Jupiter Ascending – final review

I saw Jupiter Ascending again in theaters, this time up close on the ULTRA screen.  Sitting up close makes it a bad movie.  You lose the big picture.  I sort of got to experience the movie how others might see it: a big blurry mess.

On second viewing, I see how the movie made a big mistake, and how the confusion I talked about in my previous post was created. A movie is a story, and this story lacked something called a “narrative imperative”, meaning the core of the story lacks a means from moving naturally from one scene to the next. Normally this is accomplished by the imperatives and motivations of the main character and her story, but in the case of Jupiter Ascending, she has no story. She has no ambitions. She’s Cinderella without a ball to go to. This is normal for a character piece, where the story *is* the character, and doesn’t need to go anywhere. But in an action movie, that’s bad. You need a story that moves.

The writers realize this and so invent a three ancillary characters to push the story along. In Jupiter’s case, there is the bounty hunters, the space cops (Aegis), and the Mercenary, Stinger. These three characters function to get Jupiter to meet all three Abrasax family members. So far so good. The problem starts when the writers made these ancillary characters more interesting than the main character, Jupiter. Jupiter doesn’t have a backstory. She doesn’t look interesting. All these ancillary characters looked phenomenal, blue-haired Anime girl, personal invisible hovercrafts, blue-skinned guys, cool sonic guns, the Aegis with its aliens and chain of command, and Stinger, ex-marshal who lost his wings. So right away you get the sense they are important when they’re really not.

Still not a deal-breaker. Every character is explainable, you just need an introduction. The more interesting or complex the character, the longer the introduction. They introduced Stinger the proper way, name, emotions or motivation, even a title. Stinger was the retired ex-commanding officer. Audiences got that.

But the other two characters, the blue-skinned bounty hunters and the Aegis, the writers completely failed in their introduction. There were no names, no sense of backstory, and no motivations. They tried, but it was in exposition and way earlier in the movie. There was no easy way to link what they were talking about with the actual characters once you see them. Even if you did, there was no emotional reason to care. The introduction failed.

So when the characters started affecting the plot, you get confused. Something feels wrong. They all tried to kidnap Jupiter, and they all first appeared at the same time. So we’ve got several very detailed, interesting characters who were not properly introduced, all manipulating the action and the plot all at the same time. To further complicate things, they all were betraying the person who originally hired them. It was minor, but to audiences who were desperately trying to figure out what these characters’ motivations were, the added complication was just too much. It was unnecessary. It was too ambitious.

I see more clearly that the movie was more of a character piece, not a story. The character, however, was NOT the main character, Jupiter. The character was the world. The fantastic, futuristic, gorgeous world, and the people who ran it, mainly the Abrasax family. I thought at first maybe the movie was about the three members of the Abrasax family, since each one was very unique, but upon thought I see that they were all the same. They all wanted the same thing. They all wanted Earth, they all wanted Jupiter, and they all wanted to screw up each other. So I think they were all just three parts of one single character.

Jupiter was just the vessel from which the characters were displayed. The writers couldn’t just *show* you the world. So they invented a character, Jupiter, to go from place to place and have things happen to her and by doing so show you the world. To get Jupiter from place to place they invented the 3 ancillary characters, one for each member of the Abrasax family, namely Stinger, The Aegis, and the unnamed bounty hunters. And then they made those ancillary characters too interesting and botched their introductions.

It would have been such an easy fix, too. All they needed was for Jupiter to ask “Who are these people giving us a ride?” while they were first on board the ship and *then* Caine should have explained that they were Aegis, basically space cops, upholding the laws and protecting the royalty. Not while they were walking around on Earth.

Same with the bounty hunters. All they needed was Jupiter (or Caine, asking Stinger, or vice versa) to say “Who are these people with guns surrounding the house?”
“Oh they seem to be bounty hunters, trying to kidnap you and sell or trade you off for profit. I ran into them earlier outside the fertility clinic. Somehow they found out there was untitled royalty on Earth and are after you. Or maybe someone hired them. Stay away from them.”

That’s all it took to do a proper introduction. Instead they neglected it, because they thought they were unimportant. Sorry writers, its not whether *you* think they are important, its whether the *audience* thinks they are important. You made them look cool and had all these cool gadgets and details so the audience thought they were important.

