This week, Kim pitched Jupiter Ascending as a great example of a Story That Doesn’t Work. This 2015 gas giant of a science-fiction-fantasy film was written and directed by the Wachowskis, who as you may recall from Season 4 also brought us the nearly-incomprehensible Cloud Atlas.
Global Genre: Action … Epic-Savior?
Companion Genre: Worldview-Education, but it’s pretty weak
- Beginning Hook – When the ruling class of the universe sends alien mercenaries to murder Jupiter Jones because of her special DNA, she must decide whether to stay on Earth or leave with the stranger who saved her. She agrees to leave, but they are attacked and forced to hide out on Earth.
- Middle Build – When Jupiter learns she is a pawn in a royal power struggle to harvest all humanity in the universe, she must decide whether or not to trust that marrying the prince will save humanity and … [to be honest we got stuck here because there is no real valid core crisis in the middle build]. She agrees to marry him, but the wedding is crashed and revealed as a ploy to gain control of Earth and murder Jupiter.
- Ending Payoff – When Jupiter discovers her family has been kidnapped by the heir to the throne, he gives her the choice to abdicate her title or watch her family be killed, she refuses to abdicate, knowing she and her family die but Earth would be safe. Before anyone can be killed, her rescuer swoops in again and the royal asshole is killed in the chaos. Jupiter returns to Earth, content knowing that her family and the Earth are safe.
The Principle – Kim
Throughout our time on the Roundtable Podcast, and even before, when we were studying off the air together, we’ve found that we often learned the most when we hit on a story that doesn’t work. Previously it’s been a happy accident, but this time I’ve decided to tackle it on purpose. Because like it or not, a story that doesn’t work is something all writers struggle with, no matter what genre you write in.
I’ve watched this film four times now and each time some part of me hopes that this time things will be different. There is a lot to be excited about in the story, which is why it’s so disappointing that it doesn’t work. Each time, my audience expectations are left very unsatisfied. But at least now I know why.
To kick off my exploration, I completed the Editor’s Six Core Questions and Friedman’s Framework. Interestingly, on the surface, Jupiter Ascending seems to check the boxes.
Within the E6CQ, we find a viable Action story that showcases Life and Death stakes with the threat of Damnation, and we can find each of the necessary conventions and obligatory scenes. But two areas stuck out to me with problems
- POV/Narrative Device (more about this in a moment)
- Objects of Desire (Wants/Needs) for our protagonist, Jupiter
In Friedman’s Framework, I was able to tick the boxes for Worldview-Education, but it’s as if it exists at the beginning and end of the story only.
- In the beginning, we see the montage of Jupiter waking up early / cleaning toilets where she repeats the line “I hate my life”.
- In the end, she wakes up early and chipper, serving others and cleaning joyfully.
- Also in the final HATMOV scene, Balem reveals what happened to his mother, she “Hated her life” and begged him to kill her.
But aside from those brief moments, we don’t really understand what drives Jupiter to want anything. We don’t know her. This seems to be why, despite being able to “fill out” Friedman’s Framework, I couldn’t fill out her wants/needs in the E6CQ with any real conviction.
Editor’s Six Core Questions
Genre Life Values
- Life to Death to Damnation
- Approach Damnation when Jupiter faces the choice for abdication. Save herself and her family and all of the current inhabitants on Earth for about 100 years or so, but it’s only a matter of time before they’re harvested … if she allows that to happen, the rest of her life would be a living hell.
- Interesting to note the Society overtones that are present here, similar to Black Panther, which Leslie has sussed out to be an element of the Action-Epic subgenres.
- Hero, Victim, Villain: These three roles must be clearly defined throughout the story. The Protagonist must be a Hero.
- Villain = Balem, Titus
- Victim = People of Earth, Jupiter’s Family
- Hero = Jupiter, Caine
- The Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim.
- Jupiter wants to save humans from being harvested, wants to save her family, save herself. Is willing to sacrifice herself and her family to keep Earth safe.
- The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large. The villain is far more powerful than the hero.
- Jupiter is naive to the ways of their society, the rules, people’s motives.
Anne – The power divide seemed most vividly shown (and explained) when the royal sister explains that they have all the material stuff and energy in the universe–an unending and inexhaustible supply. So the amount of sheer ordnance and tech they can throw at our non-Elite heroes would seem to supply the power divide.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain.
- Each of the Abrasax heirs give speeches to Jupiter
- Sub-Genre specific conventions: Depending upon the sub-genre, other conventions and tropes are required.
- An Inciting Attack by the Villain.
- Balem puts a bounty on Jupiter, tries to have her killed to stop her from ascending to claim her title and take Earth from him. They try and fail several times due to identity mismatch.
- Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action.
- Not much here. She does struggle with believing and understanding different aspects (that there is life on other planets, that she is royalty, owns the earth) but she doesn’t outright refuse. Merely asks questions. For example, when Caine tells her she’s in danger and needs to leave, she asks him what would happen if she didn’t go, would they still come after her?
- Forced to leave the ordinary world, Hero lashes out.
- After Caine saves her from the clinic and she wakes up pissed, her clothes have been changed, etc.
- In the car on the way to Stinger’s, she yells about destroying the city / she’s just a nobody
- Discovering and understanding the antagonist’s MacGuffin (villain’s object of desire).
- Earth is the MacGuffin. Jupiter is the means to obtaining Earth.
