Chief Science Correspondent
It may have opened just a few weeks before the 87th Academy Awards, but even Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne couldn't redeem Jupiter Ascending.
Somewhat of a cheesy mashup between The Princess Bride, Star Trek and House of the Scorpion, many reviewers said the film was confusing due to a poorly paced storyline and little to no character development, undercut with a constant stream of generic special effects. And frankly, the previews hadn't advertised much more.
But what surprised and impressed me about Jupiter Ascending was the genuine effort to incorporate modern science into the futuristic-like landscape. This extraterrestrial society of humans is essentially founded upon an extremely advanced understandings of genomics and cell regeneration. But this premise came along with some potentially serious scientific flaws.
Jupiter Ascending is no Theory of Everything, nor is it remotely trying to be. But I would argue that scientific accuracy should be just as critical a goal for filmmakers as historical or cultural accuracy.
One may ask whether scientific accuracy actually matters in an admittedly low quality science fiction/action/romance film. Last July I wrote an itemized, fairly extensive critique of all the scientific errors in the third installment of the Divergent series - not because I wanted to attempt to discredit Veronica Roth's work, but because I thought it was important for readers to relate how that fictitious world relates, or doesn't relate, to the real-life science world.
Jupiter Ascending is no Theory of Everything, nor is it even remotely trying to be. But I would argue that scientific accuracy should be just as critical a goal for filmmakers as historical or cultural accuracy.
As I've discussed before, U.S. science communication and public science literacy are dismal. A recent Pew Research Center study found that while 79 percent of Americans appreciate the broader merits of science as a discipline, they tend to oppose certain specific issues that have become controversial including genetically modified crops, human evolution, childhood vaccines, and climate change.
In a talk at Ohio University last month, Science Friday host Ira Flatow said the key to public science communication is popular media, pointing to shows such as The Big Bang Theory, which are built around science culture, as well as non-science shows like Family Guy, which are not afraid to discuss science issues in a popular context.
Popular media has a subtle, but important impression on consumers. It's great that the creators of Jupiter Ascending clearly put a fair amount of thought into their presentations of genomics and cell regeneration. This brand of content appeals to science-lovers by making their content more relevant. It also, potentially, makes science more relevant to the general audience.
In the movie, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a Russian immigrant who lives in Chicago with her extended family and wants nothing more than to escape her mediocre life. Then she's attacked in a clinic, saved by ex-soldier genetic hybrid Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and finds out that - surprise! - she's not just an ordinary girl.
It turns out that humans originated on another planet entirely, and have invaded an unspecified (but likely innumerable) number of planets across some massive amount of time. This operation is controlled by an elite family, the House of Abrasax. This group has used human colonizations to their advantage, letting the planets develop to full capacity and then conducting what they refer to as "The Harvest."
The Abrasax have discovered that humans can be harvested to produce a sort of serum that, when bathed in, regenerates cells and grants them an effective immortality. Apparently, it's a lucrative industry.
Jupiter is special because she was born, by random chance, with a genetic sequence identical to that of the since dead (due to murder) matriarch of the House of Abrasax. This woman had left an inheritance for her future recurrence in her will, meaning that Jupiter holds the rights to Earth. This makes Jupiter a threat to at least two of the woman's three children, who are quarreling for control of the planet.
It's not completely clear whether that matriarch left Jupiter the rights to Earth specifically (and the fact that Jupiter is from Earth is simply a coincidence) or whether Jupiter was to be given the rights to whatever planet she was born in.
The non-Earthling humans have achieved a number of advanced technologies including hover boots and clothing that appears almost automatically. Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton) tells Jupiter she can't even begin to imagine what humans are capable of technologically, and that Earthlings have only begun to touch the surface of what science (especially genetics) can achieve. And since this species has been around for a really, really long time, I can buy that.
But, were this movie actually true, every advancement our culture has made in regards to genetics and evolution would be completely wrong. Humans would have absolutely no biological link to ancient archaea and the dinosaurs. The map that encompasses the life work of scientists genetically tracing the lineage of organisms to the species of today would have no basis in reality. True, some of the other animals on Earth may be connected to one another. But, as fully-developed aliens, we wouldn't have any connection to them.
Creationists would probably love this movie.
That's not to say that I'm not open to accepting that everything we thought we knew about evolutionary biology is wrong. But I'd have to disregard a lot of evidence to accept that this could ever be a possibility. If humans invaded the Earth immediately after killing off the dinosaurs, why do we have fossil records of non-human hominids who appear to have speciated from a common ancestor?