In the final estimation, a movie is just a story. Jupiter Ascending did not have much of a story. Aliens coming to conquer the earth, blah blah, it’s that movie Independence Day all over again. Stories have been built on less. It still could have been good. But then the rest of the story should have been how to save earth. It needed to hint how that was going to happen, foreshadows and conflict, how the characters motivations change and adapt to the exigencies created by this imperative. Instead the story strayed. It became just a vessel for the Wachowskis to show off this fantabulous world they created with its wacky elephant pilots and tri-sexual (men, women, robots) bureaucracy and reptile-humans that descended from the dinosaurs of earth and amazing technology and oh yeah its insane royalty.

Only at the very very end did they move the focus away from Milo Kunis and all the visuals to the heart of the matter – The Story. Saving her family, saving earth. She throws down and shatters the document signing away her claim to the earth, and only at *that* moment, only then did the story really begin. They should have done that scene, that showdown between her and the bad guy, earlier. They could have done it again at the end if they wanted. But until that choice, that struggle, that motivation, and the imperative that runs a story, becomes clear, there is no story.

Final Grade: B+

Jupiter Ascending: A defense

I’m going to do this review a little differently because there are so many bad reviews out there, bad reviews about a movie I thought I would hate and instead loved.  Just google “Jupiter Ascending Reviews” and the entire page will scream at you how Jupiter is a colossal mess.  This is not abnormal for good films, but what made Jupiter a little different was that I could not find any good reviews.  Not a one.  Even rottentomatoes.com, which consistently over-rates movies, gave it a 22%.  So I figure no review I write could possibly succeed without addressing all the negative reviews.


I first need to say that this is a space shooter.  If you don’t like action movies with guns, or sci-fi, you won’t like Jupiter.  I get that.  Completely reasonable.  What’s not reasonable is Rolling Stone calling Jupiter an ‘unholy mess’ or a ‘shambling fiasco’.  Ebert calls it ‘bland’ and ‘listless’.  NYTimes calls it ‘mildewy’ and says there were no believable human emotions.  Chicago times called it the worst movie of 2015.  More comments like ‘tired, reused visuals’ or ‘boring music’ make me think these people were not watching the same movie I did.  And so, to all those reviewers who were watching and asked themselves ‘what is happening right now?’, this is for you.

How could you not follow the plot?  Were you not listening when they explained the plot five different ways?  When she straight-up asked ‘why are they after me?’  How her genes matched, how they have an almost spiritual relationship with royalty, how she is heir to half the galaxy, how she looks just like the old queen – did you really miss ALL those explanations?   These explanations weren’t even convoluted.   They were just a few simple bits of exposition given their own brief scenes after a firefight or a rescue.  The writers went out of their way to hold your hand and if you still don’t understand anyone’s motivation, that’s your fault.

Yes, I myself don’t know what every character on the screen was doing.  There were many characters, but most were minor.  I missed the explanation for one or two while I was in the bathroom – but even having missed their introduction, I can still extrapolate.  That small ship that picked up Caine from floating around in space?  At first I was like ‘that is too convenient’ but then I realized they were his ex-space cop friends and knew Caine was in trouble and they were looking for him.  They appeared earlier and had just stuck around.  Not complicated.  And that was the only thing I didn’t understand.  Minor.

Too much was happening?  Too much not explained?  It’s a sci-fi movie.  They have unlimited technology.  They can virtually walk from planet to planet, learn anything instantly with that chip in their neck, create holographic worlds with a flick of their hand.  That little box he kicked out into space with him?  That was the spacesuit.  No, I know it didn’t look like a spacesuit.  Did it need to, for you to understand it molecularly rearranged itself around him when he pushed the button?  It was a new concept for me too, but instead of complaining how it was confusing I was awed by the genius of the simplicity and the smooth on-screen execution.  Give that a try.  And go watch a few episodes of Dr. Who.

You couldn’t follow the plot?  There were only 3 main characters:  The good girl, Jupiter, the good guy, Caine and the bad guy (and family).  Sean Penn?  Friend of good guy.  Russian people calling good girl on cell phone trying to get her to do strange things?  Family.  Creepy guy who never blinks, creepy girl always talking about immortality, charming prince who wants to marry good girl, weird talking dinosaurs?  All bad guy and family.  Blue-skinned guy and blue-haired girl shooting at Caine?  People hired by bad guy.  What more do you need?  Where was it complicated?  Was it the fifty different types of aliens?  Go watch star wars again and don’t look at the main characters.  Go watch any Sci-fi.

