Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

It's been less than a year since Tasha Robinson coined the phrase "Trinity syndrome," and yet it's already become one of the most useful terms in pop culture criticism.  Named for the female lead in Lana and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix, Trinity syndrome refers to a movie in which a female character is depicted as cool, competent, and badass, but always and inexplicably in the service of a much blander male lead (for whom she is usually the love interest).  She often loses her motivation (if she ever had one) and her ability to affect the plot in the film's final act, just in time for the lead to take center stage, and often needs to be rescued by him.  As Hollywood blockbusters become more conservative in their structures and plots, the roles they give women become more constrained, and Trinity syndrome has become a useful way of examining how the appearance of agency can obscure its absence.  Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis' most recent film and their first return to no-holds-barred SF since the second Matrix sequel, offers an interesting data point in the discussion of the phenomenon to which they gave a name.  Of all its many flaws, perhaps the most crucial is that Jupiter Ascending does not suffer from Trinity syndrome.

Perhaps the easiest way to sum up Jupiter Ascending is to describe it as a gender-swapped, space opera retelling of The Matrix.  In both films, you have a somewhat personality-free protagonist dissatisfied with their humdrum, monotonous life who discovers that they were born special, a savior figure awaited for generations.  Whisked off to a life of adventure by a sexy, uber-competent bodyguard, they discover that the truths about the world that they'd taken for granted are nothing but illusions, and that human beings are being exploited by a sinister system that sees them as nothing but fuel for a great machine--an exploitation that only our hero can bring an end to.

What's interesting about this repetition is how it reveals the ways in which telling the same story with a different-gendered protagonist affects the kind of tale you end up telling.  In The Matrix, the fact that Neo was such a blank--devoid of past, family, relationships, or even any concrete dreams or aspirations--wasn't a problem because that blankness allowed the other characters to explain the world to him and the audience to project themselves onto him (in fact one assumes that the reason the Wachowskis chose Keanu Reeves for the role was his infamous lack of affect).  That passivity, however, was counteracted by the type of special person Neo turned out to be.  His journey from no-one to The One required him to discover skills and ultimately ascend to godhood.  As passive as he was, the role in which the story placed him was an essentially active one, and his passivity was expressed by his acquiescence to this active role.  But if Neo gets to live out the fantasy of a nobody who discovers that he is actually supremely powerful, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) gets to live out the girl's version of that fantasy.  He's a warrior; she's a princess.  His specialness expresses itself in his ability to do things that no one else can; hers, in the fact that she owns a lot of stuff--as the reincarnation of the matriarch of one of the richest dynasties in the galaxy, she owns whole planets (including Earth) and their populations.  All Jupiter has to do to be special is keep breathing long enough to officially claim her inheritance--at which point the greatest danger to her (and the rest of the world) becomes that she might accidentally marry the wrong person and give them access to her property.

Jupiter spends the film that bears her name being moved from place to place--and sometimes physically tossed around like a rag doll--by the alien bounty hunter Caine (Channing Tatum), who tries to keep her safe from the various factions in her newfound family who want to control or kill her.  There's been some talk about how Caine embodies the romantic fantasies of a certain genre of bodice-rippers--endlessly loyal, his fearsome strength completely in thrall to Jupiter's needs, and constantly on display (the entire middle segment of the film, for example, finds some pretty flimsy excuses to keep him topless).  He cuts a much more subservient figure than Trinity, right down to being explicitly likened to a dog, but then that too feels like a function of his gender--Caine being a man reduces the insecurity inherent in his role, and makes it safe for him to be subservient to Jupiter. 

What undercuts Jupiter Ascending as female wish fulfillment is the fact that, unlike the bland male protagonists who benefit from Trinity syndrome, Jupiter never develops into the central character in her own story.  Caine is, in fact, a more developed character than she is (I'm speaking in relative terms, of course), with something resembling a character arc revolving around his need to find a "pack," which Jupiter comes to embody, and to regain his honor and sense of purpose.  Jupiter, meanwhile, has little in the way of a discernible personality.  We're repeatedly told that she's cynical and distrusting, but the actual character who turns up on screen is shockingly naive, willing to be led by anyone who acts like they know what they're doing.  This is a character, after all, who allows her cousin to convince her to sell her eggs and give him the bulk of her payment.  A character who agrees to marry one of the super-rich space siblings whom she has dispossessed by claiming her inheritance, simply because he has promised to use her wealth for good, and despite the fact that Douglas Booth plays him with such slimy untrustworthiness that one almost expects him to make sneering asides to the audience that start with "little does she suspect..."

