Jupiter Ascending has gotten a great deal of attention since its release. Generally not the kind of attention most movies want, especially when they come with a price tag that eclipses the annual budgets of some nations. It has been eviscerated by critics while quickly gaining cult status and a loyal fandom. In short, everyone has an opinion on this one. And far be it from me to stay out of an argument.
I’m not going to try and convince you of the quality of Jupiter Ascending. It is indisputably gorgeous. It is also indisputably plagued with plot holes that wouldn’t make it past a Creative Writing 101 professor. It’s a love note to The Fifth Element, Flash Gordon, and Barbarella while presenting women viewers (the film’s most ardent fans at this point) with something we don’t usually get: wish fulfillment aimed at us. But in the midst of this beautiful mess is a subversive meaning that goes deeper than most critics realize. Some commentary describes the movie as having an “anti-corporate” message, and while I think that’s accurate it’s also an understatement.
Jupiter Ascending doesn’t have an anti-corporate subtext. The entire piece is a manifesto against modern corporate capitalism. That message is such an integral part of the movie that it is often the very thing that undermines the story. Let’s face it: there are two critical storytelling rules that are commonly broken by very successful artists. The first is Never Outgrow Your Editor (George, JK, I’m looking at you.) The second is Never Let the Metaphor Run the Movie. All sci-fi, and really all fiction, has meaning beyond the bare story on the page. But when the message becomes the story, things go awry. In this case, that means plot holes have been left intact to preserve the metaphor to the detriment of the overall product.
(And here comes the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.)
At the halfway point of Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter Jones, newly found space queen, discovers that the source of her wealth and potential immortality comes in the form of Regenex. A pale blue translucent liquid, Regenex heals any injury and reverses aging. Her previous incarnation lived to the ripe old age of 92,000 years, fueled by regular baths in the stuff. The problem: it’s made from people. Entire planets are harvested so that the substance (probably super-advanced telomerase, for the science geeks in the house) may be extracted from the inhabitants. Our planet, and most of the others in the universe, are essentially farms to feed an ever-increasing need for the stuff.
Jupiter is horrified by the discovery, as is anyone in the audience who hasn’t put it together yet. Her existence is now complicated by the fact that as owner of Earth, she is now in possession of the single most valuable piece of real estate in the Abrasax portfolio due to the human population’s size and hardiness. She is told that the entire economy of the universe, its entire society, runs on Regenex. Given interstellar travel and an infinite number of space and planets, the only valuable commodity is time. Time which is provided via Regenex and stolen from less developed worlds .
The fact that the most egregious of the film’s villains, Balem Abrasax, is willing to do anything to eliminate Jupiter and regain control of Earth for his own profit forms the rest of the plot of Jupiter Ascending. It also drives home the message that most people pick up on quickly: greed and a lust for corporate profit that feasts on humanity is evil.
It’s cartoonishly simple, read like that. It also pairs well with Eddie Redmayne’s performance, which veers between world-weary-unto-death and screeching while bits of the scenery spew forth from his teeth. (Balem Abrasax’ characterization reads like a Tv Tropes entry: Creepy henchmen? Check. Torture chamber under throne room? Check. Bizarre S&M inspired wardrobe? Check. Deep seated Oedipal issues vented towards heroine? CHECK.) But less apparent on first glance is that rather than just establishing Balem as an evil supervillain threatening an innocent Earth, Jupiter Ascending pins the Abrasax family as the extreme end of a continuum that includes… well, all of us.
Remembering where we end up, let’s look at the first fifteen minutes of Jupiter Ascending. We see Jupiter hating her life, grinding away at a menial job for little money. Later, her uncle tells her that her intelligence is “probably the reason she’s not married”. Next, her cousin talks her into selling her eggs at a fertility clinic, a transaction in which he will keep the majority of the money.
In short, Jupiter is commodified at every possible step. Her labor, her time, her fertility, and her worth as a person are reduced to cash values. More than that, they’re cash values in which she receives only a small portion of her actual assigned worth. Her uncle keeps much of the money she, her mother, and her aunt are paid for cleaning jobs. Her cousin takes most of the payment for her reproductive capacity. And while this is happening the same people profiting off of her are demeaning her value as a potential wife.
Jupiter isn’t the only one on the receiving end of this treatment. In one scene Jupiter speaks with a wealthy client who is feeling rushed into an engagement with her boyfriend. But that relationship is never couched in terms of either of the party’s feelings: instead, the woman rattles off his economic and educational accomplishments. Both she and her potential husband are reduced to a series of rankings and social trophies in a scene that also foreshadows Jupiter’s later marital near-miss.
We can tell this reading is what the Wachowskis intended because they aren’t subtle about it. When Jupiter is reading through her contract for selling her eggs, she remarks that she is repulsed by their use of the term “harvest”. This is precisely what culling an entire planet of its sentient population is called. The fact that these planets are described as “underdeveloped” draws a line directly back to Earth.
Balem defends the harvesting of entire planets by saying that “All life is an act of consumption.” It’s a clearly horrific statement in light of the fact that he’s describing planetary genocides in order to create immortality for a few. But again, it’s the culmination of a series of smaller steps down that road. The clinic where Jupiter intends to sell her eggs, Volo, is a Latin verb that renders its full name into “The I Want fertility clinic”. Jupiter herself is accused by her uncle of always wanting a new thing that will make her happy; her cousin spends the ten thousand dollars he gets from selling Jupiter’s eggs on a “life changing” television. Jupiter lost her father when he was shot over a telescope during a robbery; she nearly loses her own life over matters of interstellar trade.
So is it any wonder that when she meets a bounty hunter, Caine, who is also described as a defective
product (a runt born with a genetic flaw, sold at a loss), she feels a connection? I mean, yeah, the biceps don’t hurt either, but while critics have called the relationship between Caine and Jupiter awkward, in the context of what the movie is trying to say it makes perfect sense.
What makes the message of Jupiter Ascending innovative (if not successful) is that it actually marries two divergent streams in science fiction that are usually kept separate. We generally have space operas, in which the evil is Out There (Aliens, Star Wars, Flash Gordon) and techno-horrors in which The Evil Is Us (Jurassic Park, Fahrenheit 451, V for Vendetta, and the most obvious, Soylent Green). Here those lines aren’t so clear. There is the clear and present danger that is imminent harvest of Earth. But there is also the clear indication that this is a path that Earth itself is hurtling along. The enemy is us, and we came from out there. While the Wachowskis tantalize us with the prospect of an infinite universe filled with beauty we can barely imagine, they also ask the question any of us must when considering the rest of the human history of exploration. Will we live long enough to get there, and what will we do to it when we do? Will we outgrow our desire for consumption and learn to interact with an interstellar environment (like Stinger’s bees) or will we, like the Abrasax, turn to massive harvests of our own? As you sit reading this, the odds are nearly 100% that something you are touching was produced by slave labor. The metals in your smartphone or computer, the fabric in your clothing. We live in a world now that is content to sacrifice the lives of others for our comfort, provided that it happens out of our sight. Provided that, as Kalique Abrasax tells Jupiter, we are willing to close our eyes. In very real ways our future as a species may depend on whether or not we are willing to continue to put a price on humanity.