All the chasing and shooting and flying and backgrounds blowing up was loud and trashy and tasteless and boring?  WRONG.  It was freaking awesome.  He’s got roller-blade hover boots.  He’s got an arsenal built into his body.  He’s impossible to kill.  How would *you* demonstrate those things?  I’d have a lot of flying and chasing and shooting and blowing things up in the background.  Have you seen superman?  It’s the same as superman but with more guns.  Do you not like superman or cool sci-fi guns?  Oh, you like them?  Then don’t trash the movie because they had the brilliant idea to combine the two.

Boring music?  Unappealing visuals?  What the !@%* are you talking about?  The music was typical star wars and star trek music, you’re right, but maybe you aren’t aware that star wars and star trek music is FREAKING AWESOME.  Go watch the movie again.  Go watch the scene where our heroine Jupiter meets the sister of the royal family.  Where she explains Jupter looks like her mother.  Jupiter asks about her mother.  At that point, LISTEN.  Listen to the musical tone slowly turn minor, quieter, and the moment the sister says ‘My mother and I did not really get along’, the music at that point introduces a bell. A lone, quiet, tolling of a bell in the background.  With that single musical note from a single bell, the audience suddenly realizes that this sister knows who killed her mother, maybe even did it herself.  It’s not in the dialogue.  It’s not in the face expressions or the acting.  That information is in the music.

Unappealing visuals?  Really?  Really?!  Show me one moment of boring in the entire movie.  ONE. I dare you.  Show me a single freaking wall in the background that isn’t elaborately etched or textured.  There isn’t any.  The amount of care and detail poured into every single shot, even as they are zipping around in exploding hovercraft, ESPECIALLY as they are zipping around in exploding hovercraft, was exquisite.  It rivaled the detail put into Lord of the Rings.  It was even better, because it had the advantage of using CGI.  Did you notice that when Caine brought up his shield it had veins in it?  It was alive with electricity.  Or the little virtual console in his glove that he used to control the portals he had placed in the floors?  The buttons at his fingertips weren’t just generic glowing green buttons.  They had little virtual circuit boards leading to them.  I noticed them (and thought “Ridiculous!  Still using silicon-based technology in the billionth century?”  :))  I appreciated it because it was visually appealing and oh yeah INCREDIBLY DETAILED.  If you didn’t see anything visually appealing the entire movie then you had your eyes closed.

The ships appear to be made of gold and glass.  They are gorgeous.  They are art.  Did you notice there are no joints on any of the robots?  No wires, no hoses, nothing ‘attaching’ anything to anything else?  Yet moved and flowed as if there were real, solid, joints?  They weren’t hovering like the hover effects in Star Wars.  They were rock solid, attached as if by steel but without all the friction.  Don’t you realize that that sort of visual is a unique, original creation in the history of Sci-fi?  Every other ‘force field attached’ object has always had something to let the audience know ‘this is a force-field attached object’.  Something glowy or showy or gaudy.  Remember the hovercrafts in star wars?  They slowly bob up and down, floating.  They recoil as you jump into them.  Did you ever think how stupid that is?  Master of gravity and you can’t make something that sits still?  Star Wars is afraid of having its technology being too subtle.  Jupiter Ascending has no fear of that.  Clear, plain, subtle negative space to emphasize how much technology was taking place in those gaps.

The technology in Jupiter Ascending was beautiful.  It made me cry.  The shimmering, peaceful transport beams ascending into the night sky to an invisible ship floating above the Sears Tower.  The heavenly portals the ships create.  The personal hovercraft of kick-ass ridden by the blue-haired anime chick that turns invisible so quietly and slowly it is a character in itself.  Every ship, every robot, even the gay C3po-style personal assistant with his fat metal pistons where his ears should be that twitched in and out to show his emotions, was beautiful.

