Archive for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

The Ape of Things to Come

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2011 by dcairns

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. In which, as we always knew he would, James Franco destroys human civilization.

SUDDEN CHIMP ACT

Seriously, think about it: all the decisions leading, in practical terms, to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’ apocalyptic climax becoming possible are due to unprofessional actions by the film’s hero. To be fair, though, all the emotional drive which makes that climax desirable to the characters engaged in it (ie the apes) are due to the actions of more unsympathetic humans.

Who are all played by British actors (would you entrust your ape to a sanctuary run by Hannibal Lektor and Draco Malfoy?). If it weren’t for the fact that the director and lead ape are British, one would suspect some kind of restaging of the American Revolution in simian drag. Just give Caesar (Andy Serkis) a set of wooden teeth and the illusion would be complete.

Actually, referring to Serkis as Caesar is an oversimplification, in a way that referring to John Hurt as the Elephant Man isn’t. Hurt certainly had the assistance of Chris Tucker’s prosthetic makeup effects (no, not that Chris Tucker), but when he whooped and grunted and shrieked, it was his voice, and when he swung from the bars of his cage and leaped through the treetops, that was really him. That’s not quite accurate, but you get what I mean. And asides from his stuntwork and voicework, considerable portions of his performance, Serkis has had his facial performance “reproduced” by motion capture. Every animator I’ve spoken to is of the opinion that, when this happens, the animators involved (and you had better get animators involved) have to interpret what the mo-cap supplies, and sometimes depart from it, to create an effective performance. Andy Serkis obviously just thinks he’s wearing a pixel suit,  which is fine for him but not TRUE.

I’m not saying he shouldn’t be eligible for an Oscar. I don’t take awards THAT seriously, and in any case, countless actors have been rescued or enhanced by good editing, which is maybe a better reference point than good costumes or makeup. Somebody interfered with those performances, tweaked the timing, censored the misjudged moments, manufactured reactions that never really happened. Mo-cap performances are several stages on from this, but as long as we acknowledge that WHENEVER a movie actor wins an award, it’s for part of a group effort, and that this is true to the power of a hundred with mo-cap, there’s no reason why an effective performance shouldn’t be celebrated. If this thing continues to catch on, though, maybe a special category would be the way to go.

Obviously, ROPOTA *is* a film about revolution, and in some respects a starry-eyed one. As Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman once remarked, “the right people never get hurt,” but in Rupert Wyatt’s film of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s hyper-condensed screenplay, swift simian justice is distributed to most of the bad humans, and the movie is squeamish about depicting injury or fatality to the numerous blameless cops who get in the way.

THE APE OF RAGE

OK, I’m just going to wade in here: due to the coincidence of the film’s UK opening being a little behind the US one, it’s impossible not to think, occasionally, of the London riots. One doesn’t have to be the racist joke guy on Facebook who’s suddenly reinvented himself as a patriotic voice of reason and won the endorsement of our mean, vapid PM (himself a vandal and lout in his college days) to compare the insurrections in film and life.

Neither the riots nor the film are fundamentally about race, but it’s at the very least a  complicating factor in both. The APES series always touched on race a little, and in not quite comfortable ways, although the first film has barely a trace of this. By the time you get to CONQUEST it’s all about “ape power” and it’s a bit dubious. Including black humans as peaceful good guys in the last two films helped complicate and blur the metaphor a bit, which was useful, and casting David Oyelowo as a big pharma bad guy in the new one is even better. Really, the movie is about any oppressed group, and how violence erupts when injustice has built to such a point that the only conceivable response is a cry of “No!” and the taking up of arms. Whether the violence will actually produce any positive result has come to seem irrelevant to the perpetrator, so intolerable is the status quo.

The apes in ROTPOTA actually act with a much more effective, coherent and sensible common purpose than the rioters in London… actually, that’s unfair. The various goals of the rioters, insofar as they can be gleaned, were achieved, and delivered the short-term results they aimed at. Those were, in no particular order, (1) attaining a feeling of power by intimidating others, preferably those of a different social class, and by violating normal social rules (2) acquisition of free consumer goods (3) expression of revolt against the police. Some took part in all three activities, some in only one or two.

In fairness to the rioters (!), their festive rampage was basically spontaneous, whereas the apes had been planning theirs, at least a bit. So one uprising had only short-term goals, and probably looks a bit stupid now they’ve had a chance to think about it and now that many of them are under arrest, whereas the other had a long-term, desirable result in mind, although one that probably wouldn’t have worked if not for the movie’s other apocalyptic gambit.

