Category Archives: Movie Review

A critique of capitalism in “Jupiter Ascending”

[Jupiter sized spoilers ahead: Beware]

Last Friday, my spouse and I went to see Jupiter Ascending for Valentine’s Day. Due to its poor reception by critics and the public in the US, I hoped it’d be a fun “bad” movie. However, I found it to be a beautiful movie with an intriguing plot. This brief preview will give an overview of the movie. Abrasax Industries “seeded” the Earth one hundred thousand years prior, although people on Earth are unaware of this fact. The three Abrasax heirs inherit their wealth from their mother and are the villains in the movie. Each sibling corresponds with a particular problem relating to capitalism. (For a quick, cute overview of Karl Marx’s view of capitalism, communism, alienation, and utopia, you can view this short Super Mario Brothers 8-Bit Philosophy video.)

The protagonist from Earth is Jupiter Jones. Her mother immigrated  to the US while pregnant with Jupiter. Jupiter works as a maid with her family in Chicago and hates her work. She wants to buy a telescope and decides to go along with a plan to sell her eggs at a fertility clinic. This plan is developed by her cousin who intends to get more of the money from the transaction than Jupiter. It is obvious that Jupiter is being exploited by her cousin. At first, this appears to be a Cinderella-like tale where Jupiter will be able to leave her challenging life as a laborer behind.

On the other hand, the Abrasax family is a dynasty that owns planets (and their inhabitants) as property. When the head of the dynasty dies, her three children, Kalique, Balem, and Titus, begin plotting and fighting over their inheritances. This family seems similar to the power elite discussed by sociologist C.Wright Mills. If inheritance laws exist without controls, then more and more wealth will concentrate in the hands of a few.  Those few will eventually be like royalty, even if they do not technically have titles. The movie asks and attempts to answer the question, what if inheritance remained and laws didn’t keep the wealthy in check?

Balem will inherit the Earth unless the his mother’s genetic reincarnation appears. He sends assassins to murder the genetic reincarnation, which is revealed to be Jupiter. On the other hand, Kalique and Titus both want her alive to use her. Caine, whose DNA is a splice of human and wolf DNA, is an excellent tracker and is sent to track down Jupiter. He becomes a romantic interest. However, he also represents alienated labor.

As Jupiter finds herself drawn into the battle that she knows nothing about, she realizes that these siblings see no problem with owning a whole planet and harming its inhabitants. Furthermore, she discovers that the family harvests a youth serum, but it takes many lives, or rather human deaths, to create it. The first of the siblings she visits is Kalique. Similar to a fairy tale villain, Kalique, values her own eternal youth and beauty at the expense of others. In modern global capitalism, people extend their own life chances and beauty, while breaking the backs of others without access to the same goods and services. Kalique demonstrates this to Jupiter by entering a pool of water and emerging younger. The elixir is extremely valuable. It benefits Kalique to help Jupiter gain her title for Earth in that it decreases her brother’s wealth and power.  (In one of the part of the movie that I felt was the most humorous, Jupiter has to go through a long, bureaucratic process to gain her title. She notes that she’d never complain about the DMV again.)

Next, Jupiter winds up in the hands of Titus, who wants to steal the Earth (and its valuable elixir) from both his brother and Jupiter. Titus notes to Caine when alone that he, himself, is a liar. I think that this represents the fact that capitalism leads people to becoming unethical. When profits and power are the ultimate goals, it justifies all kinds of heinous actions. Titus, a hedonist, tricks Jupiter by saying that he wants to end the trade that will harm the Earth. He convinces her that by marrying him, she will be protecting Earth and its inhabitants. He sends Caine out the airlock but lies about it to Jupiter. Caine comes to rescue her just in time, which reminds me of the marriage scene in Princess bride. Titus is willing to lie and murder for gaining the means of production (e.g., the planet Earth.) Likely, he wants to keep fueling his grandiose, hedonistic lifestyle.

Finally, Jupiter ends up in the hands of Balem. Balem would rather harvest the Earth immediately than let Jupiter take ownership of his property. He kidnaps her family from Earth and offers her a choice.  If she signs her title over to him, he will spare her family. Furthermore, the Earth won’t be harmed while she lives. This is actually an excellent analysis of capitalism. Often, in modern capitalism, resources are plundered and the costs are placed on the next generation.  The capitalists and workers may not even lived to see the horrible consequences that have been deferred to later generations, including environmental consequences.  Therefore, Jupiter can choose to save those she loves, but she’d have to delay the suffering to billions of people in a later time period.  Jupiter, in the end, makes the right call in terms of saving all the people on the Earth, although it means sacrificing those she loves most. She realizes the importance of the lives on the Earth, not just the ones in her own in-group. While she was willing to make the sacrifice, she manages to fight Titus and escape with Caine’s help. Essentially, the ends of capitalism are not to benefit people. Instead, the goal is to maximize profits, which is what all three of the Abrasax siblings wanted, although they had different motivators.