- Titus reveals the truth behind Abrasax oil, what it does, where it comes from, what Balem wants.
- Larry Pass’s Fundamental Friday’s post on what exactly a MacGuffin is and why your story needs one.
- Hero’s initial strategy against villain fails.
- Going to marry Titus to keep planets safe from Balem and Kalique but that turns out to be one of Titus’s lies.
- Realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, Hero reaches All Is Lost moment
- She feels foolish after being tricked by Titus, having already been rebuffed by Caine. Just wants to go home. Them realizes her family has been abducted by Balem. Can’t ignore this / who she is.
- The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: the central event of the Action story, what the reader is waiting for. Hero’s gift is expressed in this scene
- She refuses to sign the abdication, willing sacrifice herself and her family to keep the people of Earth safe.
- Refuses to kill Balem in the final stand off.
- But what is her SPECIFIC GIFT??? Feels a bit hollow. Doesn’t have a particular payoff that is specific to her.
- The Hero’s Sacrifice is Rewarded.
- Family is safe, Earth is safe, she has new meaning in her life / eager to rise each day, telescope, Caine’s love
Point of View / Narrative Device
- Opening sequence is first person voice-over by Jupiter while we witness what happened to her father.
- After that opening prologue, no more voice over.
- Third person omniscient – following all sorts of comings and goings, the Epic scale of cast and setting.
Objects of Desire / Wants & Needs
- Wants – To escape her life? Her father’s telescope? To survive?
- Needs – ???
- Wants – Earth, profit, to live forever
- Needs – to reform (not going to happen) so to be taken out of power
- Wants – to gain pardons for him and Stinger / be reinstated in the Legion
- Needs – to belong, true love and connection
Controlling Idea and Theme
- Life prevails when those with power use it protect others instead of themselves
BH/MB/EP – noted above in the summary.
- Character: Does the minimum.
- Thought: Hates her life. Doesn’t know about life on other planets.
- Fortune: illegal alien who cleans toilets for a living.
- Character: brings her best effort.
- Thought: knows the value of life and her time on earth with her family
- Fortune: owns the earth but still cleans toilets for a living
After the E6CQ and FF, I made a list of the things that bugged or confused me about the story and, when taken together, they seem to boil down to one major issue:
A LACK OF CLARITY. We see this in a multitude of areas.
Lack of Clarity with Introduction to Genre / Audience Expectations
The whole opening of this story is a mess, for a lot of reasons. First, let’s look at Genre’s Five Leaf Clover (or Genre’s North Star, as I like to call it, and actually draw on my paper when I’m trying to figure something out)
- Long – feature film, but it’s so complicated with it’s worldbuilding rules and cast of characters, maybe should have been a TV series! The whole thing feels rushed, what a colleague of mine would call “10 pounds of shit stuffed in a five a pound bag” (which, FUN FACT, was an actually episode of MythBusters. IRL. Yeah, you heard that right.)
- Arch plot, but not very satisfying. They seemed to overcomplicate things unnecessarily in the BH, which we’ll dig into a bit more in a moment.
- Fantasy/Science-Fiction, but feels all over the place. Not consistent, never really get a handle on things within the world.
- The variety of species doesn’t entirely make sense when they’re only harvesting humans?
- Also there’s a thing about bees that is cool but seems to contradict some important subtextuals themes (I’ll rant more about this in a bit.)
Valerie: This played on my mind a lot during the viewing and after. The fantasy/sci-fi mish-mash didn’t bother me as much as the realism/sci-fi+fantasy blend did. Realism won’t work here unless the protagonist is questioning her sanity (and maybe not even then). Even in Superhero movies, there’s an understanding in the story world that superheroes exist. When the real world and fantasy world co-exit in a story, there’s a barrier of some sort. I’m thinking about the wardrobe in Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, or Harry Potter where the magical people take great care to conceal themselves from the Muggles.
- Is it dramatic/serious? Or comedy? Or absurdism? *Insert Kim’s shrug emoji here.*
- POV & Narrative Device, which falls under this leaf for me, changes from 1st person in the Prologue to 3rd person rest of the time.
- We have Life Values at Stake, but which one is most important?
- Life / Death, certainly
- There’s some major Society, Power, and Class Struggle going on that’s begging to be more fleshed out
- Love & Belonging, the idea of true love, these are brought in pretty heavy handed, and kind of out of nowhere
All in all, genre is a matter of consistency, setting up and paying off audience expectations. I’ll refer to examples of this throughout where I feel like this story breaks trust by being confusing rather than compelling.
Lack of Clarity in Prologue
This is where we experience inconsistent POV issue. Throughout all of this prologue we get first person voice over by Jupiter.
- “Technically speaking I’m an alien, and from the perspective of immigation, an illegal one.”
- “My parents met at the University of St Petersburg where he taught Astrophysics and she taught Applied Mathematics.”
- “In her grief my mother pushed everyone except her sister out of her life. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, she pushed me out, too.”
This first person voice over is never brought back into the story. It’s like a cheap trick that you can feel happening. The lines of voice over here scream “darlings” to me. You know, the kind we’re supposed to murder? That seems like the only reason they are allowed to exist, because the scenes themselves would be more powerful without any voiceover.
But even then, I have some issues with the content of the scenes. Jupiter’s father is murdered during a home invasion robbery (by an entire crew without masks), which is tragic and points at Life/Death stakes up front, I guess? But it’s entirely random, not set up well and not connected to the story in any meaningful way. Why have him die in this way, shot by burglars trying to save the telescope?
