by Gary Westfahl
It is the sort of project that might occupy the energies of individuals eager to provide novel entertainments for YouTube: gather bits of footage from every single science fiction film you can recall, and creatively edit them together so they collectively offer a somewhat new, and somewhat cohesive, narrative. Of course, if you had access to vast sums of money and the resources of a major studio, you could replace all the borrowed sequences with new, original scenes to more smoothly tie all of the disparate elements together. And that is one way to characterize what Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have done in writing and directing Jupiter Ascending. Indeed, their film might serve as a fitting conclusion to a college class on science fiction films, as students could watch and nod knowingly at the references to all the films they had previously seen. But that class would be telling a disheartening story about the history of science fiction film, as concluding with this film would suggest a genre that has grown steadily more adroit and sophisticated in its techniques of presentation, but utterly lost its soul.
More practically, the film could also function as the class’s final exam, since the attentiveness of the students, and the thoroughness of their outside research, would be well tested by asking them to identify all of the innumerable science fiction films – and novels and stories as well – that apparently were woven into the Wachowskis’ colorful tapestry. Even an expert might find such an exam challenging, and it is impossible, with limited time and space, to cite every previous text that might be detected. But the following, incomplete list will at least provide some of the more striking resonances between Jupiter Ascending and its many precursors.
The film’s basic premise – the three adult children of a dead monarch, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) Abrasax, are conspiring against each other to increase their shares of the inheritance – might remind some modern viewers of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, but squabbles within noble families have long been prominent in historical novels, fantasies, and the borderline form of fantasy called the Ruritarian romance, featuring imaginary European principalities and most strongly influencing the ambience of the Wachowskis’ narrative. And the other major plot point – a poor but attractive young person, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), discovers that she is the true heir to the throne – constitutes one of the hoariest clichés in fantasy. (The only difference here is that she is not the ruler’s child, but rather a “recurrence” – her genetic twin.) The fact that the assets these nobles all seek to acquire are entire planets, and specifically planet Earth (currently owned by Balem), might appear novel, though an individual who purchases Earth figured in Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia (1964, 1975), and the sinister motive behind these aliens’ ownership of our world – to eventually “harvest,” that is, kill, every human to obtain a valuable substance – might be traced back to Charles Fort’s famous statement, “The Earth is a farm. We are someone else’s property.” (As it happens, Titus even tells Jupiter, “Your planet is a farm.”) As another literary reference, the long-lived Kalique rejuvenates herself in the manner of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) by taking a bath, though in a scientifically engineered liquid instead of magical fire. The aliens’ base of operations in the Solar System, the planet Jupiter, was also a center for alien activity in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and this film’s hero Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is at one time imperiled in precisely the same manner as David Bowman, as he must contrive to survive unprotected in the vacuum of space (though Wise’s innovative solution is to grab a device that rapidly constructs a spacesuit around him). And a concluding image of a man and woman in spacesuits, floating above the Earth, will remind you of Gravity (2013).
Turning to the film’s visual style, the faux-Roman clothing, statues, and decorations favored by the wealthy aliens were also characteristic of numerous aliens in silent science fiction films and later film serials, while the outlandish outfits and hairstyles that some of them favor might have been appropriated from a more recent source, the Hunger Games films. The appearance of the film’s technology – spacecraft, weaponry, and extravagant architecture – could be traced back to the Star Wars films or any one of their innumerable imitators; one obsequious robotic character resembles a flesh-colored C-3PO. The galaxy’s overall system of government seems cruelly despotic, also recalling the Star Wars films, though its “space cops,” the Aegis, most prominently represented by spaceship commander Diomika Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird), are more like the benevolent soldiers of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, displaying considerably more integrity than their associates. Also like the Star Wars films, Jupiter Ascending mostly foregrounds normal human characters while striving to include as many strange-looking aliens as possible; sometimes they are said to be “splices,” genetic combinations of humans and animals. Since one of these, Caine Wise, remarks that he is more like a dog than a human, the Wachowskis might be referencing the “mahg” – half-man, half-dog – that appeared in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987). But a recurring proclivity for aliens with pointed ears must be regarded as their tribute to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. A winged alien recalls the Birdmen of the Flash Gordon serials and the “angel” of Barbarella (1968), among others. Finally, and inevitably, the Wachowskis are stealing from themselves as well, as their basic narrative is not unlike that of The Matrix (1999): an individual unknowingly destined for greatness discovers that the world is not what it seems; unseen beings are manipulating the human race for their own insidious purposes, forcing the designated savior, with assistance from able colleagues, to take action against them.