In this movie, human beings aren’t just machinery, our lives and deaths literally become the commodity itself. We are the product. In the end, Jupiter owns the planet, but she does not exploit that fact.  She stands in solidarity with other humans; she continues her productive labor as a maid.  Her labor as a maid is valuable, and she appreciates returning to being part of the proletariat. This movie does not have a true Marxist utopia at the end.  Abraxas Industries and the family are still at large in the universe. And the people on earth excluding Jupiter and Caine have no idea that they are a part of a much larger system of oppression, similar to how many people do not realize how they are being exploited in global capitalism due to hegemonic ideology.  Eventually, we will be vulnerable again when Jupiter dies. Just like in “The Matrix” people have to wake up before they can start to save themselves.



Filed under capitalism, Fantasy, Movie Review, Science Fiction, Space Opera

Explorations of Disability, Gender Roles, and the Role of Police in “On Dangerous Ground”

On Friday night, my spouse and I watched a classic film noir, On Dangerous Ground, at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It’s a part of a series that focuses on “unreliable men” who are “[m]ad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” according to the website. This movie premiered in 1952. These men featured in the series come from many different backgrounds, and in On Dangerous Ground, the main character is a police detective, Jim Wilson, who has become burned out and violent from seeing so many of the darker sides of urban life. At the beginning of the movie, Jim is shown to be losing his way ethically or perhaps having a breakdown. He becomes violent repeatedly, and he is sent to investigate a murder that happens away from the city. When he arrives, the father of the murder victim plans to get vigilante justice on his daughter’s murderer. Jim chases the murderer with the father, and they eventually end up at the home of Mary Malden.  Mary has a vision impairment, which becomes important to the plot.  Jim faces a choice between allowing a violent solution to the murder or allowing for a more peaceful resolution, as Mary hopes for.  On Dangerous Ground is a great exploration of disability, lack of treatment for disability, the unsafe, vilified city, traditional gender roles, the objectification of women, and alienated labor.

First, I want to discuss how the movie dealt with Mary’s disability. I was pleasantly surprised at how the movie handled disability.  (Perhaps, it shows my own biases about the 1950s. My expectation was disability would be treated poorly due to stigmatization.) It showed the men handling her situation quite differently. Walter Brent, the father of the murder victim, treats Mary terribly. He fails to recognize that she has a vision impairment and then assumes that she is lying about her vision to protect the murderer. This is contrasted with Jim, who begins to realize that Mary is blind. He treats her respectfully and with dignity. He doesn’t assume that she needs more help than she does. However, when she does need help, like when she knocks things over when her brother dies, he does step in. He also respects her wishes when she asks him to leave, although he eventually returns. The topic of how much help to provide a person with a disability comes up often in my classes. My students read a book on disability, Waist High in the World, by a woman who has multiple sclerosis. While the type of disability is different, Nancy Mairs addresses the fact that individuals with disabilities are often pitied and overly helped by other people. While she allows people to help her, she notes that other people do not feel the same way. Returning to the movie, Jim listens to Mary’s comments and advice, particularly her comments about being lonely.  He makes no assumptions about her mind from having a physical disability, which is a common problem. Next, I’ll discuss the treatment of the city as a unsafe, place filled with deviance and violence.

Earlier this year, I read a book called A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. I really enjoyed it, and I learned that there was a long period in American cinema that vilified cities as dark, unsafe spaces while upholding the virtue and safety of rural areas. I was struck by the contrast between the darkness and deviance portrayed about the city as compared with the white, snowy landscape in the later scenes. Although a murder happened in the rural area, it was a snowy, perhaps even more “pure” place symbolically. Before the start of the movie, we were informed that the makers of the film originally wanted to shoot the first half of the movie in the city in black and white, and use color for the part in the rural area, similar to The Wizard of Oz. The community came together (albeit for a dark purpose of vigilantism) to restore safety to their community.

Although Mary’s brother did murder the girl, Mary notes that he should have received treatment earlier. He has a disability, too, of some undisclosed mental illness. The younger brother loves his sister and  wants her to have beautiful things like wood carvings and art, which are used by her to get her bearings in the house.  Mary begs Jim to have mercy on her brother, to help him get treatment. The movie feels like it is a critique aimed at a lack of care for people with mental illness.

In context of the Isla Vista shootings earlier this year, I’ve been paying more attention to the gendered discussions happening in US society. More than one woman I know this year has had a man, a stranger, tell her that she needs to smile in public. This young man in the movie grew frustrated with the girl he murdered when she wasn’t smiling so he killed her. The scene gave me the chills.  Although the focus of the movie wasn’t about the treatment of women, it is strikingly relevant. There is an expectation that women are supposed to be “beautiful” and a part of the enactment of beauty by a woman is smiling, even when she doesn’t feel like it.