Jarie – I’m with you on that one. I don’t see the point of the father dying this way. It never comes back to why he was killed in the first place. In my opinion, if you kill someone in a story, it has to be for a story reason that pays off somewhere down the line.
Kim – When I originally saw this film, my story instincts figured it was because her parents were royalty too and being hunted down by the same people who would eventually hunt her. Nope. It’s not actually tied to anything, not meaningful to the story at all. No a setup for some later powerful payoff, just confusing and distracting.
Next we see that Jupiter is born on her mother’s voyage to America, which is a powerful moment, but again, what is the point? The audience gets weak motivation for why her mother would suddenly board a boat to America. She’s a professor at a university, not homeless! And it’s supposedly the 80s sometime right? This makes it feel like we’re suddenly decades earlier.
What does this mean for novelists? If it’s going to be there it needs to be essential. Don’t do cheap shots. And don’t get married to things that don’t serve your story.
We’ve seen how voiceover can be used throughout a story (Shawshank Redemption) and how many transitions can be eliminated but still present meaning (Puzzle). This film feels like a failure at both.
Anne – Not to excuse this flaw, but in my role as the only Roundtabler who kind of enjoyed this film, if I squint I can see where the father’s murder at the hands of some kind of mobsters might be connected to the mother’s loss of status. It struck me that maybe the filmmakers cut a short but crucial scene that would have clarified the connection.
Sadly, that kind of cut would have been made in order to leave in every second of the endless, cool-but-dumb CGI action scenes. I’ll say more about this in a bit.
Kim – Probably. I imagine, or like to imagine, there are reams of footage that include all kinds of story nuggets to love, because this final cut has more gaps than (pick a punchline: a) my six year old’s teeth, b) all the shopping malls in America, c) a runway of supermodel thighs during Fashion Week)
Lack of Clarity in Beginning Hook
Even after the messy prologue, the whole opening sequence of events is strange. It makes the entire BH weird. The order they chose to reveal information really screws up the Narrative Drive.
It seems like are utilizing Mystery, and create all these moments that allude to something and then later in the BH it gets clarified what was really going on (oh she used a false name, oh it’s an fertility clinic, oh it’s related to her DNA)
We have all these questions but they’re not intriguing, just confusing. And when we figure it out, it’s not a payoff, it’s a meh moment.
It would have worked better to just put things in order so we know what’s going on and can be concerned rather than left in the dark. And we could use more Heralds to help us understand what exactly is going on and why it matters.
Lack of Clarity with Transitions / Settings
This problem with transitions is something I noticed several times. Basically things would happen, locations would change–an indistinct ship would enter a nondescript planet–and it wouldn’t be clear who, what, or where anything was happening.
Unlike Puzzle, that got away with cutting transitions because it’s a familiar world, Jupiter Ascending is complex and with so many different visually strange locations and characters, it’s hard to keep track of what the heck is actually going on.
This is an important note for novelists to think about when they are doing chapter breaks or scene breaks. Be sure to clearly establish your where we are in time and space so the reader can seamlessly continue with the story, instead of getting jerked around and trying to figure out what just happened. The story would have benefitted from carrying the viewer through clearer transitions (certainly different in film vs novel), or even throwing the superimposed text on the screen to let us know where we are.
- Planet Earth, entitled to Balem Abrasax, First Primary of House Abrasax (this would be a fun way to kick off the story and introduce some reality genre leaf!)
- Planet of Kalique Abrasax
- Ship of Titus Abrasax
- Aegis Command Ship
- The Commonwealth (where Jupiter goes at the midpoint to claim her title)
Which brings me to another problem I found.
Lack of Clarity in Terminology
Another problem I felt was terminology, so many strange terms and phrases that were used by people who already knew what they meant and leaves the audience confused. In some scenes we get Jupiter as our stand-in to ask questions and get things explained, but there are many times we don’t.
There is one example that really frustrated me …
- In the Dark Night of the Soul, when Jupiter is back on the Aegis ship and feeling like a total fool for trusting Titus, Caine tries to talk to her
- “When we were in the Commonwealth.” Jupiter cuts him off, “I don’t want to talk, I just want to go home.”
- Then later when Jupiter is trapped by Balem on the planet Jupiter, Stinger tells Caine, “I know because of who and what you are, you’re unable to say this, so I’ll say it for you. You lied in the Commonwealth because you’re a hunter who’s been searching for one thing his whole life. You survived for so long without it, the fact that you may have found it terrifies you. But not as much as the fact that she’s down there, buried in several tons of hurricane and if you want to see her again, then you take my advice: you get down there, and you start digging.”
- What annoying to me is that I didn’t put together what the hell the Commonwealth was until my third time through the film.
- Turns out it’s the name of the place Jupiter goes at the midpoint to claim her title. It’s where she makes a pass at Caine and asks him why he’s sticking around. He rebuffs her and says it’s for Stinger, because he owes it to him to get him reinstated.
- When Caine mentions the Commonwealth to Jupiter in Dark Night of the Soul, I thought he was talking about something he and Stinger did together back in the day, because it comes right after Jupiter gives him the pardon and tells him, “You and Stinger are Skyjackers again.” And then when Caine says, “When WE were in the Commonwealth,” I thought “Caine and Stinger.”
