I've been trying to get caught up on this year's movies. For various reasons, my moviegoing has been way down this year. I blame most of it on 3-D. I mean, I LOVE popcorn movies. Love them. But in the last three years or so, I've had to put up with those damned glasses that don't fit over my own glasses and a ridiculous surcharge for the experience and a splitting headache afterward. If I choose to see a given movie in 3-D, that is. And this is even with the so-called "good" 3-D, as opposed to the after the fact 3-D conversions. It gets worse, though, because even when the movie is shown 2-D, there's a penalty. My local multiplexes--there are only two within reasonable driving distance because I live in the sticks--don't change out the damned 3-D lenses for 2-D showings, which darkens the picture. I saw both Captain America and the last Harry Potter in the theater and regretted it. I didn't write about either film, because I don't feel I could give them a fair shake based on what I could actually see on screen. My local art house is excellent, I should add, but they can only show so much, and often fairly late in the release calendar. Some movies never make it here at all. So, for the first time that I can remember, I'm preferring to see movies on video. This wounds my love of cinema, part of which is a love for the communal experience of sitting in an audience of strangers. Cinema is like church to me. I feel like an apostate these days. But it is what it is, I guess.
I probably could have seen The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, directed by Rupert Wyatt) in the theater. It wasn't a movie that was released in 3-D, and probably would have been shown on a projector that didn't have the lens. I don't remember why I skipped it in the theater. Spite, I imagine. As Apes movies go, it's not abysmal by any means. It's certainly better than the Tim Burton movie from a decade ago. It's certainly a more faithful re-imagining of the original series, taking as its template Conquest of the Planet of the Apes rather than the original film. It's a film filled with in-joke self-references, so I'm a bit disappointed that they couldn't work a nod to Ricardo Montalban into the thing, but there's only so much you can throw into the pot before it becomes a comedy. I'll admit to this predisposition, too: Conquest is my favorite of the original film's sequels. I thought Roddy McDowell gave an absolutely terrific performance in that movie, channeling Malcom X. I wish the studio had had the strength of vision to pursue that film's plot to its logical end, but they ended up backing away. The new film shares this in common.
The story here finds researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) experimenting on apes in order to find a cure for Alzheimer's. He's designed a virus to deliver gene therapy that promotes neural regeneration. Unfortunately, Bright Eyes, his prodigy, goes berserk on the day he gives his pitch to the big pharma he works for to start human testing and the whole project is shut down and the apes destroyed, all except for Bright Eyes's baby, who was not known to the researchers until her cage was tossed. Rodman takes the ape home, where he names it Caesar and raises it in tandem with his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Caesar, it turns out, has a greatly magnified intelligence, and his example encourages Rodman to test his cure on his father. It works a trick and his father's condition reverses itself for the nonce, but Caesar has issues of his own. His status as a captive, for one, and when he has a violent run-in with an obnoxious neighbor, he winds up being seized by animal control and placed in a primate sanctuary. Here, he begins to have a political awakening and begins to organize his fellow inmates. And with the next generation of Rodman's "cure" he makes his move.
For the most part this is a bunch of dumb fun. The big action sequences at the end of the movie are the kind of sturm and drang Hollywood specializes in these days, but at least they're not slashed to ribbons in the editing room. I'll say this for editor Mark Goldblatt: he knows how to cut an action movie. And the special effects that bring the apes to life are pretty good, too. I mean, the CGI isn't flawless, but it doesn't look any more fake than, say, the cheap rubber masks given to some of the extras in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The end result of the ape rampage at the end of the movie strains my own credibility a bit, because I can't believe that the powers that be wouldn't hunt the living hell out of Caesar's merry band of apes after those apes wreck a helicopter and kill a bunch of cops. But details.
I'm less sanguine about the human characters this movie gives us. I admit that I'm used to monster movies being complete bores when not dealing with their star attractions, but this one is worse than most. The central character of Will Rodman is a serious problem. He's the designated hero, which gives him cover for doing certain very unethical and flat out stupid things. Such as administering a very dangerous experimental drug on his own father. Such as stealing said drug from his workplace. Such as designing a vector for gene therapy that is fatal to humans. Rodman has a chip on his shoulder, too. All through the movie, he's convinced of his rightness to the point of annoyance. This translates to an appalling sense of entitlement at certain points in the movie, particularly when dealing with bureaucracies. The way he gives orders to the poor woman at the courthouse is not endearing. Worse, still, his reasons for even being a scientist are specious: he wants to cure his dad of Alzheimer's, but that's ALL he wants to do. When his dad passes away, he loses all interest in what has been, to that point, his life's work. There's no curiosity here, no wonder at the universe. No compelling interest in science at all. And James Franco may be pretty, but he doesn't have the charm to pull this shit off. I mean, ALL of the bad shit that happens in this movie: the revolt of the apes, the death of his father, the virus apocalypse that the end of the movie hints at, are ALL his fault, but he doesn't pay any price for any of this. Designated heroes never do. Though he's hardly the worst character in the film. Tom Felton plays Dodge Landon, the sadistic attendant at the primate sanctuary, and he's pretty much a broad charicature. A cartoon villain, if you will, who gets an E.C. Comics-style comeuppance. For that matter, David Oyelowo's Steven Jacobs, Rodman's capitalist boss, is also kind of a cartoon villain. Rodman's dad is played by John Lithgow, and it's a role that Lithgow could play in his sleep. In another movie, it would be an Oscar bait performance: the genius who is laid low by Alzheimer's? Yeah. The movie writes this character poorly, and why not? He's a plot device, after all, rather than a character. It's the actor himself who gives him any spark of life, because the screenplay sure as hell doesn't. Ditto Freida Pinto's girlfriend character.
Also troubling are the racial politics built into this movie. This is a hold-over from Conquest, which is similarly allegorical. There are times when I wish I could communicate to Hollywood types just how fucking racist it is to use apes and monkeys as the instruments of racial allegories. This is a problem with King Kong. It's a problem with the Apes movies. Oh, you don't know why this is a problem? Ask yourself, then, why some on the racist fringe right tend to portray President Obama as an ape. Just fucking stop it. Please. There's also some emphasis on animal rights issues here, too, though these are inchoate, as if the filmmakers are only marginally aware of the fact that they're even there.
I understand that Fox wants to get Andy Serkis an Oscar for playing Caesar. Serkis is the go-to guy for mocap performances these days, I guess, and this is his second great ape after Kong. Serkis is certainly game for the performance and you can see that there's some animating spark to his Caesar that eludes most mocap performances. He's certainly the most interesting character in the movie. The apes in this movie are generally fun to watch, even though most of them haven't the weight of reality that Rick Baker's apes in the Burton movie had. Doing it with computers lets the filmmakers get the shapes and movements of the apes more or less right, and it lets them expand the palette a bit with species that wouldn't have been practical before. Oh, the triumvirate of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans remains, but the filmmakers have added bonobos. The addition of bonobos suggests all kinds of interesting possibilities to me given that bonobos are matriarchal and utilize sexual intercourse as their dominant social interaction. Bonobos fuck to say hello, to settle arguments, and to apologize to each other, among other things. They also tend toward bisexuality. Man, just THINK of the Planet of the Apes movie that you could make with Bonobos in the lead. Sweet, sweet bonobos...