So I went to see Jupiter Ascending this weekend at the movies, and lemme tellya, it’s crack-tastic in all the ways that push my buttons, and apparently, I’m not alone. For every supposedly “bad” movie that’s out there, you’ll find a legion of fans, and people who truly “got” the movie. Most of the time, it’s a one-note appeal that ends up in the “agree to disagree” category between fans and not-fans. This time, I’m of the opinion that most of the people who didn’t get the movie were watching the wrong story.
Hey, I know what it’s like to tell the wrong story. I’m the person who writes magical reality chick-lit about a dude, and makes its romance surround people hitting forty. I’m the person who thought, “Hey, I never realized it, but all the problems I thought I had with plot were because I wasn’t thinking in serial fiction terms” and decided that sci-fi romance, in spite of being the subgenre most avoided by major publishers, was going to be one of my most comfortable genre homes. The Wachowskis, similarly, are a different breed of epic, and they told a story that, when it’s understood what story they’re telling, can’t help but change how we look at movies. (Fair warning, Here Be Spoilers).
Heroes With Bewbz
Most of our heroic characters follow the classic “hero’s journey” monomyth. Even the female characters end up all too easily falling into what’s a classically male role. Their masculine traits end up making them heroes, and they are competent at mastering the skills that take them through a man’s world and into a man’s battles. I don’t want to get all cage-matchey in the battle of the sexes, so please consider “male” and “female” to be sets of traits and societal roles, rather than anatomy or sex-based gender.
Jupiter Ascending was definitely not a “hero’s journey” in the classical sense. If anything, the Regency romance novel plot takes it far closer to a “heroine’s journey” more closely related to mythic goddesses and their respective descents into the Underworld. For the mythic goddess, her journeys rarely change the world, only her perspective of it. Her individual, internal self is more transformed than anything external. The journey of the Goddess is one of internal transformation.
Trial By Pretty
Jupiter’s first visit to her space-sibling, princess Kalique (played with gleeful abandon by Tuppence Middleton), shows the middle-aged princess shedding her clothing and stepping into a bath, only to emerge the picture of youth. Her interaction with Jupiter is a representation of that initial part of the Goddess journey–the shedding of her protective layer at the entrance to the Underworld. The Goddess is stripped of her daylight powers and enters a dangerous new world, whose rules are a mystery. At the same time, in the morality play, Kalique is the first to offer Jupiter the most self-centered of gifts–that of eternal youth and beauty for herself. This appeal to vanity is the first test of Jupiter’s moral character, and it is an uniquely feminine challenge. Women, from time immemorial, have known that their physical appearance is the coin with which they make their fortunes in one way or another. It’s built into the feminine experience.
A lot of people point out that the wedding seemed like a random insert scene and far too panoramic to simply provide the backdrop for some exposition about the super-goo that keeps the space oligarchy eternally young. Or provide an opportunity for a stunning CGI space battle-slash-rescue by Jupiter’s protector. Or provide an excuse to let Mila Kunis show off her loveliness in some outre space-couture on par with the prequel trilogy of Star Wars.
But I have to disagree–the wedding was hella important to Jupiter’s character transformation. It’s the first step to her self-actualization, and her first big test against the underworld in her goddess journey. Her wedding, on the surface, was something that would personally elevate her–take her away from all her Cinderella troubles to make her a space-queen and give her a life of luxury and pretty space-dresses that come with tiaras and all the trappings of luxury. But it’s all illusion, right down to the guests and the “happily ever after.” Hey, all those background people in Cinderella’s wedding were robots and 2-D cutouts, too, but Cindy went ahead with it, and we’re all fairly certain that she just traded one crap job for another.
Jupiter’s final test is the most physical one, and the most mentally challenging. Balem (with a hat tip to an Eddie Redmayne who clearly had so much fun channeling Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg that I expected a plastic plate under his flip ‘do) offers her a simple exchange–give up her dominion, her power, her legitimacy, and she gets her family. This, then, is the least self-centered false gift offered to her by the gatekeepers of this vast unknown which she has inherited. Family, in the Regency romance story, is at once the heroine’s greatest strength and her Kryptonite. For want or love of a family, the heroine will do many a stupid, stupid thing.
In terms of her journey through the Underworld, in order to receive her transcendent wisdom, the Goddess also must surrender the earthly ties that keep her tethered to a mortal mindset. Although her experiences aren’t the same, to Balem and his culture, Jupiter is his mother. She has to deny her mortal femininity both in terms of her family’s safety and her place in the galactic empire in order to earn the knowledge of the underworld and survive it to return to her own world.
Was the movie visually stunning, Wachowski-style fun? Absolutely. Did it have problems and plot-holes you could drive a truck through? You betcha. Is it silly that the fate of the world hangs in a legal property dispute? Only on the surface–until we take a moment and really think about what it means to be “human resources.”