It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
As a writer, I can list the myriad of story-telling problems that plagued Jupiter Ascending, from poor characterization to a lack of surprise. As someone who keeps track of movie and box office news, I know of the feeding frenzy that happens over a high-profile bomb. But when I sat down to write about what went wrong with Jupiter Ascending, the thing I kept coming back to was something more controversial.
What if part of the reason it failed and was ridiculed and reviled is because Jupiter Ascending, a big-budget, action/ science fiction movie, decided to espouse traditionally feminine values over masculine ones?
And once I got that theory in my head, I wanted to write it down. Not because I think it’s right, but because I think it’s interesting. How do we judge what is good and bad, what is respectable and what is worthy only of contempt?
What Are Feminine Values?
A value is anything you hold close to your heart. Freedom is a value. So is money. Each individual, male or female, has their own unique set of values--what they will work for, sacrifice for, live for, and, occasionally, die for. Art that reflects your values will probably be better received than art that contradicts your values. Hence, most people prefer movies where the good guy wins and the bad guy is punished.
Now, when I speak of “feminine” and “masculine” values, I’m not saying there are values that only men or only women have. I’m not talking about individual preferences. I'm talking about the values our culture defines as either “feminine” and “masculine.” In other words, things that are “for girls” versus things that are “for boys.”
For example, “pink” is for girls. “Blue” is for boys. “Dolls” are for girls. “Action figures” are for boys. “Princesses” are for girls. “Superheroes” are for boys. Beyond this, we associate peace, beauty, and softness with females. War, power, and strength are associated with males.
This wouldn’t be a problem, except, more often than not, what is “feminine” is looked on with contempt. It's all fine and dandy for girls to aspire to masculine values--we encourage this. When men, however, aspire to feminine values, we look at them funny. This is why little girls can wear blue, but little boys can’t wear pink, why girls can play with action figures, but boys can’t play with dolls. It’s why, when I was growing up, I saw a well-intentioned ad about a little girl wanting to be a princess. “When she grows up, this girl may be on Welfare, because she believes in fairy tales,” the disapproving narrator warned. Yet nobody wonders what will happen to our boys if they believe in superheroes.
Even when feminine ideals are treated with respect, they are not the priority. When you pit feminine values against masculine values, the masculine values win. They are deemed more important, they rank higher on the aesthetic scale, and they are seen as better for society. Jupiter Ascending, however, when given a clear choice between masculine and feminine values, leans toward the feminine side. And for a science fiction movie--a masculine genre--this, is a very risky proposition to take.
Twilight Versus Star Wars (Home Versus Public)
I mentioned earlier that Jupiter Ascending has both a Star Wars and a Twilight vibe, and I mean it in a very literal way. Galaxies with strange-looking aliens, spaceship battles, and a complex family soap opera, complete with a weirdly incestuous romance--this all screams Star Wars.
But mid-way through, I realized that Jupiter Ascending also has Twilight parallels. Caine, being part wolf and part human, is this film’s version of a werewolf. The Abrasax family, beautiful and immortal siblings who feed off the lives of other, are vampires. (The film itself references this.) Jupiter, a regular human, gets caught in a love triangle between a werewolf and a vampire.
Star Wars and Twilight are both fantasy movie franchises with hard-core fan bases that made tons of money, to the surprise of the world. Star Wars is seen as a male-centric, and Twilight as female-centric. Of the two franchises, Twilight takes the worse beating. Elements of Star Wars may be ripe for the skewering (Jar Jar Binks), but all of Twilight is summarily trashed. As a writer, I see article after article using Star Wars as a positive example of good writing. Any time Twilight is brought up, it is meant derisively, an automatic insult.
But are Star Wars and Twilight really all that different? They both feature a central character known for whining who serves as an audience avatar. Through Luke and Bella, we are introduced to a fantastic new world. Our hero/ heroine starts off as a nobody, but there is something “special” about him/ her. Luke and Bella gain immense power and achieve their goals. These goals act as wish-fulfillment for their intended audience.
