Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going Ape for Apes

Last weekend I went and saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. These are my thoughts.

First let me say that it's quite a decent sci-fi flick. It's convincing and thought-provoking. No small accomplishment for an nth-iteration movie about super-intelligent apes taking over the earth. What's especially well done is the constant tension between the humans and the apes. For these chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans are not just humans in ape suits. They are members of different species. This has to be handled much as one would treat man's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, except that here we have the complicating factors of prejudice (on man's part) and resentment (on the apes' part).* After decades of movies about alien life forms, it's pretty hard to capture the wonder and fear and insecurity that would attend such a meeting. That Dawn does so is, as I say, a major feat.

The action is very finely done and, like the first installment in this incarnation of the franchise, has a good, slow build-up for a climactic finish. The sets and atmosphere are excellent. Once again the human characters are a bit two-dimensional next to Caesar and his fellow apes, but that's understandable, because this isn't really a movie about humans at all. And that's as it should be.

Call me a doubly misanthropic quisling if you like, but I am and have always been wholly on the side of the apes. If I have any quibble with this movie, it's that it's too limited in scope. It doesn't go far enough for my taste. I wanted to see an ape-led conquest of the planet (it's called Planet of the Apes for a reason!), with the human survivors driven into tunnels or turned into mindless cattle. Horrible, I know, and not something I should admit in public – there's a reason I write with a pen name! – but there it is. If I'm watching a movie about the downfall of man as a species, there'd better be some major mayhem. Well, perhaps the sequel will hold more.

Admittedly this isn't a movie I could just watch over and over again. That doesn't mean it's not a good movie. There are lots of great films I'd pay money not to see. There are lots of B films and cult classics that I've watched till I memorized them. Dawn is...well, it's good, but it doesn't have the re-watch value of the original Planet of the Apes. More on that in a moment, after I descend into an enumerated rant below the jump break.

So. In preparing to see Dawn last week I rented Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie which, despite several enjoyable parts (e.g., Caesar's rise to power), I find profoundly irritating. I just don't know what they were going for with that James Franco character, Caesar's scientist foster-father. (Dr. Will Rodman is his name; I had to look that up.) I could almost have sworn that they were wanting to make him sympathetic to the audience, and, yet more disturbingly, that they thought they'd actually succeeded! Alas, the references to Rise in Dawn do little to diminish this conviction. For Caesar, the undoubted protagonist of both films, speaks of Dr. Rodman as a good man.

