The words "space opera" have a less-than-favorable connotation in the world of sci-fi TV and movies. While this sort of lore-heavy storytelling is commonplace in high fantasy novels, the "high sci-fi" genre is seen significantly less. Usually, these things are grounded into somewhat terrestrial style plots, and the alien is considered the "other." In a world of human stories told against alien backdrops, occasionally there will be an alien story told against an alien backdrop that also features humans, and one of the best is available for streaming on Netflix.
Of all the movies the Wachowski sisters have made, none os so unfairly reviled as Jupiter Ascending. (Not even Speed Racer.) Boasting a frankly impressive 27 percent critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was called everything from unimaginative to "a dumb action flick." This 2015 feature was meant to be a breath of new life into a tired genre, but instead seemed to be the final nail in its coffin. However, the watching experience is more than just the critic's reviews.
For such a fantastical movie, it starts off extremely terrestrial. Mila Kunis's character Jupiter Jones describes her life as the child of a Russian mathematician and the astronomer son of an English diplomat, who is killed off before she is even born. Smash-cut to the present day, and Jupiter is living in Chicago and has a job cleaning houses of the rich and famous.
Meanwhile, in space, three siblings of the Abrasax family are fighting over the most precious part of their mother's inheritance: a planet called Earth. They debate who has claim over it, and this leads the youngest brother, Titus, to send Caine Wise to fetch Jupiter. Caine, played with a surprisingly fitting lack of emotion by Channing Tatum, rescues her from a medical procedure turned abduction, but loses her to fellow captors.
These events happen, one after another, after Jupiter realizes she is the reincarnation of the Abrasax kids' dead mother and therefore the Planet Earth goes to her. This makes her the human Macguffin in a fight between the uber-rich siblings and the rogue Caine, played out in stunning visual effects as only the Wachowskis can pull off.
The plot, honestly, is merely a vehicle for the visual language of the world it inhabits. From Caine's little wolfen ears to the spaceships on Earth leaving crop circles, every detail is thought out, even if that thought is just "man, wouldn't this look cool?" The costumes alone warrant a watch, every battle costume is badass and every ball gown extravagant.
The script, underneath about seven layers of worldbuilding and action scenes, is a genuine statement about capitalism, the use of human life as a consumable resource, and a bit about bureaucracy. There is a lot of clunky dialogue, but it's the kind of dialogue you can chuckle at, not wince over, like when Caine explains his spliced-with-wolf DNA to Jupiter and she flirtatiously answers "I love dogs. I've always loved dogs."
One of the easiest traps for space operas to fall into is taking itself too seriously: contemporary examples, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, lean heavily on humor and pointing out their own inherent ridiculousness. Jupiter Ascending takes things completely the other direction, and instead we are given Academy Award winning actor Eddie Redmayne giving 110 percent on a so-so villain speech as Balem Abrasax, rasping and enunciating each and every word.
If this sort of sci-fi isn't up your alley, it would still serve a useful watch as a barometer to measure against other sci-fi films. It isn't a Marvel movie, it isn't a Star Wars Episode. In many ways, it's the complete opposite of those things. But by learning to appreciate all there is to like in Jupiter Ascending, it's much easier to see how the other movies could be improved, and what they do well.
Jupiter Ascending is now streaming on Netflix.