The acting and emotion was bland and stilted?  Maybe.  Since when did we expect great acting from a sci-fi movie?  It was ten times better than the acting in Star Wars or Star Trek, a hundred times better than most action movies, and a thousand times better than Twilight.  I actually liked the acting.  Let me explain.  There’s one scene with Jupiter and Caine in the alley, after days of bureaucratic legalize claiming her title.  She’s officially royalty, and Caine, Channing Tatum, addresses her as “Your Majesty.  She leans in, and then there is a moment.  Caine does this thing with his jaw.  He wants her, but knows it’s wrong, and doesn’t particularly like himself, and still controls himself.  It’s pretty darn hard to pull off boy-scout sincerity, especially while playing a hired killer, but Channing Tatum does it.  Maybe where I saw honest respect and an internal struggle, you just saw bad acting.  That’s understandable.  But realize there might be a different interpretation.  It’s all about the jaw twitch.

Comparison to the bad acting of Natalie Portman as Princess Amidala in Star Wars is uncalled for.  I love Natalie Portman and I’ll be the first to say that was some horrible acting.  She’s ruler of a nation, meaning she’s got some back story, yet only manages to show one emotion?  That’s just bad.  Whereas Milo Kunis as Jupiter doesn’t have a back story and she manages to show at least three emotions.  🙂

Also keep in mind she’s nothing.  She’s a poor serving wench suddenly become princess and thrust into intergalactic intrigue.   She’s Cinderella.  Does anyone expect good acting from Cinderella?  No, and I’d be worried if there was because she’s not a complex character.

Also keep in mind that editing changes things.  I had the sense they edited a lot of the emotional bits out of the movie.  Like, the whole wedding scene happened way too fast.  One scene he’s proposing and almost immediately they are standing at the altar?  That’s editing.  It didn’t really happen like that.  I assumed that days or weeks had gone by.  The same thing applies to character reactions.  Just because they edited out the reaction shots doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

Which brings me to the pacing.  Certain bits of the movie felt rushed, I’ll give you that.  That does *not* mean the Wachowski brothers did not know what they were doing, or that it makes the movie a sloppy mess.  If you compare it to other Hollywood movies, sure, I can see how it felt sloppy.  You don’t just rush into a wedding either in real life or in telling it.  So it’s understandable if you think the director made a mistake.  I did not.  I saw it as a deliberate choice.  The reason, in my opinion, is that they didn’t want the movie to be too long.  It easily could have been three hours long.  Five if Peter Jackson were directing it.  They didn’t want that.  So they edited.  They cut.  The other choice was to rewrite the story to make it simpler, so less happened, less action, less talking, less everything.  I felt the creators made an artistic choice to keep all the ideas, cut anything that wasn’t exciting or original and keep the movie to about two hours, and hope their viewers were intelligent enough to handle the rapid scene changes and understand there’s more going on that they didn’t see.  I’ve seen too many tedious movies, and so it’s refreshing to find a movie that is willing to err on the side of intelligence.

People who don’t like Jupiter Ascending don’t realize that the Wachowski brothers (sorry, siblings now!) are attempting to combine a lot of nerdy fanboy ideas into something legitimate.  You have to know the world of nerdy fanboy stuff to get this movie.  You have to know things like: Shooter Anime (yes it is its own genre), superheros (Caine was pretty original I thought, sorta a Wolverine with hover boots), a world of unlimited technology, the speed and techno soundtrack of first-person-shooters (Unreal Tournament!), the Protoss ships from StarCraft,  the detail of Lord of the Rings, the political machinations from fantasy books (I was reminded of the Reymond Feist books), slightly altered physics (Final Fantasy series), plus some funny characters from Star Wars and the lovable bureaucracy of the Harry Potter world, and all with a side of ‘cool’.   All these concepts in one live-action mix, and I think it’s a success.  So the Wachowskis probably never grew up.  So the movie is probably going to be a hit with fifteen-year old boys.  So what.  It doesn’t negate the beauty of the accomplishment.  And that’s just the big picture.  There were a lot of little artistic things I liked, like you never saw anyone die except those creepy spider-like ET things and the one evil talking dinosaur.  The one shot of them slowly rising up the teleporter the height of the Sears Towers took my breath away.  If you accept that Jupiter Ascending at least tried to blend all these strange, disparate elements into one original story, regardless of whether they actually did it, the mere attempt, combined with the fantastic visuals, makes this a great movie that I will be watching again in the theaters.