by Vance Berk
Since I first saw Jupiter Ascending in February 2015 it’s climbed the ranks as one of my all-time guilty pleasures. Why? Although the Waschowskis’ film was a catastrophic failure both critically and at the box office, I think it’s an important learning tool for any aspiring science-fiction writer on what NOT TO DO.
At the time of its release, I was writing a feature-length spec script based on a universe I’d been developing since high school. Leaving Jupiter Ascending, I learned 6 important lessons that would influence every key decision as I developed my own Science Fiction Space Opera.
1. Keep It Simple
Jupiter Ascending concerns a young woman (Jupiter Jones) becoming the center of an intergalactic dispute when it’s discovered that she’s the reincarnation of a space queen who is the rightful owner of planet Earth. That doesn’t make much sense? Well, hold on because we’ve still got the Abraxas family tree, a half-wolf man with anti-gravity rollerblades…
There were so many crazy things happening in Jupiter Ascending, it was impossible to wrap my head around. No matter how far away the galaxy I was writing, my script had to be focused on a clear and accessible narrative and not to get carried away embellishing the universe with too much clutter.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
The Wachowskis work an odd dynamic. They are filmmakers well-known for their cinematic visuals, yet they insist on using extensive exposition to needlessly better their story. A great example of this in Jupiter Ascending is when Balem (Eddie Redmayne) arrives at his industrial palace on the planet Jupiter. This sequence is space opera at its overindulgent best: An imposing starship comes out of time warp to an ominous orchestral march (Michael Giacchino, again, proves he’s this generation’s John Williams), all while Balem watches the operation from his Regenex bath (the life-extending substance that is the source of his wealth). This brief sequence tells us everything we need to know about Balem; that he is a powerful force to be reckoned with in this universe. Why do the Wachowskis then insist on the excruciating monologues of Balem whispering about his history of mommy problems? This immediately undermined the intimidating presence that had initially been created and halted the forward momentum of the story.
In writing my own sci-fi script, it was important to take any long chunks of dialogue and find visual ways to convey the information. It was also important to take any dense action descriptions and break them up into quicker, easier to understand visual “shots”. From my humans to my aliens, it was essential that an audience could easily understand the essence of the character through their appearance and the ways they interacted with one another, without my main character all but turning to the camera and crying his heart out.
3. Know who your main antagonist is
The villains of Jupiter Ascending are the three Abrasax siblings: Kalique, Titus, and Balem. All three take turns kidnapping Jupiter, take a moment to establish that they all suffer from an Oedipus complex, and ends with a last second rescue by Jupiter’s love interest Caine Wise. While Balem feels like he’s supposed to be the primary antagonist (mostly due to Eddie Redmayne’s celebrity status), it is never really made clear.
In my own script I made sure my primary villain was an integral part of the narrative universe. He’s established in the opening action sequence which sets my protagonist’s arc in motion, and he is behind all the major conflicts that follow. To further tie him to my protagonist (who suffers from a debilitating condition) I made my villain a man who’s augmented his biology through mechanical implants. Sure, this is a pretty basic sci-fi villain, but his story wasn’t the focus of my screenplay. As my hero’s foil, he served his narrative purpose.
4. Give Your Protagonist Agency
When creating a science fiction universe I learned, it is always helpful to have one strong character to act as the surrogate and take your audience on this journey. A singular perspective from which to introduce the world allows for a more focused narrative, and strong protagonist. It is their active choices and decisions that drive the direction of the story and make it easier for an audience to become invested in these characters. For a reincarnation of the galaxy’s most powerful space queen, Jupiter Jones could well be the most passive protagonist in a blockbuster film I’ve ever seen. She has a few moments where she makes decisions and takes action for herself, but you never get the sense that she’s gone through any actual growth.
In my own script, my hero had to make their own choices. My hero suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones), and even though he’s spent loads of money trying to augment his body, he’s still at a disadvantage compared to your typical action hero. What makes him a hero is that he never allows his disability to hold him back. He puts himself in danger, gets injured, goes through emotional highs and lows, but he never loses his agency.
5. Keep Your Tone Consistent
What do you imagine when you hear the name “Jupiter Jones?” If you’re me, you imagine a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the sort of interplanetary adventures you’d have found in the pulp magazines of the 1930s-40s. Well, Hugh Bateup’s production design does its best to immerse viewers in an intergalactic space adventure, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more somnolent space opera.
When I wrote my space opera I knew exactly what tone I was trying to capture: The action/adventure of ‘60s-‘70s sci-fi adventure novels. As a story told in that vein, I believe I succeeded. So many of Jupiter Ascending’s problems could have been addressed if it had chosen to follow the model of previous films like The Fifth Element that delighted in their absurdity. Instead the Wachowskis decided to treat this material dead seriously, which is a shame because…
6. Jupiter Ascending could have been good!
Beneath all the bland characters, impenetrable family drama, repetitive plot beats, ridiculous dialogue, etc., it may surprise you to know that I think there was great potential in Jupiter Ascending. There’s some awesome technology (I’d love a pair of those anti-grav boots), the environments are fun (the Brazil-inspired bureaucracy planet that even features a cameo from Terry Gilliam), and even the philosophical diatribes are interesting when gingerly doled out, rather than crammed down the audience’s throat. There’s no reason audiences wouldn’t have accepted the film’s stranger ideas if the film had focused more on having fun than forcing viewers to listen to characters reciting the series’ bible.
At the end of the day you will not find a more accepting audience than sci-fi/fantasy fans. Yeah, we might seem like a bunch of irritable trolls when we get on message boards to complain about minor costume alterations between films, but we really will accept just about anything if its delivered well (example: Star Wars is a story about laser sword wielding space wizards). It’s easy to make fun of Jupiter Ascending’s silly ideas (“Bees know royalty.”), but we’re liars if we say we wouldn’t have accepted these ideas if they’d been delivered through an effective screenplay.