#SpaceOperaWeek — Jupiter Ascending’s Biggest Problem

Saturday , 20, May 2017 17 Comments

Okay, I actually quite enjoyed this one. Everything was gorgeous. The bad guys were evil and decadent. The world building was extravagant. The life of every human being on earth was at stake. There were androids, rat men, humanoid dragon-people, guys with bird wings… all the staples from the pulp science fiction tradition, really. There was even an epic space wedding!

The pace was so relentless you might not have noticed that it was leavened with exactly the same dearth of chemistry that you would expect from the guys that brought you the Neo and Trinity. I know on my first viewing I failed to catch that the dialog between the space hunk and the space princess was just plain godawful. The action and the visuals really did sweep me away enough that it went right past me. But yeah, it really was some of the most cringe-worthy stuff in cinema history.

But the acting and the dialog is not what ultimately ruined this film. Structuring it around a female romantic lead did. Here’s why:

Stinger: Bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty.

Jupiter: Boy, are you going to be surprised when find out what I do for a living.

Stinger: It’s not what you do, it’s who you are.

This is an inherently anti-pulp premise that is being grafted onto an otherwise pitch perfect expression of classical space opera. Granted, Tarzan was Lord Greystoke. Arthur was the son of Uther. And Luke Skywalker turned out to be part of a space dynasty. “Who you are” does matter in these things. But what these characters do matters more. And these characters proving their worth and their mettle matters even more.

I don’t know why it is, but for some reason… the moment a male lead is swapped out with a female one, all of this stuff seems to go out the window. Men and women are not interchangeable. The stories that spring up around them are qualitatively different. There is a reason why Andre Norton and Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore and Francis Stevens defaulted to male leads, after all.

Even so, a space opera with a female lead does not have to be structured like, say, Queen of the Damned or Twilight or Hunger Games. Jupiter Ascending could have taken this story to an entirely different level. Certainly they were on the right track with the over the top space wedding of unparalleled ostentatiousness. But our girl was merely being taken for a ride. The only virtue she was displaying here was her gullibility. To give this tale the sort of punch that Princess of Mars had, she needed to be shown being willing to accept a 14,000 year long marriage to THE WRONG GUY in return for having all the people of earth be spared from a gruesome fate. Yes, that is the gist of the plot point at this stage. But the creators seem to be unable to present a female lead that can match the regal dignity of a Dejah Thoris. They stumble, blunder and undercut it at every turn. It’s like they can’t even imagine it!

Honestly, though… all of this is for naught anyway. Our heroine saves earth, sure. Even better, she is shown to be perfectly content cleaning toilets and cooking breakfast for her family at the end. It warmed my heart, anyway. But this just doesn’t feel right. And when you get to the ending where she is rollerblading in the sky with her space boyfriend, it’s pretty clear why:

No one cares if a girl gets the guy in the end.

It’s no accomplishment to speak of, honestly. It’s normal. It’s reality’s default setting, and thus… conveys no drama to speak of. If a young girl is as cute as Mila Kunis wants a guy, she can have her pick. They will line up for her whether she is available or not. And the guy that Jupiter Jones gets…? The filmmakers worked overtime to establish that he was really more interested in getting his wings back than anything else.

This is an anti-climax unworthy of space opera, pure and simple.

The story would have taken on an entirely different tone if it had been structured around the Channing Tatum character. A disgraced veteran having to take a lousy job as a mercenary…? The girl he’s hired to protect turns out to be much more important than anyone realizes. Adventure ensues. Chemistry happens. One thing leads to another, and the big lunk finds himself getting married to a genuine space princess after rescuing her from THE WRONG SORT OF GUY that would have been married to her for COUNTLESS MILLENNIA???!!

That’s real space opera.

Frankly, female leads just aren’t up for something that awesome.

  • Misha Burnett says:

    “No one cares if the girl gets the guy in the end.”

    That is a profound insight. Maybe that explains the prevalence of romantic triangles in female focused paranormal fiction–could it be that the feminine equivalent of “the good guy gets the girl” is “the good girl chooses the right boy?”

    Or even, the good girl achieves the power to choose–there seem to be a lot of heroines who start out fleeing an arranged marriage to find the man that is her true love.

    I think that’s significant. The negative romantic outcome for a male hero is that he is alone, the negative romantic outcome for a female heroine is that she is wedded to an undesirable man.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “The negative romantic outcome for a male hero is that he is alone, the negative romantic outcome for a female heroine is that she is wedded to an undesirable man.”

      You just described the ending of Tarzan of the Apes.


      One thing that buzzes in my head is though the romantic arc of Tarzan and Jane resolves over two books I wonder if ERB knew he was going to do that while he was finishing up the first book.

      Did serials and sequels even really exist at the time of Tarzan’s writing?

      I don’t think Jane Austen did that.

      Hell of a first cliff hanger to start that literary scheme with.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        I’ve been thinking about what you have said about ERB and romance in the past, I believe ERB DID know he was going to do that when he was finishing Tarzan of the Apes. Burroughs was 37 years old when Tarzan was published, with two children and another on the way.

        He had a different perspective on life than someone like REH, who died unmarried at the age of 30. I think that part of ERB’s appeal is that he was talking to his children in his books, trying to tell them about heroism, love, sacrifice and how a man should act.

        I think he knew exactly what he was doing.

        • Terry Sanders says:

          Yeah. He may not have known he would be sequeling, but he knew what a *really* heroic decision was.

          If he hadn’t written a sequel, it would have been an heroic tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. Or at least Anthony Hope.