Maybe this seems like a silly thing to make such a big deal about, but to me it matters. Clarity matters. Making sure my reader connects with what is equivalent to Mr. Darcy trying to bare his soul before he’s cut off matters!
And the fix is as simple as, “You asked me a question when we were in the Commonwealth.” Or even, “You asked me before–”
A simple change like this helps get the meaning of what is really going on across to the audience. Oh, it’s when he rejected her.
Lack of Clarity in Midpoint — WTF is this scene?
There is a strange scene at the midpoint when we see Jupiter have to navigate through the bureaucracy to gain her title. It’s humorous but feels out of place. It may be some kind of satire by the Wachowskis, like Charles Dickens’s Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, but to me it throws off an already choppy story.
Jarie – It makes no sense at all and I don’t see why it’s even in the movie. Is it so she can get the tattoo thing? It’s like five minutes for something that’s almost a throwaway. You could cut the whole thing out and nothing changes in the story at all. Nada. Zilch.
Anne – It really was pretty silly. Reminded me a lot of similar bureaucracy scenes, in Zootopia, with sloths running the DMV, and in Coco, where the land of the dead has its own bureaucracy of skeletal rubber stampers.
The scene was longer and more elaborate than it needed to be. BUT, it was the hurdle Jupiter had to overcome to get that all-important glowy tattoo and the document that went with it, making her the new queen. In the global crisis scene, that bit of bureaucracy is what stands between Balem and his goals. Jupiter’s refusal to use the seal and sign the document is a genuine barrier to him.
Whether I accept that a person with Balem’s power would actually care about a lot of regulations, I can believe that only a highly-ordered, hierarchical society could result in the kind of massive infrastructure we see, and that society would spawn a considerable bureaucracy, while also giving rise to Balem’s belief that life is a pyramid and some people matter more than others.
That bureaucracy scene did actually support the global crisis and climax, where Jupiter’s refusal to sign has some power.
Kim – That’s one thing I kept wondering at during the HATMOV scene — why doesn’t Balem just have his dragon-man make her seal it, like hold her wrist right to the screen? Maybe it doesn’t actually work like that, but then again, we don’t really know that so it feels like a plot hole.
And finally, a Lack of Clarity with Loose Ends
I have a bulleted list of seven things that feel unfinished and further inconsistent about this story.
- Caine’s apparent attack on a royal, because it’s in his DNA? Who? When? Is it because he was without a pack? So now that he’s found where he belongs is he okay? Safe?
- Seems like they could connect his attack back to his need to belong, that’s what’s in his DNA — he’s built to be connected.
- Stinger refers to a Lycantant that needs a pack, but we never see this and we don’t really understand what it means. If we could pass a pack of Lycantants together and see that Caine doesn’t belong …The whole thing just leaves me wanting.
- Stinger’s daughter is sick, and people who are referred to as a “splice”
- I assume she gets what she needs?
- Also just the whole idea of splicing people, branding them. So do they not have parents? But they can have babies? Just holes in the world that I don’t understand.
- The way each Abrasax shows up and then leaves the story: first Kalique, then Titus, then Balem. Feels choppy and I kept waiting for them to come back into the story but they never do and then it’s over and I’m left with my question mark eyebrows.
- Rules of the world. Why/how the Aegis has authority vs the people with all the money, like why they follow inheritance law, the system itself. “Other families like mine” How many entitled are there? Are any planets safe?
- Bees sense royalty … This was a cool part of the story but strange at the same time. Like what is the point? Royalty is something in our DNA?? What does that mean?? It’s like on the one hand it’s saying that even a lycantant who is spliced with a wolf / bred for military has the same value as any human being, and on the other it’s saying that her DNA is special and naturally royal … huh?
- Jupiter’s future, on earth? Or with Caine? Or what? Not to mention the fact that there is still an entire system out there that is harvesting people?!
- Weak connection in the whole premise / title of Jupiter Ascending, that she was named after Jupiter by her space-obsessed father, born during astrology sign of Jupiter Ascending, then is a royal who ascends to be the owner of Earth, and the processing plant is on the planet Jupiter. It’s a lot of coincidence that doesn’t add up to anything powerful, or if it is fated, it’s not presented well. There are strange mentions of finding love and destiny, etc. but the references are random not threaded with meaning.
This brings me all the way around to the Big Meta Why of this story — what is it? And is it meaningful to you?? To me there are so many loose ends left hanging that I can’t feel any sense of closure or meta meaning from this story.
In my E6CQ, I listed the CI/T as: Life prevails when those with power use it protect others instead of themselves.
What about you all?
Jarie – I see no meaning in this movie at all. The Big Meta Why is absent and I think it’s because they tried to pack so many things into it that were all half baked. The only thing that’s a shred of any type of meaning is the weak and poorly constructed love story between Jupiter and Caine which is about class. Even then, it’s only at the end where you feel that they actually want to love each other. Anne, I know you liked this movie the most, so help us out here to understand this movie.
Anne – Why do some people like a movie even though it doesn’t work?
All evening yesterday as we were preparing our sections for this recording, I was freaking out, because the more I thought about this film, the better I liked it, even though I am 100% in agreement with you all that it’s not a well crafted story.
But I did keep thinking about it—I’m still thinking about it—and not necessarily in the annoyed or frustrated way everyone else seems to be. I don’t have a straightforward answer to your Big Meta Why question, Kim. But I have a feeling that somewhere in this huge mess there’s a complex philosophy that the Wachowskis continue to explore in all their stories.
