Galaxy. Which isn’t a knock against that movie, by the way, as I vastly prefer to have both itches scratched. I feel spoiled that both these movie exist and my contention is that this should be the consensus.

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The gravity boots are spectacular.

Jupiter, through sheer probability, is the genetic recurrence of the matriarch of the Abrasax family, one of the most powerful of the families in the Time business. She is discovered by accident, and manipulated by design by the three siblings her previous incarnation left behind. Each Act of the film is thematically dominated by one of the siblings as they introduce Jupiter to their world and try to manipulate her into serving their team in Galactic Monopoly. As an important reincarnation, Jupiter has a pile of rights that are protected by the EGIS, the “space cops” that can only interfere with families like Abrasax if they break galactic laws. In this way, the morality of farming planets full of people is trivial to everybody but Jupiter, who eventually symbolizes the refusal, however limited in scope, to take part in this system.

Some will be dissatisfied with the film’s ending because Jupiter doesn’t “smash” the system and tear it all down. Instead, she personally opts out while taking down Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne playing the biggest and whiniest prick in the universe to a tee) in the process. The stakes are personal, not galactic, and I think the point here is that while your average toilet scrubber from Chicago may not have the power to topple capitalism and its inherent oppression, they do have the power to existentially redefine their experience and to essentially stop playing the same game as everyone else still captivated by the system. In this sense, the movie’s “let’s have fun flying around” ending is perfect.

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Tatum is a total badass in this movie.

It’s interesting to think about how the gender politics of Jupiter Ascending are being constructed or received. Unlike many recent movies that have tried to up the profile of women as action heroes, Jupiter is satisfied to split the heroism between its two leads. Though Jupiter does have action sequences, her heroism is more about moral uncertainty and the ordinary courage to awaken to your own life. It’s about agency. For example, there’s a love story here and it’s entirely driven by Jupiter. She has the hots for Caine first, she makes the first move, and she insists on the possibility of getting past their (unique and played for humor) differences. Caine, on the other hand, is a collection of ridiculous and awesome science fiction and action tropes brought to life to fuck shit up. Not everything works, and I think there are a few deleted scenes that must have rounded out some of the stuff that is said about him (and then half-forgotten). He saves Jupiter’s life a lot, including mirrored scenes at the beginning and end where he catches her as she falls (another Wachowski trademark). The point here is that Jupiter is still an ordinary Earth girl, though she seems to be embracing the extraordinary fully (rather than just bewildered and bemused by it, which is how she comes across through most of her adventures) by the end of the movie.

Because Caine is assigned the action hero status, his character arc is less tied to the plot of the film and is more internal and shallow. He is basically an outcast who needs to find purpose, whether it be in a person or a cause, in order to be whole again. His incompleteness as a person is literalized in visual form, due to his once having biomechanical wings (I shit you not) when he was a “Skyjacker” (some kind of air superiority warrior, I guess) for the “Legion”. I put these things in scare quotes because they are terms that get tossed around a lot, which we’re largely supposed to understand via genre savvy and context. Whether you roll your eyes at stuff like that is a nice litmus test for how you’ll take this movie in general.

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In this one shot, you have four badass minor characters who all embody collections of neat science fiction tropes. All of them get a few lines, or a big moment, to shine.

Channing Tatum commits fully to the ridiculousness of this movie, by the way. This is an entirely new kind of space badass, who rollerblades through the sky and brings new meaning to the concept of “shield”. Though humor and fun inform a lot of the tone of the movie, it is rarely realized so well as in the subtle tics of Caine’s face as he reacts to Jupiter’s nonplussed attitude at all the wonders she perceives. This is interesting because some critics have commented on Mila Kunis seeming out of place and kind of lost in the movie. I think that’s entirely intentional. On one hand, Jupiter has exactly the right attitude for this kind of world. She wants to know, she takes in the wonders in stride, quickly learning as she goes. You’d expect a lot more uncertainty, fear, doubt, incredulity, etc than she offers, but this does not mean she isn’t out of place. She’s a total fish out of water, with one foot in each world, and Kunis brings a grounded quality to the interface she represents between the audience and what we’re seeing. It’s not dissimilar from the way Chris Pratt humanized so much of Guardians of the Galaxy, though that was a far more integral element for that movie than it is for Jupiter Ascending.

For all that I loved this movie to bits, there are things that don’t quite work, and I think this takes the form of scenes which feel clunky and incomplete. Particularly, the early scenes detailing Jupiter’s birth feel unnecessary (especially the voiceover). Likewise, the too early discussion between the Abraxas siblings is jarring and tone-deaf. But these feel like issues revolving around bad cuts, which I’m willing to forgive if they are the exception rather than the norm as they are in Jupiter Ascending. Unfortunately, this forgiveness doesn’t apply so much to the scenes of Jupiter’s family, of which there are too many and on which too much of her motivation depends for it to be okay that they are relatively weak. They don’t ruin the movie or anything that bad, but they are weak enough to be distracting.

It’s well known that the movie was delayed by almost a year. The reason given was to finish post-production. If that’s true, then every bit of that shows in the finished product. Jupiter Ascending is an astonishingly beautiful and cool looking movie. Like I said before, every five minutes there seems to be some new idea, whether awesome or ridiculous, such that the sense you get is simultaneously of a coherent universe and a chaotic mess of “trying shit”. Thankfully, most of the shit that gets tried works well. What doesn’t work is stuff that the movie never has a chance to fully deal with, which is why I think there are probably many deleted scenes and a much longer cut of Jupiter Ascending that we’ll likely never see. This, however, brings me to another problem with how this movie is already being processed by critics and audiences.

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The ship designs, in particular, are realized in wonderful fashion and spectacle.

There’s a lot of talk about how “stupid” Jupiter Ascending is. On one hand, I can kind of see that there are bits where motivations aren’t fully expressed or bits of backstory are left hanging. That does leave a feeling of some things not being fully formed and therefore unearned, of which someone of limited vocabulary might say “that’s dumb”. But I think most people are talking about the concepts themselves, not the plot or characterizations or anything really tangibly insulting to the audience’s intelligence as, say, inserting a magic space flute in Prometheus without context or explanation qualifies as egregiously stupid.

What I mean by concepts is stuff like that there are genetic mutants called “splices”. There are people who think gravity boots are stupid. That think a reimagining of the old “soylent green is people!” ideas is stupid. I can’t get with this on any level, personally. I think these kinds of complaints are stupid. So you don’t get anything out of the idea of human/wolf hybrids with wings. So what? Usually when you encounter the idea of “stupidity” in media, it’s actually a complaint of preferences (ie: the most boring opinions in the world). As in, some people prefer spaceships that look like giant cocks and others prefer spaceships that look like birds and fish. Every review or comment I’ve read that refers to Jupiter Ascending‘s stupidity fails to connect that criticism to anything about the plot or themes. It reminds me of the bullshit revolving around the “lightsaber crossguard” in Episode VII, with people developing serious opinions about a movie that hasn’t come out yet because they prefer lightsabers not have crossguards no matter how reasoned the idea is in execution. It’s very weird.

If Jupiter Ascending‘s tone was more serious, I definitely think some discomfort with the more ridiculous things (like dragon-men and space elephants) would be justifiable. But this is a universe born out of 40’s and 50’s space opera, Star Wars, anime, transhumanist science fiction, French science fiction comic books, and Disney movies. I don’t understand people who like these things and derive no joy from Jupiter Ascending or movies of its kind.

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