In the Matrix's final act, Trinity is taken suddenly off the board, leaving Neo without his protector, which forces him to suddenly discover his own awesome powers.  Her role immediately becomes a moral one, to inspire Neo to discover his own innate greatness, rather than being great herself--the very fact that she loves him becomes evidence of his incipient godhood.  If the Wachowskis were determined to retell their most successful story beat by beat, we'd expect Caine to be similarly sidelined in Jupiter Ascending's final scenes, but instead the film remains focused on him as its action hero and the mover of its plot--even taking a moment to have another character, Nikki Amuka-Bird's stalwart spaceship captain, compliment him on his "rare courage."  Jupiter, meanwhile, gets to land a few blows against her chief enemy Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, proving himself worthy of the Oscar he received last night for his performance in another movie by fully committing to the cheesiness of this one), but since his power is rooted in his wealth, the fact that she can knock him to the ground when all his flunkies and security guards aren't around (which is down to Caine's actions) isn't terribly impressive.  She still ends up having to be rescued, and the only way in which she is less passive at the end of the film than she was in its beginning is her willingness to express her sexual desire for Caine.  The problem here isn't so much that Jupiter can't beat people up, which after all isn't the only hallmark of a hero, but that unlike Neo, she doesn't undergo any sort of transformation or inner change--in fact her journey leads her back to the exact same life she had at the film's beginning, except with a cute alien boyfriend.  Even the two films' parallel closing scenes, in which the protagonists zip through the sky, feel deeply gendered--Neo flies on his own power; Jupiter flies because Caine has lent her his jetpack boots.

But then, maybe this all has a lot less to do with gender than it does with capitalism.  Another way to express the difference between Neo and Jupiter is that he is unsatisfied with his life because he wants to do things, whereas she is unsatisfied with her life because she wants to have things.  An illegal immigrant who works all hours of the day as a housecleaner, Jupiter spends the film's early scenes lusting after the designer dresses and expensive jewelry she finds in the homes of her rich clients.  That the wish-fulfillment fantasy that the Wachowskis spin around her involves being the richest person in the galaxy is therefore unsurprising, as is the form of the exploitation she discovers.  The reason that Earth is such a valuable resource, we learn, is that its population can be harvested and converted into a goo that elites like Jupiter and the Abrasax family use to restore their youth and health, essentially living forever.  The same imagery that, in The Matrix, was used as a metaphor for the crushing power of conformity, is here used to symbolize the predatory nature of hyper-capitalism, with culled humans floating unconscious in tanks, and referred to as cattle and crops.

There's obviously space here to tell an engaging story about privilege and wealth.  For Jupiter, a poor person from what turns out to be a poor planet, to find herself instantly elevated to unimaginable privilege, and just as quickly discover that it is founded, literally, in blood, has a lot of potential.  The film's repeated insistence that Jupiter is cynical makes more sense when you realize that she's supposed to have been hardened by poverty, and a life that seemed to offer no hope of anything better.  It could have been interesting to see her struggle with her desire for wealth and her disgust at what it means--though again, that would require the film to be a lot more interested in Jupiter as a person than it actually is.  But as the saying goes, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.  Neo can be a hero in the story of The Matrix because the system he's rebelling against represents something relatively simple, sterile modern living.  Jupiter has to rebel against something much more pernicious--even within the film's ridiculous worldbuilding it's hard to imagine how she could end the system by which billions are culled so that an elite few could live forever.  Is it any surprise, therefore, that she doesn't even try?  That her triumph is the result of relying not just on Caine, but on the very legal authorities that prop up the corrupt system that so horrifies her? 

