Monday, February 9, 2015
Jupiter Ascending Is the Best Looking 50's B-Movie Ever (Also: Its Thematic Conclusion to The Matrix)
Maybe I'm in the minority, but when I see a story about a lower class girl struggling under the weight of oppressive capital which is extrapolated onto the vast reaches of the universe, my immediate reaction is "Yes, please!" Jupiter Ascending is a cheesy throwback to the early days of 1950's science fiction with all the evil aliens and damsels in distress we've come to know and love, but with the perspective shifted. It is a tale told from the point of view of that ubiquitous symbol of the woman carried lifelessly in the arms of some alien monstrosity.
With the shift in perspective placing the feminine on the forefront come two further crucial changes: the alien is not the other but the self (Jupiter is not only named after another planet but also identifies in the opening lines of the film as an "alien"), and the enemy is not the alien but the economic state (Jupiter begins the film cleaning the toilets of the aristocracy and later learns that the intergalactic governance is consuming humanity). Rather than demonizing radical alterity (the figure of the alien as anything or anyone which is outside the subject) the film embraces it, showing us that we are the outsider caught up in a system that doesn't want us except as a resource for itself.
To be honest, it's a bit messy. The characters' motivations are fuzzy, the story is all over the place, and the dialogue is full of cliches (perhaps purposefully so).
So maybe it's just my love of spaceships, pretty colors and female protagonists, but there's something in Jupiter Ascending that really speaks to me. It's like an old school sci-fi b-movie made for $200 million dollars (an intention which its fabulous poster makes clear). It reminded me of Dune crossed with Barbarella. It is a piece of cinematic science fiction which struggles under the weight of its creative ingenuity and artistic ambition while at the same time being quite silly and nonsensical.
Even outside this shift in perspective, there are other important ways in which Jupiter Ascending diverges from traditional sci-fi action fare, and for that I can't help getting excited. Whether or not you like the style, it's clear to see where all the money went, because the set pieces and action sequences are gorgeous. There's an eight-minute-long chase which was shot using another Watchowski invention to place alongside bullet-time: the Panocam. This allowed the intricate action scenes to be shot practically, without the use of digital doubles or other fakery.
Admittedly, the film was still a bit of a disappointment. It would be nice if the characters in the action sequences were more resonant, even if it's still easy to appreciate the stunts and special effects for their technical achievements at least. I wish I could have fully embraced it, because it represents a lot of what I want from sci-fi, but I occasionally felt like I was searching for reasons to like it rather than enjoying it as it was. Mostly the little moments were what took me out of it, like when out of nowhere Jupiter starts talking about how she always falls in love with the wrong men.
But here is where I start to feel like I just didn't get it. The romance angle of the film is obviously trying to be trashy in an erotic novel kind of way, so these criticisms actually show that the film is working the way it wants to. Complaining about this is like complaining that the film has too many spaceships or alien planets. The more I think about it, the more I think maybe I just couldn't wrap my head around it in a single viewing. The first time you see a movie you see it for what you want it to be and the second time you see it for what it is, and I think maybe I didn't see the film for what it was until after the credits began to roll.
I still enjoyed it much more than the critics, and on paper I absolutely love it, but I have to be true to my initial reaction and I didn't have the sort of immediate response to it i had hoped for. I wanted to come out championing the film, ready to point out where the critics had gone wrong. But as much as this steps in all the right directions, on first viewing I feel like we're still a little way away from our next Watchowski masterpiece.
The Watchowskis | Channing Tatum
Digital Cinematography | Spaceship!
I've heard a lot of people making a fuss about Eddie Redmayne's performance, but he clearly knows exactly what kind of movie he's in. He is the best Emperor Palpatine of our generation.
-Essay Idea Rough Draft-
"You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis."
Jupiter Ascending is the conclusion to the Matrix trilogy we all wanted. If the original The Matrix is about embracing fantasy and about the important role fantasy plays in our ability to enjoy our lives, Jupiter Ascending is the final message that once we've embraced fantasy we need to return to reality.
I love The Matrix, but if it has one problem it's the film's naive acceptance of fantasy. Insofar as Neo is a surrogate for the audience (reclined in their seats the way he was in his techno-futurist amniotic sac), he presents the idea that we can all be masters of our own lives if we only embrace our powers. He tells the world he's going to break all the rules, and then he flies off like Superman. He's the chosen one, and we can be too.
Jupiter Jones, the protagonist of Jupiter Ascending (your everyday, average Mila Kunis-looking woman), is also a chosen one of sorts. She is an exact genetic match of the matriarch of House Abrasax, the most powerful in a long line of alien dynasties, and is therefore heir to the most valuable planets in the universe. But she never welcomes her position as Queen of the Universe, and even when she's forced into it she decides to return to her mundane life on Earth.
When the story begins, Jupiter Jones is a maid cleaning the glamorous residences of the upper class while living in relative poverty at home. Every day she wakes up and complains that she "hates her life"—which is understandable, since she spends her days cleaning toilets, after all. But unbeknownst to her, there are extraterrestrial beings not only in the universe, but on Earth looking for her.
This is fantasy entering the film. What do we do when we're bored or unhappy? We daydream. We put ourselves in different and more interesting worlds where there are crazy things like aliens and spaceships and gravity surfing. We need a framework within which our lives become interesting and meaningful again (and, likewise, the film creates its own colorfully stylistic framework to visualize this dimension). Now I don't mean to say that the rest of the movie from this point on is Jupiter's imagination (which would essentially invalidate everything that follows), but simply that this is the film introducing an element of fantasy into the proceedings.
Jupiter joins forces with Caine Wise, a genetically altered bounty hunter, and together they fight for Jupiter's agency. Caine has a troubled past which he wants expunged from his record, and Jupiter just wants a life which doesn't involved cleaning toilets. Eventually they overthrow the bad guys and Jupiter takes her crown, but here is where the film begins to diverse from the narrative of The Matrix. Whereas once Neo defeats the Agents he remains in the Matrix as its new ruler (the King of Fantasy, ready to "show these people what you don't want them to see"), once Jupiter masters her powers she leaves the throne to return to her life as a maid.
There's a consistent throughline in the movie that "you are what you are, not what you do," and this is why Jupiter must return home at the end of the film. What's important is not that she rule the universe as its queen, but that she be the queen she knows she is inside, whether she's cleaning toilets or surfing gravity. The final shot of Jupiter Ascending is an exact mirror image of The Matrix, but with the crucial difference that it takes place in the real world (rather than within the computer-generated fantasy of the Matrix). We need our fantasy worlds to make our lives enjoyable, but we can't live inside them entirely. Like Jupiter Jones, we have to go there to find ourselves, but we must use this self-knowledge in order to return to reality.