It’s the weekend. How to spend a Saturday afternoon in the middle of February? Does one stay in – read, watch TV, peruse the Internet? Why not binge-watch the first two seasons of House of Cards? It has become so easy to occupy ourselves without needing to step out the front door that any sort of excursion into the wider world begins to feel like a hassle – complicated and undesirable. (Add to that below-freezing temperatures and one begins to wonder how people got through the day two hundred years ago.)
How, then, can one approach the idea of going to a movie? It’ll cost you – at least ten dollars a person, especially if one feels compelled to pick up some snacks at the concessions counter. Not to mention the gas money. Where is there any good sense in going to the multiplex when you can get all it has to offer in the comfort of your own home, without the added expenses? It’s hard to believe that anyone should go, and yet in the last few weeks both Jupiter Ascending and Fifty Shades of Grey have domestically grossed something in the upwards of ninety million dollars apiece. This box office revenue isn’t exactly promising for their producers when one considers the films’ budgets (at least in the case of Jupiter; Grey had a smaller budget, and has done very well in other places, too), but it does suggest that Americans are still willing to brave the cold and snow for the sake of spectacle, or seduction – even at ten dollars a pop.
This should, however, only prompt us to more closely evaluate the exact future of commercial cinema; the question of consumption aside, it is now a matter of assessing the product. These are not “good” movies (at least according to the critical establishment), yet presumably people go to see them to have a good time. (I have not seen either one, so let me explain now that this article is not so much a review as a consideration, a discussion.) So it is important that we ask ourselves what people are enjoying, because while the old showbiz adage would have us understand that such films “give the people what they want,” it is necessary to question just what it is the people are asking for, and whether or not it’s what they need.
I realize that such language has the potential of sounding preachy, or dictatorial – but let us look at the simple impressions of these films as narrative works: Jupiter Ascending is the tale of a young woman who discovers that she has a higher calling in life, and of her ascent towards that higher place, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey is the story of a young woman whose feelings of inferiority are manifested in an erotic, yet toxically subservient relationship with a twisted and commanding male figure. It is likely that these films have been promoted towards different audiences (one might gander that Jupiter belongs to self-exploratory teenage girls and fans of the Matrix trilogy, while Grey’s fan base is sure to consist of self-conscious young women and restless, middle-aged housewives), yet tonally-speaking they couldn’t be further apart – and questions of quality or the latter film’s misrepresentation of BDSM practices aside, it is pertinent to wonder at just what sort of future these films are advertising to a collective world audience.
Essential to these films’ shared place in the ever-growing vault of Hollywood product is their embodiment of a contemporary duality in our popular culture, in which themes of self-validation and self-destruction are of equal omnipotence and popularity, specifically among young adult audiences. They are not the first films to elucidate this duality, but in fact represent later entries in two very broad, sweeping cultural waves: Jupiter Ascending belongs to a genre of youthful rebellion and assertiveness that has its roots in the Harry Potter series, but which has gained an even more surefooted grounding in the Hunger Games and Divergent franchises. By contrast, Fifty Shades of Grey may be the key emblem of a culture that is centered upon emotional degradation and the individual’s reliance on wayward attachments – the sort that defines such media fixtures as the Twilight series, or reality TV, or the Internet.
At this moment in time, we seem to find ourselves just as ready to embrace sentiments of ascension as sentiments of descent – rising versus falling, evolution versus decay. In the wake of a decade marked by loss, and trauma, and in the face of a demanding, pressing future, the decision of whether to act or to regress takes on an especially acute vitality – and judging by the focuses of these respective movies, it would appear that such a decision lies in the hands of the individual. Do we allow our self-doubt, our fear of self-assertion to overwhelm us and drown out our better instincts? Or do we listen to those instincts, follow the higher callings of the world around us, and fight our way forward towards a better tomorrow, no matter how small or insignificant we may feel?
The choice is yours – not just upon entering the movie theater, but stepping out of it as well.