Monday, August 15, 2011

Notes on Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

While not a great movie by any means, Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds as summer entertainment because it actually delivers what it promises: an army of killer apes going on a rampage in San Francisco and fucking people up. It probably should have been more violent (I'll get to that in a minute), but it really gave me something I've always wanted to see.

There's not a lot of original thought in Rise. Like Avatar, it seems to be a quilt stitched together from scenes, shots and dialogue from other movies (the first half of the film seems almost directly transposed from last year's horror flick Splice). But unlike Avatar, it didn't bore me. The trick, I suppose, is that it made me feel the plight of the apes. I would also add that director Rupert Wyatt has a gift for capturing images that just look cool. They're mostly looted from every other film ever made, but the movie looks great, especially once the ape uprising begins. The classic western image of Injuns rising from over a hill on the horizon looks so much cooler when the Injuns in question are apes. And central to the film is one brilliant image, the one used over and over in the ad campaign, that serves to represent the whole film in a singular moment. I probably don't need to explain further (you've seen the image even if you haven't seen the movie), but it's that shot where Cesar is looking at Brian Cox through the glass of his cage, giving him a blank ape look, then turns around and let's us see a face that displays not only intelligence, but violent rage suppressed into grim determination. This is also the most unintentionally funny scene in the movie. Brian Cox happens upon the apes doing some sort of organized exercise, stops for a minute to watch them...and then just shrugs and goes on with his day. "Apes forming an army, that's a funny thing, eh? Ah well, doty-doty-doh."

I should mention that I'm not really a huge fan of any of the original movies. I mean, I like them and all, they're fine scifi films, but they've never been holy texts to me or anything. In the original prequels (Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the latter of which mirrors the plot of Rise) the stories were parables for the civil rights movement, and some of that carries over to Rise, but it's removed from the social context. Maybe the struggle still continues today, but it certainly doesn't look like it did in the 60's. The original apes films were made when America was still pretty much a battlefield, and those themes resonated with the audience. In 2011, I don't think the images of an ape being sprayed with a firehose, or snarled at by a police dog, or of police in riot gear lining a bridge, have the same resonance for the audience, but the filmmakers seem to think there's something there, and even have Cesar stop a gorilla from killing a police officer, marking him as a stand-in for Martin Luther King. (Again, seems like a huge misstep. My recollection of Conquest is fuzzy, but Wikipedia tells me that during that uprising, the apes killed plenty of cops. This one could certainly have used more blood.) I was trying to square this in my mind when I saw an image that did look familiar from recent memory: the police collectively turning and running from the apes. It reminded me of video I saw last year (can't seem to find that particular clip on YouTube, but here's a similar video) of Iranian riot police turning and running from crowds of protesters. These Hollywood films are made with an eye toward international distribution, and considering all the unrest in the Arab/Muslim world (and elsewhere, in places like Burma), maybe this story will find some some resonance overseas that it can't quite connect with here. (For reference, compare the photo above of riot police assaulting the marchers on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, with the one below of a similar march in Cairo, Egypt from earlier this year.)

Finally, I didn't particularly like the ending. The apes all go off to live peacefully in Muir Woods? Well, it's doubtful that they'll be allowed to do that (despite Cesar's pacifist impulses, they've left a lot of destruction and at least a small body count behind). The military will probably be in to wipe them out soon enough. Or, I suppose, they will be needed for more cruel medical experiments to produce a vaccine to counteract the virus that will be spreading around the globe by the time the second film starts. Regardless, I didn't like this upbeat, pastoral ending. I saw a better one. Cesar should have died in the battle, and with him the pacifist approach to the ape revolution. The apes escape, and after Cesar's dramatic death scene, we see the ugly ass ape from the research lab with the huge chip on his shoulder become the alpha. MLK has been replaced by Malcolm X, and the war between ape and human is on. (I loved the design of that ape, by the way. There's one scene where we see him walking through the crowd during the riots that reminds me of Banksy's caveman image.)

Final thought: is that Draco Malfoy kid doomed to play mean little assholes for the rest of his career?


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