The Need for Speed
It was sheer stupid curiosity, I’ll admit it, that lead me to Jupiter Ascending on a cold, sunny afternoon in early March. With a mixture of shame and defiance, I shelled out my 10 hard-earned dollars and entered the newly carpeted theater, where the movie began to play to a grand total of three souls. I had been intrigued by the terrible reviews, the sort that actually make a film sound interesting. The comparisons to Dune (although completely misplaced, in my book) helped with the allure, as did the notion that this was a cult film in waiting. There’s also an important difference between “liking” a film and appreciating it; I’ve never really liked any of the Wachowskis’ films, but what does that matter? Each of them have offered an angle of vision not my own, and watching each of these films as they attempt to sustain that angle of vision has been, for me, a fascinating process.
Apart from a few intimate exposition scenes, Jupiter Ascending is nonstop spectacle, and I think that the sheer length of some of these sequences, which stretch on in a hectic blur beyond all narrative purpose or reason, helps explain the aura of cult that seems to be developing around the film. But there’s also something else at work, as the film can be read as the fullest, most extreme cinematic expression of accelerationism yet. The term, at its most basic level, refers to a set of loosely connected social and political theories that suggest that — rather than trying to slow down, redirect or subvert capitalism — it’s preferable to accelerate it, thus bringing it ever-faster to its inevitable self-destructive end. This hasn’t exactly worked out politically. As media theorist Steven Shaviro has noted in his essay, “Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption,” capitalism and the vast data machine it has constructed indeed work ever-faster, appropriating all transgressive movements, so that, as he says, “we are all caught within this loop.”
Shaviro and others have written about accelerationist aesthetics — art, books, films, video games, music — that make us feel this speed. And it can be a terrible and sublime feeling. Consider the sheer data avalanche of Jupiter Ascending; practically any single image from the film is overwhelming in the amount of visual information it conveys, and such speed and excess render the film’s politics mute, for who can speak or think in the face of such orchestrated chaos? Or, it might be more accurate to say that the film’s chaos cancels out two opposed political threads in the film: the “conservative” thread: a nostalgia for the individual hero (well, heterosexual couple hero) with free will who stands up and defeats evil; and the more progressive thread, the one that critiques in savage ways the coming genetic industrial complex and that openly acknowledges that time is the new commodity, to be harvested, hoarded, bought, sold and traded among the .01 percent.
It’s what we might call the cinema of paralysis: There’s no room for our own movement of thought. This isn’t a lament, but the expression of a paradox: an accelerationist film that results in paralysis, in lack of movement. It’s strange that Terry Gilliam would appear in a small but important role, as his films (especially Brazil, which Jupiter Ascending very much strives to be like) are deeply cynical and oppositional, and are a far cry from accelerationist cinema. Brazil slows down and goes deep into the dreamscape of its protagonist, while the characters of Jupiter Ascending are absent of any inner thought or life. This is not a critique. The absence of psychology is so extreme as to verge on the avant-garde. And even more: The very lifeless speed of the film shows us what we are, or what we are becoming. The nostalgic complaint that films have become spectacle at the expense of story is all wrong. Rather, spectacle is the story. A specific scene, near the end of the film, stands out as a good example. It’s an extended escape/chase sequence that has Jupiter (Mila Kunis) fleeing from Balem (Eddie Redmayne) as the enormous human processing complex on Jupiter implodes. At some point, just as you think the sequence is wrapping up, it doesn’t wrap up but continues beyond all reason, and you realize that that’s the story, right there. Excess. Abundance. Endurance. Surface. Speed. An entire civilization of digital information right there on the screen — the beautiful, tortured stain of our current moment.
As Gertrude Stein famously said, “There is no there there.” A post-traumatic cinema for an era when it’s not “everyday life” punctuated by trauma, but everyday trauma (ISIS beheadings, Charlie Hebdo-style attacks, a steady stream of real-life snuff videos) punctuated by moments of calm. Jupiter Ascending is a truly transgressive film, perhaps the first fully articulated post-postmodern film, the equivalent of the brutal sensory accelerationism that characterizes our times.