Jupiter Flatlining, or, how not to do tension.

/Jupiter Flatlining, or, how not to do tension.

So I went to see Jupiter Ascending on Friday. I also bought an apartment–or had an offer on an apartment accepted, at least–but that’s a different blog post. This one’s about the film.

I won’t lie, I went to see this movie because it’s the current Tumblr darling, mostly because it is a Girl Film For Girls, but filled with lots of loud explosions. Action films with female directors don’t come around very often, and I like action films but am super, super sick of all the blokey man-bro tropes in them–I noped out of Guardians of the Galaxy within about ten minutes because of this–so I was hoping Jupiter Ascending would finally be the soothing balm my id was craving.

Sadly, it… wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of elements in this film I should have really, really been into, like:

  • loser nobody discovering she’s the Queen of Space1
  • pretty dresses
  • cool aliens/genetically modified humans/whatever
  • awesome space ships
  • beautiful planets
  • dudes with wings!
  • Brazil-style steampunk-esque comedy sequence… IN SPA-AA-AA-ACE!!!
  • more different dudes with wings!
  • Dorian!
  • space vampires!
  • animal-human hybrids with crappy pun names!

And so on and so forth. It should, in other words, have been really, really awesome. And yet…

And yet, somehow, the film just never really came together. Part of this I blame on Channing Tatum. A lot of the iddy stuff in the film hinges on “buying” him as the love interest, and I just… didn’t. I mean, there’s so much cool potential there–I’m sure the fandom is going apeshit over A/B/O and knotting fics right now–but Tatum just never quite manages to sell the “good boy! who’s a good boy?” aspect of the whole “submissive dog soldier” trope hard enough. He plays the role far too much as the blokey, 2tuff4u brohero, rather than with the vulnerability and pathos it would need to really ram home the romance. Bruce Willis in The 5th Element this guy is not.

Also, I just don’t find Tatum particularly attractive in general, and especially not in this film (that beard… urgh, no), so that didn’t help.

But the main problem with the film, sadly, is Jupiter Jones. Not Mila Kunis, who I think does fine with what she has, but the actual character of Jupiter herself. She just has no narrative arc. I mean, I think the film was trying to give us something about, like, maybe her teetering on the edge of being corrupted by Space Decadence or something, and having to make this trade-off between the fantasy life she’s always wanted (ref. the opening sequence of her looking longingly at the jewellery and dresses of the rich people whose houses she cleans), and the Fate of All The World or whatever. I get that. I just don’t think the film sells it very well, in part because all the bad guys Jupiter encounters are so Stupid Evil that there’s never any real point where she’s confronted with a choice wherein not going to the Dark Side will actually cost her anything.

What do I mean by this? Well, take Star Wars, for example, when Darth Vader reaches out to Luke with his We Can Rule Together speech. All things considered, Vader is probably sincere about this. He’s not trying to trick Luke, he really does seem to want to be with his son, and to teach Luke about power and ruling an empire. If Luke had accepted, he would’ve been evil… but also spent the rest of his life as the literal heir to the Empire.2 For Luke to reject Vader’s offer, he not only has to give up all that power, but also the father he’s never known. Bad things, both physical and emotional, will happen to Luke if he rejects Vader, and good things (good evil things) will happen if he accepts. So when Luke refuses Vader, the audience knows it’s the heroic choice, and that Luke is a Good Guy. He’s prepared to put the welfare of others–of strangers–above his own interests.

Jupiter never really gets a Luke Skywalker moment in Jupiter Ascending, because the narrative is pretty clear about letting us know all the people who are trying to “tempt” her also plan on killing her at the nearest opportunity. So even if Jupiter was an evil, planet-sucking space vampire Queen, it would still be in her best interests to work with the Space Police to get rid of the rest of her family.

There is no true heroic choice for her, in other words. No real point in the film where she has to give up something–power, fame, family, whatever–to show her commitment to The Greater Good.

Nor does she really get much in the way of other development. Again, the film tries, I think, to show her growing into her role as Space Queen. She takes herself into dangerous situations and tries to hold her own in the game of Space Politics. And yet, again, the narrative never actually allows her to succeed in this. Over and over again, despite her best efforts, she makes dumb decisions and has to be saved by Dogboy and the Space Police.3 Which, again, isn’t necessarily bad, but in all the film’s action sequences, Jupiter never really learns to hold her own. We don’t have one of those woohoo! moments, where she puts on the Space Boots or jumps onto the Space Bike or whatever, and learns to kick ass in the new and exciting world she’s been drawn into.