Back when we analyzed Cloud Atlas, Leslie pointed out how important it can be to study a writer’s entire body of work. Well, I’ve seen quite a bit of the Wachowskis’ body of work, and ideas about reincarnation and recurrence are in everything they do. It’s as if they’re struggling with questions of identity, soul, and flesh–which, when you consider that they are two transgender siblings, is really not that surprising.
This film was written around the same time as the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and I was struck by Balem’s villain-defining statement that some lives matter more than others. Themes of extreme power held by the few over the many have been present in the Wachowskis’ work since The Matrix, where we also saw the bodies of the masses being used to fuel the goals of the power elite.
In this film, I glimpsed ideas–not very well articulated ones, but I could see them–about individual consciousness and whether it’s inherent in brains, or transcends physical matter. Though Jupiter is a perfect DNA match for the queen–and therefore materially identical—she isn’t the queen. She makes different choices. Is that because consciousness isn’t bound to matter, and an identical brain doesn’t produce an identical consciousness?
Is it an argument about nature versus nurture? After all Jupiter has been cleaning toilets for a living, and implies that that hard work is why she’s so different from the late queen.
Or is it because the queen really has been literally been reborn in Jupiter, and her soul has learned something that causes her to make different choices? Whichever view you take, that difference between Jupiter and the queen is what drives Jupiter’s crisis-and-climax choice.
This philosophical vein of the story that I find so fascinating is absolutely not well supported by story structure. It tries and largely fails because apparently the Wachowskis have spent an expensive career ignoring the likes of Robert McKee and Story Grid.
In fact, probably my biggest complaint about this story is that at its heart it shouldn’t be an Action story at all, and if they hadn’t been so intent on making it one, there would have been time to build the political and internal storylines. At best, I think the action plot should have been downplayed and the philosophical elements explored more fully. In many ways, it should have aimed to have more in common with Dune than with a Marvel film.
Instead, it’s almost as if the film is masquerading as an Action story to please a particular audience. The audience for those endless action sequences is not the audience for the philosophical story. Neither audience was happy. Everyone was disappointed.
But I personally respect the filmmakers’ attempts to reach deeper. They got closer to a coherent vision of their philosophy a couple of years later with their Netflix series Sense8, and maybe one day they’ll hit the a combination of philosophy and story structure that really carries their message to the masses, the way The Matrix did.
For me, these philosophical underpinnings, as watered-down as they were by totally unnecessary zillion-dollar CGI action scenes and ridiculous plot holes, were enough. Not enough to make me actually praise it–not here in Story Grid land, anyway, because I’m not a total heretic–but enough to make me respect its vision, enjoy the enjoyable bits, and forgive or ignore many of its glaring flaws–even while I was rolling my eyes at them.
As a writer myself, I face this conundrum all the time: I lean towards the literary and philosophical, and I’m not happy with my work unless it contains strong thematic elements. To other writers who feel the same way, I say it’s okay to start with the big thematic idea, to invest in it and insist on delivering it. Will our novels succeed? Maybe, maybe not.
Remember, though: we really do have a tool that the Wachowskis and their multi-hundred-million-dollar budgets seem to lack, and that tool is the Story Grid. We should be using it to write well-constructed stories to support our noble ideas.
But for myself, I’d rather miss a few plot points, or punt on an obligatory scene, than leave deep meaning out, and I have some respect for this film because it takes the same approach. Jupiter Ascending was a swing and a miss, but it was a hell of a swing.
Leslie – What’s the Story?
Anne, you’ve landed on something that helped me clarify my thoughts about how and why this happened. Why would two experienced filmmakers like the Wachowskis, who know how to tell a great story that is commercially successful create a film with so much potential that doesn’t land for most people. I was scratching my head over this one, but now I suspect this was intended to be a passion project, rather than a Hollywood Blockbuster. Of course, writers tell stories not just to explore solutions to the problems we face in the world, but to explore our own personal struggles.
So one big takeaway is that we need to understand what our goal is for the story. Are we hoping for commercial success, or are we more interested in the message, no matter how it’s received?
But also it’s really useful to get perspective and receive feedback. As writers, we are so close to our stories that it’s hard to be objective about what’s working and not. No one knows the story we want to tell like we do, and for that reason we lack the distance and perspective to see our blind spots.
Now, who the heck am I to say the Wachowskis, the creators of The Matrix, need perspective and feedback? I’m a person who loves Action stories on an epic scale. I particularly love stories that connect our world to a magical or more technologically advanced one. With a premise like this story has, I should have been sucked in from the first moment. I really wanted to love this story. But I didn’t.
As I said in our The Wizard of Oz episode, if we want to send a strong message about life or society, our best strategy is to deliver it through a satisfying story. I’ve no doubt that the Wachowskis could pull this off, and to be fair, I don’t know what requirements and restrictions they had to work with. All we can do is take the story as we find it and learn what we can. If a client brought me this story, I’d suggest they start by getting clear on the story primary story they want to tell.
Global Story Conventions
As I mentioned in the Thor: Ragnarok episode and plenty of others have said before me, the Global Genre must be strong and clear enough to support the subplots and the complexity of the story world. The Global Story needs a strong spine, and to build that, it needs the necessary ingredients from which to build it. So let’s take a close look at the ingredients we have to work with for a Global Action Story.
