Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts on Jupiter Ascending

A friend and I were excited to see Jupiter Ascending after hearing The Daily Dot describe it as “the precise gender-flipped equivalent of all those movies where some weak-chinned rando turns out to be the Chosen One, defeats a supervillain despite having no real personality or skills, and gets rewarded with a kiss from Megan Fox”.

Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis almost succeeding at sexual tension in Jupiter Ascending (2015).

The description was pretty much on point. To borrow David Prokopetz’s turn of phrase, “it’s not meant to be a Chosen Hero story; it’s meant to be a Secret Princess story”. The following notes are influenced by that interpretation.

The film is tightly constructed, with the sort of economy of dialogue which suggests the screenplay went through dozens of revisions before it ever saw pen and paper. (My closest frame of reference is Nolan’s Inception, which I heard was a pet project which took a decade or so realise. I have no idea whether this is the case for Jupiter Ascending and would rather not look it up and spoil the mystery for myself.)

The autobiographical opening minutes meld sharp writing and cinematography to intimately contextualise of protagonist Jupiter’s relationship to her mother. The following scene, the first and only one to show all three Abrasax siblings together, exemplifies show-don’t-tell, hinting at the complicated relationships between the siblings while establishing the “delicate polity” style of the film’s plot, and doing so entirely by implication. By the time we’re introduced to present-day Jupiter we’re barely eight minutes into the film and neither the pacing nor the narrative deftness drop from thereon out.

A friend of mine later remarked to me that “nary a wasted scene” is a little too strong a description. The bees, for example, constitute a Chekov’s gun that’s fired into somebody’s foot a couple of scenes after its introduction, thrown in mostly for trailer-bait CGI spectacle (there are plenty of other ways to establish “you’re a wizard, Jupiter”). On the whole, though, I remain impressed by the film’s ability to keep moving forward with every shot.

The Abrasax siblings, ibid. Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the anemic, serpentine Balem Abrasax (leftmost) removes what little chance I had left of taking The Theory of Everything seriously.

The political stage is proven strictly more important than action hero physics, contra many thrillers which mix both elements. Deutoragonist Caine (Tatum) spends the entire movie out of his element, a creature of war clearly ill-at-ease in the bureaucratic and political minefields he escorts Jupiter (Kunis) through.

Notably, even though Caine wins his fair share of battles through martial prowess, he never wins Jupiter’s for her. To be sure, his role is more than mere “dumb muscle” — he functions as messenger, as critical distraction, as leverage and as table-turner. But never does he “finish off” a primary antagonist. His direct influence is limited to the ancillary mooks surrounding the villains and the scenery he explodes his way through. Jupiter Ascending is explicitly constructed around the notion that the pen — in the form of contracts, inheritances, alliances, deceptions — is mightier, that war and physical violence are a mere complement to words, not an alternative.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Links and quotes, February 2015

Yes, “February”. Shh.

Chana Messinger considers the dichotomy of moderate versus radical strains of ideologies in terms of diverse versus hyperfocused worldviews.
Radicals care very very much about their given causes. And at least part of the reason why, I think, is that their deep stories, their overarching narratives, are not and cannot be value neutral. A non-radical may consider Larry Summers’s comments about women sexist, but not feel compelled to take action as a result. A radical cannot. Seeing sexism in every part of society: law, politics, employment, family, and more, and acknowledging its virulent harm demands a fight to end it. Same with racism, and presumably, the same with sin.

Empiricism versus deontology, if you will. (Ever notice how pure deontology always ends up at odds with other philosophical approaches? Almost as if it has some kind of zero-tolerance rule going on.)

The Mohists preached Universal Love and the end of war. And in practice? They sought to make war impossible: developing sophisticated military strategy and defensive siege warfare tactics and deploying it against the aggressors in any battle to even out the odds. Truth mightn’t be stranger than fiction, but it sure gets away with more suspension of disbelief.

Robert Kolenik’s design for a kitchen countertop automatically lifts up to give easy access to the aquarium underneath. “Aquarium?” Aquarium.

Within a couple of days of one another,  Cory Doctorow and Scott Alexander both deconstruct-by-analogy the “individual decision” vs. “herd immunity” aspect of anti-vax arguments, in strikingly different ways. Doctorow’s piece plays it straight, running a reductio ad absurdum (“The government wants to force you to have brakes [on your car], but brakes or no brakes is a personal decision”).

Alexander’s piece is a little weirder, reapplying the same moral argument in a way that bends intuition (“Super-enhancing your kids isn’t a “personal choice”. It’s your basic duty as a parent and a responsible human being”). The question, of course, is what does the perceived contradiction tell us? Is it an eye-opening modus ponens, an anti-vax modus tollens... or is there a subtlety to the inner workings of the “herd immunity” concept that’s being drawn out here?

A couple of fandom-specific analyses from Storming the Ivory Tower:

Homestuck [is] a successful tech demo: it shows not just what you can do but why the new tech is useful and powerful. It's not just showing off a bunch of disconnected mechanisms, it's showing why we, as creators, might be interested in utilizing similar techniques, and why we, as consumers, should get excited about where the comic is headed.”
“Ward as the Lone White Male Antihero would, in many stories, get a free pass to determine his own morality. The narrative and theme would warp around him to make his actions and judgements correct, often at the cost of the actions and judgements of female characters. In Agents of SHIELD that logic is turned on its head, and the whole dynamic is revealed to be chauvinistic, patronizing, and ultimately subtly fascistic.”