Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Cult-Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)
The Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending experienced an underwhelming opening at the American box office this weekend. It succeeded to a much greater degree on the international market, but the vultures already have their talons out, declaring the science fiction epic a failure and a bomb.
I find it funny -- and by funny, I actually mean sad -- how many writers permit a movie's box office estimates and ultimate weekend total to dictate how they judge or consider its creative qualities.
While Jupiter Ascending is not the Zeitgeist-changing masterpiece that was The Matrix (1999), nor the cerebral and lyrical structural and narrative experiment that was Cloud Atlas (2012), it does nonetheless thrive on a more straight-forward level: it’s a rip-roaring and original cinematic space adventure.
On the surface level you expect of such films -- namely action and special effects -- the film is quite accomplished, and also intense. One character, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) skates the skies on gravity waves, and the effects are stunning.
Indeed, I would recommend Jupiter Ascending for its technological legerdemain alone. The film delivers on a visual level precisely the values one would expect of an original work of art in the mold of Star Wars (1977), or more accurately, David Lynch’s Dune (1984).
But because this is the Wachowskis we’re discussing here, Jupiter Ascending simultaneously operates at deeper-than-surface level too.
For these directors, this is clearly a transitional film, with all the gender-bending that the word “transition” implies these days.
After charting the male “hero’s journey,” or Monomyth in both The Matrix and Speed Racer (2008), the directors here gender-bend the familiar Joseph Campbell story to apply to a memorable and female “Chosen One.”
I have written before of my general ennui with the Hero’s Journey (“I’ve Seen This Hero a Thousand Time,”) but just consider cinematic history and convention for a moment.
How many times before have movie audiences been afforded the opportunity to watch a female character undertake this brand of cinematic journey, and with the big budget resources behind Jupiter Ascending?
The Hero’s Journey has been repeated so many times on screen, often mind-numbingly so, and yet I can remember only of small handful of films that feature a woman as the central hero, and one who undertakes a great, civilization-altering quest.
And even better, the Wachowski’s gender-bending of the over-used formula also over-turns a key aspect of the myth.
In the typical hero’s story, the “Chosen One” is important because of blood lines or genes, not because of personal agency.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix Trilogy is the latest edition or reincarnation of “The One” that can re-set the Matrix cycle. He fulfills that destiny, and re-sets the Matrix, in a (hopefully) more humane iteration.
Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars possesses the highest Midichlorian count in the history of the Old Republic. He fulfills the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force, as befitting someone of his "nature" with the Force.
But Jupiter Ascending’s lead character, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) -- a “resurgence” or genetic duplicate of a former galactic aristocrat herself -- sets out to immediately overturn the system that brands her as special and unique merely by dint of DNA.
Instead of accepting her “right” to own the Planet Earth and her birthright of aristocracy, Jupiter utilizes her humanity to defeat the Old Guard (standing in for patriarchy, no doubt...) that values only genetic perfection, and not freedom of choice.
This would be like, approximately, Luke or Anakin rebelling against the Force itself.
Or Neo failing to be the repairer of the breach between the machines and the humans, who exist symbiotically in the Matrix.
In terms of Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter’s journey is actually that of an “anti-princess," not a princess.
She could be a princess, merely by buying into the pre-existing power structure, but she chooses not to go that route. In accordance with Campbell’s point-by-point myth, Jupiter hears the calling, refuses the calling, and then -- dramatically -- rewrites the calling so they conform to her own personal ethos or standards.
Explicitly in the film, Jupiter steps away from a (deceitful) marriage with a slick and handsome Prince Charming (a fellow named Titus Abarasax) and chooses to pursue her own path, shattering restrictions of class, and even the order of life in the larger universe.
In the end, after defeating the villain (without the assistance of any male figure), Jupiter puts on the male action figure’s gravity-skating shoes, and assumes the mantel of not just hero, but action hero too. The act of putting on these gravity boots, means, metaphorically, that Jupiter has stepped into the role heretofore reserved most often for men.
Jupiter Ascending thus successfully rewrites the old, tired Monomyth, co-opting some aspects of the formula and creating new ones simultaneously. The film also operates on a relatively sophisticated level of pastiche, combining visual elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, and The Matrix in a knowing fashion that walks up to the edge of parody, but not almost never trips over it.
While I still await the science fiction film that breaks out of the tiresome Monomyth mode all-together, Jupiter Ascending modifies it to the degree that the enterprise feels both innovative and fresh.
Couple that fresh paint-job with the superb special effects and production design, and there’s simply no reason not to appreciate the film as a welcome entry in a format currently out of vogue (at least until The Force Awakens arrives): the galaxy-spanning space opera.
“Some lives will always matter more than others.”
