Greetings, fantasygoers. I’m here today to talk about the movie Jupiter Ascending, directed by the Wachowski… sisters? Siblings? I do not know what they’re called collectively now.
Now, this is… a divisive movie. On one hand, it is a massively flawed movie that overflows with extra-complex world-building, some very silly ideas, and a very repetive and rushed storyline. On the other hand, it’s very vivid and has spectacular visuals, and some people also want to give it a break because it was a big-budget non-franchise movie that wasn’t based on some other property like a book, comic book or TV series.
I am… not one of them. Yes, the visuals are spellbindingly pretty, and I get the feeling that the Wachowskis put a lot of thought and energy into this story. In fact, I would have liked to see Jupiter Ascending as a TV show, maybe on Netflix or HBO, where it could unfold in a more organic way instead of cramming everything into one film.
But I don’t agree that being “original” means that we should give it more of a pass. For one thing, Hollywood has been adapting other properties like comics and books since its inception. For another, I’d rather see a franchise movie that makes me laugh and cry than an original movie that makes me go “bleh.”
And finally, Jupiter Ascending is technically an original story… but it’s not actually that original. You can find this sort of story in a million tepid young-adult books.
“Hi, I’m a bland boring yet attractive teenager/twentysomething who has no interesting features or life experiences, but I’m deep and smarter than everyone around me. You should like me and identify with me!”
“I also have some kind of hidden or unknown qualities that make me the most special and unique person ever, but which I have no idea exist until it’s time for the plot to start.”
“Also, being the special snowflake I am means I am automatically rich and powerful.”
“I’m a hot man with chiseled abs. I have superpowers and a tragic backstory, which means I am brooding and don’t think I’m worthy of the heroine.”
“Oh no, everyone in this movie either wants to kill me or have sex with me! Possibly both!”
“I will save you!”
“I’m in peril! In a pretty dress!”
“I will save you!”
“Are we a couple now?”
“End of the movie?”
“You know it!”
I’ve seen the movies, seen the show and read the books. I don’t really need an “original” story where I can literally predict everything that happens.
And there have been a lot of critics who have talked about the issues in this movie, from the bland plot to the silly ideas to the acting of Eddie Redmayne. Which is utterly hilarious, if you're wondering.
But I haven’t seen anyone who has discussed an important aspect to the story: the morals of it. Specifically, the lack of morals.
Jupiter Ascending is a prime example of what is commonly known as Protagonist-Centered Morality, where the well-being and wishes of the protagonist are the measurement of morals and ethics. Whether a person is good or bad is entirely determined not by their actions, but by whether they are mean or nice to the main character.
As explained by Tvtropes:
“Suppose, for example, there is a character who slaughters innocent villagers by the thousands, but once helped save The Hero's mother simply because he thought she was hot; The Hero will easily forgive this guy, buy him a drink, and may even invite him to join the team. Then there is another character who routinely saves orphans from burning buildings who once used his resultant fame to woo away the protagonist's Love Interest. They will be an object of scorn. This alone would just be portraying a flawed hero — the final piece of the puzzle is that the narrative is in on the myopia. There will be no warning signs that the protagonist is being unfair to the hero who saved all these people. No one calls them out on how disrespectful they're being to the memory of thousands of the mass-murderer's victims. This will not come back to haunt them. The protagonist is essentially acting as though, in certain respects, it really is All About Them, and the narrator Author Tract might well be agreeing.”
Again, a very common thing in bad young-adult fantasies, because many of these books are written from a purely personal-fantasy perspective. They're not about well-rounded characters or storytelling. They are about pretending that you are a wonderful person no matter what you do.
Hence why in Breaking Dawn, there are a bunch of vampires who are considered good and moral people despite hunting and murdering humans. They are on Bella’s side, so they are good. The Cullens even lend them a car so they can brutally murder people outside Forks, so darling Bella won’t have to deal with any consequences to people she knows.
Basically, you’re good because you’re firmly on the hero’s side, and you’re bad if you’re against them in any way. Nothing you actually do will make a difference in your moral standing.
I first noticed that Jupiter Ascending has an issue with this when the concept of RegeneX is brought up. This is a substance that the Abrasax family creates, which is essentially a Soylent Green spa treatment. Yes, RegeneX is people, and it turns out that their company has seeded human life on planets across the galaxy… just so entire planets’ populations can be killed in order to let a small rich ruling class live forever as young pretty people.
(Frankly it seems more intelligent to just steadily cull a PORTION of the planet’s population for RegeneX every now and then, so the population could renew itself instead of… well, having to start from scratch. But that’s stupidity, not immorality)
Anyway, you would think that any good and kind person would respond to this horrifying revelation - that billions of people are regularly murdered for beauty treatments - with disgust and horror. You would think it would prompt them to condemn the Abrasax way of life, and vow to stop it.
