In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Amelie argues that the train-wreck-slash-theme-park-ride Jupiter Ascending is actually pretty feminist.
This Valentine’s Day weekend, women flocked to theatres to see Fifty Shades of Grey, a film that has provoked criticism for its glamorization of a controlling relationship that many have characterized as abuse. Meanwhile, a more empowering take on female fantasies quietly continued to play to empty theaters in what may possibly be this season’s biggest box office flop.
It’s a trashy sci-fi movie with a ridiculous special effects budget, an unbelievably bad script, a score that should belong to a better movie, and a female protagonist who whacks the villain repeatedly with a crowbar-like implement. It features one of the most bizarre performances by Eddie Redmayne I’ve ever seen in anything. And it depicts a healthy relationship between the Queen of the Earth, Mila Kunis, and a genetically-spliced Channing Tatum who is mostly dog.
Women should be watching, and supporting, Jupiter Ascending.
It’s the prototypical trashy blockbuster sci-fi flick, with sloppy worldbuilding, gaping plotholes, an over-the-top special effects budget, and likeable-slash-lackluster performances from some of the biggest names in Hollywood. It’s like the Transformers franchise’s whimsical younger sibling, only unlike the testosterone-fueled Michael Bay explosion-fests, Jupiter Ascending is unabashedly for and about women.
The cast of characters could have been designed by fifteen-year-old girls in an online roleplaying forum. Our female lead, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), starts out scrubbing toilets for her immigrant family’s cleaning service, but after a few charmingly artless allusions to Cinderella, she discovers that she is in fact a fabulously wealthy Space Queen and owns the deed to the planet Earth. While Jupiter spends the movie changing between lavishly decadent ballgowns and a reasonably utilitarian black leather space gettup, a wounded Channing Tatum conveniently forgets to put a shirt on after he’s healed and spends much of the movie topless. Channing Tatum’s character, Caine, has been genetically spliced with a dog, but has been estranged from his pack for tragic backstory reasons. His best friend, played by Sean Bean, has been genetically spliced with bees and used to have wings, but they have been removed, also for tragic backstory reasons.
The characterization is never fully fleshed out, though, probably to leave room for the lengthy, explosion-laden action sequences that American cinema is known for. In a world where G forces do not exist, Caine swoops around in special gravity-defying shoes at speeds that should not be possible for the human body, with Jupiter dragging along behind him, her shoulder miraculously not dislocated. Caine also survives for what is definitely at least ten seconds in the void of space, and his head does not implode, possibly because dog-human hybrids have magic space powers.
These outrageous action sequences are not unusual for American cinema, but it is unusual for them to occur in a movie written for a predominantly female audience. Generally, the blockbuster-level special effects are saved for “gender-neutral” movies containing approximately one female character (let’s call her “Princess Leia”) who is routinely subjected to the male gaze through costumes and camera angles.
But the multi-million dollar special effects budget of Jupiter Ascending was spent on women. Watching it, I experienced flashbacks to my teenage years lurking on internet forums like DeviantArt, Gaia Online, Quizilla, and fanfiction.net, where creatively-inclined teenaged girls congregated to experiment with writing and wish-fulfillment. Jupiter Ascending does not differ extensively from what I saw posted on these sites. There was the everygirl self-insert character who was propelled from a humdrum existence to extraordinary circumstances. There was the love triangle, where the protagonist had to choose between two archetypes—the awkward but heroic spacedog Caine, and a dangerously smooth Space Prince played by Douglas Booth. The dialogue contorted itself to reveal a tragic backstory for nearly every named character. Plot developments followed one another with the awkward and incongruous charm of a teenager experimenting with the basic mechanics of storytelling. And while Caine reigned supreme over most of the action sequences, all of this was to make him a more desirable love interest; the actual plot mechanics revolved around Jupiter’s decisions.
Ultimately, this is what I found the most impressive about Jupiter Ascending. The outcome is decided by protagonist Jupiter Jones—and no one else. Jupiter decides the fate of the earth, and at a stereotypical moment of dialogue (something along the lines of “You can’t! It’s too dangerous!”) tells her love interest “This is my decision.” From the moment she comes to grips with her new identity as Space Queen, Jupiter exercises her agency. She actively pursues a romantic relationship with Caine. She brokers her own (disastrous and unfulfilled) marriage contract. She negotiates with the lead villain, Balem Abrasax, for the release of her family. She demands, repeatedly, to be taken home to earth. And near the movie’s end Jupiter grows into her role as action hero, scaling a burning building and repeatedly whacking Balem Abrasax (played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, whose bizarre performance deserves its own review) with a metal rod. The script of Jupiter Ascending has many flaws, but it never doubts Jupiter’s desires or her agency. Jupiter Jones wants to save the earth—and then she wants to go home and be with her family.
The Wachowskis made a gamble when they financed Jupiter Ascending. They bet that women would pay for a sci-fi action flick of their own. If we let this movie bomb, we tell the movie industry that the answer is “no.”
Amelie Daigle is a PhD student in English at Boston College and staunch defender of women’s rights and genre literature. This is her first post for This Week In Tomorrow.