I wouldn’t mind a film in which Jupiter never kicks ass. I wouldn’t mind a film in which Jupiter is bad at politics. But I do mind a film where Jupiter both never kicks ass and is bad at politics, and does each in such a way that she’s regaled to the Sexy Lamp of her own movie. Because, if nothing else, this makes the film’s action sequences really freakin’ boring.

Don’t get me wrong, they look spectacular… but they’re boring. They’re boring because there’s no tension in them. There are, I think, two types of tension you can have in an action sequence. The first is the traditional, slasher-horror something-at-stake style tension. This is the “oh gnoes maybe the bad guys will capture them!!!” sort of tension, and the film does have a stab at this a few times.

But there’s another sort of tension it almost entirely lacks, and this is the “omg they’re gonna do THE COOL THING!!!” tension.

Something-at-stake style tension works, I think, best in the middle of a narrative. Nobody walks into a film like Jupiter Ascending thinking the Good Guys are going to be killed by the baddies within the first five minutes, Sean Bean or no Sean Bean. But they might get captured at the midpoint, just to spice things up a bit. Think Jupiter Ascending‘s Bee Scene, which I think is one of its more effective action sequences.

This, incidentally, is effective not just because it has something-at-stake tension, but also because it has gonna-do-the-cool-thing tension. Sort of.

Gonna-do-the-cool-thing tension is the stuff you whip out in the first badguy encounter and the last one. Again, in the action genre, it’s not really in question that the good guys are going to win. The thing that is in question is how they’re going to win, which is why you need The Cool Thing.

You remember Iron Man, when Tony Stark is stuck in the terrorist cave? There’s not really any expectation that he’s going to die in that cave, firstly because he doesn’t (it’s the origin story of a character that’s been around for decades!), and secondly because it’s not the kind of film that would kill off its lead actor in the first act. The tension in these scenes, then, doesn’t come from the idea the something bad will happen to Tony, but rather the audience anticipating that something really awesome is about to. The payoff is getting to see Tony put on the Iron Man suit and kick terrorist ass.

Imagine, however, that instead of that, Tony Stark got halfway through making his suit before being rescued from the terrorists by Rhodey and the US air force. That’s what Jupiter Ascending does to its audience, over and over and over again. Meaning Jupiter never really gets her FUCK YEAH!!! moment. Nor does Dogboy, who demonstrates his FUCK YEAH!!!-ness in the opening scenes, and then never really gets any better or worse through the rest of the film. I kept waiting for him to get his wings back in order to swoop in and save Jupiter at the end, but the film doesn’t even give that much. Dogboy is just Dogboy, and Jupiter is just Jupiter, and the people they are at the start of the film are basically the people they are at the end of it.

(If I was being very unkind, I would also suggest a compare-and-contrast between Dogboy and Trinity of Matrix fame, who starts awesome and gets progressively less so as Neo’s powers develop. I would’ve loved to have seen an inverse of this dynamic between Jupiter and Dogboy–the latter getting more superfluous to the story as the former gets more badass–but, sadly, this does not happen.)

And this, fundamentally, was my problem with Jupiter Ascending. Because, yeah, the ideas were cool and the visuals were stunning. But glitz and glamour is a dime and dozen in films nowadays, and explosions alone can no longer be used as a substitute for uninspired scriptwriting. And Jupiter Ascending? Sadly, it’s about as uninspired as they come.

  1. A half-Russian, first-gen immigrant one, too. Represent! /fistbump ^
  2. Star Wars nerds, just… bear with me on this for a moment. ^
  3. Also: the worldbuilding on that one? Weird. So, like, there are Space Royalty but they seem more just like CEOs or something? Because there’s a separate government/military/police force they don’t seem to control and, in fact, seem beholden to? IDK I was just confused. ^
2018-04-27T13:48:46+00:00 23rd February, 2015|Tags: film, writing|Comments Off on Jupiter Flatlining, or, how not to do tension.