What are the goals, though? For Luke Skywalker, his goal is to destroy the evil empire and bring peace to the galaxy. Bella’s goal to get with the gorgeous rich guy and start a life with him. Luke’s goals are noble, good, and important. Bella’s goals are shallow, selfish, and petty. Never mind, of course, that in real life, attempting to “bring peace” is just as likely to end in war and dictatorship, while building a family is what keeps society afloat.
These goals, however, illustrate different values. Star Wars values the “public” sphere: politics, society, and the world at large. Twilight values the “home” sphere: romance and family and private life. Traditionally, men occupy the “public” sphere: they go to war, they run for office, they seek employment outside the house. Women occupy the “home” sphere: they are defined by who they marry, they take care of the children, they are expected to maintain the house. Although both "public" and "home" are seen as good and necessary, the “public” sphere is given more respect.
When you look at the end of Star Wars (the original trilogy), Luke has no wife, no girlfriend, no house, and he has just had to watch his father die. He has sacrificed “home,” but in exchange, he helped win the war and secured his legacy as a hero. When you look at the end of Twilight, Bella has decided to let an evil secret society of vampires live, sacrificing the “public” good. However, she has secured her home, her husband, and her daughter’s life.
Let’s go back to Jupiter Ascending. Where does Jupiter’s story end? After finding out that she is the reincarnated “heir” to the Abrasax family, Jupiter trades in her wealth and political clout to return to Earth. There, she reconciles with her crazy family and begins dating Caine. Earth is safe, but members of the Abrasax family are still at large, presumably harvesting other planets. Jupiter ignores this. Jupiter Ascending goes the Twilight route. It chooses “home” over “public,” peace and quiet over strife and glory.
Which is the better choice? Public good or private happiness?
Clothes Versus Cars (Beauty Versus Power)
In general, girls like dresses and boys like cars, and when they grow up, women will continue to be interested in fashion, while men prefer their vehicles. Cry stereotype all you want, this notion is splashed all over magazines, advertisements, and toy aisles. “Clothes” are feminine, “cars” are masculine.
When I watched Jupiter Ascending, I noticed the costumes right away. The gowns are stunning, one of the best parts of the movie. Moreover, characters repeatedly talk about getting dressed. At one point, Jupiter finds herself suspended in midair wearing a fancy gown and wonders how she got changed; another time, she mentions feeling over-dressed and asks for regular clothes.
Jupiter Ascending also has spaceships, but these seem generic. No one really talks about their weapons capacity or what speeds they reach. The ships are there to serve a function--to get the characters from point A to Point B, sometimes with fighting. Jupiter Ascending clearly put more thought and care into the feminine wish-fulfillment of pretty clothes versus the more masculine wish-fulfillment of cool ships.
Clothes and ships are ultimately objects. Pragmatic, necessary objects. However, they both carry symbolic weight. I would argue that clothes represent beauty, while vehicles represent power. And once again, “beauty” is a feminine value, while “power” is a masculine value. (By the way, I define “power” as the ability to do something. It is neither good nor bad.)
Clothes may have a practical use, but we obsess over them because of their intrinsic beauty and their ability to make the wearer more attractive. Vehicles may be beautiful, but they are fundamentally tools, allowing the owner to move. Often, they have or can be used as weapons.
But beauty versus power is not just about whether there’s nice clothes or nice cars. It can also be seen in how the villains tempt the hero. Do they offer power? (“Come rule the universe with me?”) Do they offer beauty? (“You can be young forever.”)
Although the villains in Jupiter Ascending never bother to tempt her (one of the narrative problems), I’m willing to bet they’d have more success going the latter route. One of the first images we see of Jupiter involves her yearning over a set of diamond earrings that do not belong to her. The Abrasax siblings all have nice homes and plenty of luxuries. Their power is less certain. They are still restrained by law.
More often, it is the female villains who seek beauty. I have never known a male villain whose goal is to become/ stay young and beautiful/ handsome. Even in Jupiter Ascending, Balem, the main villain, seems more interested in power and wealth. However, what that power and wealth ultimately buys is beauty. No one in Jupiter Ascending wants to rule the universe. Here the end goal is to stay young forever.
