Monday, September 12, 2011

Movie Monday: Rise of the Planet of the Apes/Planet of the Apes

This week's movie is a double-bill: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes!

I've been an Apes movie fan ever since I was a kid, and I was really happy I finally got to see Rise--which everyone had said was unexpectedly good--and I thought it'd be fun to not only talk about that movie this week, but go back and re-watch the generally reviled 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, making this Movie Monday's first double feature! Let's start with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!
I hadn't heard much good about Rise before it came out, and that kinda made me sad. As I said before, I love the Apes movies, and after the debacle of the remake, I figured if this reboot didn't work, that would ruin the Apes franchise for the foreseeable future. And while I might be a little late to the party (Rise came out August 4th), I'm happy to report that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a fine film, worthy of the Apes legacy.

The film opens in our present, with Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) working at a pharmaceutical company, working on what could be a potential "miracle drug": a cure for Alzheimer's Disease!

Unfortunately, one of the apes they've been experimenting on goes, well, ape, escaping from his cage and rampaging through the lab. The ape is shot dead, but afterward we learn that the ape not only was pregnant, but gave birth.

The baby ape in question comes to live with Rodman, and over the years grows to be a formidable presence, named, ominously enough, Caesar:
Caesar is played by go-to-MoCap actor Andy Serkis, and I can say with confidence this is the first time that I felt an entirely CG character "worked" for me as an actual character. Even though I enjoyed films like King Kong and The Incredible Hulk, I never really bought in to the idea that the titular characters really existed in the same world as the live actors. But once Serkis takes over at Caesar, I began to forget I was watching an effect and just went with it. Its in the eyes, I think!

After a violent run-in with a neighbor, Caesar is dropped off an ape sanctuary, run by the odious John Landon (Brian Cox):
It doesn't take long for us to see this sanctuary is no such thing; its a cruel prison for apes, partly run by the owner's sadistic son Dodge (Tom Felton), whose violence pushes Caesar (whose intellect was boosted by the drugs he got in utero from his mother) to plot, and plan, and conspire, as a great actor once said.

It's Felton who gets stuck with all the "classic" lines from the original Apes movie, and its these brief moments that don't work: they feel shoehorned in as little in-jokes that take you out of the movie. But! The upside is, the response to the most shoehorned of lines ("Get your paws off me...") was, for me, the biggest and best surprise of the movie. I won't say what it is, but its a moment where the plot hinges and starts to take us spiraling into its gangbusters final third.

The apes escape, and begin to extract their revenge. They climb the Golden Gate Bridge (hopefully with plans to head to Marin County and kill George Lucas before he messes with Star Wars any more) and prove they are too much for the humans:
This whole bridge sequence is well-executed, in form and content: the CGI apes look good, pretty damn real, not the rubbery cartoons that you saw in, say, the original Spider-Man movie: they seem to have real weight and presence.

The top-notch CGI is important, because halfway through the film, it effectively stops being Rodman's story and lets Caesar become the main character. That's a ballsy move dramatically, and one that the movie pulls off, through the combo of Serkis' performance and the CGI. After all, this is a Planet of the Apes movie; at some point you gotta have apes!

There's a great scene where the apes have the chance to show mercy towards one of their human tormentors; they refuse. The shot--held for several seconds, a record nowadays--I found terrifying, as a character has just enough time to comprehend they are about to die, violently. *Shudder*

Caesar and his army make it to a redwood forest, and he has one last moment with his "father":
The film ends on a curiously upbeat note; considering all the violence and pain the movie has put us through (I found the first half, which deals heavily with animal experimentation and what we humans see fit to do with them, unpleasant to watch, despite it being well done and involving). Then there's a post-credits sequence--which I will not reveal--that tips the movie's hand in showing us where this franchise might go next.

Its a huge reveal for a post-credits sequence, and its that impish quality that I thought helped keep the film from getting too dire, even though its dealing with such heavy issues.

I walked out of Rise very satisfied; its probably the best made film since the original (having just seen the original five films, all in a row, I was reminded that no matter how fun the four follow-up Apes films are, some of them are pretty dodgy as coherent movies), and I'd totally be up for seeing another chapter in this new Apes saga!

Okay, next up: The 2001 remake (oh, I'm sorry, "re-imagining") of Planet of the Apes:
I remember seeing this film in the theater and walking out massively disappointed: that partly had to do with the ending, which made no damn sense; and since that was the last thing the movie leaves you with, its the freshest memory.

