Jupiter Ascending: The Matrix Regendered

Posted: June 16, 2015 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By this point in the media/meta cycle, oceans of virtual ink have already been spilled on the comparative flaws and virtues of Jupiter Ascending, a film that is almost universally perceived as being both nonsensical and glorious. Now that I’ve finally seen it, however – because those of us with toddling offspring tend to be reliant on iTunes for our theatrical jollies, shut up – I’m moved to weigh in on the matter. Specifically: while I’ve seen a great deal said about the absolute comic insanity of JA’s wordlbuilding – bees that recognise royalty! flying space werewolves! floating sofas! – nowhere have I seen it pointed out that actually, Jupiter Ascending is basically an equally batshit redo of The Matrix.

I mean, look. Internets. I get that The Matrix was kind of seminal for all of us here who saw it in our tweens and teens and twenties, and it’s such a goddamn shame they never made a sequel and all that, but really. Really. How long has it been since you actually sat down and watched it? I know that it’s a hallowed classic that tends to exist in this weirdly exalted geek mental space, but if you’re going to pass judgement on the hilarity of Eddie Redmayne’s creepy sociopath voice, you’re going to need to cite me chapter and verse as to why Hugo Weaving’s inflected robot-drawl is any better. If you think it’s kinda twee that the film ends with Jupiter Jones donning space gravity boots and flying over Chicago, you have to justify why that’s inherently different to Neo rocketing into the sky in his black leather Coat of Awesome.

To be clear, I love The Matrix, and I love Jupiter Ascending. This isn’t me trying to pull down the former or devalue the latter; far from it. I’m just trying to point out that, except for the fact that The Matrix has a grim cyberpunk aesthetic and a passive male protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass woman in black leather before finally coming into his own, while Jupiter Ascending has a colourful space opera aesthetic and a passive female protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass man in black leather before finally coming into her own, they’re basically the exact same fucking film.

I mean, okay. Let’s break this shit down, shall we?

At the start of their respective films, both Neo and Jupiter are dissatisfied with their everyday lives, dreaming constantly of something beyond the mundane. In both cases, we witnesses their respective love-interests – Trinity and Caine – being leather-clad badasses before they ever encounter Neo and Jupiter, which meetings are ultimately assisted/enabled by friends who only appear at the start of each story. When Neo is first taken in by Agent Smith, who vanishes his mouth and injects him with a literal tracking bug while splaying him, bare-chested, over a table, he’s left thinking that the experience was a dream, after which, it’s Trinity who proves otherwise. Similarly, when Jupiter first encounters aliens, her mind is wiped, leaving her doubtful that anything really happened; the second time, however, she’s splayed in mid-air in a hospital gown and injected in the neck, at which point, she’s rescued by Caine. Neo is initially sceptical that he’s The One, while Jupiter likewise doubts the claim that she’s a Recurrence; each character is granted their special status by right of birth with an element of spiritual predetermination – even reincarnation – in an otherwise (pseudo)scientific context, and each has the ‘real’ truth of the world explained to them by an authoritative third party – Morpheus for Neo, and Stinger for Jupiter – who acts as a mentor to their love-interest.

Once taken aboard their respective spaceships, they each encounter a smooth-speaking man – Cypher for Neo, Titus for Jupiter – who, under the pretence of telling them the unvarnished truth of their new situation, effects a betrayal. This leads to the imprisonment of Morpheus and Stinger, both of whom are rescued by their protégés, Trinity and Caine. (It’s also worth remarking that these mentor-figures each have plot-significant names: Morpheus for the king of dreams who rescues Neo from sleep, and Stinger Apini, which is doubly evocative of the bees which ultimately reveal Jupiter’s heritage.) Cue some dramatic fight scenes with lots of guns and explosions, a pair of climaxes wherein Neo and Jupiter triumph over Agent Smith and Balem Abrasax before being immediately rescued from peril by Trinity and Caine, with secondary spaceship rescues also effected by Tank and Diomika Tsing, and a matched set of closing scenes where our protagonists soar off into the sky, and the symmetry is complete.

