The Muggle mainstream world is all agog about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie at the moment. I have zero interest in either seeing or discussing that film, so I’ll leave you with this article from the New Statesman and this blogpost by Kyoko M. instead.
Besides, in my geeky little SFF corner of the universe, the movie everybody is talking about is not Fifty Shades of Grey but Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowski siblings’ forray into the space opera genre. And if you follow the online conversation around Jupiter Ascending, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is not one but actually two very different films called Jupiter Ascending, one of which is the worst movie ever that will inevitably destroy the careers of everybody involved and the other of which is a flawed, but thoroughly enjoyable movie that is cracking good fun and even has something interesting to say.
Here is a tweet that sums it up better than I could:
Every critic ever: Jupiter Ascending is awful. Everyone on Twitter: Jupiter Ascending is brilliant. #JupiterAscending
— J. Skyler (@jskylerinc) February 15, 2015
And indeed this is exactly what happened. Officially annointed film critics wrote at length about how awful and bloated, boring and unoriginal, reactionary and faux feminist Jupiter Ascending was, how it’s one of the worst movies of 2015 and that supporting it will only encourage more bad movies, how it represents peak special effects in an analogy to the concept of peak oil, how it would cost Eddie Redmayne the Oscar (well, they were wrong on that count), ruin the career of the Wachowski siblings and spell the end to original science fiction film making for the next three decades at least.
Meanwhile, on blogs, Twitter, Tumblr and social media in general, the picture was entirely different. According to these reviews, Jupiter Ascending was great fun, plays beautifully with classic YA and fanfic tropes, is a giant gooey mess like a particularly tasty doughnut, is like a particularly cracktastic fanfic that’s so cool you don’t even notice that it’s also totally bonkers, is your every pubescent fantay become flesh on screen, is The Matrix with a female protagonist, offers a neat twist on the Cinderella myth and has some interesting things to say about class relations and the plight of illegal immigrants, is full of glitter and regency romance tropes and does not conform to the Campbellian monomyth, is an entry in the usually male dominated space opera genre which features living mothers, relationships between women and toilet cleaning and passes the Bechdel test. Oh yes, and would someone just give Eddie Redmayne that Oscar already?
Zen Cho sums it up as follows:
Just watched Jupiter Ascending. Lots of lols and explosions. It is exactly like a 14-year-old girl's idea of the perfect space opera!
— Zen Cho (@zenaldehyde) February 14, 2015
Now it’s not all that unusual that movies unanimously hated by critics are nonetheless popular with moviegoers, as e.g. the Transformers or Fast and Furious franchises prove. But this doesn’t apply to Jupiter Ascending either, since it is actually considered a box office flop. If anything, Jupiter Ascending seems to have all the characteristics of a cult movie in the making. But then film critics generally do like cult movies or at least come around to liking them in time.
Of course, we also know the phenomenon of mainstream film critics just failing to get an SFF film, even a highbrow, arty one. We’ve seen it before when critics or festival juries failed to get Twelve Monkeys or Brazil or The Fifth Element or even The Matrix. Science fiction films can be hard to decode if you haven’t internalised the respective reading/viewing protocols.
In fact, I remember watching Twelve Monkeys and The Fifth Element and The Matrix, all of which had gotten some very baffled reactions at the festivals where they premiered, with a friend back in the 1990s. After each movie, we walked out of the theatre and said, “What on Earth were those critics smoking that they didn’t understand the movie? Cause the plot is perfectly comprehensible.” I eventually lost contact with that friend, though I hope she watches Jupiter Ascending, because it’s exactly the sort of movie she would have enjoyed a lot back in the 1990s.
Actually, this phenomenon might also be the reason behind the intense dislike of those who consider themselves serious filmcritics for superhero movies. Unlike those of us who are longtime comic readers and fans, these critics lack the respective reading/viewing protocols and don’t understand the tropes. I suspect this might also account for the popularity of Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy among those same critics, because it keeps the comic book tropes to a minimum and replaces them with faux relevant themes about the war on terror and necessary sacrifices and the Occupy movement instead.
However, there is something else going on than just “serious film critics fail to get science fiction movie” in the case of Jupiter Ascending. Because it’s notable that those who dislike the film are overwhelmingly male, whereas those who like or even love the film are overwhelmingly female (though at least one of the reviews on the pro-side I linked to was written by a man). Because Jupiter Ascending is a comparatively rare beast, a science fiction film that appeals primarily to women. And we all know how seriously critics take things that primarily appeal to women.
Coincidentally, this makes Jupiter Ascending an interesting companion piece to Fifty Shades of Grey, another movie widely (and IMO rightly) disliked by critics that was intended to appeal mainly to women, even though plenty of women don’t like it because of the creepy stone-age gender relations masquerading as BDSM.
So in short, we have two movies coming out within a week of each other, one of which (Fifty Shades) was quite cynically created to appeal to women and marketed respectively and the other of which (Jupiter Ascending) was probably not specifically intended to appeal to women (though only the Wachowskis know for sure) and certainly wasn’t marketed that way, but turned out to appeal to women anyway, while confusing and/or annoying both critics and male SFF viewers.