Jupiter's one moment of moral triumph--the one moment in which she does something to actually justify being the protagonist of her own story--is when she refuses to buy her life from Balem by giving him Earth, knowing that if he kills her he still won't have title to the planet.  It's a heroic moment--though again, it's worth noting that the most heroic thing Jupiter does in her whole story is to agree to do nothing and die--but unlike killer AIs, we know that capitalism doesn't play by the rules.  The film's ending, in which Jupiter goes back to her life on Earth, secure in the belief that no power in the galaxy will touch the precious resource simply because the person who owns it has refused to exploit it, is far less believable than Neo's ability to manipulate space and time in the Matrix.  The Wachowskis clearly intended Jupiter Ascending to be the opening chapter in another series, but I think the fact that, unlike in The Matrix, they couldn't hand their heroine a genuine accomplishment with which to close the opening chapter says a lot about the differences between the two stories.  Killing Agent Smith strikes a meaningful blow against the Matrix.  Killing Balem Abrasax doesn't even ding the system that gave him his power.

There are other reasons why Jupiter Ascending isn't as successful as The Matrix--the lackluster action scenes, the near-total lack of humor, the deadening seriousness with which the film takes its baroque worldbuilding--and, at the same time, it's only fair to note that despite all these flaws, I didn't find it a torture to watch.  It certainly isn't good, but it isn't the sort of slog that, say, The Matrix Revolutions was.  And while it doesn't approach the heights of zany ridiculousness that the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas achieved, there's a certain loopy charm to its overstuffed plot and its constant shifts between ever-more elaborate locations, that makes it rather easy to get through.  But it's heartbreaking to see a Wachowski film that is so similar to The Matrix, and yet falls so far from its accomplishments.  It's even sadder to realize that at least part of the reason for that difference in quality is the Wachowskis' limits--that the sort of stories they tell about women, and poor women in particular, are so much less exciting and adventurous than the ones they tell about disaffected middle class men.

6 comments:

temmere said...

Haven't seen it, but I heard it contains the line "It's not what you do that matters, it's who you are." Which is possibly the most profoundly warped moral lesson I've ever heard.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

To be fair, I don't really go to Wachowski movies for the moral message. It's not as if the message of The Matrix is leagues away from that quote, even if no one ever comes out and says it.

Kate Nepveu said...

. . . did this weird commenting system eat my comment? I think it did.

Anyway: I don't remember anyone saying that quote, but if they did I think it must've been a villain or highly out of context, because one of the most explicit themes in the movie is a rejection of the assertion that biology (specifically genetics) is destiny (to borrow a phrase).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I didn't remember the line either, but google confirms that it's in the movie. The context, though, softens the impact a little - Caine says it to Jupiter after she says that the people who think of her as queen will be shocked to find out what she does for a living. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that the film rejects biology as destiny - I think it wants to make that point with Jupiter's choice not to live her predecessor's life, but the flatness and passivity of the character mean that it's hard to ever see her as anything but a reflection of someone else.

Kate Nepveu said...

Thanks for the context. And this may be something I'm more sensitive to both as an adopted kid and as a parent, but that theme definitely came through more strongly for me than for you.

S Johnson said...

I'm not an adoptee but I think Kate is correct. It's why Eddie Redmayne's character is played as a raving flake: He really thinks that genes makes Mila Kunis the reincarnation of his mother, whose return after he murdered her unhinges him. It's why her declaration "I'm not your mother" is climactic (and why her beating him up is satisfying.) It's why it's such a big deal that she intended to sacrifice not just herself but her family. (By the way, it was the cousin who was naive if he thought his family would let him keep all the money to himself.) I think the riff on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was an expression of the "recurrence" premise. (True, the system was also portrayed as ultimately functional for the privileged, unlike Hitchhiker.)

There is a lot of widespread support for genetic determinism (and its genteel covers, like evolutionary psychology or many kinds of nationalism.) I imagine the prominence of this theme deprives the movie of a lot of impact.

I thought "I love dogs" was pretty explicit avowal of desire (which presents its own problems for squeamish people like me, sorry,) so I can't seen any arc about admitting it. I thought the movie really betrayed more influence from Cordwainer Smith than The Matrix, particularly A Planet Called Shayol. I think they erred badly in copying terminology from English, like "your majesty," rather than going more exotic, like calling Mila Kunis an Equal and Channing Tatum and Sean Bean Inferiors. The really musty part for me was the whole Sean Bean/Channing Tatum arc.

I'm not sure that the movie would have been improved by Tatum fading out in the third act and Mila Kunis kicking everybody's ass, not just Eddie Redmayne's.

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