rise of the planet of the apes

The next day, still all I can see are the monkey’s green eyes.

“He’s an ape, not a monkey,” one of the lab scientists reminds Jacobs, the ruthlessly pragmatic CEO of GEN-SYS.

Right.  Apes.  As in Planet of the Apes.  As in “the rise of.”  How it all began.

It got me thinking about the lore.  About how if this movie hadn’t been a part of a larger context, what would it have been?  Likely a horror flick – you’ve seen them.  Psycho monkeys are administered some form of drug.  They’re infected with rage, some sort of neurotoxicity; they bash everything in sight with their arms flailing like meaty windsocks.  They bare their fangs.  In another movie, in different hands, this story would likely fail.  You wouldn’t care about the savage monkeys – they’d be the bad guy.  You wouldn’t care about the hapless scientists either – likely they’d be meddling with “powers they can’t comprehend” because, in a cookie-cutter movie, that’s what numbskull scientists do.  But not here.  Here you are transfixed – that ape’s eyes, Caesar’s eyes, they’re able to convey more depth and emotion than his human counterparts.

James Franco turns in just the right performance as Dr. Will Rodman.  It seems the actor and director were able to grasp that Franco is not the lead in the film, and even managed to dial down some of that star magnitude.  In his plain suits and white lab coat, Franco’s eyes are almost dull compared the Caesar the ape’s.  He is a bit hapless, yes, but he has to be.  Rodman is the scientist who tips over the jar and spills the plot into motion.  And he perpetuates this motion by a series of bad choices.  First is his overconfidence in the gene therapy drug ALZ-112, then his decision to illegally experiment on his father with it.  And for a brilliant scientist, he seems somewhat dim-witted when it comes to common sense – the fact that Caesar is going to grow up, to hit puberty, to need to flex his ape muscles, these things have to be pointed out to him by Caroline Aranha (played by Frieda Pinto, who is, through no fault of her own, often distracting with her attractiveness).  But Franco, aside from neurochemistry, is not supposed to be all that bright.  It’s not even his story anyway – it’s Caesar’s.  And that’s what the filmmakers have grasped, and that’s why it works.

The script, from Pierre Boulle, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver meticulously constructs  the world surrounding Caesar the way a screen story should.  There are set-ups and pay-offs galore, but none so glaring that they roll any eyes.  The craft at work is subtle – in one scene, Caesar uses the elm trees above a suburban street to move himself along, and in a later scene when those leaves start to rain to the ground, we know it’s because Caesar’s primate army is now marching.  In another, Caesar sees a dog on a leash and makes the connection to his own leash.  Later, when Franco returns to the animal-jail to retrieve him, Caesar looks at the leash Franco holds and turns away.

Finally, yes, the CGI is stunning.  The days when the seeds of computer animation first moaned in the ground to this full maturation of the technical art has been an undulating journey with highs and lows.  Here, though, those who’s purview it is to create an entire character and group of characters using the effects are at the top of their game.  It isn’t dinosaurs slicked with rain, head transplantation, or body dysmorphia, it’s a bare-bones group of simians, meant to look and act like the real deal – only smarter.

Without good story-telling, though, the best CGI is a padded bra at best.  Here, when an imprisoned and suffering Caesar signs through the cages with a captive orangutan, is the transcendent moment which endorses the rest of the film.  We are watching a story unfold about prisoners, about underdogs, about an uprising.  Maybe that’s because the director, Rupert Wyatt, both penned and helmed the critically acclaimed 2008 film The Escapist, about, you guessed it, a prison break.  In any case, we feel for Caesar – each of his emotions are expertly conveyed in his sculptured expressions: the down-turned mouth, the half-lidded eyes, the strength of his gaze.  Andy Serkis, who provided the motion capture for Golem in Lord of the Rings, brings Caesar’s gestures and body language to life.

Pervading all of this is a story very aware of itself, written by a trio of intelligent writers, and realized under Wyatt’s confident direction.  Devoid of gimmicks or even the slightest bit of hamminess, we are delivered a straight story, with only judicious use of the iconography we want from a legendary tale.  It’s all just enough to create an epic – or, to lend to an epic already standing, and to do it justice.


Viewed at The Palace Theatre in Lake Placid, Adirondacks, New York.

captain america – a film review and treatise on the fall of the superhero

The comic book movies are having a hard time these days, and understandably so – their audience is growing older.

While next generations are carefully considered by the producers and marketers of the recent glut of comic book movies, it is still the age group which grew up with those books that composes the largest slice of the pie, according to demographic studies.  This is interesting, since the chief ticket buyer of the age groups is the 16-24 year-old male.  The kind of moviegoer that grew up with Captain America, though, is older – he’s in his thirties.

