[Content warning: spoilers]

So… Jupiter Ascending is pretty crap.

I say that as someone who is quite willing to take a ridiculous action film for what it is. Sometimes I go to see a film for the special effects, and I understand that the paper-thin plot is just window-dressing for some really large explosions. But Jupiter Ascending somehow manages to not even clear that bar.

The explosions are certainly pretty, and there are some moments where the art design is truly stunning (I’m thinking of the wedding scene in particular), but the pieces are put together clunkily, and the dialogue is truly appalling. Particularly the dialogue between Jupiter and wolf-man (I can’t even remember his name) - there was at least one point where I believe she was trying to chat him up, but it certainly wasn’t obvious.

The film is also notable for having the protagonist fall off tall buildings with remarkable frequency. This allows wolf-man to catch her with his magical flying roller-skates.1

However, one thing that JA does do reasonably well is giving Jupiter some amount of agency. The plot doesn’t make this terribly easy, since she’s essentially being swished around from baddie to baddie like a cosmic hockey puck, but she does get to make a few choices. I can think of three that matter:

  • She chooses to marry Titus
  • She chooses to talk to Belem, over wolf-man’s protests
  • She chooses to save Earth rather than her family

I think the third is especially interesting, because it’s really a moral choice. Save the Earth, or stop your family being turned into fancy anti-wrinkle cream? Even Holywood is consequentialist enough to know what you ought to do there, and she does make the right choice.2

But the thing is, we (the audience) know that this choice doesn’t matter. In this kind of film, there is no way that we’re going to kill either the protagonist’s innocent family or everyone on earth. That’s just not how it goes. We know that somehow we will get both good outcomes.

Megadeath and the slaughter of innocent minor characters are not on the list of Allowed Consequences for protagonist’s actions (or at least not without major foreshadowing), but the death of another protagonist is. So that means that wolf-man’s antics actually have more narrative tension, from an audience point of view, because we believe that Jupiter might die in this story. We don’t believe that the Earth might get destroyed, so while it’s kind of interesting what choice Jupiter makes, we know it’ll all be okay in the end.

Now, this doesn’t damage Jupiter the character’s agency if we look at it from inside the story. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s percieved as having less agency than wolf-man, even though she has much bigger choices.3 We have a whole load of meta-narrative information, which means that those choices don’t inspire much narrative tension, and so don’t seem as important.

  1. They “harness the power of gravity by redirecting it into differential equation slips”, apparently. Admittedly, that is the worst bit of techno-bollocks in the film, mostly it doesn’t even try. 

  2. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s clear to the viewers that if she “saves” her family, they’ll all be put back on Earth and harvested immediately. That’s just a sop so the audience don’t feel discomfited by an actual moral dilemma. 

  3. This isn’t specifically a gender thing - there are plenty of men in films who get narratively irrelevant choices where we know that neither option is acceptable.