'Jupiter Ascending' and the Search for Renewed Narrative Conventions

Alex Rallo

Although the Wachowski siblings' latest film has taken a critical beating, it merits a closer examination for its clever playing with narrative tropes from science fiction and fairy tales.

Jupiter Ascending

Director: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2015
UK Release Date: 2015-02-06 (General)
US Release Date: 2015-02-06 (General)

The Wachowskis' directorial career seems to be bent on a constant search for reinvention. This quest was true of their attempt at breaking the rules of spatial restraints in their debut, Bound, their examination of deity and myth in regards to the human dimension within the Matrix trilogy, their groundbreaking "editographical" filmaking techniques in Speed Racer, and their reshaping of Cloud Atlas's epic narrative from David Mitchell's original form, which was itself a feat of narrative reshaping.

It should come as no surprise, then, that their latest movie, Jupiter Ascending, can only be partially comprehended on first viewing. The film relentlessly analyzes and rewrites the structural foundations upon which the entire corpus of human storytelling, namely fairy tales, has been based on since time immemorial. The primordial narrative is still present underneath it all, but the sibling directors tinker with it to a near dizzying degree.

The apparent familiarity of the plot, which seems to be a problem for some viewers, is the sine qua non to the filmmakers' metatextual proposition. Larry and Lana Wachowski leverage each and every one of the genre's obvious clichés to offer the audience a chance of experiencing their process of deconstruction – perhaps without the viewer even necessarily realizing it.

Their method consists of taking a two-fold approach. Firstly, the directors continuously establish within their narrative a myriad of commonplace rules that have long been assimilated by the audience. These rules, codes, and clichés belong to two categories: those that come from an entire corpus of science fictional and mythological human stories, and those that come from the fantastical world of fairy tales.

The aim here is to build from the ground up a universe where the viewer can feel comfortable, where patterns and rules are recognized easily. This is exactly the opposite of what the Wachowskis did with The Matrix, which opens with a scene that upsets the audience's expectations. Although Jupiter Ascending seems to open on familiar grounds, certain clues point at the directors' intent to transfigure their story, like the odd choice of having the protagonist born at sea, between two continents, transitioning between two worlds. Because the Wachowskis simultaneously garner the codes of the genres and challenge them into a new dynamic, it's prudent to make a thematic reading of the film's shifting paradigms, rather than a chronological one.

Leveraging the Legacy of Human Sci-Fi Mythology

The "world-building", as it's called, is accelerated through the summoning of countless images and references that will help the viewer buy into the coherence of this new universe, a technique the siblings have used before with the Matrix trilogy. The simplest notes take the form of direct references, sometimes identifiable by the largest audience; others, only by a few.

Several widely known references populate the film. A track on Michael Giacchino's score is named "Regenex is People", directly referencing Richard Fleischer's sci-fic classic Solyent Green. The tropes of the Galactic Empires and Space Police are staples of comic books, television, and film, particularly in the realm of science fiction.Tthe maddening administrative hell that plagues society is clearly inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Star Trek vocabulary makes an appearance in phrases like, “Get him to the brig." Then, of course, there's the requisite bridge/space battles imagery.

Graphically speaking, Jupiter Ascending owes itself primarily to Moebius' grandiose aesthetics. Furthermore, the lizard men and space weaponry seem to spring from the drawings of Ken Barr (see the cover for Andre Norton's Eye of the Monster), while the general atmosphere of the film calls on Frank R. Paul's Serenis, Water City of Castillo, with a hint of Stephan Martnière's Mainspring in the scale and colors.

However, the Wachowskis do not stop at merely name-checking and hat-tipping. Rather, they reintroduce sci-fi concepts which have been lost to the eyes of the general audience so as to the obscure history of sci-fi literature.

This explains their decision to make the villainous Abrasax family's sense of space grandeur an echo of the problematic that took center stage in Alfred Bester's serial novel The Stars My Destination, in which rich travelers would inhabit luxuriant ships that probably had not met their equals until Balem's flying cathedral came along. Here one also finds a theme that connects directly to a core concept of the film, one that condemns the act of reducing people to a form of capital, while the earthlings joyfully waste their lives away, unaware of the manipulation, until someone opens their eyes. This is a plot point that immediately invokes John Carpenter's They Live! and the siblings' own Matrix series.

Another book that is heavily referenced is Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen, which is similarly based on resetting of the fairy tale mode within a science fiction universe. In Vinge's world, the planet of Tiamat is ruled by the beautiful queen Arienrhod who, while doing business with the rest of the galactic Empire by way of a miraculous fountain of youth (derived from... people!), is looking for a replica of herself that would ensure her continuous reign. With so many similar basic ideas and plays on genre boundaries, Vinge and the Wachowskis share a desire to push formal conventions beyond their audience's habit.

The directors' strategy, however, is not limited to an intricate web of cultural references. This tactic of latticeworking past works of fiction pushes Jupiter Ascending near the territory of historiography, i.e., the study of the ways in which historians frame the past. The Wachowskis' act of rewriting history through fiction is of particular importance to their toying with narrative. This is one of the most powerful devices to include to a narrative because it has the ability to draw on a culture's beliefs and legends to propel them into a new sphere of significance.

Here, the focus is on the societal myths relating to science and science fiction: in the world of Jupiter Ascending, one learns that the fate of the dinosaurs was decided by god-like humans riding powerful ships and creating life as they see fit. Likewise, the ufologist trend that has long been part of the American culture is explained through the presence of little grey men abducting people, mind-swiping witnesses, and leaving mysterious crop circles as they depart.

