Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Other Prepositional Phrases

I didn't intend for my first blog to be about a Planet of the Apes movie. No one ever does. At least, I ASSUME no one ever does. It's kind of like setting out to date America Ferrera. She's probably got a lot of money, and she seems like a nice down-to-earth girl. Ultimately, it might not be a bad idea at all. but it's not something to strive for. I don't know anyone who wakes up looking at their framed SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster and says, "Today, my goal is to hook up with America Ferrera."

(Aside: The SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster is actually just a giant ass in a pair of blue jeans. I'm not sure whose ass it is. I mean, I assume the actual ass belongs to an ass model, and not to any of the four lead actresses who starred in the film. But even if we're suspending our disbelief, and assuming it belongs to one of the leads, I don't think anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physics would think that it belongs to America Ferrera. But then again, we're three degrees beyond hypothetical at this point. I digress.)

Look, I'll admit it: When I was a kid, I liked the original PLANET OF THE APES pentalogy (that means a series of five! -- Word of The Day). I even own a six-DVD set copyrighted in 2000, so I must have had some fascination even at age 16. Don't get me wrong: As a ten-year-old, I KNEW how cheesy the later films were. But I loved the original film, and once my fanboy nature forced me to see the sequels, there were a few things that sucked me in.

One of the main appeals was the Moebius strip of a timeline. For those of you not familiar with the sequels, Cornelius & Zira head into space in the third one, following a nuclear destruction of their futuristic Ape-world at the end of the preceding film. Presumably taking advantage of the same time-dilation effect that brought space traveler Charlton Heston to the future in the first film, the filmmakers plopped the two apes into then-present-day LA when they landed (time travel! Always a favorite of mine). The following two films were mostly concerned with Caesar, their child, played by Roddy McDowall (who had also played the dad Cornelius). Caesar led the ape rebellion that ultimately led to Ape-ocalypse (and yes, I'm planning on trademarking that). To ten-year-old me, there was something undeniably cool about Heston's future actions setting in motion the events that actually led to Ape-ocalypse in his own present-day. There was an element of fatalism about it that I loved.

Another appeal was Roddy McDowall's tour de force performance as Cornelius / Caesar, the Michael Corleone of the simian set, turning from put-upon nice-guy to revolutionary kingpin. Even under super-cheesy monkey makeup, when McDowall set his sights on evil, he could give you chills.

And hell, in the fifth movie, you get John Huston in a career-low performance as an ape! Even as a ten-year-old, I knew Huston as the director of some of my favorite Bogart movies (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and I don't believe I'd ever seen him act prior to that. To see this man who I'd only known in name--only known for creating high art--dressed in a bad Halloween costume and spouting a bunch of badly-written gibberish to six- and seven-year-olds (also in monkey suits) was a real eye-opener. That may have been the moment when I realized maybe Hollywood wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd thought.

So there you have it: My love-hate relationship with the Apes. Yes, the sequels suck; but no more than the thirty-odd FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN sequels that gorehounds idolize and rewatch over and over. SOMEBODY has to be a Monkey Fan. It just fell to ten-year-old me. Sue me, okay?

(And before you ask: Yes, I saw Burton's version in the theater and despised it. The less said, the better.)

So that brings us to present-day, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rather interesting and surprisingly enjoyable film that you might call a prequel, or a reboot, or a remake.

Before we get there, however, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I loved the homages to the previous series ("IT'S A MADHOUSE!!!"). I loved the fact that there were loooong stretches of film that were just apes gesturing and posturing at each other, with no dialogue at all. It takes balls to attempt that in a major summer blockbuster, and it takes skill to make it interesting enough to watch. The filmmakers here have both, and the glee I felt at their rebellious act reminded me of Pixar's similar risk in WALL-E. Of course, it paid off for Pixar, and I hope it pays off for these guys.

I loved how sympathetic this movie made the apes. It was like a way better version of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where you start out feeling bad for Caesar, are rooting for him all along against the humans, and then are horrified when he actually succeeds. It takes a lot to get a film audience to root AGAINST humanity, and I think this film largely succeeds. The violent acts are spaced-out so that they keep their impact, and yet the film never feels slow. While the apes can be pretty terrifying, you can't help asking yourself whether you'd do the same thing in their place.

A lot of the credit goes to Lithgow, who proved what a national treasure he is a couple of seasons ago on DEXTER, and is brilliantly cast here. He's really the heart of the movie. Let's face it: It's not easy to make an audience sympathize with a mute CGI ape. And as for James Franco, well ... Let's just say the mute CGI ape might have made a more charismatic Oscar host. But because Lithgow is devoted to both of these characters, we somehow can't help caring about them, even when he's not onscreen.

And the pacing is terrific. I won't say that it's my favorite "big summer" movie of the year, but it is by far the most well-paced. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and SUPER 8 were both phenomenal for the first hour, then lost their way when they started playing to genre cliches. RISE doesn't fall victim to that: everything that happens feels totally natural. What's more, it doesn't force the plot along just to play to audience expectations. It ends at a moment that feels natural to the story, leaving room for a sequel if box office returns allow.

And that brings us to my question: Is this a prequel? A remake? A reboot? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the preposition-heavy title in question, clearly takes place in a totally separate continuity from Burton's godawful that's entirely off the table. As far as the original pentalogy (something about that word sounds kind of Satanist, doesn't it?) ... I sketched out the basic plot of the original films above, and it clearly doesn't gibe with the story here. While Caesar still leads the rebellion, this Caesar is not the child of time-traveling talking monkeys ... he's a byproduct of science. Theoretically, this film is a prequel to the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES, and if you watch those two films back-to-back you're in for a hell of a viewing experience. And I think it would work, more or less free of continuity errors. Once the DVD / Blu Ray of this film comes out, I'll probably give it a whirl. However, if you're an Apes enthusiast like myself, then you'll recognize that this film is essentially a remake of CONQUEST and BATTLE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. There's no denying that they borrow certain elements, although it's a way better experience.

What all this boils down to is: They can take this franchise ANYWHERE. They can do a direct followup to RISE that shows the next phase in the simian rebellion. They can skip ahead several hundred years and do a far better PLANET OF THE APES remake than Burton did. Or they can do some other, totally original story.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie? Am I just far too intrigued by the idea of talking apes? Let me know in the comments section, by all means.

My next blog (maybe tomorrow?) will focus on the latest chapter of the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN comic, taking place in 1969 and titled "Paint It Black." What happens when Alan Moore takes his brilliantly-conceived mashup out of the Victorian era and into the height of hippie counterculture? Find out soon!

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