March 4, 2015

Queer Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending
Directors: The Wachowskis
Writers: The Wachowskis
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatumn, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

Jupiter Ascending is a mess and not in a good way. This represents the weakest entry into The Wachowskis filmography that I have had to opportunity to see, due to this film falling far shorter than usual with regards to the high ambitions that The Wachowskis usually set for the stories that they tell. Then there is the tricky matter of the main villain, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), falling prey to sexist and transphobic tropes.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an ordinary young woman, working a dead end job as a cleaning lady in her family's business. When her cousin encourages her to donate her eggs at a fertility clinic, she goes, only for the medical attendants to turn into aliens and try to kill her. Fortunately, she is then kidnapped-slash-rescued by a strange being who calls himself Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who informs her that her reality is a computer generated dreamworld designed to turn human beings into batteries, or uh rather... that earth is a farm maintained by aliens who harvest humans so they can have eternal youth. It also turns out that there are a lot of planets like that out there. Oh and we humans were genetically engineered by the aliens with their DNA, which they spliced onto a native species in order to create us. Also, Jupiter is the reincarnation of the Abrasax siblings mother, who was murdered. And Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) is the one who inherited Earth and wants to start the harvesting, like right now. Meanwhile Jupiter and Caine are (supposedly) falling in love, while Jupiter tries to claim her title to Earth.

The Queering
There are times when Jupiter Ascending almost manages to achieve the ambitious goals set out for itself by the Wachowskis, but the end result is more disaster than the intriguing space adventure it aims for. There are parts that show off an intricately developed universe, complex characters, the development of philosophical themes, and even bits of intriguing social commentary. Then there are parts that are just confusing and too often, the Wachowskis simply seem to want to show off that they know how to handle a special effects budget.

In the past, the Wachowskis have shown the ability to combine the examination of philosophical themes, even while blowing stuff up real good. Even their post-Matrix material is better than the reputation it has received. Cloud Atlas suffered a bit from over-editing, but still managed to hold itself together and The Matrix sequels while a step down from the first, still managed to tell coherent and engaging stories.

Jupiter Ascending on the other hand, does not hold together so well. Much of the important plot points feel rushed, the big action scenes tend towards the incoherent and confusing, and the universe all of this is set in feels half developed. In spite of the fact that the story drags, there were times when I wanted more time spent explaining how this particular universe worked and to character development as well. The relationships and motivations of the Abrasax siblings in particular felt under-developed (a situation not helped much by the fact that they always spoke softly in half-whispers with each other). Furthermore, the fact that we are never shown exactly what a harvesting of a planet looks likely (merely the results) makes audience investment in the central conflict that much harder.

In Jupiter Ascending's defense, there are a couple of interesting ideas presented, even if they are half developed. The concept of creating sentient life to lengthen the lifespans of other beings, is not that far removed from the creation of savior siblings, where a child is created via in vitro fertilization and is expected to donate cells and tissues for an older sibling with a fatal disease. In other words, the technology for doing what is presented as science fiction here, not only exists, but is already being utilized. I'm not sure if the Wachowskis actually intended for their to be any parallels here, but they are worth pointing out.

As it is, the characters and situation itself are both interesting, even if they are only half developed.

However, there is one awkward element that I want to point out. The main villain, Balem, is presented as being both extremely effeminate and having an obsession with his mother (and thus by default, he also has an obsession with Jupiter Jones). Note: Lana Wachowski said that the story was inspired by The Odessey but with regards to greek mythology, the Oedipal Complexing going on is lot more obvious than anything else. Anyways, the point being is that Balem is queer coded in some pretty obvious ways.

Now, one trope regarding transgender villains that I have pointed out before, is that trans villains (who are almost always woman) are always presented as not only deceptive, but as actively stealing the bodies and or identities (among other things) of woman. Now, while Balem is not presented as transgender, he is still an obviously effeminate, queer coded villain, who actively seeks to steal an entire planet from a female character. Between the use of human bodies to create a fountain-of-youth type substance and Balem's mother obsession, several uncomfortable parallels end up being created with extremely transphobic films such as Psycho (where the titular character is also obsessed with his mother) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (an alternate take on the story where Dr. Jekyll uses female hormones in order lengthen his lifespan and winds up killing numerous female sex workers in order to obtain them)

What makes this particularly awkward is that Lana Wachowski (who co-directed along side her brother Andy Wachowski) is herself transgender.

Admittedly, there are a few problems with trying to paint Jupiter Ascending into a transphobic corner. As close as it comes to paralleling one transphobic trope, there are numerous others that it avoids. Balem never engages in deception to obtain what he wants, but instead shows himself resorting to force to get it. Instead, there is only one Abrasax sibling who resorts to deception, and he was shown engaging in sex play with several female looking alien type characters. Furthermore, Balem doesn't want to steal anyone's body to assist with a gender transition type process (as was done by the main villain in The X-Files: I Want to Believe but merely to extend his life. Even if the specific person he is trying to steal the planet from is a woman, the bodies that the fountain-of-youth substance is made from are going to inevitably have to come from males, females, and anyone otherwise outside the gender binary. Thus, due to this generality, one could argue that the trope of "trans women stealing from women" is technically avoided.

When I first saw the previews for Jupiter Ascending part of me was interested in seeing a female lead in an action heavy film being made by a direction team of whom one half is a woman. As it is, whenever a woman is made the lead of an action film, it inevitably ends up being a member of (as Mr. Cranky put it in his review of Underworld: Evolution) "'hot chicks in skimpy or skin-tight outfits beating the crap out of things' genre."

However, while Mila Kunis plays the role with spunk and determination and the character does get to display both a degree of autonomy and show off her intellect (she manages to memorize most of the universes legal code in what could not have been more than a few hours time). There is even a bit during the climax where she is shown risking life and limb to remove members of her family from a dangerous situation. However, for all the ways Jupiter Jones parallels "The Hero's Quest" (that is, the story hero who comes from a humble background to be revealed to have an important role in grand events) she still tends to wind up a mere damsel in distress to be rescued by Caine.

As it is, he potential for Jupiter Jones to be a female hero is wasted, like so many of the other potentially intriguing elements of this story.

Not quite worth ascending to Jupiter in order to see, but might be worth taking a reasonably priced commercial space flight (if those were to ever be developed at some point in the near future).

The Rating
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4.


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