“Jupiter Ascending” is one of those movies that people are going to like and are going to struggle with their reasons for enjoying it. Visually, it’s very appealing. There seems to be a whole lot going on throughout the movie. Effects shots abound and the majority of them are gorgeously eye-popping.
The movie starts to break down, though, once you really start thinking about it. “Jupiter Ascending” is the Wachowski’s take on a Cinderella story. Jupiter Jones, played by Mila Kunis, is a young woman living in New York. She was born in Russia, and, after the death of her father, she and her mother ended up living with their extended family all under one roof. They clean the houses of the fabulously wealthy for a living. Jupiter, naturally, hates every minute of it.
It’s really not actually a spoiler to find out that Jupiter is a long-lost space queen. The trailers have given away that particular plot point from day one. Exactly how that plot point comes to pass, however, is a more interesting aspect of the movie. Because of Jupiter’s status, she is whisked away on a dangerous interstellar trip to claim her rightful place. That’s really where things start to get hairy.
Every good fairy tale needs its villain, and “Jupiter Ascending” has more than one. Eddie Redmayne slinks and hisses his way through the role of Balem Abrasax, the dominant sibling of the most powerful family in this particular Universe. He is the eldest brother, and the one who seems to have the most success running the family business.
The Abrasax family has made their money and risen to power through marketing a product that restores youth. Of course it’s expensive and, naturally, it’s exclusive. The cost of production is high and Jupiter suddenly finds herself thrown into a world of both political and business intrigue. She is most decidedly unprepared to deal with any of it.
Channing Tatum gets plenty of screen time as Caine Wise, a gene spliced super warrior who has canine genes that allow him to be a superior hunter. He’s also pretty handy with anti-gravity skates, which he tries at one point to explain to Jupiter, but she dismisses the explanation as both unnecessary and too difficult to comprehend (although, to be fair, she was trying to hold on to Caine as he was trying to get her away from a cluster of enemy agents).
“Jupiter Ascending” is rated PG-13, and there is some brief nudity, mostly of the female posterior variety and violence. The movie is fun to watch. It’s effects driven, far more than it is action or plot driven, and it certainly isn’t going to be accused of being character driven any time soon. Taken, though, as a Cinderella story for the space-opera set, it’s a great movie for just sitting back with your popcorn and allowing yourself to be entertained. There are beautiful scenes interspersed into the battles, a suitably unhinged antagonist, and women who do actually talk to each other about something other than men.
Yes, it’s a movie that I’m going to own primarily for that purely visual element, even though, for the most part, Jupiter Jones annoyed me. I understand that she was intended to be a young woman, she’s supposed to be around 20 years old. While I can understand loyalty to family, the idea that Jupiter would let herself be talked into her cousin’s scheme, which ultimately landed her in the interstellar muck she was dragged into, seems to be one of the most far-fetched parts of the movie. Jupiter seems like she should be smarter than that. After all, she’s shown dishing out some relationship advice to one of her clients.
Jupiter just doesn’t ever seem to make any decisions. The movie happens around her. In fact, it seems to happen in spite of her entirely too much of the time. No, not every 20-year-old girl is going to have a solid life plan, but by that point, most of them are capable of at least figuring a few things out for themselves before being forced into action. She makes Charlie Brown look like a leader.
There are stronger female characters in the movie besides Jupiter. I wanted to know more about Diomika Tsing. I wanted to have Kalique Abrasax serve more purposes in the movie than just exposition. There certainly could have been more about Stinger Apini’s daughter. Instead, there were some overblown villain hissy fits and serious needs for some editing, somewhere, from someone who was not an author of the story.
Again, “Jupiter Ascending” is not an awful movie. I really did like it, even though this particular column may not read like I did. Explaining why I liked it is difficult, though. It had some good ideas. Some of them got lost in everything happening in the movie. It had a lot of impressive scenes and some great character designs. It just seemed to channel all of its “more” into the wrong places and send it off into all the wrong directions. The movie had a ton of budget, which may be part of its problem. Visually, it’s stunning. Creatively, we got glimpses of how cool it could have been.
But what if you want a movie that’s actually got a female character who really displays not only awareness but real agency when it comes to her own fate? I recently ended up re-watching the movie “Matilda” and found myself surprised at how many of those gaps “Jupiter Ascending” left in what I wanted out of a female character “Matilda” actually filled.
“Matilda” is based on the book by Roald Dahl, and even if it’s not a perfectly faithful adaptation of the story, it’s a perfectly good one. The filmmakers adhered very well to the spirit of that book.
“Matilda” is the story of Matilda Wormwood. Matilda is an exceptional little girl. She’s a genius, for one, and she discovers that she is capable of moving things with her mind. Her family is terrible people. They’re despicable and deceitful, doing their best to make a living by cheating others out of their hard-earned money. Matilda is dismissed and underestimated almost constantly, mostly because she’s just a girl.
Then, Matilda goes to school, where she encounters the wonderful Miss Honey. Miss Honey is her teacher. She encourages the children in her class. She’s patient and kind. She’s honest. In fact, Miss Honey is everything that Matilda’s own parents are not.
School might have been something like heaven for Matilda if it weren’t for the beastly, intimidating headmistress Ms. Trunchbull. Trunchbull is evil, pure and simple. She’s cruel. She’s a bully. She believes in no order but the one that she herself imposes on her students.
Matilda and Miss Honey become friends. Eventually, Matilda discovers that Miss Honey is the niece of Trunchbull. An afternoon’s conversation yields all the keys Matilda needs to right all the unfairness that surrounds her.
“Matilda” isn’t as visually stunning as “Jupiter Ascending”. Most of the effects seem a little corny upon later viewings. The rest of the effects are perfectly adequate. At it’s heart, though, “Matilda” is another Cinderella story. This one just didn’t require any kind of prince, evil or otherwise.
While Matilda could have chosen to be like her awful parents, she instead decides to use her abilities for good. She wants to help her classmates and Miss Honey. So, she practices telekinetically and takes charge of her own destiny.
Yes, “Matilda” is roughly six years old. She’s a genius. But, she also makes up her mind to make her world better. She makes plans and takes action. Even better, Matilda accomplishes the goals she sets for herself. There are multiple instances in the movie where female characters have conversations about something besides men. It helps that Matilda is a child, but there’s still an alarming amount of novelty finding those conversations in movies.
Both movies are fantasy scenarios. Both movies give their female protagonists a chance to rise above their circumstances. Of the two, though, I’m more inclined to choose the one that shows its female lead doing something about where she finds herself, not just kind of ending up there.