- Clearly defined Hero, Victim, and Villain
Jupiter begins as a victim. There are three characters, Titus, Kalique, and Balem, who send their people to kill or capture Jupiter for their own ends. Later, Jupiter becomes the hero, willing to sacrifice newly acquired wealth (that doesn’t really mean anything to her), but also her own life and that of her family.
Caine appears heroic throughout, with the exception of some questions about his motive.
The people of Earth are victims, the equivalent of cattle raised for slaughter.
Balem is the big, bad villain, but only by a hair. He wants Jupiter dead. Titus is a close second, though he lied about his intentions for Jupiter and Earth.
Jarie – Titus has better hair so clearly he can’t be the villain. Villains have to have bad hair. It’s a rule.
Leslie – Hmm, I don’t think Shawn has mentioned that.
- Hero’s Object of Desire is to stop the villain and save the villain
Jupiter wants to save the people of Earth from being harvested and wants to save her family, but she also wants a more meaningful life, a telescope, a decent boyfriend. Any of these things could provide adequate motivation for what Jupiter does in the story, but it’s a muddle.
Caine wants to save Jupiter, but early on he also wants to obtain a pardon for himself and Stinger. Did he know about the harvesting scheme before Titus hired him? Or did Titus trick him into believing he actually wanted to stop the harvesting? The former seems more likely. Caine doesn’t seem naive enough to be taken in by Titus. So that means he would need a compelling reason to change from self-interest to sacrificing himself for Jupiter, but we don’t have a compelling Redemption plot onscreen and the moral weight that could be supplied by a well-developed love story is missing too.
Side note: It seems as if, more than any other factor, the thing that can make a story awful, as opposed to merely meh, is to include muddled internal genres for the main characters. When this happens, character actions don’t make sense. This requires clear wants and needs and essential actions, or scene goals that correspond to the global objects of desire. You see how these fundamental story elements are interwoven. Valerie will show us why this is such a problem shortly.
- The Power Divide between the Hero and Villain is large
Jupiter is an ordinary human, and even though she is a recurrence of a powerful, elite woman of the universe, she lacks access to the resources, technology, and weaponry to enforce her claim. She needs the help of Kalique to have her claim recognized. Jupiter lacks information and sophistication to avoid Titus’s trap until it’s almost too late—and she does so only with the help of Caine.
Caine is a strong and resourceful skyjacker and ex-legion, he’s the best at sniffing out genes, but he’s lost his wings and doesn’t have access to connections he would have had before his disgrace for attacking an elite. I assume this is what has set him up to be manipulated by Titus.
Titus is a scheming member of the elite with access to resources and weaponry, but he’s fairly easy to defeat.
Balem is the oldest and appears to be the most powerful of the Abrasax siblings. In the absence of Jupiter’s claim, he owns Earth and the right to do anything with it he chooses. He has ships, minions, and financial resources at his disposal.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain
The Speech in Praise of the Villain can do a lot of things, like establish the power divide, but the thing it should do is reveal the villain’s why. When the villain has a point, that is when they want something very badly and have a strong reason for it that is deeply embedded within their human needs, the conflict is stronger, and the story more engaging.
Titus is kind of a throwaway here. His point seems to be hedonism. He’s not unlike the Grandmaster in Thor: Ragnarok, just as ridiculous, though not as funny.
Balem wants Jupiter dead so that she can’t take Earth. Earth, we learn has good stock, a wide profit margin, but by harvesting early to prevent Jupiter from taking over, he loses that advantage. So is it out of spite? Does he need the money? Or is he just an evil guy? The lack of clarity makes it not very compelling.
I recently finished reading Leviathan’s Wake by James S. A. Corey. If you want to see a masterful Speech in Praise of the Villain, check out chapter 41.
- Other conventions based on the Subgenre and Plot
So which subgenre and plot do we have here?
Last season I said that the nature of the force of antagonism and sometimes the nature of the victim determine the subgenre and plot. Balem is our primary villain, and he is intent on the destruction of society. That would put us in Epic-Savior territory, and that is the most likely, but we find the conventions for other plots here as well.
While we were preparing to record, Jarie mentioned that it seems like Clock: Ransom because of the urgency in preventing Jupiter’s claim. For a similar reason, and because of all the side-swapping the first part feels more like a Hunted plot to me.
The “In” and the “Out”
I want to say a quick word about the opening because of how important it is to nail the “in” and the “out” as Steven Pressfield says, or the opening image and the closing image. These two scenes should give us the story in a nutshell. The opening scene shows us Jupiter’s origins, who her parents are, what they cared about, and how her father was killed. The closing image is of the joyful relationship between Jupiter and Caine. But is this meant to be a love story? It seems not.
To me, an opening like the one we have here undermines the viewer’s or reader’s trust. There is an implied contract when we share a story with readers: If you give me your time and attention, I will not waste your time. We spend about four minutes on two scenes that ultimately don’t matter that much to the main conflict in the story. We’re given so much information, but we’re not shown where to file it, how these facts connect to the primary story. When we ask the reader to hold this much in the mind without showing them what it means, and what’s important, they get lost. Some cognitive dissonance for the reader is useful, and some is not.
My ultimate takeaway is that this is an ambitious film, with lots of potential, but the rich elements were piled on, not woven together, and that makes it unsatisfying for most viewers. If you’re looking for a great masterwork in the realm of Action-Epic-Savior with strong message about society, satisfying internal genres, and a love story that works, I highly recommend Leviathan’s Wake.