A poor house-cleaner in Chicago, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is unexpectedly swept into matters of cosmic import when a lycantant or tracker, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) foils an attempt on her life, and reveals to her the nature of life in the universe.
Jupiter learns that she is the genetic “resurgence” of an aristocratic ruler in the Abrasax family, one who owned the entirety of planet Earth.
Unfortunately, the children of that dead ruler -- Balem (Eddie Redymayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) -- all have plans to control Jupiter, and plot see to it that they don’t lose their profit margin to a wayward genetic resurgence.
Jupiter also learns that Earth is but a farm of the Abrasax, a world and population to be harvested so the family and other aristocrats can remain immortal.
When Bardem abducts her Earth family, and wants to make a deal for ownership of Earth, Jupiter must decide what she wants to do, and who she wants to be...
“You’ve been searching for one thing, your whole life.”
Jupiter Jones, the protagonist or hero of Jupiter Ascending’s narrative, features all the characteristics of Joseph Campbell’s hero, and more than that, a generation of male movie heroes to boot.
We know she is special, for instance, and destined for greatness because she possesses an alliterative name. Like Clark Kent, or Peter Parker, Jupiter Jones sounds like the moniker of a hero.
Similarly, Jupiter arrives on Earth courtesy of an unusual or remarkable birth. Anakin had an immaculate conception apparently, and Kal-El came to Earth on a rocket, the last baby of Krypton.
But Jupiter is the product of true love, born between states, on the sea, as an (illegal) “alien,” as her voice-over notes. Unaware that she is special, Jupiter is called upon to live a life of drudgery, as a maid, cleaning toilets in Chicago.
Again, think of Luke Skywalker, spending his hours and days tending to droids on a moisture farm on backwater Tatooine, or Clark Kent coming up in Smallville, not able, even, to play on the high school football team.
And just as those limiting experiences aid Luke in becoming the hero he can become (he can target wamp rats -- or Death Star vents --that are only a few meters in size from some distance, for example), Jupiter’s experience cleaning toilets and “hating” her life have significance in her calling as the Chosen One.
Specifically, Jupiter finds herself thrust into a “larger” world very much like the one she emerged from.
In the greater galaxy, wealthy aristocrats control all the wealth and resources (actually owning whole planets), and not because of talent or merit, or hard work even...but because of inherited wealth or family name. Like those whose toilets Jupiter cleans on a regular basis, this one percent of the galaxy controls who lives and who dies, and decides how to best use resources.
The ultimate goal in this galaxy? Higher profits for individual aristocrats and business owners.
It is no accident, one must assume, that the larger universe -- the realm of the Abrasax Family -- is visualized in terms of the architecture of European nobles from generations past. The spaceships and cities are all Gothic in nature, like flying, mobile castles. The starships and citadels of the family feature ribbed vaults, spires, and other ornate flourishes. The minions of these architects resemble stone gargoyles brought to fearsome life.
Remember, the Gothic architecture of Europe was, when first undertaken, considered barbarous and rude.It was described by some with the description “goth,” meaning, roughly, “vandal.” The fiefdoms and vessels of the Abrasax are similarly ostentatious, and the family might be described as the vandals of the galaxy, flouting the law of the Aegis (the police), and wreaking havoc on worlds that they feel belong to them.
Europe's nobles, historically speaking, looked down on their workers and considered them no better than cattle. In the Abrasax's eyes, humans are, literally cattle. That's the driving metaphor or political statement of the film.
The 1% owns not just Earth, but the universe itself.
In this case, the set and spaceship designs tell audiences what they need to know of the world that Jupiter visits. And she too recognizes the aristocrats for what they are, because she knows their kind from her work as a maid for the rich and famous. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Jupiter is faced with this world, and with the reality that Earth is just a farm to be harvested by the Abrasax, and she recognizes the injustice of it. The larger world recognizes her as special, one-of-a-kind even…a queen, or “your majesty.” But Jupiter has no use for titles or kingdoms and sees that the universe is built on the exploitation of life-forms for profit. So she throws a wrench in the works, and challenges the Abrasax, and their very way of life.
In doing so, Jupiter explicitly rejects the universe that has recognized her, and stays true to her roots as the child of two modest individuals who -- though they had no money -- shared a deep and intimate love.
Jupiter Ascending features the call to action (Jupiter’s acceptance of her “destiny”), her rejection of the call (her refusal to marry, or to take up the family business of harvesting human beings), and her own rewriting of destiny (her choice to save her family and planet Earth from the harvest). Jupiter also meets with a mentor in the form first of Caine Wise (Tatum), and also in Sean Bean’s Stinger, who also doubles as “the betrayer” or “traitor” in the Monomyth, but later redeems himself.