Other stories and films might be included in this catalog, but one classic work of science fiction was clearly a stronger influence on Jupiter Ascending than any of the others – and that is, quite surprisingly, Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), best known to contemporary audiences from the 2005 film adaptation (review here). Both stories involve ordinary individuals who are suddenly visited by an alien and learn that other aliens are poised to destroy the human race. Along with the alien friend, and other exotic colleagues soon acquired, the humans embark upon a series of adventures in spaceships and other strange environments within an inimical universe largely governed by business interests. The characters interact with a wide variety of unusual, often hostile beings, also discovering themselves to be persons of special importance to the universe. The most obvious borrowing from Adams’s story is the scene where Jupiter, assisted by the robot Advocate Bob (Samuel Barnett), must navigate her way through a labyrinthine bureaucracy, powered by anachronistically antiquated technology, in order to claim Earth as her inheritance; the sequence is so reminiscent of the same scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide that the estate of Douglas Adams might consider a lawsuit. And in the end, having improbably survived many perils, the humans return to their familiar home, now accompanied by their true love, but with further space travel clearly in their future.
Beyond such specific likenesses, there is one major way that Jupiter Ascending resembles The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and does not resemble the other referenced stories: both films, I believe, are not intended to be taken seriously. True, all versions of Adams’s saga were overtly farcical, while there is a veneer of earnestness to the Wachowskis’ film; yet as the film’s incongruities and inconsistencies keep multiplying (all issues that could have been easily addressed by modest revision), suspension of disbelief becomes impossible, and it seems apparent that the Wachowskis were not interested in making audiences believe in their story. (They were possibly commenting on their own story’s illogic when they had Jupiter say, “a dream is the only way any of this makes sense.”) The key clue is the planet Jupiter. As the film’s titular iconic image, and as the setting for several of its important scenes, one would imagine that the filmmakers would strive to make Jupiter look as awesome as possible, rendered with breathtaking precision and brilliant color. Yet Jupiter was far more impressive in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it cannot be the case that the computer wizards of today were simply unable to duplicate, or surpass, Douglas Trumbull’s non-computerized artistry. Rather, the Wachowskis manifestly didn’t care about crafting a stunningly realistic Jupiter; if their Jupiter instead resembled a faded color photograph, that was fine – such an image served the purpose of informing viewers, “Now, the characters are approaching Jupiter.” It didn’t matter whether they were genuinely persuaded that the characters were nearing an enormous alien planet.
Readers of this review, at this point, might feel that I am relentlessly berating the Wachowskis for displaying a lack of originality. Yet I am theorizing that the film might have originated when one of them said, “Hey, let’s remake The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but take out all of the jokes.” And that represents a genuinely original idea. More grievously, though, the Wachowskis also removed something else from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and from every other film that they borrowed from, and that is their messages.
Granted, Samuel Goldwyn had a point, even if Western Union is no longer a popular alternative, and filmmakers can go astray if they overemphasize the purported profundity of their narratives (as illustrated by the sad saga of M. Night Shyamalan). But successful science fiction films have generally managed to say something without compromising their value as entertainment. 2001: A Space Odyssey powerfully conveys that humans are still primitive beings in a universe filled with incomprehensible wonders. Star Trek offers an optimistic vision of humanity expanding its frontiers and peacefully interacting with disparate species for our mutual benefit. The original Star Wars (1977 – no, I’ll never call it “Episode IV: A New Hope”) foregrounds the inspirational instruction to always trust your own instincts and do what you think is right. The Matrix is consciously animated by philosophical and religious ideas about the illusory nature of the material world around us. Even the final version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide briefly incorporates the uplifting message that people must be willing to take chances and seek new experiences.