Which is more tempting? Beauty or power?
Rescued Versus Rescuing (Being Versus Doing)
One of the rules of good writing is that passive verbs (to be rescued) are bad and active verbs (to rescue) are good. It’s a blanket rule; no one bothers to argue against it. “She was rescued by him” is a bad sentence and should be changed to “He rescued her,” which is a good sentence. Of course, in doing so, you change the emphasis. In “She was rescued by him,” the girl is emphasized. In “He rescued her,” the guy is emphasized. But it doesn’t matter who gets emphasized, because the rule states that passive verbs are bad and active verbs are good.
The same goes for characters. Passive characters are bad and active characters are good. Passive characters have things happen to them. Active characters make things happen. The person doing the rescuing is active, the person being rescued is passive. Unfortunately, when you look at movies, the one being rescued is almost always a woman (or a child) and the one doing the rescuing is almost always a man, meaning that the woman is a bad (poorly-constructed) character and the man is a good (well-constructed) character.
Jupiter Ascending is very much a “She was rescued by him” sort of movie. Jupiter, the main character, is constantly being saved by Caine. This makes her passive, which is bad, even though this is the role female characters have traditionally held. A passive character cannot be your main character. The rules of writing forbid it.
Passive versus active is ultimately a case of being versus doing. A passive verb is literally defined as having a “be” verb in it. It's emphasis is a person, an adjective, a quality that is. An active verb, by contrast, emphasizes the action. An active verb sits, stands, shouts, and saves--it is always doing.
Heroes are active--they do. Damsels in distress are passive--they are. Heroes tend to be men. Damsels in distress are almost always women. Everyone wants to be a hero. No one wants to be a damsel in distress. The more you rescue people, the better you are. If you need to get rescued more than twice, there is something seriously wrong with you.
Jupiter Jones gets rescued more than twice. She falls far more easily into the role of damsel in distress than the role of hero, and, as everyone knows, you cannot build a movie around a damsel in distress. You can’t.
Heroes are special because of what they can do. They need to save and sacrifice and do great feats in order to prove they are worthy. Jupiter is told she is special for who she is--nothing else is required. Damsels in distress are worth saving, because they just are--period. They don’t need to prove anything to be worthy.
Where do you derive your worth? From what you do or who you are?
Being Feminine and Failing
Now I’m not saying cultural bias is the reason Jupiter Ascending failed, but I do feel that anything “for females” is exposed to more judgement and, if it fails, more derision. And I’m not saying this is something that only men do. I’m saying I do it.
I prefer Star Wars to Twilight. I’d rather save the world than fall in love and start a family. I may choose beautiful clothes to fast cars, but I think power is more important than beauty. I’d much rather do the rescuing than sit and hope to be rescued. I judge Jupiter for being a passive damsel in distress, for wanting pretty earrings, and for not doing more to save the world.
But, as much as it aggravates me, I also relate to Jupiter. I’m a writer whose stuck at home, doing the traditionally feminine jobs of cooking and childcare. I aspire to create works of beauty. I spend a lot of time passively thinking instead of actively doing. In a fight, I probably would need to be rescued, because I’m not athletic, gutsy, or aggressive. I’m a marshmallow, soft and sweet, and I freaking hate it.
When I saw Jupiter Ascending, I liked that Jupiter wasn’t this badass fighter but a regular young woman in over her head. I liked the beautiful dresses, the luxurious sets, and the attractive male actors. I was happy to exchange battles, war, and violence for intrigue, mind games, and negotiation. Unlike most sci-fi spectacles, there was an attempt to cater to female fantasies and champion feminine values.
An attempt that ultimately failed. That’s what I found so frustrating. Say what you will about Jupiter Ascending, it tried to do something different.
It makes me wonder, though: could you actually make a sci-fi / fantasy epic around a “passive” female character who ultimately chooses love and family over war and peace? Could it succeed? Or would such an attempt be doomed from the start? Me, I think anything is possible, but after the failure of Jupiter Ascending, I’m not sure how many attempts there will be.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.