Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Revival Of The Planet Of The Apes!


In the twenty-first century there has been a push to revive the Planet of the Apes franchise after many years of relative calm and quiet. There had been a few comic books here and there, but really no big push of any consequence. PotA seemed to have become a nostalgic favorite beloved by many a Baby Boomer but beyond that little else. Then Tim Burton showed up. Apparently the folks at 20th Century Fox had been trying to revive the franchise for some time, but it wasn't until Burton got aboard as director that it happened.


Planet of the Apes from 2001 (hard to believe it's been that long) is a movie that did pretty well at the time financially but critically it was met with skepticism. It at once played to the expectations of the fans but also brought to the fore a fresh and interesting take on Apes and Ape City in particular. Burton is a director who often allows his style to overwhelm his purposes, but in this movie the requirements of the setting seem to have limited this tendency. The story is like its 70's counterparts a convoluted tale of time travel, but also like those vintage movies a satire on the modern world. The satire seems more pedestrian in some ways but its a key element nonetheless.


The humans are pretty forgettable in this one, but the Apes are something else entirely. The make-ups by Rick Baker combined with some fantastic wire effects give us Apes which are actually quite scary. Burton mentions that he's trying to evoke a "Flying Monkeys" effect and to my eye it works. The late Michael Clarke Duncan was quite good as Attar, the lead Gorilla as was Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa in a similar role. Loved seeing the late Charlton Heston in a delightful cameo. But it is Tim Roth as the villain Thade who steals this movie for me. He's utterly fascinating and utterly scary, one of the best film villains of all time in my estimation. He inhabits the role and plays an Ape with the finest vigor and authenticity these movies have ever seen.

For all its virtues thought this new Planet of the Apes did not spark any sequels.


Then in 2011 we get Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This is a completely new vision of the Apes story, taking us back to the very beginning. No time travel this time, the story we follow is how an ultra-intelligent Ape named Caesar got that way and how his transformation signals the end of the world as we know it.


The movie starring James Franco tells the story of a San Francisco-based researcher named Rodman who is trying to cure Alzhiemer's Disease by boosting brain chemistry. His lab experiments on Chimps and one of those Chimps named "Bright Eyes" gives birth to a genetically altered ultra-intelligent offspring dubbed Caesar. Rodman saves Caesar and later experiments on his own father who suffers demenita (John Lithgow). This trio is happy for many years until a grown Caesar, a creature too smart for his limited role as pet, gets into trouble and is shipped to a sanctuary where he and other Apes are routinely abused. Eventually Caesar leads a revolt, steals new chemicals to enhance his Ape allies and the Apes rise up to battle the authorities and establish their own society in the wilds of the Redwood forests beyond the city.


This is a small story, mostly discussed ad nauseum by folks for the motion capture techniques used to develop the realistic Ape characters. This is remarkable but the story is what matters and this is a telling fable of how humans are all too often guilty of hubris and willing to harm not only others but themselves. Franco's character is set up as a morally good man, but sadly I'm conflicted. He's certainly affectionate to Caesar and cares about him and others but his actions are ethically indefensible and ultimately it is his lab work which unleashes a virus which wreaks havoc over the whole of the globe setting the stage for the sequel.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the  PotA movie we've been waiting for. The first movie in this sequence almost comes across as a preliminary treatise, an essay you need to read before you get to the heart of a really good narrative.


This movie picks up ten years after the rise and we find Caesar installed as the leader of a well-established Ape culture in which the ultra-smart simians communicated with sign and even limited speech. They live a life of a primitive culture using spears and horses to fend for themselves and their families. Into this Eden of sorts comes humans who have been absent for many years following the plague and immediately violence erupts. Survivors in San Fancisco need to restart a dam for electric power and the Apes are settled right next to it. After much haggling a deal is struck and work on the dam progresses with some success. But also there is a great deal of mistrust, especially by an Ape named Koba who discovers that the humans are arming themselves and himself acquires a gun or two. He ends up revolting by trying to kill Caesar and leads the Apes into a furious battle against the humans while Caesar and his allies try to find a way to bring peace to a situation which seems destined to spin out of control.


Love this movie. While I did find it a bit slow in places, nonetheless we have here the most vivid example of what this franchise can be. We get many many different Apes, well realized and brimming with personality and against that we have humans who are a curious and deviated lot also. The two societies are desperate to survive and finding how to do that seems truly difficult. The movie falls into some simplistic moralizing at its finale, but the build up is remarkable for the depth of character it presents.


My favorite Ape character is Koba, the villain of the piece and the most successful Ape character since Thade a decade earlier. Koba is a Bonobo who had been the subject of sundry laboratory experiments and has suffered mightily. He is a follower of Caesar but disagrees that humans can be trusted. He is a sociopath but he is presented as a more complex fellow early on, one I am sympathetic to, thought he movie reduces him a bit by its finale to a cliche. My favorite scene in all these movies to date is when Koba pretends to be a happy fun-loving trick-playing chimp to confuse some humans and get his hands on a gun. It encapsulates the complicated relationship humans have with these animals and shows all to effectively how we totally misunderstand behavior we imagine we fathom.

These new PotA movies are a heap of fun and I'm eager to see the next one which is to be titled War for The Planet of the Apes. 

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6 comments:

  1. What I like about these modern versions (including the 2001 movie) is that they've dumped the whole "nice chimps" and "nasty gorillas" nonsense from the original films and the TV show. In the natural world gorillas are actually quite gentle creatures while chimpanzees are horribly violent - is it a surprise that we share 95% of our DNA with chimps and they are our closest relatives ?

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    1. I agree with that sentiment. The chimps are the ascendant species here and as now know can be quite brutal when they get a feeling for it. That wider range of emotion for them does elevate the story out of the sometimes static pure satire which often informed the originals. The are richer, more complex characters.

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  2. I haven't seen the last two movies. The CGI apes turn me off. They look like CGI in most shots. The Burton one was the best in depicting the apes realistically. Rick Baker is the master of practical ape FX. The Burton movie was good throughout, until you got to the ending, which fell flat.

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    1. The CGI apes in the first one are sometimes suspect, especially Caesar who has to do a lot in a specifically human environment. The second movie is lot stronger in this regard with much more dramatic lighting to help soften the overall impressions. Some of the work on the villainous Koba in particular is neatly done.

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  3. My issues with the Tim Burton POTA can be summed up in this Honest Trailer:

    https://youtu.be/4US0Fjr4Rb8

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    1. That's pretty funny. I agree with some of it, but I think it's a bit hard on some of the acting. Notice I said "some".

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