A good man! This whiny, compromising little wiener of a neurobiologist, a good man? Here's what constitutes the actions of a good man in Hollywood's eyes:
  1. Dr. Rodman insists on testing his Alzheimer's cure on human patients despite the fact that he clearly has not done enough testing on chimpanzees and it could have horrifying side effects. (Later in the movie, when the plot requires it, he's all, no, we have to do all this cross-checking and stuff!)
  2. Dr. Rodman is doing experiments on captive chimps apparently without knowing the least bit about them. For instance, mature chimpanzees can unexpectedly become aggressive, and have to be handled with due caution! It's been in the news! (Perhaps his ignorance isn't too surprising, considering that the primatologist he dates for years doesn't guess until she's told that Caesar, the chess-playing chimp, is an outcome of his neurobiological experiments.)
  3. He takes a primate infected with a potentially lethal virus home from work, because he feels bad. (Guilt appears to be his main motivation in life.)
  4. When his father's caretaker quits, instead of investigating other options and/or finding another caretaker, he injects his father with experimental medicine that could possibly drive him insane or kill him, because he just can't deal with it.
  5. Even as his ape-son Caesar matures, and it becomes apparent that he's just as much a person as a human being, Rodman continues to keep him locked up in the house, except for when he takes him on walks in the park, jerking him around on a leash.
  6. When Caesar goes berserk protecting the John Lithgow character (oh Mr. Lithgow, I'm sorry they didn't let you do any acting in this movie), and is subsequently bundled off to a primate habitat by Animal Control, Rodman can't think of anything to do but whine and browbeat lower-level bureaucrats. I mean, this is his son, and it isn't as though we're dealing with CPS here. Caesar could be put down. Would you let your son be put down, whatever the law might say? And Rodman could have just used his weight with the company to get him out! That's where they get their apes anyway! I'm sure that that boss of his – the guy with dollar signs in his eyes – would have been more than happy to accommodate if properly approached, seeing as he didn't mind him testing the drug on his father.**
  7. Dr. Rodman hardly ever goes to visit Caesar, for weeks and weeks, even though the habitat is basically a concentration camp for apes, and he's aware that Caesar is being abused.
  8. When his assistant, the unfortunate ape-handler, gets exposed to the virus, he does nothing. Nothing. The guy actually comes to his house, presumably after leaving him text messages and e-mails reading HEY MAN IM REALY SICK HELP ME. But the doctor is not in. The eradication of the vast majority of the world's population is due to this twerp's negligence. Talk about being unequal to the situation.
  9. Dr. Rodman quits the company, which is called OmniCorp or something, only when it will have zero effect on any outcome, merely as a salve to his conscience. His reason? His boss is trying to do to chimps the very thing he tried to do to humans at the beginning of the movie. (See 1.)
  10. He tries to bribe the guy who runs the primate habitat. Given the circumstances, this would have been a natural thing to do from the get-go (see 6), but at this point it just comes off as another pointless action to avoid guilty feelings.
And so, when Dr. Rodman finally does try to spring Caesar from the Big House, and Caesar refuses to leave his cage and his fellow apes, I was cheering for the chimpanzee. I'm not one of these feel-good, apes-are-just-hairy-little-people types. But within the context of the movie, the apes are portrayed as persons before they ever get exposed to the drug. They have to be, for the movie to be interesting. And my sympathies naturally lie with the persons rising up against injustice. Rodman is just a wimpy deadbeat foster-father.

What's interesting to me is that Hollywood seems to expect us to accept Dr. Rodman as a basically good man. Not that I think he's evil or anything. He simply isn't man enough to be either good or bad. Maybe I'm misreading the movie's intent. Maybe he was supposed to be something of a wiener, a foil to Caesar's greatness. That could be the basis of a great, if somewhat cynical, story. But the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

It's almost as though the script was written as I've said, but Franco (or his agent, rather), insisted that his character be given a positive twist, and they did everything they could to make him sympathetic without actually doing violence to the story. Tobey Maguire (the go-to actor for epic whininess) was apparently offered the part first, but turned it down. Maybe he objected to the role's murkiness?

At any rate, this is something I seem to see more and more often: a character whose every action is unethical, duplicitous, or completely selfish or stupid, but who we're expected to root for, because they're nice or something. I personally suspect it has more to do with bad production than bad morals.

All that said, what interests me most about Rise isn't the drama itself, but the numerous references made to the original Apes movie. I mean the one with Charlton Heston. Because it's clear that Rise was intended to parallel Planet, with Caesar playing the role of Heston's Taylor. I actually thought this was kind of a cool idea, though the contrived, tongue-in-cheek references started to get a little old toward the end, and the original's greatest lines ("Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!") were abused.

What's interesting about all this is that it involves an inversion. But you see, it's the inversion of an inversion, which leaves you with...well, not an inversion. Not exactly what we started with, though, either. What makes the original so riveting, so shocking (if we could only watch it with fresh eyes) is the mad topsy-turvydom of a world where beasts are men and men are beasts. "It's a madhouse! A madhouse!" But Planet of the Apes and its Twilight Zone-esque denouement have become so ingrained in our culture that the inversion is invisible now, and we see man's treatment of apes as apes as an inversion.

Which is kind of weird.

At any rate, if you haven't guessed, I'm rather fond of the original. The apes' acting is a little hammy, but overall it's one of the most powerful sci-fi movies out there. We tend to see it as explained by the sequels and prequels, but it's interesting to ponder the different ways they could have taken it after that famous shock ending. I happen to have a copy of Pierre Boulle's original novel, but haven't yet read it. Once I do I'll be sure to reflect on it here.

* Of course, in Pierre Boulle's original novel, the apes are extraterrestrials.

** Note that the guy who's sin is wanting money gets thrown off a bridge. The guy solely responsible for wiping out the human race? Encomiums.

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