  • Sam says:

    I think you’re being too kind. Apart from the truly amazing sets, everything about this movie was wrong. The villain had no presence. The strong emotional stories were skimmed over or brought in so late they didn’t matter. As observed, the wedding missed its note, which should have been superhuman dignity in the face of personal tragedy and sacrifice, but just seemed a cheap and obvious deception.

    The idea of innate royalty could have worked, but at no point did the character display any.

    The idea of generational betrayal could have worked but at no point was it alluded to, apart from as a cheap and arbitrary shock-drop with no dramatic setup.

    The animal-human hybrids on the other hand would have worked much better if unstated, but instead was explained up-front and in straight dialogue; it could have been a slowly festering emotional strain between the lead and the romantic interest, heading to an emotionally distraught reveal, instead?

    *”I’m sort of half dog.”
    “I’ve always loved dogs, oh gosh, what a silly thing to say, oh me oh my.”
    -comic trumpet-
    THE END*

    No dismay or self loathing on his part, no tortured confession, NO SIGN that he thinks of himself, was designed to be, is treated by his masters as, subhuman. No genuine emotional connection from her. No running with the dramatic moment from the script or directors. And after he reveals that he’s not human, not alien, but a bastardized half-human THING, her empathetic response is “teehee I said something silly and I am embarrassed”.

    They could have had him backing into the shadows. They could have had him shaking like a beaten dog when he told her. She could have embraced him, and a moment of weakness, accepting comfort, on his part before he tore himself proudly away and returned to the shadows, eyes glinting like an animal in the dark.

    And every single scene was like that. Every. Freaking. Scene.

    • Jeffro says:

      Okay, that’s is our kind of hate right there. If you ever want to do a guest post reviewing just about anything, you are more than welcome!

  • First… I’m glad I’m not the only one who actually kind of liked this film. But I also had all the same problems you did.

    Second, I started to write a comment here, but it got pretty long and involved. So I turned it into a blog post. You can find it here.

  • Andreas Habicher says:

    True, true. Although I liked the film a lot, for its world (universe) building. The state of affairs in the world, even political aspects, neatly fit into the idea of Earth being more or less one of a million cattle breeding farms. Capitalism, medical progress, even migrant influx and re-religionization to make up for the reproductive lull in disenchanted societies since the 1960ies, they all make sense.

    Confronted with this highly interesting setting I viewed the protagonist more like a vehicle for us viewers to be presented with the universe – kind of like a GM does who spends too much time with scene setting. It can be boring if it is a normal scene, but it can be mesmerizing if it is a wonderful scene narrated beautifully.

    You are right, the mercenary would have been the stronger protagonist by far. Yet he already knew the universe and all the works, so he would have had less opportunity to explain stuff to us, the n00b viewers. Worlds need outsiders to explain – exhibit A: The discussion about Dr. Strange as an outsider who is suddenly the One. If it was an insider, it would be just an obscure film that nobody would understand, because the protagonist and his peers would not explain things they are all aware of due to their upbringing in mountain monasteries.

    • Tesh says:

      Andreas, that’s a fair point that outsiders can help narrate for the audience… though I find that sort of approach to be increasingly ham-fisted. I’d actually like to see more stories just hit the ground running and keep going, instead of the “boring exposition-mindless action” cycle that seems so prevalent. I think it’s OK to just sweep the audience along for the ride and *show* the universe instead of *tell* about it.

      • Andreas Habicher says:

        Indeed, that would be cool to see. Although at the moment no example comes to mind. Its always X thrown into unfamiliar territory, finding Y to explain things. Asian in America. American in Asia. Brit in Romania. Ant in city. Country boy in space/Paris/the Empire. Lost mermaid princess in mermaidia. Even Earthling on Mars.

        The other way you describe would really be worth trying.

        • Jesse Lucas says:

          An example of how to carry things too far the other way is the anime Xam’d: Lost Memories. We’re thrown headlong into an unfamiliar world, where the audience must scrabble thirstily for any scrap of knowledge on why this island is some sort of autonomous territory, why these monsters are piloted by suicide bombers and what it is they want, how any of the technology or politics work, and the entire thing is beautifully animated with tons of background details so you’d think there would be some way to watch it without getting lost. I believe the plot falls apart on its own after the halfway point but maybe I just didn’t take enough notes to figure out what was happening.

  • bar1scorpio says:

    Well, you’ll have the butthurt brigade now fighting to, if not defend a pretty awful movie, to attack your attack as not being the *right* attack.
    But it is the core of centering on a waffling stereotypical romance heroine who really has nothing of interest. She’s deliberately Bella-esque. You’d have a hard time even calling her a heroine, or prota-go-nist. She’s walking MacGuffin.
    It’s not that you’re centering your film on a secret space princess, the ‘Chowski sisters are just failing to correctly rip off anime again. Miyao Hazaki could have pulled it of.

  • bar1scorpio says:

    Hayao Miyazaki.
    Dammit, it’s late.

  • Jim says:

    Another problem was that even though Mila Kunis is gorgeous, she just isn’t a lead actress.

    Also, the plot was schizophrenic. None of the choices made made any sense. And the movie left two of the three bad guys unpunished and let the genocide of trillions go on as a plot point. But hey Mila and the dog are married now, so who cares?

    The saving grace was the homage to Brazil.

    • Jeffro says:

      Yeah, she saved earth… but the human harvesting continues across the universe.

      This makes sky surfing with her space boyfriend look insanely tacky.

      Eucatastrophe fail.

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