What I found particularly interesting is how many mainstream reviews negatively compared Jupiter Ascending to the Wachowskis’ breakthrough movie The Matrix. Because Jupiter Ascending and The Matrix are actually very similar. Both are the story of an ordinary person (cubicle monkey Neo and illegal Russian immigrant housecleaner Jupiter Jones respectively) who find out one day that the world is much bigger and much different than they thought it was and that they are the chosen one. They both find themselves hunted by assassins and protected by an attractive arse-kicking love interest (Trinity and Caine White respectively) and realise that they alone can save humanity from a horrible fate, a horrible fate that is remarkably similar in both movies, namely humans being harvested and exploited as a resource.
Given the thematic and plot similarities of both movies, the differences in reception are striking. Now The Matrix really tapped into late 1990s zeitgeist, mixing the legacy of Cyberpunk and the still novelty of the Internet with extremely cool visuals. In fact, the visuals of The Matrix were so cool that after leaving the theatre I said to a friend, “Damn. For the next few years it’s gonna be impossible to wear long leather coats and cool shades without being accused of ripping off The Matrix.”
What is more, this whole “The world around us isn’t real” shtick really appeals to philosophically inclined teens. In fact, my first reaction to The Matrix (beyond “Damn, I can’t wear long leather coats and shades again without making a fool of myself.”) was, “Wow! Someone made a film about all those philosophical discussions about the nature of reality we had in our religious education class in 10th grade.”
So in short, The Matrix was the filmic embodiment of the typical late 1990s white geek dude power fantasy (even though it’s notable that the cast of the Matrix movies is a lot more diverse than in many more recent movies). That’s why it was such a huge financial and critical success – because it tapped into the fantasies of a lot of young men that were floating around the zeitgeist. Indeed, it’s probably no accident that the disgruntled white dudes of the so-called Men’s Right Movement have adopted the red pill/blue pill imagery of The Matrix for themselves, an association which would probably horrify the Wachowskis.
In short, the Wachowski siblings basically managed to bottle lightning with The Matrix by making a film that perfectly embodied both the fantasies of many young geeky men and the zeitgeist of the time in which it was made. That’s an achievement that a filmmaker usually manages only once in a lifetime. In fact, most never manage it at all. However, the Wachowskis managed to create the perfect mix of adolescent power fantasies and zeitgeist not once, but twice. Because Jupiter Ascending is just as perfect a mash-up of teenage power fantasies and themes floating around the zeitgeist. However, whereas The Matrix taps into the power fantasies of geeky young men, Jupiter Ascending taps into the power fantasies of geeky young women. In fact, a lot of positive reviews of Jupiter Ascending have mentioned how the movie feels like a mash-up of their every adolescent fantasy into the coolest fanfic ever.
At its heart, Jupiter Ascending is a secret princess story, a fantasy that most young girls have entertained at some point of their lives. It’s a space opera, because we are currently experiencing something of a space opera renaissance, whereas Matrix provided a sort of tail-end to the Cyberpunk boom. The glitter and over-the-top costumes – well, lots of young women happen to like glitter and over-the-top gowns just as lots of young men happen to think that long black leather coats and shades are the epitome of cool. As for half-human, half-wolf tortured galactic mercenary Caine White, he seems to have stepped right out of a paranormal romance novel or rather a fanfic take on a paranormal romance novel.
The Wachowskis even give Jupiter a stereotypically feminine coded low-status job that consists of cleaning up the dirt of others. And it’s really telling how many male critics hate the fact the Jupiter cleans toilets for a living, just as many male critics in the past hated all those romance novels where governesses and chamber maids fall in love with and end up marrying the lord of the manor, because such literature would just give young women wrong ideas about their lives and their prospects. Those who criticise Jupiter Ascending for having a heroine who cleans toilets sound very similar to the literary critics of old who hated on romance novels for telling governesses and chamber maids that they could be more than just “the help” and might even aspire to the lord of the manor.
Let’s have another tweet:
Thing I have learned from critics re Jupiter Ascending: they believe toilet cleaning is terrible. If you clean toilets, life isn't worth it.
— Renay (@renay) February 25, 2015
So in short, the Wachowskis managed a remarkable feat by making two very different movies that managed to tap into both the zeitgeist and into the adolescent power fantasies of many young people. One of these movies, The Matrix is aimed at men and was both financially successful and critically lauded, though The Matrix has its share of flaws even before the lackluster sequels. Indeed, The Matrix is not a movie I rewatch, even though I liked it a lot at first viewing.
Meanwhile, the other movie, Jupiter Ascending, is aimed at women in a way that big budget special effects spectaculars rarely are, because women are expected to enjoy romantic comedies and Fifty Shades of Grey, not space opera spectaculars. And guess what? Overwhelmingly male critics slam the movie because they either don’t recognise the fantasies Jupiter Ascending taps into or don’t care, if they do, because women’s fantasies are not appropriate fodder for big budget Hollywood movies
Here are two more tweets that sum up the issue:
Science fiction films have historically been the domain of white cis hetero men, because of this they've defined the genre standards.
— Jeanne (@fangirlJeanne) February 15, 2015
The reality is science fiction can take all kinds of shapes. It can have romance, Space princesses, and rollerblading space werewolves.
— Jeanne (@fangirlJeanne) February 15, 2015