By: Amanda Wallace
The strength of Jupiter Ascending is complicated, because it doesn’t rely on the main actors or even the fairy tale plot.The shoehorned romantic sub-plot promises to be little more than eye-rollingly bad (“I love dogs.”), the fight sequences are robotic, and the world is so crazy that it is more suited for an HBO series than a two hour film. Yet despite this (and not because of it) the movie’s strength is its ability to subvert expectations of traditionally gendered action/science fiction movies.
The tropes and characters may have been re-skinned for this space opera, but we immediately recognize their roles. We have our hero, well into the opening stages of her journey, complete with a magical facet that makes her more important than anyone else in the galaxy. She’s joined by a grizzled veteran, encounters an oedipal brother, and she eventually must face down the evil queen.These are all characters and tropes that we are familiar with, aware of, but they are subverted as surely as the laws of physics.
I’ve heard people repeatedly knock Jupiter Ascending because Jupiter is saved by Kaine’s alien werewolf angel multiple times, but that’s a narrow view of the story. In this film Jupiter Jones is our Luke Skywalker, another hero that arose from inauspicious beginnings.
In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a whining farmboy who survives, not because of any particular skillset he may possess, but because of the people he is allied with. How many times alone Obi Wan save Luke’s life before they’ve even left Tattooine? Similarly wolf-boy Kaine aides January Jones through the first act of her hero’s journey.
Kaine, despite his muscles and action sequences, does very little to move the plot forward, often dealing with Jupiter’s scraps. For example towards the end, Kaine is relegated to facing off against a second tier villain and moving Jupiter’s family to safety while Jupiter herself faces off against the Big Bad.
So, just because help comes in one super attractive package doesn’t mean that Jupiter is a damsel in distress, a trope that is all too familiar in American popular culture. Instead the movie showcases Jupiter’s heroic arc. By the end of the movie it’s Jupiter, not Kaine, who faces off against the villain, and it is Jupiter’s existence that draws the rest of the characters in orbit.
Kaine Wise as Manic Pixie Dream Girl
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, TV Tropes has a pretty fitting description:
She’s stunningly attractive, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness and a tendency towards petty crime), often with a touch of wild hair dye. She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly.
A MPDG lives for the main character and the stunningly attractive Kaine lives to help Jupiter reach her goals at the exclusion of his own reach their goals at the exclusion of his own. Of course, aside from his desire for wings and a disdain for nobles, Kaine doesn’t have much in the way of life goals.
He does have a pair of rockets boots though, which in addition to the wolf DNA in his lineage make Kaine the quirkiest MPDG you’ve never seen before or since. Most importantly though, he’s inexplicably attracted to Jupiter, despite the fact that they have the chemistry of a wet blanket.
The movie delights in eroticizing the male form, and it does this most frequently with Kaine, played by Channing Tatum, an actor known for his roles as eye candy. The camera treats Kaine like he’s a popsicle it wants to lick. His presence is eye candy as surely as Natalie Portman’s casting in Garden State, except instead of asking us to listen to the Shins we watch him skate around on rocket boots.
Balam Abraxas as Evil Queen
In the world of Jupiter Ascending, Balam Abaraxas is Jupiter’s son, yet he comes off like her evil step-mother. It’s clear that he is partially modeled after Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her shrieking rage and cold power, tied inextricably to her aloof sexuality is a mold for the trope.
Part of the parallel drawn between Redmayne and Theron is due to Redmayne’s performance, a serpentine and slick villain who spend the movie alternatively speaking in harsh whispers and angry yells. Another key ingredient to Balam’s role as evil queen is simply that the role of evil king has already been taken by Titus, Jupiter’s son (and Balam’s brother) that attempts to wed her. Yet an evil queen is defined by her displacement of the traditional, “good”, power structure.
One way this displacement takes place is through the infinite youth that both Redmayne’s Balam and Theron’s Queen enjoy. In Snow White and the Huntsman the audience is given a glimpse of Theron emerging nude from a milk bath, her vitality (and sex appeal) restored through ill-gotten means. In Jupiter Ascending we are treated to a similar scene where Balam Abraxas emerges from a bath (fueled by billions of human deaths) looking youthful and, well, hot.
In Balam’s world, his Empress mother (and her subsequent desire for death) is that “good” and natural order, and it is her will that he is subverting long after her death.
The Bottom Line
Jupiter Ascending is a high camp romp, a journey into a fully realized world that only the Wachowski’s could have built. It’s ridiculous and fantastical and full of life, and for any one of those reasons it would be worth viewing. But what really, truly sets the movie apart from the most recent fare of adapted YA is how it challenges expectations of science fiction. How it challenges the gendered roles that so often dominate popular culture.
Don’t watch Jupiter Ascending because it’s a hot mess. Watch it because it’s a welcome surprise.
Amanda Wallace is an amazing associate editor for Gameskinny.com, and runs her own websites Storycade and Wasabi Crunk that look at niche aspects of the gaming world (interactive fiction and indie games respectively). The best way to follow her work is via twitter, @barelyconcealed, where you’ll find great articles and witty banter.