What, then, is Jupiter Ascending telling its audience? All I can discern is the trite morality play of the classic film serial: here are some wonderfully good characters, and here are some despicably evil characters. The good characters must take up arms to defeat the bad characters, and when they succeed, it is a good thing. One struggles to find anything else of import in this story. At the beginning of the film, even as she makes a living by cleaning toilets, Jupiter desperately wants to own a telescope, to be like her late father, suggesting something about the need to look up at the stars and ponder the wonders of the cosmos; but once she is actually in outer space, surrounded by stars, she expresses absolutely no interest in them, and when she finally gets a telescope, she doesn’t even try to use it. When Jupiter says “I really just want to go home” and “I’m still the same me,” one might think she is determined to always remain true to her original, humble character; yet Jupiter also transforms herself into a ferocious fighter and learns how to fly. Characters occasionally make portentous pronouncements – “time is the single most precious commodity in the universe,” “lies are a necessity; they are a source of meaning,” and so on – but nothing else occurs in the film to reference or reinforce these messages. In other words, every time an idea emerges in this film, the Wachowskis ruthlessly strangle it in the crib.
Thus, what the Wachowskis have done, apparently by design, is to amalgamate the myriad texts of science fiction and surgically excise all of their substance. What remains is a story that is all surfaces and spectacle, fisticuffs and fireworks, fictional lives that are, in William Shakespeare’s words, “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Why they chose this path is an open question. Perhaps, after being mired in The Matrix and burdened by the literary pretensions of Cloud Atlas (2012 – review here), they longed for the freedom to tell a simple story that didn’t really make any sense and focus all of their attention on colorful effects and frenetic action sequences. Perhaps they are subtly arguing that science fiction film is now an exhausted genre, so all one can do is to keep repeating tired motifs which have become incapable of signifying anything; and there are certainly more than enough current films (and novels) to support that theory. Perhaps they are aggressively asserting that all the messages in past science fiction stories were simple and stupid, not really worth repeating, and the genre’s true appeal has always rested solely in its bizarre and attractive hardware. That is, people go to science fiction films to experience what Jupiter Ascending offers in abundance – weird-looking aliens, massive spaceships, flying warriors, huge explosions, and so on – and not to learn that “The needs of the many, outweigh …. The needs of the few.” Thus, I may have argued that they have excised the quintessence of science fiction, but the Wachowskis might respond that, in actuality, they have distilled its purest form.
However, if that is the case – if the Wachowskis’ only goal was to provide mindless entertainment for the masses – their film still cannot be regarded as a complete success, primarily due to one problem that afflicts many contemporary science fiction films. On at least four occasions, Jupiter Ascending offers viewers the same exact scene. It is the same exact scene they have also seen hundreds of times in scores of other science fiction films. We all know the drill: the hero is suddenly beset by several, or several dozen, implacable adversaries equipped with colorfully lethal futuristic weaponry. Outnumbered and outgunned, the hero leaps up to engage in crazed aerial acrobatics, darting and pirouetting around to obliterate one foe after another with a series of well-aimed shots, even as every single one of the enemies’ innumerable shots implausibly miss their target. For a brief change of pace, the woman he is protecting may suddenly fall from a great height, apparently plummeting to her death, requiring the hero to interrupt the carnage and race to catch her one second before she smashes into the ground. Finally, leaving a field of corpses behind them, the hero and his companion go off to enjoy a few quiet moments of bonding and infodumping before the genocide resumes. No matter how artfully it is crafted, people cannot be entertained by a scene they have already seen again and again and again; the instant this scene begins, everyone in the audience knows exactly what is going to happen, exactly how it is going to end. I now find myself completely unable to pay attention to this scene; whenever it starts, I look at my watch, browse through my notes, or start pondering what I might say in a review. Other bored viewers’ minds must be starting to wander as well. True, one of the traditional joys of popular entertainment is the artful iteration of familiar tropes – the beautiful young heiress and the tall dark stranger; the savvy detective, the corpse, and several likely suspects – but this particular trope, I think, is being replicated far too precisely, far too many times.
In sum, while the Wachowskis may have crafted Jupiter Ascending solely to provide viewers with some frivolous fun, it ultimately seems a depressing film. Certainly, it is depressing to think that so many talented people wasted their time making it, and the film may dishearteningly signal that science fiction film is becoming a genre incapable of saying anything, perhaps even incapable of entertaining people while it says nothing. But even Jove nods, and this film may only represent a strange interlude in the history of a proud tradition that is still, like Jupiter Jones, “destined for great things” – bold initiatives and stunning new triumphs to come. If not in the year 2015, then, Jupiter may someday ascend again.