Monday, February 9, 2015

Notes on Jupiter Ascending

The good:

1. It's better than Underworld: Awakenings, which was the measuring stick I armed myself with when we entered the theater.

2. It looks great - the art direction, even when it's crazy, is top-notch, and there's some real imagination here. The best part of the movie is the bureaucratic wrangling necessary for Jupiter (Mila Kunis) to claim her inheritance. It's like Gringotts on steroids.

3. Some of the costuming is really lovely (though some of the accessories look like they came from the formal section at Claire's).

4. Channing Tatum is fully committed to his role as a genetically modified part-wolf mercenary. He's all in, bless him.

Channing Tatum w/ ear prosthetics and guyliner

5. Sean Bean. His character doesn't die, you guys! How great is that?

6. The sweet peas outside of Sean Bean's home - a witty (rather than head-bashing) nod to the central theme.

The not so great:

1. The studio bumped the release date back to winter for re-editing, and while the film usually makes narrative sense, the second half in particular is a celebration of awkward editing.

2. EXPOSITION. It's sci-fi, I know. There's a lot of universe building to accomplish, I get it. But so much of the dialogue is telling us, without any sleight-of-hand, how the universe works and who the characters are. Sean Bean, in particular, is "the guy who explains Caine the Wolf Hybrid," both to Jupiter and to Caine himself.

3. Eddie Redmayne's...everything. Eddie's a great actor, but the "too evil to speak above a rasp" shtick felt like twenty flourishes too much. When he yelled, I laughed. I don't think that's the effect he was going for.

The unintentionally funny:

1. There's a freeze-frame scene in which Eddie Redmayne's character is analyzing how his plot could have been foiled, and the way that tableau is arranged is HILARIOUS. Expect memes.

2. Sean Bean's "follow your heart" speech.

3. Basically anything having to do with the "romance." (There is no chemistry between the leads. Nada. And the "romantic" dialogue is, um, not.)

4. The creature costumes, particularly the bird-people and the elephant-esque ship navigator.

5. Mila Kunis' black dinner dress, which looks concerningly like an homage to Natalie Portman's black dress in Star Wars Episode II.

Because that's what you wear to dinner with your genetic son.

The forehead slapping:

1. Jupiter: for the central and titular character, she's given very little to do and no skills with which to accomplish her tasks. She doesn't ascend so much as drift upward. Channing Tatum has to rescue her a lot, twice to keep her from signing things. She cannot help herself. At one point she rattles off some tax code cleverly, which might have worked better if we'd seen her at least reading said tax code.

I've written about active characters before: one of the key components of an active character is an element of the extraordinary. A superpower. Now, it doesn't have to be a literal superpower, but it does have to be a way for that character to be able to uniquely contribute.

The Wachowskis give us nothing, aside from Jupiter's affinity with bees. The bees might have been enough if they'd been available in space, but alas. She has no special courage, wit, smarts, or skills to contribute. She's soft-hearted and naive, in a way that puts her (and the universe) in danger more often than not.

2. Also, she's not allowed to kill. If you don't want any spoilers, skip past to the next bold text. In recent media, we've seen previously non-violent protagonists such as Sherlock (in the BBC take) and Superman (in Man of Steel) kill their antagonists for the greater good. The antagonists pose a real threat to their loved ones and the world as a whole, and rather than leave it to others (or an unfortunate meeting with gravity) to right the wrong, the protagonists kill the antagonists.

But when Jupiter is faced with the opportunity to kill Balem Abraxas (Eddie Redmayne), he laughs and tells her she's just like his mother and won't be able to do it. So she shoots him in the foot instead, and runs away. However, she runs, and he chases, and it's another five minutes of action sequence. Eddie attacks her again, naturally, and she barely escapes while he falls to his death like a Disney villain. (She's saved by Channing Tatum, shortly after. Again.) Is it because she's female? Kristen Stewart managed to dispatch Charlize Theron's evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman. Katniss wouldn't have blinked. Heck, Trinity wouldn't have blinked. Don't get me wrong - I'm not against women being saved. But when it comes to the central plot, we need to see the protagonist defeat the antagonist herself, regardless of gender.

3. All that said, the film's gender politics are concerning. The most chilling moment, for me, was the sequence at the fertility clinic. To have a scene with a woman preyed upon while on a hospital bed, under anesthesia, feet in stirrups, anticipating an already ├╝ber-personal procedure such as egg extraction - it felt extremely tone-deaf. I've yet to see a movie in which a hero is attacked while undergoing a prostate exam, much less a sperm extraction.

I understand that the idea behind the egg-harvesting was yet another repeat of the genetics motif, but it didn't need to come at that expense. Being female is complicated enough.

Add the fact that title character, the one who's supposed to be ascending, has no skills and cannot actively contribute, and when she does try to do things, she must be saved from herself - we should be beyond this.

And in the end - I'll let you see that for yourself. Let's just say that I have questions about the aforementioned ascension.

Final Verdict: If you need a night out at the movies, you could do worse. Good on the Wachowksis for attempting something original and interesting, even if it didn't succeed. We had fun, I was glad we saw it.

However, while the film technically passes the Bechtel test, I'm still troubled by the film's treatment of the female lead. When we've got theaters full of Mockingjays and ice queens, astronauts and code-breakers, a queen of the universe should feel more transcendent.

What about you? What did you think about the movie? And if not, what films are you excited about instead?

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