Note, too, that both stories hinge on combating regimes – the Machines and the Abrasax dynasty – that ritualistically harvest and liquefy human beings in order to extend their own lifespans, though whereas humans created Machines in The Matrix, in Jupiter Ascending, the Abrasax seeded humanity. In this sense, the two films are bookends, thematic mirror images of each other: The Matrix is dystopian, set after a cataclysm has already occurred, and so ends with Neo escaping into a reality both harsher and more honest than the one he’s known. Jupiter Ascending, however, which presents a more hopeful vision of the future, allows Jupiter to save the Earth before it can be destroyed: unlike Neo, Jupiter returns home with a renewed appreciation for her life, a couple of awesome gadgets and a flying werewolf boyfriend. Neo’s journey is full of self-doubt – though Morpheus believes in him, he fails his first jump in the simulator and is, at least ostensibly, denied his Chosen One status by the Oracle – and only comes full-circle when he learns to believe in himself. Jupiter’s journey, by contrast, is full of external validation: the bees confirm her as royalty, and she’s consistently treated as such, but the story ends with her realisation that she doesn’t need to rely on what other people think of her – that she is, first and foremost, in charge of her own life.

There’s an undeniable Star Wars vibe to the world of Jupiter Ascending: we’re shown lots of races living together, a complicated alien bureaucracy, fabulous costumes and futuristic technology. It’s a setting that consistently develops outwards, showing Jupiter the potential for both human and personal expansion. The Matrix, by contrast, takes place in a wasteland; ‘the desert of the real’, as Morpheus says. The false matrix can be developed inwards, a literal fantasy realm, but the actual world is finite, limited, broken, and while the subsequent two films eventually show humanity making peace with the Machines, it’s a pax brokered by Neo’s death. In Jupiter Ascending, however, it’s Jupiter’s refusal to die that saves the Earth, ensuring that the planet remains in her keeping rather than passing to Balem.

As such, the primary differences between The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending can be summarised as follows:

  • One has an everyman male protagonist with a badass female love interest; the other has an everywoman female protagonist with a badass male love interest.
  • One has a gritty cyberpunk aesthetic, replete with lots of blacks, greys, greens and BDSM-style leather outfits; the other has a colourful space opera aesthetic, replete with lots of golds, purples, reds and couture-style silk outfits.
  • One is thematically dark, focussed on the consequences of hubris and the aftermath of cataclysm; the other is thematically hopeful, focussed on the possibilities of expansion and the prevention of death.
  • One has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though most of these characters die; the other has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though all of these characters live.
  • One has a protagonist without any apparent familial ties to a world that is subsequently proven to be imaginary; the other has a protagonist with deep familial ties to a world that is subsequently prove to be more important than ever.

In other words, and despite their many similarities otherwise, The Matrix is gritty, dark and stereotypically masculine, while Jupiter Ascending is bright, hopeful and stereotypically feminine – though both, as I said at the outset, are equally batshit. Look, don’t make that face: yes, Jupiter Ascending has bees that recognise royalty and Jupiter trying to sell her eggs for a telescope and grey abducting aliens and the ‘I’ve always loved dogs’ line and a scene where Caine gets an honest to god maxipad stuck to one of his man-wounds, but The Matrix has flying squid robots and Neo climbing along the outside of an office building because a stranger told him to and actual Men In Black and ‘there is no spoon’ and a scene where Neo dives headfirst into a pavement that goes all Looney-Tunes liquid and springs him back up again. You’re meant to laugh at obvious absurdities at various points in both of them, is what I’m saying – hell, I remember seeing The Matrix at the cinema at the impressionable age of thirteen and laughing my fucking ass off every time Agent Smith spoke – but that doesn’t meant they’re any less awesome for being purposefully comic.

I find it telling, therefore, that while both films received a certain amount of praise and censure on release, there’s a marked difference in how their respective Wikipedia entries describe what is arguably a very similar critical reception, at least at the level of popular opinio. According to the entry for The Matrix:

“It was generally well-received by critics, and won four Academy Awards as well as other accolades including BAFTA Awards and Saturn Awards. Reviewers praised The Matrix for its innovative visual effects, cinematography and its entertainment. The film’s premise was both criticized for being derivative of earlier science fiction works, and praised for being intriguing. The action also polarized critics, some describing it as impressive, but others dismissing it as a trite distraction from an interesting premise.

“Despite this, the film has since appeared in lists of the greatest science fiction films, and in 2012, was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.”

But for Jupiter Ascending, we get this:

“Although critics praised the visuals, world-building, and originality, the general attitude toward the film was negative, with most criticism focused on incoherence in the screenplay and an over-reliance on special effects. Despite this, the film has found a cult following, particularly among female sci-fi fans who appreciate the film’s campiness, and that the film deviates from typical gender dynamics in a genre that is traditionally male-centric.”