If I was Jupiter, I'd definitely have some questions for this woman. I think the idea that humans invaded Earth is fascinating, but it contradicts nearly everything that we think we know about the origin of species. It would have been nice for this issue to have been discussed in the movie, or at least addressed. Kalique's sweeping explanations given provide little satisfaction to the curious viewer.
Another potential issue with the movie was the implication that Jupiter could, by random chance, end up being completely genetically identical to this deceased woman. Jupiter's clone was 90,000 years old when she died, and her daughter is 14,000 years old, so these women's births were separated by somewhere between 90,000 and 104,000 years. It's impossible to estimate how many births took place during this time, as we don't know how many planets have been colonized by humans at this point.
So what is the probability that these two women could share the same genetic sequence? The human genome is estimated to contain three billion base pairs. Each pair encompasses four possibilities for its sequence: A-T, G-C, C-G or T-A.
At this point, the math is simple logic. Four possibilities per base pair, to the power of 3 billion, 4^3E9. The only problem: Most calculators won't generate an answer that large. I'm far from a mathematician, so I'm going to have to stop my analysis here. Let's just put it this way: If your calculator can't even calculate the probability of something happening, it's probably not going to happen anytime soon.
And of course, the human genome is much more complicated than that. Certain genes won't be functional if certain base pairs are generated, resulting in either a disorder or death. Other genes are linked. Some genes have effects on genes that are physically distant within the genome.
Basically, if this plot took place in the context that only humans exist on Earth, I'd call it out. Since there are so many humans in this universe and they aren't limited by time in the same way we are, I'll let it slide.
There's also the small fact that, assuming evolution is actually canon to this film, that the great amount of time - along with the population isolation - between these two women would make it even more unlikely for them to share similar genetic traits.
But even if Jupiter's initial DNA sequence was identical to this woman's, they probably wouldn't really be identical by strict definition, for the same reason that identical twins aren't truly identical. This is partially due to the environment- and ancestor-controlled phenomenon known as epigenetics. The way Jupiter lives, and even the way her parents and grandparents lived, affects which genes are expressed within her genome, potentially causing physical, medical, and behavioral differences from someone with her exact genetic sequence. It goes without saying that a maid would grow up in a different environment than an intergalactic queen.
And some of the characters seem to realize this. Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth) is quick to point out the ways in which Jupiter differs from his deceased mother. Yet Balem Abrasax (Redmayne) seems to actually believe that Jupiter is his mother, speaking to her directly as if she had arisen from the dead. Kalique doesn't seem to know what to think.
The way in which Jupiter's role as a "recurrence" is handled is interesting because it is a combination between ancient mythology and extremely advanced scientific understanding. This disconnect is most apparent when Kalique tells Jupiter that her society views the genome as "spiritual."
Surely a society with such an advanced understanding of genetics would realize that an identical sequence does not constitute a person's reincarnation. This issue of inheritance based on non-ancestral genetics seems like an ironically primitive conflict for such a supposedly advanced society.
Finally, the film plays with the idea of cell regeneration. The Abrasaxes (and I guess anyone who can afford the treatment) are essentially immortal. By harvesting live human beings from the seeded planets, these people replace their own cells, returning to an ideal, youthful state.
Jupiter initially asks if they use clones for the treatment before learning the truth. Kalique replies that clones are not possible because the cells are not as plastic. I'm not sure quite what she means, but I do know research shows that personalized cells are generally better than another person's cells. That's a partial basis of modern stem cell research.
I understand that this society does not value human life the same way that we do. But it seems to me that culturing personalized cells would be much more effective, and likely efficient, than raising up entire planets. I also don't understand why the cells of a random human would be more effective than an identical clone of the intended person.
Why not raise up an entire planet with clones of the target customers? (This is why the movie reminded me of House of the Scorpion). I just think that would be much easier than having to use cells of people who don't have the intended customer's DNA, and may not even possess the "ideal" physical traits.
With this society's extremely advanced understanding of science, I would think they would be able to develop a more effective method for staying eternally young.
Despite this movie's shortcomings, I do have to grant credit to the filmmakers for attempting to actually research the topics that the movie tackled. In many ways, these efforts do make them stand out from other similar films.* I would like to give the movie credit for its noticeable avoidance of the term "genetic code" when describing Jupiter's unique (or not so unique) genome. This term is often misused when popular media outlets attempt to incorporate genetics into their productions, and it's one of my pet peeves.
While it wasn't perfect, the clear effort to make this movie relevant in the context of modern science research is admirable, and ultimately adds - at least a bit - to the quality of an admittedly ridiculous film.
*I do have to question some of the human/animal/machine splices that were created in this movie; I chose not to tackle them because that topic could easily take up a post of its own.