The Habitrail Critic Ascending

First, a slightly delayed bit of Bad Poem Saturday Sunday in the form of a spoiler-free Haiku Review of Jupiter Ascending:

Once more, spectacle

has won a grand victory

over narrative

Huzzah! Now for the spoiler-ish ravings and a bout of sci-fi nostalgia. 

There’s a certain charm to the whole “Earthling is chosen to do great things in outer space” trope (and its close relative, the “Earthling transported to do great things in a fantasy world” trope). It’s a convenient and interesting form of storytelling, providing the occasion both for exploring new worlds through familiar eyes and for offering a critique of one’s own world through that exploration.

Also, let’s not deny that it can be huge fun. I like me some funky, cheesy, fish-out-of-terrestrial-water stories, yes indeedy I do!

I went into Jupiter Ascending with a certain goodwill for the Wachowskis, who have shown themselves capable of imagining rich visual worlds and complex stories. I also went into it knowing that it wasn’t exactly getting stellar reviews. I found myself agreeing with those reviewers who suggested that it was visually stunning and narratively empty — I think that’s a pretty good description of what I saw, which is why I probably won’t be going to see it again. If you really like shiny, beautiful things to look at, bad guys with English accents, oddly baroque future technologies, and lots of wacky, physics-flouting chase scenes, then you’ll probably dig the hell out of this movie. If you want actual character and story to go with your pretty, you may have to look elsewhere.

Still, the real sore point for me about this film is that it didn’t really live up to its own trope. The easiest comparison, for me, is with The Last Starfighter, a much cheaper (and much cheaper-looking and much less polished) little film that did a much better job of playing the trope out through a consistent and genuinely entertaining little story. It helps that The Last Starfighter’s tale of a young man wishing for adventure and then having to accept the consequences is pretty easy to tell. It also helps that the centrality of Alex Rogan’s experience as a confused alien out of his depth makes room for some real motivational cheating (via the video game framing) where the main conflict between Rylos and Xur and his Ko-Dan allies are concerned. We never have to be too attached to political intricacy or subtlety, because these details are tangential to the very immediate human story at the center of the whole thing. The film ends just as these issues might arise, leaving us expecting more story — the story of Alex the Starfighter having to do the hard work of putting things back together again, and of Alex the person figuring out how to live in an entirely new world. That is, I think, a pretty wise move. The Last Starfighter is a modest movie that makes the most of its small ambition, to excellent B-movie sci-fi effect. Its wry humor is entirely appropriate and beautifully timed, and we should all be grateful that Robert Preston found the time to be a part of the project, because he shines as Centauri, selling lines that anyone else would have made obnoxious with marvelous panache.

Unlike The Last StarfighterJupiter Ascending never gives the character(s) allegedly at the heart of its story time to breathe or to grow. Sometimes, the problem is that world-building gets in the way. Sean Bean does a really bang-up job with his info-dump responsibilities, but…well, it’s still a sort of stilted thing in the absence of better integration into a narrative. It feels too much like it was put there just so the audience could have it (unlike similar moments in The Last Starfighter, which seem to run with and through the action more plausibly). Sometimes, the problem is that there’s so much visual stuff going on that there’s just not enough time for the characters to be who they are. Because the visuals don’t really serve the narrative — it’s quite the other way ’round, really — there’s too much telling, and the showing is just showy rather than informative. The humor in the film is stilted — it shows up at odd times, and is apparently used to supply character when character should have been used to motivate it instead.

It’s possible, of course, that the comparison to The Last Starfighter is a bit unfair — Jupiter Ascending’s ambition and scope have more in common with Dune than anything else. Sadly, it does about as badly with its critical commentary on power, technology, and capital (themes that The Matrix and even the original Robocop handle much more deftly) as the original Dune film did, improving on it only by virtue of being slightly more coherent. It would have been better off trying to meet the standard of the Dune and Children of Dune miniseries from earlier this century. Unfortunately, the scope of a complex political narrative like that is really beyond even a long single movie. It is better served by a film with sequels or by a television series like, say, the brilliantly weird and wonderful Farscapewhich really takes the time to work out both some truly Byzantine politics and a whole lot of complex personal relationships via the human-as-alien setup.

There’s a potentially interesting point to be made here about immortality and time as commodity, but it really just gets lost; indeed, I think that movie — the one in which we follow, say, the political machinations of immortals, some of whom might choose to grapple with the moral problems built-in to their artificial immortality — would have been fascinating. I find myself wishing I had been watching the prequel — that is, everything leading up to the murder (or was it a suicide?) of the millenia-old woman whose genetic replacement/doppelganger Jupiter Jones is supposed to be. That’s where the critical meat (re: power, capital, commodification, etc.) that the Wachowskis want to play with would more easily be found. The other film implied in Jupiter Ascending but never really convincingly realized — the one more like The Last Starfighter, featuring young Jupiter getting out into the big, bad universe while also dealing with her wacky family — would also have been cool. Instead, I got a sort of hodge-podge of both that never quite lives up to the promise of either.

Damn, though — it sure was pretty!

ETA: I can’t believe I didn’t somehow find room to talk about Stargate (both the original film and the television series (plural) incarnations) when I was babbling about immortals. How are the baddies in this film NOT Goa’uld? I’ve been thinking of this movie as the unholy love child of Dune and The Last Starfighter, but it really makes more sense to replace Dune with Stargate. Huh.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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