An unexpected triumph: Jupiter Ascending, the most feminist sci-fi film of the year

Jupiter Ascending got wrecked on the critical shores. The most recent film from the Watchowski siblings (who brought you The Matrix), is a critique of capitalism, disguised as a space opera romance. I can see some of you shaking your heads, thinking, “She’s both drastically overselling this film” and “Come on, sure, the Matrix had some philosophical undercurrents, but this is a film about Channing Tatum helping Mila Kunis become a space princess.”

Give me a moment to sell this movie to you again.

Your average hard sci-fi fan will find a lot to complain about with Jupiter Ascending. But we need to take a moment and remember that most hard sci-fi fans will complain about Star Wars, too. And everyone is about to fall over in excitement for the JJ Abrams Star Wars sequel set, so I’m not sure “It’s not hard SF” is enough to pronounce this film DOA.
Let me be entirely clear: Jupiter Ascending is a space romance. It’s primary function is to serve up two beautiful people who fall in spectacular love with one another, while elevating Mila Kunis’ Jupiter from a life as a toilet scrubbing illegal immigrant. But in the process it does a number of surprisingly lovely things.
For example, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The monotony of free-falling action sequences, explosions, space battles, and beautiful CGI alien worlds is broken up with moments of foot-in-mouth humor, and a bureaucratic scene unlike anything we’ve seen since Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Buried underneath the verbal faux pas of Kunis’ and Tatum’s courtship is the plot that drives the film forward, throwing the characters together in life-or-death situations to help them fall in love. It is a plot that relies on rather well-developed world building that draws the more indulgent viewer into the politics of a genetically-driven economy.
In fact, the hand-wavey science of genetics undergirds the entire world Jupiter (and the viewers) are thrown into. (I remind you again, that the Force is basically magic. And that a decent number of people sat through the scientifically unteneble Limitless and Lucy. So demanding a strict adherence to “real science” seems somewhat excessive.) With sufficiently advanced technology, the film argues, we will no longer be slave to our natural genetic code (with various characters having been genetically engineered before birth as soldiers, Tatum among them), and not even to time itself, but at a cost.
Ultimately, the film seems to say, it is not the science that produces real evil, but the economic structure with its commitment to profit, and product, that will play out the real evil. There are literal human costs to this system, which uses raw genetic material to produce longevity. Kunis’ Jupiter has been drawn into a battle between the siblings of a corporate empire by virtue of her particular genetic code.

But what of the romantic genre itself? In the quest for better female representation in popular media, Romance as often been called upon to come to the rescue. After all, girls like love and having their social station elevated to grant them access to more finely made clothes, right?
I posted a number of months ago about the Bechdel Test, and asked you to think back on how many films had female characters interacting with each other (an order so tall that even with all the weight of Disney behind it, Marvel has only managed to pull it off on the small screen). Jupiter Ascending succeeds without any huge fanfare. The primary exposition for the film takes place when Tuppence Middleton shuffles Kunis into a vague understanding of her new station. In the words of my father, “What? Exposition between two women? But that’s ridiculous, everyone knows women don’t know anything!” Jupiter also has a relationship with her mother and her aunt, one of the women she keeps house for, and the lady captain of a space police ship.
Walking the tightrope of hyperbole, I would be willing to suggest that this is the most feminist science fiction film you’ll see this year. Certainly by this time this year.

I promised you social commentary on the nature of capitalism and I feel I should deliver. The film is split into a few factions: you have the Egiss who are a regulatory body, they are referred to at least once in the film as “space cops” and they serve as the instrumental power of the state, essentially to try and curb the greed of the ruling semi-aristocratic class who will lie, and murder without compunction to achieve their ends of growing their profit margins. Then you have the “Entitled,” who are a sort of landed gentry. They own planets, which they harvest to create a product that essentially renders people immortal. Bureaucracy makes its appearance as a hinderance, but also a neutral entity that can be used or abused pretty much entirely due to one’s familiarity with the process.
After that, violence is a commodity that can be bought, much as in our world. Bounty hunters abound, and can be made instruments for the Entitled in their battle to get their hands on the best source.

It is not a complex film. If you follow the surface plot, it’s a rag-to-riches, harlequin romance, complete with a handsome and loyal soldier for the romantic lead. If you fall to the second level, it’s a simple parable cursing the rich and their greedy, thoughtless practices, with a coming of age plot about reassessing your place in the world and making the best of your new station.
It also has lovely computer generated sets, that create a lush backdrop for the slightly humorous costume choices (space society is big on corsets). While it is not a film set to win any awards, it should neither be thrust in the category of “completely unremarkable” nor should it be cast out as “foolish” or worse “confusing” (that last one has left me perplexed, as there did not really appear to be anything that actually needed explaining, any “science” working as a large scale plot device devoid of anything resembling math or biology).

If spectacle, a dash of romance, and having a good laugh when space capitalists fail to produce offspring competent in hand-to-hand combat are things you enjoy give Jupiter Ascending a shot. It is, in the honor of a particular science fiction tradition, a damn good time..

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