The Making of a Heroine
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with it will be aware, the critics have not been kind to Jupiter Ascending - it has a damning 23% ‘rotten’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences, for the most part, haven’t taken to it either, with the film getting a weak B- Cinema Score (this in a world where movie-goers gave Transformers: Dark of the Moon an A rating). While many aspects of the film have been attacked, its heroine has come under particularly intense criticism. These are just some of the reasons people have used to justify their dislike of the character:
1. She’s a damsel in distress!
Me: I’d like to see how you’d cope in her shoes. What’s the shame in needing help to get out of dire situations?
2. She’s stupid!
Me: She’s as ‘stupid’ as anyone would be upon being thrown into a world where they know none of the rules and have no idea who to trust.
3. She doesn’t react upon being told about a crazy new world!
Me: Did you miss the wonder on her face when her and Caine were floating up from the tower in Chicago? When Stinger was explaining the true nature of the universe? I saw plenty of awe and wonder in her face and responses when she wasn’t distracted by trying to stay alive.
4. She asks too many questions!
Me: She doesn’t ask half as many questions as I would, actually. That aside, how on Earth is she meant to learn (or stop being stupid, as you would put it) if she doesn’t ask any questions?
5. She just went off sky skating while billions of lives are at risk on planets awaiting harvest! How callous can you get?
Me: She has just saved planet Earth from an evil space tyrant, and you want her to immediately go out and bring down the dominant power structure in the universe? That’s like saying that Luke, Han and Leia are despicable people at the end of Star Wars because they’re wasting time on an awards ceremony while the Empire’s still up and running.
These criticisms rile me intensely, and I think most of them can be put down to expectations - as a society, we value typically male traits such as physical strength, fighting skills and stoicism. The positive traits that Jupiter demonstrates - kindness, resilience and a strong moral core - are hardly valued. In film, these character traits are pretty much considered antiquated, the preserve of Disney princesses and children’s films. There are constant calls for movies to be darker and more bloody (think of the nerd rage that erupts whenever a comic-book adaptation is rated PG-13 rather than the coveted hard R rating, which we all know is synonymous with quality), and Jupiter Ascending doesn’t really pander to any of those instincts - its heroine only fights when she has to, and she never shoots to kill.
While Jupiter Ascending has often been described as wish fulfilment and certainly contains elements of that (shirtless Channing Tatum, anyone?), I’d argue that another reason why it’s been summarily rejected is that it doesn’t make you want to be Jupiter. Throughout the film, Jupiter is exploited, manipulated and even violently attacked; her experiences are deeply traumatic, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone actively wanting to go through what she did. The film does make it possible to empathise with Jupiter - she’s likable, bright and endearingly awkward - but, because the progress she makes in the film is of such a personal and limited nature (essentially, she transitions from being unhappy and disaffected to feeling content and excited about the possibilities that the future holds), it fails to provide the power trip modern audiences seem to crave. While the “there’s no place like home” message was heart-warming and relatable for audiences back in 1939, it simply no longer cuts the mustard.
Personally, I find most of the ‘empowering’ female characters you see in modern high-concept movies anything but (with the female title characters in Alice In Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman feeling particularly hollow to me). Such characters are empowered by having fantastical and entirely imaginary powers grafted onto them; their power, however grandly it may manifest itself, often feels shallow and pandering.
Jupiter Jones is increasingly reminding me of Sarah Williams, the lead character in Labyrinth. Both characters are frequently derided as the worst things in their respective movies, and they are often deemed unlikable and generally unimpressive as heroines. Like Jupiter, Sarah doesn’t possess any special powers or kick-ass fighting skills; she’s just a normal girl, alienated and resentful towards her thoroughly unwanted half-brother. While she doesn’t say as much, Sarah pretty much hates her life; however, she makes a mistake and has to go on a fantastical journey to put it right, learning to become more content with herself and her situation in the process. Ultimately, Sarah doesn’t defeat the Goblin King by showing her physical prowess or using her magic powers (she has neither); she defeats him by saying “you have no power over me” and possessing the self-belief to mean it. Again, this is a small-scale evolution and it won’t really register unless you’re invested in the film and already feeling sympathetic towards Sarah as a character.
This kind of heroine appeals to me strongly, primarily because heroines like Jupiter and Sarah feel real and genuine to me in a way that characters like Alice and Snow White* simply don’t. Jupiter and Sarah are deeply flawed and prone to mistakes, but they are generally well intentioned and they both try their best to do the right thing; you can take the lessons that they learn and apply them in a real-world context.
While I find Jupiter and Sarah sympathetic and admirable, the simple truth is that they achieve things and demonstrate virtues that we simply don’t value highly enough as a society. They’re both heroines, but they’re not the right kind of heroines as far as modern audiences are concerned. And that, in my opinion at least, is a real shame.
What do you think? Do you feel there’s truth in this or take a different view?
*I had originally name-checked Ellen Ripley and Maleficent here, but reader comments made me realise that they really weren’t good examples for the point I’m trying to get across. And for the record, while I still don’t like Maleficent I love Ellen Ripley and the first two Alien movies (I think I only name checked her because I was having traumatic flash-backs to Alien: Resurrection).