Jarie – Again, it does feel like they piled on everything they could think of. I felt that way about Altered Carbon as well where there was so many subplots it got confusing. It’s hard to have empathy for the characters when it so confusing, which Valerie will talk about next.
Valerie – Creating Empathy
One of the things I’m looking at this season is creating empathy. I know Shawn talked a bit about this in the flagship podcast, but since I couldn’t find that reference, I asked him about it again. Here’s what he had to say:
Ok, so creating empathy at the macro level requires a story to follow a heroic journey—and I believe this is either the hero’s journey or the heroine’s journey. Editor Julia Blair has written a terrific post about the heroine’s journey so be sure to check that out.
To create empathy on the micro level, we as writers, need to make sure that we’re very clear about our protagonist’s objects of desire.
So, how does Jupiter Ascending fare? Not too well, and that’s hardly a surprise.
As Kim discovered when she did the Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis, Jupiter’s objects of desire are unclear. Her conscious wants and subconscious needs are not well articulated.
There’s a lot of screen time devoted to Jupiter reclaiming her title. Balem, Titus, Kalique, Caine and Stinger each have their reasons for wanting, or not wanting, her to achieve that goal. But what does Jupiter want, because it certainly isn’t the crown?
A telescope (20:00min): But why? Yes, her father was an astronomer, but Jupiter hasn’t demonstrated any particular interest in the solar system or in being an astronomer either professionally or as an amateur. She must want it pretty badly though because she’s willing to have her eggs harvested to get the money. The audience is being set up here to expect that the telescope is vital, however it’s completely dropped from the story.
Most people watch a movie or read a book once. Because of that, they’re tracking the story subconsciously—they’re not analyzing it like we do. They’re not aware of all the elements of storytelling that we talk about as writers. Nor should they be. That’s not their job; it’s our job. So, when we show that our protagonist wants a thing so badly she’s willing to harvest her eggs for it, the audience subconsciously registers that as an important object of desire.
So here, near the end of the beginning hook, the audience is thinking that Jupiter’s want is the telescope. All the information they get from this point forward will be measured against the telescope. Is she getting closer to obtaining it, or further from obtaining it?
The problem is that the telescope disappears from the story until the final few scenes. The audience has forgotten about it and have been busy searching for the new object of desire. So there’s no catharsis when the telescope finally arrives. Plus, Jupiter herself shrugs it off because she has a date with Caine.
To save her family (22:00)min: This is why she goes with Caine initially but it too is forgotten until the ending payoff when her family is captured.
A relationship with Caine (1 hour): This comes out of nowhere. It’s not set up and it’s not properly developed.
My question is: Why doesn’t Jupiter want to save the people of earth from being harvested ? That would be a great object of desire for a sci-fi action hero, and it would include saving her family!
An argument can be made that the way Jupiter handles this issue, is proof that for her, life is meaningless—or at the very least, secondary to material or superficial wants.
Regardless of what’s being stated in the dialogue, Jupiter’s actions show that she’s willing to sacrifice future generations for her own selfish reasons. She’s willing to harvest her eggs (future life) for a telescope. She’s also willing to sign Balem’s agreement to protect the current generation of her family but in doing so, she’s those who will be born after she has died.
Then, she carelessly drops the vial that contains a serum that 100 of her fellow earthlings gave their lives for. (Plot hole: why would something so valuable be kept in glass? Surely they can fabricate a non-breakable container. Anyway, moving on …).
Finally, Jupiter doesn’t express a true desire to save the people of earth from being harvested. Yes, she agrees to marry Titus and ultimately refuses to seal the agreement for Balem, but in the end these acts ring hollow because, as Kim also discovered in her analysis, there’s still an entire system out there harvesting people.
It’s really hard to empathize with a person like that.
If we’re unclear about what Jupiter wants, do we know what she needs? Given the ending of the story, it seems that what she needs is to be happy with the life she has; to take joy in cleaning toilets for a living. But, I mean … seriously. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning toilets for a living, but “don’t aspire to more” is a pretty weak premise to build a story on.
So, clearly Jupiter Ascending doesn’t articulate the objects of desire well enough to generate empathy on the micro level. We’re not really sure what she wants so we can’t really root for her to get it.
But does it follow the heroic journey well enough to generate empathy on the macro level?
There is a call to adventure and that’s to go with Caine, but Jupiter doesn’t know why the Keepers are trying to kill her, or where Caine is going to take her. She (and by extension the audience) has a vague idea that by going with Caine, she will somehow be able to protect her family. She does refuse and accept, but it’s not clear what exactly she’s refusing or accepting or how this will help her get her telescope (which at this point in the story, remember, is what we believe her object of desire to be).
Jupiter does talk about wanting to save her family, which is fine, but we’re wondering how this connects to the telescope. This is a kind of a Chekhov’s Gun situation.
I don’t have time to go through each stage of the hero’s journey here, but there are some key points that I want to draw your attention to.
Jupiter is our protagonist yet throughout the middle build, she doesn’t really do much. She’s more of a damsel-in-distress than a hero. Jack the Giant Slayer and Dracula have the same problem; that is, an ineffective hero that fails to carry the middle build.
In the hero’s journey, the hero faces several challenges, each one bigger than the one before. We can kind of see these challenges if, as Anne says, we squint.
