Jupiter Ascending, the Female Gaze, and the Takedown of a Capitalist Regime

Movie Review Blog

Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowski siblings’ space opera starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, came out in theaters on February 6th, 2015. The film was almost universally panned by critics, but found praise on websites like Tumblr for its outrageousness and focus on an interesting and unique female character, Jupiter Jones (played by Kunis). Jupiter is the daughter of Russian immigrants, although her father was killed by robbers right before her birth. Raised in Chicago, Jupiter cleans people’s homes for a living and wishes for something more. She finds it through Caine Wise (Tatum), who saves her from being killed by an alien lord’s agents while donating her eggs for money. The alien lord Balem Abrasax is aiming to kill her because she is a direct genetic match for his dead mother, meaning Earth is rightfully Jupiter’s. Balem wants Earth for himself, so he can harvest the human species and keep himself young forever. Balem’s brother Titus and sister Kalique are also maneuvering to kill Jupiter so they can take control of Earth instead. Titus almost tricks Jupiter into marrying him so he can kill her and then take control of Earth, but Caine saves her at the altar. Balem, however, has kidnapped Jupiter’s family and offers them in exchange for Earth. She refuses to give up Earth and defeats Balem in a fight, eventually returning with her family to Earth and retaining ownership of the planet. She and Caine maintain a romantic relationship at the end.

Presented as a space opera/fairytale/action adventure, the film embraces the conventions of the genre. It has a deep and unwieldy mythology, there are a lot of explosions and stunts, it takes place on spaceships and multiple planets, and there is a Chosen One who ultimately saves the day. What makes this film different, and way more exciting in my opinion, is that the Chosen One is a woman. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, the figures that are picked out by destiny are overwhelmingly male, so it’s the male struggle and triumph that we see represented over and over again in film, television, and literature. In addition, the main characters in most action movies are also men, usually men that are meant to embody the paragon of masculinity, like Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson. It’s revolutionary to see a young, poor, immigrant woman represented in a film like this, and its reversal of the male gaze in its portrayals of Caine and Jupiter, as well as its subversions of gender with regards to Balem, make it unique within its genre and the Hollywood community as a whole. I also think the film can be read as a critique of consumerism within Western society as a whole, through Balem’s defeat at the end of the film.

Jupiter begins the film as a maid who hates her life, and ends the film as a maid who loves her life. Her class status on Earth doesn’t actually change, and the only people on Earth who know she’s its owner are Jupiter herself and Caine. Jupiter is royalty, yes, but that doesn’t fundamentally change her class status. Having a working-class woman as the star who doesn’t adhere to the “bootstraps” myth perpetuated in America allows for more diverse representation than is usually seen in big-budget movies. Mila Kunis is still a conventionally attractive white woman, so the film’s not making as many strides as it could be toward truly revolutionary portrayals of women on film, but it’s more than the Die Hard franchise has done for us.

In addition to the more diverse main character, the film also sexualizes Caine in a way it doesn’t really sexualize Jupiter. Caine spends a significant portion of the movie shirtless and shooting guns, while Jupiter remains fully clothed the entire time. The camera looks at him sexually from Jupiter’s eyes, rather than looking at Jupiter sexually from the viewer’s eyes. Laura Mulvey brings up the notion of the male gaze in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” saying “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly” (4). The woman on screen also functions “as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (5). This is true in most films, where the woman is on screen to be objectified, which Mulvey describes as connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness” (4).

In Jupiter Ascending, however, most of the time it is the men (specifically Caine) that are objectified.

While there is one instance of a female character’s blatant objectification (a scene where Balem’s sister Kalique emerges naked from a pool), it is usually the men in states of undress or glamorous and eye-catching clothing. Jupiter is often in jeans and a button down shirt; while she still looks beautiful, there is not a connotation of “to-be-looked-at-ness” like there is with Balem’s ornate capes and Caine’s partial nudity. Her only moment of overt invitation to look is during her wedding scene, where her dress and headpiece are ostentatious.

However, she is only in that outfit for a couple of scenes and it’s still less overwhelming than Balem’s appearance throughout the film.

Speaking of Balem’s wardrobe: it’s ridiculous. His most striking outfit consists of a sleeved cape with no shirt underneath, and he often wears obvious makeup.

This appearance, consisting of items typically associated with femininity, serve to subvert traditional ideas of gender, as does Balem’s personality. He’s obsessed with staying young, which is also traditionally associated with women who are concerned about getting older (look at any sitcom in the last thirty years for a plot where a woman freaks out about her age and “biological clock”). He’s also really melodramatic, constantly yelling at people and making absurd facial expressions.

These characteristics also correlate to his queerness, which follows a long tradition of coding male villains as queer in the Hollywood community. As Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin wrote in the introduction to their book Queer Cinema, The Film Reader, “the most common way of cinematically representing a homosexual was to have the character act in defiance of traditional gender norms” (6). Balem exhibits this defiance, and thus works to subvert those norms throughout the film.

Balem’s ornate and luxurious appearance, along with his history of exploitation of marginalized people (at least in comparison with his privileged self) make him the perfect allegory for the capitalist state.

His defeat at the end of the film, by a poor immigrant woman no less, represents the downfall of capitalist structures within the world of the film. Balem’s planet literally falls apart, further driving home the metaphorical destruction of the structures that keep him in power and oppress marginalized groups.

By interpreting the film in this way, I found it way more enjoyable than I thought I would based on critical reactions to it. I saw it while on spring break in Portland, Oregon with a couple of friends during a rainy afternoon. There were very few people in the theater, and most of them were older and scattered throughout the auditorium. My friends and I would whisper to each other during some of the more outlandish scenes, like when Jupiter is encased by a swarm of bees who don’t sting her because they recognize her royal status.

I generally talk during movies when I’m with people, so my reaction was the same as usual. If I had been watching it alone at home I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much, because it’s definitely a silly movie that deserves to be talked about and blatantly laughed at in parts. Most of the audience seemed to feel the same way and enjoy the film because of its silliness, and they laughed a lot during the screening.

I paid matinee price for the ticket, so it was about $8. I didn’t buy anything, although my friend Genevieve did. The movie theater definitely encourages purchasing concessions; it even has an ad before the film that depicts the movie theater as a rollercoaster with different items popping up in different places on the rollercoaster.

The experience of seeing Jupiter Ascending was incredibly fun, and the movie itself allowed for thought-provoking critiques of the way many movies represent women and men and queer characters, as well as a critique of the capitalist system in general.

References:

Benshoff, Harry and Sean Griffin (2004). “Introduction,” in Queer Cinema, The Film Reader.

Mulvey, Laura. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3: 6-18. 

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