In 2021, Marvel pulled off the impossible: unwieldy narratives in both film and streaming TV. Meanwhile, there’s real hype around what looks like a faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
But that’s about it for big sci-fi cinema these days.
A nearly extinct version of the genre quietly went away a few years ago, never to return: the big-budget gamble. Remember when studios used to pay oodles of money for named actors, directors, and visual effects on an unproven thing.
Six years isn’t a long time, but they don’t make movies like Jupiter Ascending anymore, which is why you need to watch it while you can on Netflix. Here’s why.
The 2010s were riddled with such oddities. Movies like:
- John Carter, Disney’s attempt to capture another Pirates of the Caribbean-shaped lightning in a bottle.
- After Earth, a Smith family affair directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson’s dream adaptation of a French comic book that, financially speaking, about eight people saw.
The overabundance of streaming and superhero domination at the theatrical level means this very specific sort of “weird, bad, but cool” expensive sci-fi now belongs to streamers. The Tomorrow War probably would have bombed in theaters, but on Amazon Prime, it’s getting a sequel.
This is why it’s fascinating to see relics of an era that wasn’t long ago. In 2015, the Wachowskis swung for something big, ambitious, and original. Jupiter Ascending, a very strange sci-fi epic adventure romance, isn’t just the kind of movie you won’t see at the theatrical level anymore. It’s also the movie you need to stream before it leaves Netflix on July 31.
In Jupiter Ascending, Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, a destitute young woman who works as a cleaner with her mother and aunt in Chicago. Jupiter doesn’t want much in life, just excitement and to be swept off her feet. She’s got a used telescope on eBay in her sights, and its price tag is enough to convince her to sell eggs at a clinic.
But unbeknownst to her, a galaxy away, Jupiter isn’t a nobody. She’s a genetic inheritor to all of planet Earth — and the wealthiest dynasty in the galaxy wants her to give it up. It’s not long before Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetically modified man-werewolf hybrid and former special forces turned bounty hunter, tracks down Jupiter and whisks her to space, where she learns just how big her world is meant to be.
Reminiscent of the Wachowskis’ other ambitious and awkward sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, this is a movie with a lot on its mind, too much on its plate, but only one thing in its heart. Above all, Ascending is a star-crossed romance between Jupiter and her rescuer, Caine. It’s Romeo & Juliet with aliens, and Cinderella fairy dusted in.
It’s Romeo & Juliet with aliens, and Cinderella fairy dusted in.
Caine and Jupiter’s growing relationship is the film’s shining north star even as the plot veers off hard — and we mean, hard — in all sorts of zany directions. With clunky lines like, “The best bio-neural-synaptic prosthetic the military could buy” (delivered by a dependably capable Sean Bean) and, “I recently celebrated my 14th millennium,” Jupiter Ascending takes a sci-fi principle made famous by George Lucas’ Star Wars and doubles down.
Every idea that appears on the screen, be it man-animal hybrids, anti-gravity skates, or bees recognizing royalty, the Wachowskis find a way to ground the universe in some kind of normalcy: Mundane, bureaucratic, and even capitalistic. An indulgent midpoint sequence pays homage to Terry Gilliam’s satire Brazil. At one point, an advisor to the main villain Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) utters the line, “Assuming market stability, if we harvest later this century, profit margins should eclipse your nearest competitor.”
While the Wachowskis have a respectable approach to worldbuilding, they never quite learn to do it well. That’s a disservice not only to the Wachowskis themselves as artists but to their protagonist, Jupiter, who wants more than what normalcy can offer. While the Wachowskis intend for it to be some sort of commentary, the result is a limited view of their eye-popping imagination.
The Wachowskis also have a habit of introducing potential stakes that are ultimately meaningless. A robbery in Russia that informs Jupiter’s backstory is nothing more than a random act of chaos. To get Jupiter to the clinic, her cousin hints at “something big.” You never know what he means. In space, Jupiter learns how other humans can de-age effortlessly. “Today it’s as easy as changing a light bulb.” The story proceeds to do precisely jack with that information.
Along with a narrative where characters betray each other every minute and the villains’ motivations to have Jupiter under control are eternally opaque, what you’ve got is a very messy sci-fi from the Wachowskis. That only makes it worth watching, warts and all. In this era when sci-fi cinema is limited to two extreme polarities — shared comic book universes in formulaic stories or indie/streaming gems working wonders with limited budget, with nothing in between — Jupiter Ascending remains unique.
It’s also, admittedly, more than a little derivative. That’s long been the Wachowskis’ modus operandi; The Matrix was celebrated for its originality but owed a deep debt to William Gibson, Ghost in the Shell, John Woo, and the Shaw Brothers. The Matrix is simply remembered for how it put the pieces together, and Jupiter Ascending is almost there.
Jupiter Ascending is, to put it mildly, a bad movie. But it’s a movie that’s looking up into the sky, dreaming of what else is possible. I’d take that over tried and true formula any day.
Jupiter Ascending is streaming now on Netflix until July 31.