Next Cult Classic: Jupiter Ascending should be recognized as royalty

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Sep 29, 2017

Some movies just shouldn't work. The pacing is off, the characters aren't relatable, the worldbuilding is too complicated. Barring all that, a lot of films have the hill of expectation to conquer. If a well-known filmmaking team that has been behind some of the most successful genre movies of all time, the hype surrounding their newer projects is always going to be bigger as a result. And while all of these factors inevitably contribute to whether a film brings in big box-office bucks or completely bombs, there's also the passage of time to consider -- because, ultimately, what leads to a movie gaining official cult status is how far removed we are from the time when critics panned it and/or audiences didn't fill theaters on opening weekend.

2015's Jupiter Ascending is a movie that's more than deserving of a second look — and not because it's an epic space opera, or because it's earned an iconic place in science fiction canon. Coming off the heels of the Wachowskis' adaptation of Cloud Atlas, it marked the sibling team's first attempt to establish a new sci-fi world to play in after their wildly successful Matrix trilogy. That series had the benefit of lots of time to build up characters, and while Jupiter Ascending was only one film, it still has a cast worth studying.

The choice to make the hero a woman was a progressive and welcomed one. Over the last several decades, previous installments in the science fiction canon have made a point of emphasizing the role of the "Chosen One" — the individual who is destined to save the world from certain destruction or some other type of evil intervention. More often than not, this "Chosen One" is born into the fate they are meant to carry out, and typically have no knowledge of their role until it's imparted to them. In sci-fi films, this trope has been filled by men: Paul Atreides in Dune, Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy, Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. The Wachowskis even used "The One" as an alternate name for Neo in their Matrix trilogy. But this time around, they wanted to potentially usher in a new kind of sci-fi hero, an ordinary woman who just so happens to have a divine calling.

This heroine's inauspicious beginnings may be one of the reasons Jupiter Ascending has garnered a wide following from female audiences specifically; there is a particular hunger to watch an "everywoman" who is "plucked from obscurity" to become a "reincarnated space princess." And it's true that the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) involves a bit of wish fulfillment, in part because Jupiter's pre-revelation life is anything but glamorous.

She shares a room with her mother and aunt. She scrubs toilets for a living while dreaming about being able to afford nicer clothes and expensive jewelry. The irony is that once presented with all of these as a part of fulfilling her predestination, Jupiter recognizes that material things pale in comparison to the safety of her family — and on a larger scale, the welfare of the Earth.

To other characters, the Earth is merely a planet and not worth much thought. The wealthy Abrasax family, owners of a vast interstellar empire and inventors of a life-extending substance called RegeneX, are alerted to Jupiter's existence when her geneprint is discovered, and while this trio of siblings is several millennia old, they're threatened by Jupiter and what she represents: the "recurrence," or reincarnation, of their deceased mother.

What makes Jupiter's opponents so fascinating is that the Abrasax siblings aren't preternatural at all; they're only human, in spite of their longevity, enabled by the "harvesting" of bodies on the planets under their control in order to produce RegeneX. The three have endured at the expense of countless lives (though perhaps at the cost of their own humanity), so when they're met with Jupiter's horrified response at their true intentions, their nonchalance is even more disturbing.

The House of Abrasax is, without a doubt, the most unsettling plotline that runs throughout the film. From Eddie Redmayne affecting a uniquely hoarse tone of voice for his portrayal of eldest brother Balem Abrasax to youngest brother Titus (Douglas Booth) attempting to charm Jupiter into a false sense of security, Jupiter has enemies at every turn. It's no wonder that she continues to evoke the sentiments of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, a character who inspired her origins, according to the Wachowskis; she just wants to go home.

But no Dorothy would be complete without her Toto, and that role is fulfilled to an entirely satisfying degree (and then some) by Caine Wise. Played by Channing Tatum, fresh off his breakout success in the first Magic Mike film, Caine is a different sort of romantic interest than the normal sci-fi fare. For one: He's a dog. Technically, he's a half-human, half-canine hybrid genetically engineered by the space military, complete with quicker reflexes and a heightened sense of smell.

The obvious equivalent for his relationship with Jupiter isn't just referenced, it's thoroughly trotted out via dialogue when Titus dryly refers to them as "Beauty and her Beast." Of course Caine is nice to look at and all, but the most interesting thing about his character is where he's positioned: at Jupiter's side. In most other types of sci-fi fare, Caine would undoubtedly be the hero, but at the climax of the film, he's left to tangle with one of Balem's henchmen while Jupiter gets the final showdown with the biggest villain of all: Balem himself. As a result, their burgeoning relationship is all the more idealistic. Who wouldn't want a werewolf boy coming to your rescue and vowing to keep you safe at all costs?

Jupiter Ascending might not be a success in some ways, but the cast that rounds out the film brings a ton of entertainment to the screen and, if anything, leaves you wishing there was a sequel with some of these characters. Sean Bean bucks tradition by surviving for the two-hour duration as Stinger, a watchful father and overall gruff human who's been genetically crossed with (you guessed it) a bee. Fans of the Wachowskis' successful Netflix series Sense8 will be delighted to catch early appearances from cast members Tuppence Middleton (as middle Abrasax sister Kalique) and Doona Bae (as bounty hunter Razo). Maria Doyle Kennedy pairs the right mix of humor and sentiment needed in the role of Jupiter's mother Aleksa, and her endurance through the film flips the script as well; normally, it's our hero's mom who doesn't survive to see her child reach adulthood success. And last but certainly not least, Nikki Amuka-Bird brings a commanding presence to Captain Tsing, which could've been an unremarkable role in the hands of any other actor.

The film's persistence within the sci-fi genre is worth recognizing. Much of that has to do with the loudness of a certain subdivision of fans, who continue to champion it as the kind of movie that acknowledges the worth of female pubescent fantasies without looking down at them. Enough time has passed since the initial swath of negative critical reviews, and many other films have achieved the title of "cult classic" upon revisiting. Jupiter Ascending probably won't get a lot of subsequent retrospectives or awards, but at the very least it deserves to be acknowledged for what it is first and foremost: a hell of a lot of fun.