Jupiter? She just kinda goes, “Mmmkay. Yeah, whatever. Is it time for me to be rescued again?”
In fact, RegeneX is only an issue in the story when the main villain abducts Jupiter’s family and threatens to turn them into drops of RegeneX. THEN suddenly it’s evil and awful. I mean, planetary genocide? That’s mildly problematic at worst. The heroine’s beloved family? NO, YOU MONSTER! WHAT SICK FIEND WOULD DO THIS TO HER PRECIOUS FAMILY?!
To be fair, Jupiter is opposed to them killing everyone on the Earth, which is the villain’s ambition for…. reasons. But to also be fair, she also doesn’t seem to care about any other planets. It’s actually shown to us that yes, there are countless planets entirely populated by innocent humans. But she doesn’t seem to give a shit if THEY die for no good reason, as long as HER planet is safe.
And by the same token, none of the other good guys give a shit. Caine doesn’t care about the Earth’s population, the Aegis doesn’t care, and even Stinger doesn’t care despite actually living on Earth for awhile. All they care about is giving Jupiter her proper inheritance, and that’s enough to make them wonderful people. Actual lives do not matter.
This is also emphasized by Kalique Abrasax, who serves as the exposition fairy. She explains to Jupiter about RegeneX, and has apparently been sporting wrinkles and grey hairs so she can actually SHOW what the stuff can do to your body.
She is also the only Abrasax sibling who doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive when it comes to Jupiter, and genuinely wants to help her. Her brother Titus wants to marry Jupiter to get the Earth and then kill her, and Balem wants to do the same but with less marriage. But Kalique seems to be very fond of Jupiter and she never shows any signs of having evil designs on her. She’s presented as intelligent, kind, wise and compassionate, and she’s the only Abrasax sibling who actually helps the heroes.
There’s only one slight problem: SHE USES RegeneX!
I’m sorry, Wachowskis, but no amount of kissing Jupiter’s bony butt will make me forget that this woman is regularly bathing in the extracted life essence of innocent people. It just isn’t going to happen.
But the way the character is presented, we’re supposed to think she’s a wonderful person. Sure, she benefits both financially and personally from MASS GENOCIDE, but she’s so nice to Jupiter. She must be a good person!
And this could have been so easily avoided. Standing up against institutionalized horrors is a very, very difficult thing to do, but you could at least show Jupiter being horrified by the idea of RegeneX. Put in a line where she vows that she’s going to do what she can to stop its production. Have her being angry for at least a moment that nobody cares about the people who are being killed every day for RegeneX.
Instead, we get this:
“Like, that’s sad and and stuff, but the guy I’m hot for totally isn’t willing to date me just because he’s a werewolf.”
And the fact that we’re expected to be outraged that Jupiter’s family is threatened by Balem rings really hollow. Yeah, her family’s in danger. So what? Every other person on the planet is in danger of losing THEIR family if Jupiter keeps hers. If she saved them, then every other human being on the Earth would die. Needs of the many, Wachowskis. Needs of the many.
And of course, it keeps cycling back to those other planets. Again, why is Jupiter’s family so fucking special? Why are they better or more worthy of survival than all the families on those other planets, or the rest of the Earth?
The only possible answer is: because the heroine cares about them, and her caring gives their lives meaning and value.
I’d also like to mention another sci-fi property that had a similar premise: the episode “Deathwalker” from the excellent sci-fi series Babylon 5. This episode features a cruel scientist named Jha'dur, who is a war criminal responsible for countless deaths in the name of scientific research. She has created a magical drug that makes you immortal, almost invulnerable, and you ever age. Much of the episode is devoted to the moral debate: should she be held responsible for her crimes, or should they keep her alive so her drug can save countless lives in the future?
But the twist is that it turns out that to create the drug… another person will have to die. And the evil Deathwalker is eagerly anticipating what will happen when people find out the price of immortality: they will brutally murder others so they can live forever.
So yeah… same thought processes, but without the recognition of what a horrifying idea this is, and that it’s horrifying to contemplate for people other than the main characters.
Instead, Jupiter Ascending is completely standard Mary-Sue self-insert fare, including the protagonist-centered morality. In fact, now that both of the Wachowski siblings have come out as transgender women, I have to wonder if this is some kind of self-insert fantasy that they had, with Jupiter Jones as their joint Mary Sue. Ah, progress marches ever onward — now transgender people can produce the morally-dubious, poorly-written self-insert fantasies that were once reserved for biological women. I feel a tear in my eye.
So yeah, if you’re a fan of this movie for the visuals or because you think it had potential and neat ideas, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. Again, I would have loved to see this expanded on and given the time and thought that could have made it great.
But I simply can’t look past the way the Soylent-Green spa treatments are handled. It’s gross, it’s sociopathic, and it’s completely standard for the genre that clearly influenced this movie.