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.

Let’s talk female agency! Which, honestly, is overemphasised as a metric of ‘progressiveness’ in storytelling, leading to some truly interesting conclusions if you take it too seriously. It’s as myopic/decontextualised as using the Bechdel test as a comparative measure.

Anyway, I digress.

To some extent, Jupiter is whirlwind dragged around by external circumstances and choices that follow directly from the nature of her character. Her engagement to Titus, for instance, follows entirely from his machinations to get her talking to him alone, followed by a decision she makes that is utterly the most sensible option based on the (false) information she has at the time. (“Is that kind of choice really agency / not agency?” Who cares? Classification absent an understanding of context intrinsically misses the point.)

To an extent, this combination of factors — internal-inevitable and externally-mediated — is part and parcel of the medium. You can certainly have characters face complex, emotionally difficult decisions in the context of a two-hour film, but you need to lay a lot of groundwork to communicate the complexity in that short space of time. Indeed, Jupiter’s most significant choice in the last act of the film is incredibly complex.

Faced with a choice between the abstract notion of Earth versus the welfare of her family and loved ones (only a shade removed from a “head versus heart” dilemma), Kunis delivers the most solid part of her performance as she casts her ballot.

(I was also hugely impressed that the way the problem and its resolution are phrased goes against the common narrative moral of self-sacrifice as the most meaningful form of sacrifice.)

Gravity boots; your argument is invalid. Ibid.

Note how the choice of gravity boots as Caine’s mode of transportation centers the focus on his martial utility as one of brute strength, rather than, say, ability to shoot a gun. The camera freeze frames on his muscles in dynamic motion; the script constantly pushes him into one-on-one physical combat wherever it makes sense to do so. And perhaps most noticeably, Caine and Jupiter’s climactic escape from Jupiter in the final act becomes a feat of pure physical exertion.

This, moreso than the brooding werewolf trope, characterizes the idealized masculinity the film pushes. In a Secret Princess narrative, the bodyguard character is exactly a symbol of physical power, the abstracted knight-errant notion of masculinity, the protagonist’s champion. This is in large part why we have the fish-out-of-water subtheme (not to mention wolf-without-a-pack) for Caine: the queen-and-champion trope the film aims for calls for a dualistic assignment of strengths and weaknesses to the two characters, exactly complementing each other’s shortfalls. He does brute strength, she does shrewd judgement calls, they lean picturesquely into each other’s arms, curtains.

Yes, it’s very yin-yang binarist; yes, it’s reinforcing an existing set of notions about what masculinity/femininity mean. That’s a very legitimate criticism of the film (and the type of narrative it’s trying to tell). I suspect that if the realm of mainstream sci-fi / action / thriller movies becomes more saturated by this trope, I’ll be more concerned. In today’s environment, though, the way Jupiter Ascending presents idealized masculinity and femininity is significantly less toxic than the way, say, Kingsman does.

(I enjoyed every minute of Kingsman. Well, most minutes. It’s an awful movie but that’s affect for you.)

The soundtrack was brilliant, harkening back to the orchestral sci-fi tradition of Star Wars. Of course, being another Wachowskis project, The Matrix trilogy is perhaps the more obvious comparison, and there was certainly no shortage of sweeping choral cadences and occasional jumps into unusual time signatures.

I was surprised to learn that Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Up) was responsible for the bombastic score, but I’ve only ever really known him via his TV work (Alias, Lost) which has been heavier in leitmotif and emotional subtlety… I imagine if I ever get around to watching the most recent Star Trek films I’ll discover a very similar style from him.

Related reading: Cora Buhlert’s The disparate reviews of Jupiter Ascending discusses the film within the larger context of mainstream media and/or critique.