It would be easy to take a dim view of this utterly bonkers “Science Fiction” epic; if you’re coming to this from the basically modern tradition of realistic narrative cinema, you’re going to be disappointed. We have been seduced by the notion of Science Fiction as a kind of speculative thought experiment, with all the connotations of rigor and hypotheses, because I think we largely expect that of narratives generally. Given a particular set of inputs and specific processes, an outcome results. Tragedy most often works like this, where the eventual finale is as inevitable as a Rube-Goldberg machine. Sadly, none of that applies to this film.
We need another way of interpreting this film than to break down its plot and its characterisation – I don’t doubt an analysis on that level is possible, but it’s just not the point. Jupiter Ascending is nothing short of a cannon-ball dive into the deep and murky pool of the Freudian Id, which means it needs to be interpreted almost solely in symbolic terms. We need to resort to allegorical modes of interpretation, we need to look for the symbolic logic, and we need to embrace our emotional responses as the key to enjoying ths film.
The basic fantasy in Hollywood is that through some arbitrary cataclysmic or epic event, a perfectly ordinary person can become enormously successful or powerful – sometimes this is masked with the famous “training montage”, but often it is naked. The most convenient form of this fantasy, and the basic form adopted y Jupiter Ascending is the Portal Fantasy – through transportation into an alternate reality, innate qualities of the protagonist which were not valuable in their own world become extremely important. The best, first and most famous of these stories is Alice in Wonderland, but there is a large body of them such as The Wizard of Oz, Peter and Wendy and The Half-Men of O. At a casual glance, the genre would appear to be a peculiar fantasy of femininity – all written by men, of course.
Sexuality is a key part of these fantasies – sublimated and processed in symbolic logic. In Alice in Wonderland that dimension is almost totally submerged, while in Peter and Wendy it’s the overt subject of everyone’s relationship with Wendy. To have and possess a Mother ™ in Wonderland is the absolute most desirable thing. In the end, the Lost Boys desire a Mother, while Wendy comes to realise the necessary sexual dimension of adulthood and hence motherhood and so must leave Wonderland in order to fulfil her true role as mother, with the sex that necessarily involves.
Another key part of these fantasies is an inherent powerlessness on the part of the notional “protagonist” when reading in a realist mode. Dorothy in the novel the Wizard of Oz is little more than a bystander as either accident or her companions resolves every incident. The same is basically true of Susan in the Halfmen of O, despite her prophetic importance. In symbolic logic, however, the entire world of these fantasies is over-determined by the developmental and psychological needs of the central femaile protagonist. They remain symbolically the centre of the action and the point of everything that happens is to reveal aspects of the protagonist and enable her growth arc – Alice in Wonderland being the gold standard in that regard.
Ultimately, the fantasy in all of these narratives is the return. Each returns to their original life with an altered outlook, but without other material or important changes in their basic real-life situation. The fantasy is thus ultimately always about using the world through the portal fantasy to recognise that the world you start out in is the best one. There are few fantasies where this isn’t the case, but examples do exist, like Stephen Donaldon’s Mordant duology, or the Amber series by Zelazny.
These works combine to provide us with a framework for thinking about the symbolic logic in Jupiter Ascending. Jupiter, like Wendy, is the Ur-mother, who starts the film as a (symbolic) virgin. The first plot point is about her cousin’s attempts to convince Jupiter to sell her unfertilised eggs. These represent a genetic potential, which will have a life over which Jupiter will have no control as an absent mother. In realist terms, the “harvest” is aborted, but in symbolic terms the remainder of the film explores the potential of those un-conceived children in the form of the Abraxis offspring. What are children, if not the immanent potentiality of the mother?
In Jupiter’s case, her three children are clearly the Ego, Superego and Id – the Freudian dream of possessing the mother here overlaps with exploding aspects of her own personality. Kalique is the moderating Superego, Titus the Id, and maniacal Balem is pure Ego. Jupiter’s portal is effectively an interior one – the most cringe-worthy line in the film “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs” betrays the requirements she has precisely – a super-affectionate and undemanding companion. The critics who have decried the lack of sexual chemistry between Kunis and Tatum have simply missed this relationship’s true form, of owner and pet. This is also why she must confront each in turn in order to recognise the validity of her real life – her basic problem is one of Ego, believing she is better than her life indicates. Destroying Balem symbolically crushes her own Ego, so she can return to her mundane life.
Interpreted through these coordinates, Jupiter Ascending makes a lot more sense. It’s a story, like the others, primarily about accepting who you are, rather than losing your grip on reality by allowing a daydream of fantastical importance to dominate your thoughts. This basically spiritual message is underlined by the final sequence of the film, where essentially Caine Wise transcends his role as pet to reveal a deeper symbolic meaning of a Guardian Angel. In this way, the film is basically religious, in that it argues that those who are in control of their own psychology by purging vice, become protected by a higher being.