Finally, the movie had a interesting treatment of the police. Jim notes that no one likes the police in the community—not the criminals nor the other people.  Jim’s actions are shown to be hugely problematic. He tends to the the rugged, stoic Marlboro man that Katz talked about in his documentary, “Tough Guise” from 2001. (He argues in this documentary that media plays a role in socializing boys into masculinity.) This is a great example of how the media shows us our gender roles. Jim does not reach out to others. When invited to dinner by another policeman and his wife, Jim resists. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about what’s wrong in his life and occupation. Outside of the city, Mary mentions that she can tell that he is lonely, just like her.  At the end of the movie, Jim returns briefly to the city before going to the country.  The movie is about making connections.  These two lonely people reach out to one another and hopefully, Jim is healed or redeemed with her help and his own actions. Furthermore, these traditionally masculine gender roles alienated him from the work he was completing, from the people he served, from the other police officers, and even himself. This is Karl Marx (and Engel’s) concept of alienating labor.

I highly recommend the film noir series at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It’s been intriguing to see societal issues being addressed, often as side notes in the time periods that the movies were originally screened.

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Filed under Movie Review, Sociology

“Looking-Glass Self” in Skyfall: The Identity of James Bond”

[Spoiler heavy zone]

Two nights ago, I went to see the latest James Bond movie, “Skyfall.”  I’d just started my Thanksgiving break, and  I was hoping for a fast-paced action movie with good cinematography.  I felt even the introduction was worth the price of admission.  Although I enjoy watching Bond movies, I often feel uncomfortable with the overt (and covert) sexism.  Particularly, the aggrandizement of traditional masculine gender roles like violence to solve problems bothers me, as well as the objectification of women.  Despite all of this, I usually enjoy going to see Bond movies.  Today is not the day that I’m going to explore my hypocrisy on my blog.

“Skyfall” justifies the need for spies and the entire spy industry in today’s world, but the spy “industry” needs to adapt.  The parallel between Bond and the overall spy business is evident.  One of the major questions in the movie is despite psychological and physical limitations, can Bond continue to be efficient in a career field that needs to adapt to changes in globalization, technology, and warfare?  The “enemy” has drastically changed.  However, I like the fact that the villain of this movie was created by the British government itself, as opposed to an operative from another traditional, national enemy, or a terrorist, say, from the Middle East.  It makes sense people having to make monstrous decisions who are abandoned might eventually become villanous.

The movie had gorgeous psychological symbolism in it, which, as my spouse and I discussed may go back to “Casino Royale.”   When a character, Silva, asks Bond about his hobby, Bond quips, “resurrection.”  Yet, this is very accurate.  I can think of at least three cases of Bond being symbolically resurrected, and I’ll bet that there are more.  Bond gets shot by his partner and  falls into water.  He’s presumed dead, but I think that it is important that we never witness him emerge from the water.  However, he is alive and taking a break, reminding me of being in paradise or purgatory.  He returns to the UK when he sees the main plot of the movie shaping up on television.  After returning to the home he grew up in, Skyfall, he winds up destroying his home in flames and eventually falls through the ice.  (Before this, he runs through underground tunnels attached to his house.  This also seems very psychological in terms of the subconscious.)

Personally, when he emerges from the ice feels like his actual resurrection to me.  Another interesting symbolic motif in the film is the continual use of mirrors and reflections of Bond. This reminds me of Cooley’s idea of the looking-glass self.  Our self image comes from how we think that others see us (Conley).  This cute wikipedia image is an example of this.  This idea is important in this movie because Bond “dies”, and he has to determine who he is again.  He is “James Bond,” which apparently is truly his name.  It’s neat to see the interactions happen between Bond and the gamekeeper, Kincade, that knew him as a child.  This person would be one living person that shaped his identity before he was an agent. Kincade obviously had a relationship with young Bond, but he doesn’t fully know his adult identity.  M makes a comment about orphans making the best agents.  While one might assume this is due to their lack of social connections, I believe it’s because without parents and other caregivers, it’s easier to shape the identity of a person into an agent.  In this movie, it seems that the people helping Bond to solidify his identity are is “Mother”, M, his symbolic brother, Silva, and even other characters like the new “Q,” and his new partner.

MI-6 also goes through many of these same transformations.  It is blown up and damaged at the beginning so they change headquarters. (A similar chase seen occurs under the tunnels attached to the new location.)  Then, it is under assault from the government for being ineffective and useless due to globalization.  It is under the same threat and has to go through the same identity reconstruction process that Bond did.  At the end, there is a changing of the guard that make it evident that the institution is continuing, but their identity has been permanently changed.  I look forward to seeing where the franchise and the characters go from here.

What symbolism have I missed?  Do you think that I’m right about the imagery in the movie?



Filed under Movie Review, Sociology, Uncategorized