Now, I didn't think POTA 2001 was, like, the worst film ever made; it just seemed a lot of time and money went into an entirely unnecessary one; why waste all this talent remaking a movie that still holds up?

That said, I thought Apes was worth revisiting:
The film opens on the space station Oberon, which counts among its crew Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), who is working with chimps to go on routine space missions. When the station is hit by a massive electromagnetic storm, they send one of the chimps, Pericles, into a space pod to investigate and gather information.

But Pericles' ship disappears into the storm, leading Davidson to grab another pod and follow. He, too, disappears, ending up crashing on a planet named Ashlar in the year 5021.

In short order, Davidson meets the cavemen-like human inhabitants of this world, as well as the ruling class, which are not what he expected:
Right here is a good indication of what's wrong with this movie: Wahlberg looks mildly shocked, but that's it; there's no big "ta-daa!" moment when the apes are revealed. Sure, I guess you could argue that by this point (2001), there's no way to get a shock out of the reveal because everyone already knows the premise; but there's something about Wahlberg's more internal style of acting that just doesn't seem like the right tone for a movie like this.

Anyway, we are introduced to the various ape characters: the brutal General Thade (Tim Roth), the wily Limbo (Paul Giamatti, who's very funny), and the kind Ari (Helena Bonham Carter). Each of them have wildly different opinions on how the savage humans should be treated.
Thade is desperately trying to gain control of the government, turning to his ill father, Zaius, for advice, played by none other than an uncredited Charlton Heston:
Zaius reveals to Thade that, thousands of years ago, humans were the more evolved species. He passes a powerful weapon to his son: a gun, which Thade will learn to use.

Davidson helps form an organized rebellion against the apes (with the help of the Nova-esque Daena, played by Estella Warren), leading to an assault at the holy ape city of Calima. Its here that Davidson realizes that Calima is the remains of the Oberon, which crashed on the planet thousands of years ago. The Oberon's survivors--apes and humans--ended up forming the civilization of Ashlar.

Suddenly, another visitor from space arrives:
Inside the ship is Pericles, who made a similar leap in time as Leo. All the apes think Pericles is the incarnation of their god Semos (got all this?), and this transcendent moment leads the apes to declare peace with the humans.

But General Thade is not interested in peace, and inside a nearby cave he fights with Leo and Pericles. Leo ends up trapping Thade in the wrecked hull of his original pod, and takes Pericles' pod to go back to Earth.

In short order, Leo crash lands on Earth, in Washington D.C. specifically. But once again he's in for a surprise when he takes a gander at the Lincoln Memorial:
Leo's arrival is quickly discovered by the police, reporters, and ordinary citizens, all of whom are apes! As Leo stands there, mouth agape, he is surrounded by apes, and the film ends.

Watching Planet of the Apes again after a decade, I came to the conclusion its not that bad a movie: the performances are mostly pretty good (though like I said, I think Wahlberg, a decent actor, was the wrong choice for a movie like this), the film looks great, and it takes as its source material the original book by Pierre Boulle, an idea that has worked for other sci-fi remakes (John Carpenter's The Thing, to name one superb example).

Its just this film has no real shocks or surprises; and when it does have one--the final scene--it feels tacked on and nonsensical, as if they realized they needed a Statue of Liberty-sized twist. Its not that it doesn't make sense, per se (Thade clearly went back in time and twisted Earth in his own violent image), but it just sort of comes out of nowhere.

Another thing that works against the finale is that it was planned as a cliffhanger for a sequel; and maybe if they had continued the story and enhanced it, it wouldn't in retrospect seem so ridiculous. But since that sequel never came (despite the film being a financial success), the Aperaham Lincoln ending just feels a little desperate.

One last thing that I think works against this version of the Apes world: there's very little sense of wonder. We see a whole lot of the apes, and everything becomes quite routine fairly quickly. Maybe that's because of Tim Burton, who seemed like an odd choice to take on this potential franchise; the movie simultaneously feels too locked in to his vision yet also lifeless and generic.

So while the Planet of the Apes remake isn't the disaster I remember it being, its really not worth searching out, especially now that Rise of the Planet of the Apes has delivered a much more effective installment to the Apes franchise.

Go ape!

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