August 3, 2011

Trees of Life

by Vadim Rizov

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The first image in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is surprising for what it lacks, and we're not talking about F/X innovations or original ideas: it's a simple helicopter shot of a jungle, followed by dissolves closer to the forest floor. It's a recognizably green and sunny forest—not a mess of computer foliage, color-corrected to some sickly monochrome with digital haze floating around it. For a movie that relies heavily on unnatural-looking CGI animals (you get used to it fast), director Rupert Wyatt's new entry in the four-decades-and-running franchise scorns the fuzzy fake landscapes of Hollywood's loudest movies; much of the time, we're obviously looking at real buildings and locations, which balances out the chimp fakery. Two cars on fire are as real as metal and gasoline at the climax, and it's positively retro.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

What the film offers most is a barrel of rampaging monkeys. Rise takes a full 75 minutes to let the apes out of their cages, a wind-up full of tense anticipation: when exactly will adorable lil' Caesar (movements, predictably, modeled by Andy "Gollum/King Kong" Serkis) realize people are his future servants, not his inevitable tormenters? His lust for free will is the inevitably wayward byproduct of scientist Will Rodman's (James Franco) research. Tortured by the overacting of John Lithgow, who mugs his way through the part of Will's Alzheimer's-ravaged dad (appalled gasps greeted his appearance), Rodman's been straining to find a cure, and thinks injection "A-112" is the answer. An initial presentation of the first successful test subject ("Bright Eyes," Charlton Heston's name in 1968's original Planet of the Apes) falls apart when the ape goes ape; boss Steve (David Oyelowo) orders simian genocide lest the rage contaminate others. But Will can't bring himself to kill baby Caesar, and brings him home, at which point you'll begin guessing how long it takes for the rascal to throttle the rude next-door neighbor.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The problem with Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes was that it had no subtext, settling instead into a conventional war movie. Graphically enhanced or not, mean-spirited monkeys gave speeches and rode horses with no motivating urge. The early Apes films worked through a cluster of ugly racial issues; Michael Atkinson has described fourth installment Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (whose plot this reboot most resembles) as the only movie ever to "climax with a successful, implicitly global armed slave revolt," one in which primates meet flamethrowers in moments that are "futuristically hyperbolic and ringing of Eisenhower-era Alabama." This new Rise has zero interest in racial issues, though it keeps the signifiers. The monkeys are hosed down and can't march in solidarity without a row of cops on horses brandishing nightsticks. Their grievances seem reasonable: they just want to get from urban San Francisco to the Muir Woods redwood forest (where Jimmy Stewart took Kim Novak in Vertigo) without being hassled by the cops. They don't even strike back for the most part, although they'll demolish some cars and kill the malevolent authority figures first. It's the big pharmaceutical companies they object to, with their reckless greed and willingness to peddle shifty medications first, pay settlements later. Down with systemic oppression and economic marginalization!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

However, such poo-flinging references are tongue-in-cheek rather than pointed. (Especially with the racial imagery, this is curiously offensive. Maybe it's trivializing, but why can't a summer blockbuster acknowledge history in another way than a nudge to the ribs, with Cliff's Notes explanations for every citation?) Rise decides it doesn't really need resonance or grown-up subtext. It has something better: digitally rendered monkeys that can move really fast. When the chimps make a run for the woods, they move at velociraptor speed. The '60s and '70s didn't have such technology and relied on profundity, but Rise doesn't need ideas. For half the running time, there's no meaningful dialogue, just "ooh-ooh-ee" grunting and subsequent human variations on "Oh, shit!" Steve warns Will not to get too emotionally involved in his research since investors want results, not feelings. The metaphor applies to the movie—it's mostly mechanical, honed on results rather than motivations—but it makes for good craft, and the chases rule. When mankind has to take center stage, it's superfluous. Will has a love interest, Caroline the vet (Freida Pinto), who has about ten lines to say; they meet cute after Caesar signs that Will should ask her out, she moves in, and at the climax she gives him a quick peck on the mouth before he runs, constituting the sum total of their relationship. People have been treated with such indifference throughout, so why shoehorn in "character development" for five seconds?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Still, given the unlikelihood of a Planet of the Apes movie that eliminates humans almost entirely except as seen from apekind's POV (which would be awesome), this is as good as it's going to get. The least groan-inducing scenes don't need people to speak, just primates conniving: the way Caesar calculatedly uses instinctive dominance rituals to become commander-in-chief is at least as riveting as 2009's A Prophet, in which an Arab prisoner rises to the top of the French prison system through guile and careful observance of how the Corsicans rule the jail, beating them with their own customs. Apes is more succinct about it, and has the novelty of animals rather than movie gangsters enacting its bog-standard plot. Their escape from captivity is a riveting jailbreak, from their ominous glowering to the sudden rush at cruel animal keepers, perfectly planned and executed. Caesar and his companions are more expressive than the actors, a decision implicitly acknowledged in the film's ditching of dialogue: if you can't write good banter for figurehead action heroes who serve as expository props, don't bother. Instead, there's well-planned revolution (they're definitely smarter than a 4th grader) and vigorous, swooping action—the chimps that make the Golden Gate Bridge their swing set are more convincing than Peter Parker's skyscraping acrobatics on the other coast. Rise is suspenseful, cleanly framed and entertainingly kinetic, even if it's nothing more than sound, fury and monkeying around.



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Posted by ahillis at August 3, 2011 1:52 PM