What ROTPOTA does, quite usefully, I think, is show the pleasures and satisfactions of violent overthrow of the social order. In the understandable rush to condemn, there’s a tendency to view the disruptive element as alien, other, mindless and unmotivated. David Cameron has wholeheartedly embraced his predecessor John Major’s moronic sound-bite  “We need to condemn more and understand less!” A line which suits him, since he really understands absolutely fuck all. (Hearing that line first spoken, to resounding cheers, at a Tory Party Conference on the TV news was a truly chilling moment for me.) When Julien Temple was asked whether turning a race riot into a dance number in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS risked making it seem entertaining, he protested that a riot IS entertaining and extremely exciting when you’re in one. This movie dramatizes that in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience more effectively than Temple could manage.

ANTHRO-PO-MO

While Time Burton’s inane and abortive series reboot seemed to regard its predecessors as silly, excusing its own dull humour and anything-goes sensibility (gorillas suddenly evice the ability to leap twenty feet straight up — and all because Ang Lee had just boosted wirework), ROTPOTA respects its primate ancestors and builds a credible pseudo-prequel that doesn’t slot into the series (here, Caesar is the child of a lab animal, not time-traveling chimp scientists from the year 3978) but draws upon story elements of the first, third and fourth films, producing a narrative outcome that could lead almost directly to the first movie but without necessarily requiring two thousand years of atomically accelerated evolution to do so.

Accordingly, the movie is stuffed with nods to Schaffner, Wilson and Serling’s Boulle original adaptation, some of which are glaring (can a nod glare?) and some so subtle you’ll only figure them out with a crib sheet or IMDb cross-referencing. The examples below are me taking things too far, as usual.

1) The film is set in San Francisco, which is a homage to actor James Franciscus who starred in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

2) The casting of David Hewlett as an unlucky neighbour is not only part of the actor’s ongoing project to appear only in movies about geneticists who take their work home with them (see also SPLICE), but also a reference to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: Hewlett plays a character called Hunsiker, and in SSOS there’s a character called Susie Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison. And Nova in PLANET OF THE APES is played by Linda Harrison. No relation.

3) In ROTPOTA, John Lithgow plays a man with Alzheimer’s. This is a reference to the original films’ decline into senility with the 1974 TV show.

4) In ROTPOTA, the leading man/doomsday catalyst is played by James Franco. This is a reference to James Whitmore, who plays Dr Zaius some random orang in the original film.

5) The milky eye of Koba, the scary chimp, in ROTPOTA, is a reference to Kirk Douglas in THE VIKINGS, which also features James Donald. Donald also appears in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, in which ancient visitors in a spacecraft reawaken submerged warlike tendencies in the populace of London, which is exactly what Dr Zaius fears Charlton Heston will do in the original film, as well as being exactly what David Cameron has done in modern London, only without a spacecraft.

He started well but now he’s just got silly.

TARZAN AND HIS (PRI)MATE

Since Fiona’s quite well read on the subject of interspecies communication, she was able to supply me with additional insight into the film’s exploration of the subject. “They’ve really done their homework,” she says, pointing to the moment where Caesar is punished for biting a man’s finger, an incident drawn from the life of Washoe, a signing chimp. Some very experienced people like primatologists  Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Bob Ingersoll (hero of PROJECT NIM) have praised the film for its expressive evocation of the physicality of our ape relations and sympathy with animal characters over human. There have always, or nearly always, been films that took the side of the outsider — in a way its easier, or more flattering, to take the viewpoint of a rebellious chimp than it is to relate to the fleeing citizenry who are closer to our own type — but this movie takes it further than most. The humans are all either ineffectual or wicked.

The film’s air of somewhat-authenticity even manages it to steamroller over moments of outrageous artifice, such as the presence of another signing ape in the hellish “sanctuary” where Caesar is imprisoned. “Circus ape,” is his explanation for his communicativeness, as if any circus taught signing to its orangs. But the emotional impact of Caesar finally having another of his own kind to talk to is such that the contrivance is swept aside.

Really, quite an interesting film, probably the first blockbuster to even try to do anything interesting with real-world engagement since, I don’t know, V FOR VENDETTA. And it probably incorporates its ideas more neatly than that one. This can be seen, on one level, as the first APES film in the series to be actually about our relationship with the animal kingdom.

To take us out, here’s Johnny the chimp reenacting the end of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is entirely real.

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Hard Prawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

district9

Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

district9_600

Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

district9_02

Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.