How can I say this when Captain America first came out in 1941?  It wasn’t until the 1960s when the character was brought back into the main stream by Stan Lee in an issue of The Avengers.  And while the Captain’s history in comic books is labyrinthine, it is arguably the 1980s when the character became modernized (with issues of homophobia and methamphetamines introduced, and the villain “Red Skull” fleshed out) and during this time that the series gained the followers which are most targeted by the film version.

If you were to draw a graph depicting the releases of superhero comic book movies, you’d see a density in the late 90s and early 00s.  Starting with Superman: The Movie  in 1978, there’s really nothing for a while, save for the sequels.  The late 80s and early 90s saw a small rash of superhero movie flops – premature pics like The Fantastic Four and even Captain America himself which never made it to theaters or even video.  A couple squeezed through, like Dick Tracy and The Punisher (with Dolph Lundgren), which fared poorly.  It was still a niche genre struggling to find its way.  When Tim Burton began the Batman films in 1989, the realm of superhero movies began is arc.  As technology reached the demands of the superhero story (and expectation of the audience), Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk (in multiple incarnations), X-Men, and others emerged victorious, and a new, re-imagined Batman came again, spawning the gritty realism that seems to serve the genre the best (Nolan’s The Dark Knight has had one of the best opening box office weekend of any of the superhero films, as did Ironman, creating what I consider the apex, or culmination year – 2008).

It’s no accident that the success of the genre is concentrated in the early 00s, and that we’re beginning the descent down the other side. Ironman 2 was a throwaway, the “Greens” (Lantern and Hornet) both fell by the way side, and we’re actually seeing previews now, for, yes, another Spiderman franchise already.  These films have lacked the insight and compelling narrative to keep thinking audiences connected to them.  It’s as if, rather than being realized by film artists who bring something special to the table, the projects are now being churned out by a machine.  Captain America feels like it was directed by a robot programmed by a studio rather than an artist with a unique vision.

This is what happens.  There’s a law in the universe, called entropy, which states that all things tend towards sameness and disorder.  What begins with life – the organization of concepts, the uniqueness of character – tends to devolve towards homogenization.  No where else can we experience this phenomenon more acutely than in the American movie business.

During the “rise” of the superhero comic book movie, its principal target audience was in the prime demographic.  Born in the 70s, during the Silver Age of comic books, potential viewers were now in the 16-24 age range during the late 90s and early 00s.  By 2011, though, they have grown out of the range – and some of the suspension of disbelief that comes with youth has been molted.  In order to keep that prime group interested, films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man can succeed, with excellent storytelling, plenty of grit and accessibility to characters which, despite their obvious eccentricities, are more plausible.  Tossing to that group a character from the World War II era who fights against a one-note villain wielding weapons of the gods just isn’t the same.

But none of this really has to do with why Captain America fails as a film.  Why a film works or doesn’t work has nothing to do with the audience it attracts or doesn’t attract.  Attendance, translatable to dollars and cents, may be the mark of success for the Trades and the studio execs who read them, but from a filmmaking and storytelling point of view, it means nothing.  A film works because it touches a nerve, captivates the mind, presents relatable characters, and because it does that intangible something that good films do – each one does it differently, but the feeling produced is the same, the sort of drug that keeps discerning audiences coming back for more: it transports.

To be truly transportive, a film doesn’t need to be high-minded or clever for cleverness sake.  Alternatively, it shouldn’t be dumbed-down out of fear for alienating any potential audience.  Neither too specific nor too diluted, the transportive film expertly balances between smarts and thrills.  It begins without hackneyed flashbacks and unfurls its length without long bits of obvious exposition (monologs revealing key information about so-and-so or such-and-such).  At its core, as in, to examine the engine that powers it, a film is nothing more than an entertaining delivery of information.  Where the poor film fails is that the information gloms together into obvious bits of telling, only to advance the viewer along to the next gooey bit of action and thrill.  The better film succeeds by crafting a story that feels truthful by masking the fact that it is not.

Film producers have tried all sorts of ways to get around this hump.  The most obvious is the “true story” phenomenon which emerged in the 80s.  A film doesn’t even have to be “based” on a true story these days, it can simply be “inspired by” a true story (which means that someone thought about something that happened and then made a movie).  This is basically an ill-concealed attempt to goad the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and make the filmmaker’s goal easier, which is to be transportive.  Obviously, superhero comic book movies can’t tag their film upfront with the “true story” ruse.  Their work is cut out for them to make something for an aging audience transportive.  As we continue to shift towards a younger audience, and studios give up on those firm fans who grew up with the characters, the trend will continue towards hedging, machine-made films.  Entropy will reign.  Captain America, with its forgettable dialog, blah blah blah special effects and antiquated context is the perfect example of the end of an era, and the beginning of a new – the age when comic book movies are often about as exciting as the latest formula-based romantic comedy.