And okay, look: I get, again, that The Matrix both won awards and grossed more money than Jupiter Ascending. It’s an awesome film, and a totally deserving classic! Nonetheless, it seems relevant that while both were praised for their visual effects, Jupiter Ascending is deemed to have an ‘over-reliance’ on them that The Matrix, a film which showed a helicopter crashing into a glass skyscraper in slow motion and which basically pioneered the ‘combatant frozen in midair while the camera spins around them’ trick, apparently lacks. Similarly, while the weirdness of The Matrix doesn’t stop it having an ‘interesting premise’, Jupiter Ascending has ‘incoherence in the screenplay’, despite the fact that they’re both telling largely identical stories.

So while it’s not a new opinion that Jupiter Ascending is deeply reminiscent of the tropes of teen girl fanfiction – hello, angel werewolf boyfriend! – and while it’s similarly been stated that most action movies are, in fact, written as million-dollar endorsements of the fantasies of teenage boys, I haven’t seen it pointed out that, in this case, you’ve already got a film written and directed by the exact same people telling the exact same story but in a thematically inverted way, such that you can arguably use it as yardstick for gauging the extent to which the comparative femininity and hopefulness of Jupiter Ascending have counted against it in the popular consciousness.

All of which is a way of saying: Jupiter Ascending is both awesome and flawed, but no more so than The Matrix, which leads me to think there’s more than a little sexism involved in its constant devaluation. Which doesn’t mean you’re sexist for thinking The Matrix is a better film – to each her own, as they say. But JA is space opera, which is meant to be lavish and rich and weird, and given that the Wachowskis are predominantly vaunted for The Matrix and V for Vendetta, which are gritty and dystopian and yes, stereotypically masculine, I can’t help feeling that Jupiter Ascending is frequently judged a failure simply for not being those things, instead of for its performance of an inherently campier genre.

Basically, I loved it, and you will prise my hovering space-throne sofas from my cold, dead hands.

  1. gryphoness says:

    Totally agree. Saw the movie with my 12 year old stepdaughter, who lost her mind and loved every second. I think the response to the film is one part “it’s cool to hate on the Wachowskis for being weird now” and another part gross knee-jerk unexamined “we don’t like girls to be the lead”.

  2. Paul Weimer says:

    Thanks, Foz. You make some interesting points, and I think I just need to rewatch it and think about the movie some more .:)

  3. Lurkertype says:

    But did they do makeup things to make Carrie-Anne Moss look LESS conventionally attractive in The Matrix? No, they did not. Alas, the WTF facial hair and ears reduce the looks of Channing Tatum, and thus JA has a strike against it there that Matrix didn’t. Alas.

  4. I remember watching Stinger explain Caine’s tortured backstory to our heroine, while the camera panned lovingly over half-naked Channing Tatum, and I thought: this is the most romance novel thing I have ever seen in a movie. The whole thing follows romance beats — which are notably different from rom-com narrative beats — so it’s no surprise that many viewers and critics couldn’t, well, read the thing as it was, rather than what they expected.

  5. I like the unbiased critical review of both movies. I watched both. With Jupiter ascending , the feeling of deja vu was so much that there was a emotional discord. The story could have been better and layered. But i was floored by the visual treat.

  6. Reblogged this on Artemis Flight Books and commented:
    This covers a lot about Jupiter Ascending. Especially regarding the difference in its reception vs. The Matrix.

  7. […] Foz Meadows explains why Jupiter Ascending and The Matrix are basically the same movie. […]

  8. אוריה says:

    I recommend Abigail Nussbaum’s review of Jupiter Ascending, since she touches on a lot of the points you made:


  9. Alasdair says:

    Nice analysis, and makes me want to check out Jupiter Ascending.

    It fits with how I reacted to the trailer – “this is a wish-fulfilment fantasy for teen girls, isn’t it?” – and that’s why I didn’t see it, as I figured that as a straight adult male, it’s probably not for me. But you know, I love The Matrix in all its silliness and I love space opera, so I should really give it a try.

  10. […] Meadows, in an otherwise stellar essay on how Jupiter Ascending is The Matrix Regendered, points to that scene, as many have, as one of the silliest scenes in a […]

  11. […] Wachowskis are to work with. Lana and Andy talk a bit about inspirations. They do not talk about a gender-swapped Matrix, but then such things can easily happen subconsciously, or simply because of narrative structures. […]

  12. Vivi says:

    I haven’t watched “Jupiter Ascending”, so I can’t really comment on that. Taking your recap at face value, though, I can’t help but wonder if the femininity and hopefulness of the movie compared to the more masculine / dystopian themes of “The Matrix” aren’t the result of Lana Wachowski’s embracing of her transgenderness and subsequent coming out. I mean, presumably that made her a happier person, which might reflect in a less negative outlook on the future, and in less need to ‘overcompensate’ by making her fiction so very masculine. But that is conjecture, of course. It may just as well have been the zeitgeist that made “The Matrix” a dystopia, and the people financing the whole thing probably were more confident in a movie aimed straight at a male audience in the 1990s, whereas today there’s at least some public acknowledgement that female geeks exists and are willing to spend quite a lot of money on their hobby.

