The Impacts of Interactive Storytelling: A Case Study of Jupiter Ascending

Posted filed under Experience.
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Warning: the following contains potentially crucial, but mostly lukewarm, spoilers for the film “Jupiter Ascending”. Consider yourself notified.

My first critical thought on viewing the latest Wachowski filmsprawl actually wasn’t one. And by stating this, I’m not intending any smartarse obscuration, though I am aware that even using that term “filmsprawl” could firmly place me in that very territory. Instead, my initial reflections about the film centred on how simultaneously expansive and reductionistic it appeared. The film seemed tailor-made to appeal to an audience well versed in contemporary game aesthetics, an audience to which interactive entertainment conventions are de rigueur.

My primary take on Jupiter Ascending differs distinctly (but not wildly) from other perspectives I’ve encountered – and by others I’m referencing peers and friends as opposed to goldstar reviewers, as I’ve made sure to read less than zero blurbs keen to theoretically carve up the movie into its non-gestalt parts. Most mentions I’ve encountered peg Jupiter Ascending as a clumsy but original (to use a cognitively-velcro-worthy-term) “hot mess” of a film.

Others view the movie as a type of wayward space opera, a CGI-fest of hodgepodge philosophy clunkily melded with awkward-but-gorgeously-Michael-Bay-like-derision-worthy-screencandy. When James Dominguez informed me (prior to watching said movie) that: “…apparently it’s terrible in a very entertaining way”, I believed him. When my Cinema-Going Companion (CGC) asked me (post-viewing) whether I would be keen to watch Jupiter Ascending again, I replied that yes, I would: he speedily said he would not (he had also indulged in brief microsleeps during one of the lengthy action sequences). CGC’s critique of the movie hinged on the fact he thought it was trying to do too much at once, and that he just couldn’t get excited about such overblown sequences – hence the microsleeps. I, on the other hand, did indeed find the film straight-up enjoyable.

The considerable reviewer vitriol surrounding the film’s release highlights the film’s skewing of traditional filmic conventions. Stock standard monomythic story requirements are employed in a traditional sense in the film, but these are somewhat counterbalanced by a fantastical emphasis on game-emulation aesthetics. In my view, action sequences like those found in contemporary movies like Jupiter Ascending directly emulate game mechanics that are relevant to a large chunk of contemporary viewers. Such invocation of interactive based mimicry (think: apps, games) transposed into a passive medium (film) isn’t new – think on the preponderance of game-to-film adaptations – but is becoming increasingly relevant in contemporary media.

In Jupiter Ascending, the nature of class privilege and the insidious nature of social stratification, otherness-classifying, socioeconomic determinism, the grab for immortality, consumerism/greed, industrialisation and the military-industrial-technological-complex in general are all plot-and-theme threaded. Want some heavy holistic allegory and steampunkish-laden visuals thrown into the mix? Done. How about some reincarnation amnesia and fantastical genetic cross-species warnings as well? You got it.

The fantastical elements in Jupiter Ascending present as bricolage. Such variables also act to illustrate just how such a movie might reshape established indicators of what makes a film great (or even watchable). Instead of free-falling into harsh reviewing mode, maybe audiences could instead learn that such fantastical elements are ripe for what I term “functional mapping”. Functional mapping describes the disjunctive process when prior cognitive associations are made elastic in order to overwrite previously hardbaked/templated cognitions. When Caine first shows off how his gravity-mod boots work, there’s the potential for a viewer to undergo a type of believability disconnect: a disturbance-twinge in the Willing-Suspense-of-Disbelief force, if you will (*cough*).

The boots and their functional aspects – such as Caine speeding off looking very much like he’s ghost-skating/rollerblading – seems jarring at first, as do his eventually reinstated wings as evidenced in the movie’s dénouement. This jarring comes from strong prior association-sets present in our canon heavy entertainment. When seeing a character perform actions that many audience members strongly associate with quantifiable behaviours, our belief might just waver: when asked to map new imaginings over such a prior-based associations, some viewers may find this incredibly difficult. When bees are used to replace a more standard take on ecological symbolism (think: the far more palatable convention of using bird or butterfly murmurations), many may think this absurd, as stretching believability boundaries a tad too far.

To those raised on cultural settings based off gamification and karma whoring, where positive (and vicarious) reinforcement sits easily alongside intense visual diets comprised of cinematics, machinima, supercuts and cutscenes interspersed with intense fps-action bursts, the Jupiter Ascending action sequences and computer generated graphic bombardment present as very normal. So too, does the requirement of functional mapping, where transmedia-based characterisation and Storyworld construction easily rewrite such mono-channelled associations.

In a typical Studio-backed movie, mainstream story structures allows for certain elements, including ye olde girl-meet-boy, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl yawn to effect our Willing Suspension of Disbelief. When this structure is toyed with, or heavily modded in substantial ways, confused audiences can be left hypercritically picking at the result in an attempt to cobble together a meaning curve predicated heavily on the known, rather than making the cognitive leap to another (emergent) meaning-creation paradigm. And although I empathize with the urge to overanalyse in order to establish quality markers, this seems to be a somewhat futile exercise in today’s media platforms. Shouldn’t we instead alter canonistically-predicated criteria in order to establish relevancy/quality as directed by changing methods of entertainment creation?

Since 1995, Mez’s award-winning digital writing and games have been influential in shaping interactive genres. In 2015, Mez has been shortlisted for both the Thiel Grant Award for Online Writing and in the "Games Development" Category of the 2015 MCV Pacific Women In Games List which profiles the: "...most influential women [in] the Australian and New Zealand Games Industries." Her works reside in Collections such as The World Bank, the National Library of Australia and Duke University.

Mez is the Creative Director of @MezBreezeDesign, an Advisor to The Mixed Augmented Reality Art Research Organisation, Senior Research Affiliate with The Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab and Judge of Bournemouth University's 2014 New Media Writing Prize.