Jupiter Ascending: Part Two: The "wait, what?!" bits

In part one I covered Jupiter Ascending's big picture, working my way through it's plot. Now, normally I would feel like I had done my duty as a reviewer after I wrote a review that was that long, but Jupiter Ascending is so chock full of noteworthy quirks that I wanted to take another moment to cover some of it's smaller details. You can't understand just how loveable, baffling and frustrating this movie is if you're only looking at it as an insane forest; you also have to be able to see it's individual crazy trees.

Let's tackle the loveable first. At one point Jupiter and Caine approach a house that is covered in bees. And I mean: covered. They are hanging on the walls, dripping off the roof, and chilling out on the porch with some ice tea. As Jupiter gets closer to them the bees start freaking out and begin to swarm around her... But then they don't sting her. In fact, not only do they not sting her, they begin to mimic her movements, copying every gesture she makes. Why would they do that? Well, because bees "respect royalty" and she is an intergalactic queen; they are here to serve her.

Now you might say "wait, Kirk, you said this was the loveable section, but that clearly belongs in the baffling section." And sure, the bee scene doesn't make any sense - but that's why I thought it was so loveable.  Who in the hell thinks up a detail that cockamamie? The suggestion that this woman has never once interacted with insects in her thirty years of life, the idea that Earth insects automatically recognize space royalty, the sheer absurdity of her playing a swarm of bees like a conductor plays an orchestra - when you put all of that together you get something that's so ridiculous you have to laugh. It is the sort of off-the-wall detail that pushes bad sci-fi over the line into being good sci-fi by sheer force of will.

Besides, there are a lot of other details in this movie that are baffling-baffling, not charming baffling. For example: Jupiter is a biological clone of the last universal matriarch, right? Well, we find out that her predecessor died when she was 90,000 years old, but her kids are like 40,000 years old... Which means that the previous queen managed to live a life that spanned the length of time between Christ's birth till now twenty times over without having kids, and it wasn't until she was many times older than recorded civilization that her biological clock started ticking. And what's even weirder is that there is a gap of a few thousand years between her kids, which means that at some point she was done with diapers and thought "you know what? Over the last few millennia I forgot how much I hate toddlers... it might be time to do that again." And yet she must have kind of remembered how exhausting and unpleasant it is to be the parent of a newborn because she only had three kids over her 90,000 years, which seems like a very low number for a life span of that length. 

The whole conceit of a 90,000 humanoid giving birth is just mindboggling. I mean, why 90,000? That's is the sort of made-up number that a child would create; it is just not a feasible number for a human life-spawn. That's the sort of detail that it does what the bee scene does in reverse - it is so dumb that it goes past being goofy back towards just being dumb.

But as annoying as that little bit of bad writing is, it is not the most infuriating aspect of the movie, not by far. You see, Sean Bean is in this movie as a character named Stinger Apini.  (He's probably named Stinger because he owns a bunch of bees.) Now, Sean Bean is known for dying in everything. In fact, he's so well known for dying that when you type his name into Youtube the top result is a FOURTEEN MINUTE compilation called "Sean Bean Dies in Everything." [Spoiler alert for other movies.] He dies in the Lord of the Rings movies. He died in Game of Thrones. Hell, I think he died in real life a few years ago and has been a special effect ever since. And Jupiter Ascending's script puts him in a position where his character absolutely should have died...

And yet, Sean Bean survives this movie. [Uh, I guess retroactive spoiler alerts for this movie.] That's right: there is a scene late in the movie where Stinger lets his personal loyalty to Caine override his self interest, and he decides to doublecross the people that were paying him so he can help Caine rescue Jupiter, and that is totally a situation where story logic dictates that he should be martyred so that the movie could have a big emotional payoff right at its climax... But then Stinger totally doesn't die. It was the one little thing that I was sure this movie couldn't screw up - and then it screwed it up.

Now, you might think that I am making a mountain of a molehill, and maybe I am, but I'm not alone in being bothered by this. After I let the the theater I I was hanging out with some friends in the lobby discussing just how nutso this movie is when out of nowhere a total stranger walked up to us, said "Sean Bean didn't die. WHAT. The Fuck.", and then walked away. Seriously: this is a movie with a lot of details that you could nitpick, but not killing the always-doomed guy is easily the worst offender.

At this point you've heard the good and you've heard the bad. Now you’re probably asking yourself: what the hell does all of this add up to?

Well, it obviously it adds up to one hell of a frustrating movie, but that’s only because it’s a movie; I really think that this story would have worked much better in a different format. For example, I could see this exact same narrative working in a video game because modern video games are all about having open-ended worlds that you can get lost in, and the Wachowski's have definitely created a world that's worth exploring. Oh, sure, many of the details are silly, but they've clearly thought about how the government functions in this world, and they've established political alliances between different factions, and they've clearly defined what is and is not possible in this universe. You could get rid of a lot of this story’s tonal problems if you let people explore the parts of this world they wanted to explore instead of mashing the goofy and serious parts together and expecting everyone to be interested in every part equally.

Furthermore, turning Jupiter Ascending into a video game would solve another one of the movie’s big problems, which is that Jupiter doesn’t have a lot of agency in her own story. Whenever someone surprises her with some insane revelation (like “you’re identical twins with the woman who used to own the Earth”) she just rolls with it – which is kind of good because it would get very old very quickly if she freaked out every time there was a plot twist, but her chill vibe does make her a bad audience surrogate because we’re not chill, we’re sitting there going “what the hell just happened?” However, that disconnect would go away if she was a puppet that the player could control. Then her unflappability would make sense, because in that scenario there is no reason for her to be acting like she could ever have any control over her own actions.

I could also see Jupiter Ascending working as a television show, because it’s "the queen dies and there are no clear heirs to the throne" plot line naturally lends itself to the sort of complicated but compelling storylines that could fill up an entire season. I’m not saying that it would be a perfect show – it would never live up to the real-politics-in-a-fantasy-setting standard set by Game of Thrones – but giving it room to breathe would fix most of its problems. Yes, I was frustrated by all of it’s silliness, but what really killed it was trying to cram all that exposition, alliance-forming, backstabbing and action set pieces in two hours; give it ten and we’ll talk.

But this is not a video game. Nor is it a tv show. It is a movie, and we have to judge it based on what it is, not what it could have been. You can't really love the Jupiter Ascending that actually exists because it has too many rough ends to be properly huggable. And you can't really respect it either because it indulges too many screamingly bad ideas. But you also can't really write it off, either, because it manages to give you both legitimate thrills and ironic laughs, which means it is (at least partially) your ideal summertime sci-fi movie. It is the sort of epic clusterfuck that you have to struggle to endure but which you won't ever forget and that has to count for something. To coin a phrase: it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

Winner: Me 

Jupiter Ascending on IMDB