Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Rise of" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes": review

I'm pretty sure that both of these movies, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," are message films. They're didactic: they teach us something. What that something is is not immediately clear to me; more likely, it's not one moral lesson so much as several. Both films are a critique of human nature; even the apes in the second movie come to the realization that they're not so different from their human rivals. But more on moral lessons later. Let's talk genre.

It's devilishly hard to figure out what genre these films belong to. Primarily, the "Apes" movies are science fiction. But then there's the matter of sub-genre. Mutagens leading to enhanced abilities? That's "X-Men" territory. A human-ravaging virus that also creates a ravening horde? That's zombie-apocalypse territory. Scientific arrogance leading to uncontrollable consequences? That's "Jurassic Park"—or, no: that's everything territory.

A few aspects of the films to admire: the special effects for the apes, while not perfect (you're easily aware when an ape isn't acting like an ape in a zoo), are nevertheless fantastic, right down to every simian's facial wrinkle and fur (or with apes, is it body hair?). The transformation of the Earth into a post-apocalyptic wasteland is well done, especially in the second film. The acting by all the principals, both human and mo-cap ape, is spot-on, with special praise going to Andy Serkis as the alpha ape Caesar, whose view of humans is tinged with compassion and understanding because he was raised by a kind pair of people. The cinematography and sound editing, together, are also gorgeous: they quite convincingly evoke the redwood forest that becomes the apes' home.

One thing to deplore: the filmmakers pulled their punches in their depiction of simian brutality. I suppose a truer portrayal of how violent, say, a chimpanzee can be would have undermined the story the creators were trying to tell, but in both movies, ape fighting seems to consist mostly of kicks and roundhouse punches—primitive taekwondo with Captain Kirk's two-fisted "hammer" move thrown in. In truth, a simple, unassuming chimpanzee can be horrifyingly violent: chimps are extremely fast, frighteningly strong, and when provoked, mercilessly vicious. Read the story of Travis the chimpanzee, who attacked a female visitor in 2009, chewing off her hands and her face, detaching her jaw, and damaging her brain. Emergency workers saw what Travis had done, and some of them had to undergo counseling, so nightmarish were the wounds he'd inflicted. (Travis was gunned down by police, much like Bright Eyes in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes.")

Nothing close to that sort of violence appears in either of the "Apes" films; I suspect a vérité approach would have contradicted the noble-savage mythology that the movies are attempting to promote. In that sense, both films share something of James Cameron's "humans are evil" sensibility as seen in films like "Aliens" and "Avatar." Although, by the end of the second movie, Caesar acknowledges that apes were the first to attack humans, the filmmakers make clear that humans, by inadvertently gifting the apes with sentience and speech through their mutagen, then by mistreating the newly enhanced primates, put the apes in that terrible position. This is karma writ large.

So we return to the question of what the moral or morals of these films are. The first film focuses on the attempt to create an anti-Alzheimer's drug that will allow the brain to repair itself. The chemical is first delivered through an engineered virus, but human antibodies resist the beneficial effects, as Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) discovers when he secretly tests the drug on his Alzheimer's-stricken father (John Lithgow, who knows his way around big hominids after "Harry and the Hendersons"). Rodman reengineers the virus, making it more aggressive so as to penetrate the human immune system, but he doesn't foresee the cost: the virus is not harmful when tested on apes, but it kills its human hosts. By the end of the first film, an animated sequence shows us how the virus, now a pandemic, spreads inexorably along airline routes, infecting almost the entire world.

The whole first film screams hubris; that message, at least, isn't subtle or unclear. The second film, which picks up the story at that same animated sequence, deals more with moral issues that arise from sociology: apes and humans have segregated themselves into tribes, and almost equal time is spent watching the apes and the humans interacting amongst themselves. We see the politics, the pettiness, the vanity; we see schisms brought about by differing visions of the Other. In fact, a postmodernist academic might jump on the issue of "othering" as it's portrayed in these movies. Ape/human speciesism can be seen as a metaphor for racism. Along with these themes is a not-well-hidden anti-gun agenda.

So what should we learn from these films, both of which seem keen to teach us something? That we should be kinder to animals? That we should put aside our guns? That we should put aside our fear of the Other? That peace is preferable to war? That science needs ethical constraints to avoid global disaster? That super-apes can be reasoned with, but zombies can't? That an alpha-ape on a horse, wielding two machine guns, is too cool for words, even though the ape is mowing down humans? Whom do we cheer for?

Actually, that last question is by far the most interesting one for me. The movie is at its best when it presents a balanced view of the nobler and less noble members of each rival species. "There's enough blame to go around," the movie seems to be saying, "and it's up to you to figure out where you stand." The second movie ends on an ominous note, paving the way for an inevitable sequel: all-out war is coming, and not just in the remains of San Francisco. Conflict is on the horizon, but blessed are the peacemakers.

Both "Apes" movies are suspenseful without being scary. Both are heavily didactic, but also disappointing in their unrealistic treatment of simian violence: despite all the flying bullets and slashing fangs, there's very little actual blood and gore. Still, the films are watchable and entertaining, and they make you think. They're a worthy successor to Heston's old films, thoughtful in a Christopher Nolan sort of way, and standing in contrast to Tim Burton's maladroit attempt at a reboot. I should also note that the two movies, although helmed by different directors, flow easily, one into the other. The stories are almost seamless, so if you've seen the first film, you're well prepared for the second. Go watch. Go enjoy. Then go ape.


1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

Really hard to suspend my disbelief as there wasn't a single miss-fire in all those old ammo rounds and the fact that they wasted so many needlessly in their target practice. Then, besides never running out of ammo, the chimps never had to reload as which would have been nigh impossible since they don't even have pockets to carry the extra magazines and rounds in.

The biggest injustice of the entire film had to be Pierre Boulle not getting any credit at all for his part in starting this continuing franchise.