But where I think Jupiter Ascending really goes off the rails, is with the internal development of the character. That’s what the heroic journey is all about. The protagonist has to approach the inner cave and go through the central ordeal (and all that represents) so that her true gift can be expressed and she can be “reborn” as a new and better version of herself. Then, and only then, can she claim her reward (i.e., her object of desire) and return home to a better life than she had before.
Now, this “better life” doesn’t have to be on the material level. In fact, if it were merely a material improvement, the story wouldn’t be very satisfying. Here, Jupiter returns home to a life of cleaning toilets but now seems content with her lot in life. She no longer hates her life, but embraces it.
There’s so much confusion in this film that we have no idea how she came to this enlightened perspective. What gift has she expressed? What has she been in pursuit of that she has now earned? Yes, as I said, she finally gets her telescope but she hasn’t earned it and it has nothing to do with the rest of the story, AND it’s no longer her main object of desire; being with Caine is, and that storyline wasn’t introduced until halfway through the film.
It’s all very confusing.
Jarie – Making Love out of Nothing at All
Lots of action stories have love subplots in them to break up the action. They are also used in action stories to make the characters feel more real so we can relate to them. Ultimately, we want to feel empathy like Valerie said.
Jupiter Ascending does have a love sub-plot between Jupiter and Caine that’s poorly constructed and executed. As Valerie mentioned, the love subplot shows up late. This scene sums up the mess nicely:
Clip from 1:00:52 – 1:01:52 of the film. Confession of Lust Scene that’s pretty darn awkward and tries really hard to get a laugh.
Most of the obligatory scenes and conventions are present but what this love subplot lacks is believability that the characters really love each other. I think that can be traced back to Jupiter and her utter lack of interest in finding love. Her dialogue feels so forced that it’s almost an afterthought. The sense I get is that the love between Jupiter and Caine was added on or if not added on, thrown in to make up for the lack of empathy, at least I feel, for Jupiter.
I will say I do love the family scenes where you do feel something for the position they are in, especially the cousin, who is a massive screw up that Jupiter tries to help. I feel they nailed the immigrant family dinner scene, which is usually a great way to setup a love interest or pressure to find love scene.
The cautionary tale for writers that I take away from Jupiter Ascending is that if you’re going to put in a love sub-plot into your action story, make it believable. Add some setup scenes where the two potential lovers are actually yearning for love. Make the love sub-plot scenes tender, cute and, meaningful and not silly, cheezy, and forced. Kim, any final thoughts?
Kim – I am so grateful for my fellow Roundtablers for going on this crazy journey and studying this story with me. And I LOVE and everything Anne said about only wanting to write stories with deep thematic meaning, and I am personally emboldened by the idea of it’s better to swing for the fence and strike out than take a walk to first base.
All that said, here is the Recommended Treatment Plan and Prescription for Revisions based on what everyone has said:
- Cut the prologue and the telescope payoff at the end
- Either make it a fully fleshed out series, or cut about half of the “darlings” to make a single comprehensible story
- Do what Valerie said and give the hero a clear object of desire that’s consistent up to the global crisis, when it should shift to the internal Objects of Desire.
- Decide whether you’re telling a genuine Action story, or a Society/Political story with strong action elements, and then write THAT story.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Heather who says:
I’m writing a Thriller story but it’s feeling flat. My villain feels cliche and just not evil enough. How can I craft a more compelling villain? Do you recommend brainstorming first before you flesh out your protagonist, or after?
This is an excellent question and the answer is more complex than you might think.
The force of antagonism is key in all stories, not just thrillers. And, it’s an area newer writers don’t pay enough attention to—that’s why we run into so much trouble in the middle build. Remember, the middle build belongs to the villain. The Force of Antagonism is what’s driving the narrative so without a compelling villain that is constantly inciting the protagonist to act, your story will wander and lose steam.
So, how do you create a compelling villain? Steve Pressfield has a whole series of articles over on his blog at stevenpressfield.com and I’ve got a Fundamental Fridays post that I’ll link to in the show notes.
To answer the question fully, I’d need to write a book. (And, yes, I’ve got that on my to-d0 list unless Steven Pressfield plans to do it!)
But, for now, here’s one idea to get you started:
The villain is the hero of his own story. He’s not a two-dimensional character (unless we’re talking about the monster in a horror story). A truly compelling villain wants what he wants for a reason—and there’s got to be some merit in it. He’s got to have a valid point.
Now, here’s the rub. You, as the writer, have got to be able to agree with your villain. It’s not simply that the villain thinks he’s right. You have to think he’s right, too. You have to agree with his point of view—at least to a certain extent—otherwise, you’ve created a moustache-twirler.
I recommend you pick out some truly memorable and terrifying villains and study them. What do they want and why do they want it? If you look at the situation through their eyes, can you see their point?
Ok, on to the second part of your question…whether you brainstorm your villain before you have a protagonist or after, is entirely up to you. That’s about your process as a writer; it can work equally well either way and might actually shift from project to project. For example, in the book I’m working on now, the villain is the first character I had. But in the book before that, I had the protagonist first.
Alrighty, I hope that helps!
If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.
Join us next time as Anne compares Barry Jenkins’s 2018 film If Beale Street Could Talk with the James Baldwin novel it’s based on. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?
Note: Anne recommends the audiobook version of If Beale Street Could Talk for listeners who would like to follow the novel-to-film discussion.