More human than the humans

Few film franchises have been rebooted as successfully as the Planet of the Apes. When Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrived in 2011, audiences were still smarting from Tim Burton’s bloated and boring remake of the eponymous 1969 film that started the series. No one had very high expectations that a little known director and a screenwriter whose previous film was 1997’s The Relic would have much success. But Rise was a revelation, combining an emotionally rich stories about fathers and sons with CGI so exquisite the apes seemed, well, real. At the end of the film, the research that helped make the apes smart and capable of speech also ended up creating a virus that killed 99.8% of the human population, setting up the ape-ruled world in the future. The movie earned rave reviews, a huge group of new Apes fans, and great anticipation for its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is now out. It’s a great science fiction action film, but despite what some fans are claiming, it’s hardly perfect.

Dawn takes place ten years after the events in Rise, with very few humans left alive and those who survived are isolated and increasingly desperate. The super-smart apes from the first film have settled into the Muir Forest north of San Francisco, where they are led by Rises’ hero Caesar (Andy Serkis, doing motion-capture). The colony has multiplied and thrived, with only the elders remembering the horrible treatment they faced as captive science projects. Caesar’s best friend Koba (Toby Kebbel) is particularly scarred, both literally and psychologically. When his son is shot by a terrified human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), Koba is the first to demand swift, violent revenge. Instead, Caesar is persuaded by a human named Malcom (Jason Clarke) to allow Malcolm and other survivors from San Francisco to restart a hydroelectric dam in the ape’s territory. Because of Carver’s loathing of apes, who he blames for the plague, and Koba’s loathing of humans, who he sees as dishonest and cruel, the truce between the humans and apes becomes increasing tentative. Finally, after Koba watches the humans, led by a former soldier named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), in San Francisco massing arms for a coming battle, correctly assuming the apes are their target but incorrectly assuming the attack was imminent, he takes a page from Hitler’s early playbook and starts all-out war.

As with Rise, the computer-generated special effects are wondrous, and unlike the Pandorans in Avatar or the various creatures in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, the apes are believable, not only in their physicality but in their emotional depth. They are more sympathetic and, oddly, better actors than the humans. Serkis and his animators created a more interesting – charismatic, wise, and agonizingly moral – character than Clarke, Oldman, or Keri Russell (as Malcolm’s girlfriend) do. Mostly this is because Caesar is a better and better-written character. The humans are a bit dull, and a few of them are written as plot points, annoying ones. Carver is the worst action film trope, the angry, dumb guy with a itchy trigger finger. Russell’s character Ellie, the only female in the film to speak, is walking stereotype, the smart motherly hero.

It’s been a summer of films about future dystopias, and like most science fiction, their plots are commentaries on contemporary anxieties. X-Men: Days of Future Past is about preemptive strikes and the fear of technology, and Snowpiercer is about how climate change will exasperate economic inequalities. Dawn is about war, trusting and mistrusting the Other, and the vicious power of old traumas. It was hard for me not to think about the current war between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, though the film, made last year, is probably not commenting on that. The filmmakers are showing that war seems to be both absurd and inescapable, started by anger and selfishness, and suffered by so, so many innocents. With its utterly fatalistic ending, Dawn depicts the bleakest of this summer’s dystopias. Whether or not this is entertaining is unclear.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell
Extraordinarily violent, yet rated PG-13
Unnecessarily in 3-D

You finally made a monkey out of me!

But: “They’re not monkeys! They’re apes!” So spoketh the chimp wrangler in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I thought was pretty damn entertaining. My review will be in print next Thursday, but here it is, early:

If your jaw dropped at how realistic, how life-like and creepy Gollum was when you first saw him in The Fellowship of the Ring ten years ago, it will fall open again and your mouth will dry out when you see Caesar, the super smart chimpanzee at the center of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The rise of CGI (computer generated imagery) has been derided as much as it has been hailed; the detractors need only point to Green Lantern or The Last Airbender or any original film on SyFy, while the supporters have Jurassic Park and all three films in The Lord of the Rings. And now the CGI cheerleaders have Rise, which I think is a new benchmark in the use of computers to create non-human characters who are not just believable, but whose digital origins become forgettable seconds after first view. Caesar’s movements are performed by Andy Serkis; the motions are captured on camera and then technicians use them around which to draw and animate a chimpanzee. Caesar’s acting, then, is a collaboration between Sirkis, who voiced and moved Gollum, and the effects team put together by director Rupert Wyatt.  Too bad you can’t give a Best Actor Oscar to four dozen people.

Planet of the Apes, to which Rise is the ninth film sequel or remake (there was also a TV series), was groundbreaking in 1968 because of its special effects, in particular the costumes and make-up for the super smart simians who lorded over mute humans in the distant future. None of the films that followed were remotely as well-made, neither technically nor in their stories, and some were just terrible, even though they have their camp appeal. Tim Burton’s remake of the first film ten years ago wasn’t even campy, just a mess of terrible acting, a dumb-downed screenplay, and weak effects – though the ape costumes weren’t that bad. Rise’s special effects alone make it probably the best since the first film, and it’s definitely the most entertaining, despite its faults.

One of the reasons gay audiences might be drawn to the movie is James Franco, who plays the present-day scientist responsible for making Caesar, and by extension, every other ape, way too smart. Franco loves to play gay or gay-ish (Milk, Pineapple Express) and is strikingly handsome, and he can be an intensely great actor, as he was in 127 Hours and James Dean. But he has been known to phone it in, becoming wooden and distracted. See, for instance, his bizarrely unfocused and terrible hosting of the last Acadamy Awards show. And in Rise, while he’s believable, he’s much less intense – he’s almost lazy – than I would expect from his character.

Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father (John Lithgow) suffers from. Testing the cure on chimps, one of them becomes smarter, showing that the drug is working. But she goes berserk, and is killed, and the study is shut down. It turns out it wasn’t the drug making her crazy; she was just protecting her baby. This baby is Caesar, who Will takes in, raises, and discovers to be even smarter than a human. But Caesar still has some wild animal in him, and after he attacks a man threatening Lithgow, he’s sent to a primate sanctuary, which is really a prison for problematic apes. The rest of the film is a prison break revenge story crossed with a “Don’t play God!” cautionary tale. Science doesn’t end up looking too hot by the end.

And science is represented by a cartoonishly evil drug company exec (David Oyelowo), a dull Franco, and Frieda Pinto, who has the thankless role of Will’s veterinarian girlfriend and voice of reason. I was thrilled when the humans were off-screen, because Caesar and his fellow apes, communicating almost entirely in grunts and body language, starred in scenes as fascinating, entertaining, suspenseful, and action-packed as the human scenes were dreary. By the end, as Caesar and his pals are marauding through San Francisco, you cheer for their dominance. These computer-generated apes just seem so much more alive.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver
Starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, and John Lithgow
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

Oh, and the title of this post is from the musical Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off! which was depicted in the episode “A Fish Called Selma” of The Simpsons. Ha.

Watch Planet of the Apes, The Musical in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at