If one is willing to go further, Jupiter Ascending's Abrasax family -- in addition to having a very obvious relation to Abraxas, the supreme and fallible god of Gnosticism -- resembles the mythological Anunnaki, a Sumerian pantheon which has been associated, on a few occasions, with theories of alien visitations. Here, the brothers Balem and Titus are echoes of Enki and Enlil, sons of the supreme head of the Sumerian Family Tree, who are tasked with mining the Earth for gold (here, for humans) and that wish to re-establish male dominance over the former matriarchal society (here, to seize control of the Earth over Jupiter's [Mila Kunis] rightful claim).

Further along these lines, the love goddess Inanna descends into the underworld (here, Jupiter descends beneath the impenetrable clouds of the gas planet, into Balem's hellish refinery). Balem, whose name recalls that of Baal, is not the only one to have a meaningful name, as shown by Kalique's obsession with time being the ultimate commodity, and her name's resemblance to that of Kalika's, Hindu goddess of time (among other things).

Leveraging the Legacy of Human Storytelling

This brings us to the film's recreation of storytelling tropes primarily inspired by fantasy and fairy tales, a number of which are explicitly referenced during the movie. These include classics such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.

As some viewers will notice, a large number of this genre's codes are presented and subverted throughout Jupiter's journey: the protagonist is cyclically characterized as a modern-day Dorothy transported into her new Oz, a Beauty charmed by the Beast (see Channing Tatum's character Caine, wearing a futurist take on the seven-league boots narrative tool), a Snow White wooed into evil schemes by beings that do not go anywhere without their personal metal legionnaires or flying lizards. Sometimes, the film's environment transforms into the sheer evocative force on the fairy tale to make Jupiter the perfect representation of this princess; during the wedding scene, it's as if the Snow Queen were hovering above her subjects, flying down in a whirlwind of immaculately white flakes. All the while, the Wachowskis painstakingly draw a deep and rich anthropomorphical fauna.

Structurally, the story also borrows from fairy tales, with the obvious rags to riches starting point, initially setting up a conventional step-by-step ladder for the heroine's evolution. After the first half hour, however, the film disrupts this flow by transforming a usually romantic setting into a most exhilarating chase scene, bathed in a sunrise light traditionally used for establishing or underlining the feelings characters may have for one another. Here, the directors suggest that romance might be expressed not through words or tender kissing, but through kinetic action, an act Caine will reiterate several times, as if to woo Jupiter and pledge his allegiance to her until she finally flies by herself. The Chicago chase marks the point when Jupiter's contractual narrative goal turns from performing the act of becoming queen of the universe to that of gaining the competence to choose what to do with the title.

The difference with traditional fairy tales also lies in that the whole universe looks like it has started to deviate from the Western conservative tradition, as foretold by the idea of transitional birth. Futhermore, Jupiter -- who discovers it all as we do -- subverts its rules dramatically. Thus, the Prince Charming has here become the animal that can only serve his function (which is textually explained by the character of Stinger), never driving the narrative through his own will. The villain now takes the shapes of power-craving and seductive princes, whose ambitions are disturbingly amoral (respectively, to marry one's reincarnation of their mother, or murder her).

Most remarkably, Jupiter comes back on her decision to accept Titus' marriage proposition -- which, in a way, constitutes the most subjecting bond of all -- and eventually refuses to let concepts of social class define her way of living. At some stage, the Wachowskis reenact the Architect dilemma from Matrix Reloaded, replacing Trinity with Jupiter's family and Zion with Earth, which results, again, in an opposite outcome, with Jupiter sacrificing her personal interests in an act of complete selflessness, hereby differentiating herself irrevocably from Neo.

When, in the end, Jupiter makes the most important decision of all by defeating Balem without killing him in a act of rage that would close the loop on a murdering cycle (“I am not your damn mother”), she effectively vanquishes the figure of conservative enslavement that had previously murdered her in her previous existence. The gloomy fate reserved to the antagonist still connects the form of this tale to the more Eastern traditions, known for bestowing cruel judgments upon those who deceive the hero, as in the Grimm version of Cinderella's sisters, whose eyes are plucked out by birds as a punishment.

When the protagonist ascends, it's not to the throne, but to a new vision, a better comprehension of the inner mechanisms that govern her world. Jupiter represents the active heroine: empowered, able to make her own choices and go against the pre-established rules of the genre. However, this does not mean that she becomes a fierce warrior overnight, but rather that she takes advantage of Caine's functional heroism to survive through the hardships and steer her story towards the direction of her choice. And since this change is implemented intradiegetically, as part of a coherent narrative proposition, it becomes organic, unlike parodies like Spaceballs or Your Highness, which cannot really have any impact on the genre beyond its metacritical fringes.

In short, Wachowski's plan prioritizes the perception and manipulation of tropes so that they become the stakes of the story, the latter being necessary to articulate those codes into a reshuffling of the narrative deck.

Consequently, the ultimate question asked by Jupiter Ascending is not whether or not Jupiter Jones will survive the adventure, but in which ways she will choose to reshape her universe according to her own desires as a 21st-century female hero, regardless of what the fairy tale narrative structure would ordinarily demand of her. In spite of any shortcomings the latest Wachowskis' feature may have, Jupiter Ascending aims at channeling the greater corpus of storytelling to pave new paths for future blockbusters.

Alex Rallo studied American culture and literature at Université Lumière Lyon 2, where he graduated with a Master’s thesis on superhero comic books. Although born in France, he loves the best pop culture has to offer in every part of the world.





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