Last year I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy because of its bold visuals, energetic cast, and good pacing. It was not, I thought, an excellent film but I wasn’t bored while watching it, and these days the big ticket spectacle movies that should be my greatest love often bore me (I’m looking at you, Avengers and co) so a film that doesn’t bore me gets a thumbs up.
GotG features the appealing Chris Pratt in the lead role of lovable rogue, together with the well-worn but always popular story of reluctant comrades who turn into friends/family by the end (I’m not being sarcastic; I love this trope). It also features several memorable women characters, although unfortunately with a jolt of random and unnecessary slut-shaming. As is typical in many of these sorts of stories, the women’s roles revolve around or tie directly back into their relationships with men. Star-Lord left behind a newly-dead mother who never told him who his (mysterious) father really is and who left him a legacy of old pop tunes on cassette tapes. Gamora and her sister Nebula are tied together by their complicated relationship with their adoptive father, Thanos; during the course of the film they each ally with a man on opposite sides of a conflict, and it is their relationship to those men that defines them most (within the film universe; I haven’t read the comic).
This is the kind of setting for women I expect in spectacle film-making, alas. I’m usually just happy if there are more than two female characters walking through the ocean of men.
Standard Disclaimer: I like men! Men are great! I even married one!
Compare the opening scenes of Jupiter Ascending.
[If you are totally averse to spoilers do not read on.]
Jupiter’s father is brutally murdered before she is born (all we know of him is that he loves sky-gazing and her mother, and plays Jarvis wonderfully in Agent Carter) and leaves her a legacy of wanting to buy a telescope. She is born in a container on a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean amid a group of women–all women!–seeking to illegally enter the United States, for whom the birth of a girl child is an act of hope during an uncertain journey whose end (we all know) will in most cases involve them working hard to service other people’s needs. We see her first as an adult with the two central figures of her life, her mother and her aunt, and then later with her extended family who are difficult, argumentative, and selfish in the way families can be but who are later (of course) revealed to be supportive and caring in the way families can be.
We see her cleaning the homes of rich people, with her mother and aunt, doing the unsung work that most stories ignore and without which no society can function. Her basic empathy and likability is revealed when one of the rich women she cleans for, who seems oblivious to the gulf between their lives, asks her advice on “which dress to wear” in a conversation which may seem to not pass the Bechdel Test but which (in my opinion) really does. The conversation between Jupiter and Katherine Dunleavy centers on how Katherine must learn to trust and stand up for herself. The man she is to have dinner with that night is inconsequential, merely a vehicle for the discussion.
The veil between Jupiter’s humble life and the world that is coming after her to kill her is revealed when she goes to a fertility clinic to donate eggs (in order to earn money to buy a telescope). Eggs!
In the course of her escape (ably managed by a capable, handsome, and stoically angsty wolf-man) she discovers she is literally a queen bee in one of the coolest (but in retrospect most throwaway and ridiculously inexplicable) bits in the film.
It’s no wonder some people don’t get this film: eggs, bees, living mothers, trust between women, and cleaning toilets (which besides being receptacles for human waste are, of course, bowl-shaped). Even the spaceships are a complex conglomerations of parts rather than sleek pointy rockets. Where the heck have my phallic symbols gone?
Having said that, I take a brief detour to mention that Jupiter Ascending is kind of a hot mess. The visuals are stunning and the plot (despite criticism I’ve heard) is coherent, but the rescue-in-the-nick-of-time sequences feel like repetitive hiccups, several character threads are highlighted only to be discarded without further notice (WTF Sean Bean’s daughter?), and while the action sequences are well choreographed and dynamically filmed they all went on a few beats too long for my taste.
Here’s the thing, though. I feel OBLIGED to acknowledge the film’s imperfections, as if I will lose all credibility if I don’t list out a ream of reasons why we should all criticize its unworthy elements. Yet let me flip that script. It’s all too easy to find reviews of male-written and especially male-centered work that undercuts a mutedly rote recitation of the work’s flaws with a huge BUT WHAT SHINING BRILLIANCE AND GLORY THIS MAN HATH WROT!
So my point is: While I’m happy to acknowledge JA’s imperfections, I didn’t particularly care about them in the face of SPACE LIZARD-DRAGONS, and Bae Doona and David Ajala as competent bounty hunters who trust each other, and Nikki Amuka-Bird as the most bad-ass ship’s captain maybe ever. Plus an elephant pilot.
I didn’t care about imperfections because of the unusual way JA highlighted a woman at the center of a story in which her existence matters within two different family structures.
Now we move into the more spoilery part of the review.
No really. Spoilers.
When Jupiter leaves the mundane world of Earth behind she discovers she is the “recurrence” of the matriarch of an extremely wealthy ruling dynasty. At her death this matriarch left behind three adult children, fabulously played by Tuppence Middleton (the unambitious one who just wants to keep her perks), Douglas Booth (the charming sociopath), and Eddie Redmayne (who ought to be nominated for an Oscar for his magnificently over-the-top performance as The Sensitive One).
As the cleaning of toilets has alerted us, this is a story about those at the height of power, the few who literally consume the substance of the many in order to live longer and better lives. A constant jockeying for wealth and inheritance goes on between the three siblings, and the unexpected appearance of their “recurred” mother throws their usual interactions into disarray. Each in their own particular way try to rid themselves of the mother whose arrival upsets the equilibrium.
In some ways Jupiter (ably acted by an appealing Mila Kunis) can feel passive once she has left Earth behind but while I was sometimes frustrated by the way she let others guide her, I also found realism in the portrayal. She does not kick ass because she is not trained to do so. She has no idea what is going on and does not magically figure it out instantly. She observes, learns, makes the best decisions she can given what knowledge she has (and makes mistakes doing so), and at the last makes the hardest–and in a way the most selfish–decision of all (although in the end the plot gives a victory that negates that choice).
But as much as Jupiter gets rescued one too many times in exactly the same dramatically-constructed way, in her final encounter with Balem (Redmayne) she alone defeats this most dangerous adversary not because she is rescued or because she physically harms him but because she chooses for herself her identity.
When she emphatically tells him, “I am not your mother” she closes the loop and claims a place that is hers alone. She defines who she is in relationship to her own life, not who she is in relationship to someone else’s life.
Think about the radical essence of that for a moment.
I’ve seen at least one snide review that mocks the story’s choice to have her go back to cleaning toilets at the end but that’s exactly the point. She doesn’t go back to cleaning toilets. She goes back to the work that the least among us do, to get her head together, to ground herself in the face of the (ridiculously) astonishing truth about her new status in the world beyond. In no way does she give up on her “spectacular” future, but she is prudently appalled by the economic status quo of that other life because she already knows what it is like to be one of the people whose lives will be used up by others.
She gets romantic love, yes (although note that, within our bee analogy, she and her man have asymmetric status). What she really takes is something far more important: space to understand who she is and who she can become.