In terms of the film’s presentation of Wise, the most important thing you need to know about him -- and squarely in keeping with the idea that this is a hero’s story involving a female perspective -- is that the filmmakers adopt the female equivalent of the “male gaze” when considering him.
Here, the audience is put in the perspective or eyes of a (heterosexual) woman, in other words, and the camera zeroes in the parts of Wise’s body that might be considered sexual, or highly attractive. Wise spends a good portion of the movie with his top off, engaging in fisticuffs or movements that demonstrate...his physical fitness, and athletic physique.
For some reason, I'm reminded of the idiom: what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Since time immemorial, we have enjoyed the male gaze in our science fiction movies. Remember Princess Leia lounging on her cell bed (platform) on the Death Star in Star Wars, or her in golden bikini in Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi (1983)?
Or think of Trinity in her all-leather body-suit, kicking ass in The Matrix. Jupiter Ascending continues the tradition, but changes the sexual triangulation, so-to-speak.
Similarly, in addition to being man-candy, Wise becomes a secondary hero, subordinate to Jupiter, because of his nature as a Lycantant. He is, essentially, a humanoid “dog,” one programmed for loyalty in all cases.
Wise's one task is to be at the side of his pack, and he identifies (early and permanently), Jupiter as being a pack member. He isn’t a damsel-in-distress to be rescued, but his options are similarly limited. He can do only one thing: showcase constant, unswerving loyalty, while Jupiter makes the big, tough decisions.
To put it another way, Jupiter Jones must deal with the whole universe, whereas Wise’s whole universe is her, being close to her. He is defined by her, as female characters in sci-fi films have historically been defined by their love of the (male) Chosen One.
Again, consider Trinity in The Matrix. She knows Neo is the one because she loves him. That’s her purpose, to love him. Wise is an exact corollary in Jupiter Ascending.
Indeed, the turning point of this Hero’s Journey in Jupiter Ascending occurs when Wise attempts to step out of his role as loyal sidekick, and tell Jupiter what to do.
She faces him and tells him that she appreciates the help and guidance (he doubles as the mentor, int he formula, remember...), but that the choice -- the decision -- is hers, not his, to make.
From that point forward, Jupiter goes up against the film’s villain, Balem Abrsax herself, while Wise is literally locked out in orbit. He ultimately retrieves her from harm, it’s true, but not before she decides how to proceed, and dispatches the villain.
While establishing the parameters of a female hero’s journey, the Wachowskis also find time to genuflect cinematic sci-fi tradition.
Wise looks like a blond-haired Mirror Mr. Spock, down to his pointed ears and goatee. He also has half-human, or hybrid qualities. He's not part Vulcan-part human, but part dog/part human.
Likewise, An elephant-man Aegis officer resembles something out of the Star Wars universe, which has so far given us Salmon People (Admiral Ackbar), Teddy Bear People (Ewoks), and Walking Carpets (Chewbacca).
And the bejeweled, gilded-aged members of the Abrasax family seem very-much like the Landsraad families of Dune.
All these familiar influences and ingredients get thrown into the pot and stirred around, but the action remains, as it should, firmly on Jupiter and her choices. One of the best interludes in the film -- a visit to galactic bureaucracy -- similarly feels like Douglas Adams meets Terry Gilliam, and is superbly and humorously vetted.
Commendably, the Wachowskis similarly seem aware that all this action in outer space must relate to us here, down on terra firma. They provide the film with menacing creatures called “Keepers,” who seem to be the source of our stories about alien abduction. They are monstrous, skittering gray-like beings sent to track and retrieve special humans. One scene, in which they attempt to assassinate Jupiter in an operating theatre, is a tour-de-force in terms of special effects and stunt choreography.
Similarly, interventions on our world by the Abrasax are “deleted” from our collective memory, except for a few who are immune to it…and then belittled by the rest of us as freaks, or conspiracy theorists.
That idea fits in very well with our Zeitgeist now, and the obsession with looking at all of life, but especially government action, through a crack’d mirror of conspiracy.
Jupiter Ascending probably could have used a few more brawny and imaginative scenes, like the one involving galactic bureaucracy, and there are some performances, particularly among the cast members playing the Abrasax, that play as poorly modulated, and tend to spoil the tone.
But other than those deficits, Jupiter Ascending is enormously entertaining if you don’t go in expecting a world-changing film like The Matrix, or Star Wars.
Instead, Jupiter Ascending takes an old story, the hero’s journey, but corkscrews it with invention and dazzling effects. The film’s tagline is, appropriately, “expand your universe.”
That’s a tough task for any movie to accomplish, but at the very least, Jupiter Ascending expands -- if not your universe -- a familiar formula, and injects a sense of freshness and newness to it in the process.