    On the other hand, it seems telling to me that the Wachowski’s new Netflix show “Sense8”, while a lot less effect-heavy and far more grounded in reality than either movie, shares a lot more traits with “Jupiter Ascending” than with “The Matrix”. Especially your points about “Jupiter Ascending” having a “protagonist with deep familial ties” (almost all of the 8 protagonists in “Sense8” have important family relationships, even if they’re not always good ones, and half af them also come with very committed and loving partners or BFFs attached), and the movie being “thematically hopeful, focussed on the possibilities of expansion and the prevention of death” (the whole premise of the show is mental expansion, and one seemingly ‘useless’ character’s grand achievement during the entire first season is to continually not commit suicide and literally to get up and keep moving even though she wants to lay down and die, in what turns out in hindsight is actually a pretty good depiction of undiagnosed clinical depression and PTSD), the cast being “made memorable by their diversity” (culturally, ethnically, sexually) and staying alive (to an almost ridiculous degree – even several tertiary characters who you expect to exist only to be killed off for some emotional impact on the main characters stubbornly cling to life in a hospital bed at the end of the first season).

    Strangely, a lot of the (mostly male) mainstream critics panned the show, whereas the (mostly female and/or queer) fans fell in love almost instantly. Part of the problem is that the first 2-3 episodes are rather slow and take some time to introduce 8 characters and their simultanous storylines to a level of depth that you really care about them. The show was made to be binged like a 11-hours-long movie, with an accerlerating pace and many moments for quiet reflection, and some critics saw that as a bad thing. And it’s true that the actual arc plot doesn’t get very far in the first season – it works more like an origin story for all the pricipal characters. (The show has been renewed, and since J. Michael Straczynski – he of the famous Babylon-5-year-plan – is cowriting, I’m fairly confident that the show won’t hit the Matrix sequel problems.) But it was also that a lot of them were expecting something like “The Matrix” both in tone and pace, and possibly also in terms of heteronormativity and generic-hero’s-journey, which it really mostly isn’t. One critic who actually seemed to understand what the show was going for described the viewing experience very fittingly thus: “It feels like a celebration not only of life, but of a particularly open-minded attitude to it” and “You give it a couple of episodes to grind down your cynicism, and then overdose on ten straight hours of human empathy.” (That review is here: http://junkee.com/sense8-is-netflixs-most-radical-show-2/59678 )

    By the way, that process of “grinding down cynicism” can be seen very well if you read the recaps on AfterEllen, whose writer insisted on watching the show like a normal weekly TV series. She starts out dismissing POC characters as underdeveloped or clicheed, only caring about the lesbians and snarking about superficial archetype / plot similarities with “The Matrix”, but soon she gets over her expectations. By episode 4, she’s like “My babies! I love every one of them, even the useless white straight people”. And by the end, she’s cathartically crying with the characters and SO SORRY about every bad thing she ever said about them, and she can’t bear to wait another week to watch the final episode. It’s a fun read, especially if you’ve already watched the entire season and can appreciate the irony of some of her statements. And it’s interesting, too, because it made me realise that some characters were probably meant to be underestimated at first. Especially with the depressive one (who most people only realise is depressive near the end, though the signs are there even in the beginning) it reflects the attitude of people who in real life get exasperated with their loved one’s ‘aimlessness’ and seemingly arbitrary weird behaviour, because they don’t realise that the person really is mentally ill. (Of course, in real life depression doesn’t often have a traumatic and therefore ‘justifying’ reason like it does on the show, but if that reveal makes some people sorry for getting angry at the character when they didn’t know what her damage was, and it maybe drives them to think a little about how they similarly judge the people in their lives without knowing the details, then I’ll take it.)

    Anyway, I’ll stop gushing now. I just thought that you might really enjoy the show, and that you may not have heard of it yet, considering that you don’t mention it at all despite the fact that it came out just a week before you wrote this article.

  13. […] reading: “25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme” from Terrible Minds, “Jupiter Ascending: The Matrix Regendered” from Shattersnipe, “Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil’s Advocate!” from Helping Writers […]

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