Thursday, September 8, 2011

Andy Serkis rules this Planet of the Apes.

What strikes you first about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this summer's "reboot" of the pop-epic franchise of the 60's and 70's, is that its digital monkeys aren't much more convincing than the latex-lipped ones of the original series.

Indeed, in the opening scenes of Rise, its pixelated primates aren't very convincing at all - which feels frankly like a deal-breaker, because they've got no dialogue, and so no means of distracting us from their digital presentation.  But the effects get better as the movie progresses; or perhaps the intense central performance of that brilliant digital thespian Andy Serkis - who served as live-action model for the film's lead, "Caesar," just as he did for Peter Jackson's King Kong and Gollum - simply pulls you into the movie's visual conceit despite its artificiality (much as Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Maurice Evans got you past all that latex and fur all those years ago).

During the movie's central sequences, in fact, when Caesar (who has been made super-intelligent by a hypothetical drug for Alzheimer's) first begins to rebel against being a "pet," Serkis conjures one of the best film performances of the year - again - and from that point to the finish, he alone carries the whole foolishly convoluted movie (next to his wounded, snarling psyche, James Franco and the other stars barely seem to exist).  Of course Serkis is aided a bit by the digital trickery of the film's technicians; as was the case with Gollum, his eyes are carefully rendered to be more emotive than a "real" actor's could possibly be under normal photographic conditions (they always seem to wetly reflect a dozen different sources of light at once).  Yet the power of his performance can't be denied for all that; and it's a full-body performance, too; I'm not sure how the technicians translated Serkis's human frame into that of a chimp, but they somehow have captured the slow boil of his every resentful slouch - as well as the poignant regret that underpins his eventual rebellion.

Still, there's not much to Rise of the Planet of the Apes beyond Serkis, which makes its rave reviews from most critics puzzling - until you begin to realize that this is what happens as standards slowly decline; tellingly, almost all the positive notices for the movie are couched in relative terms.  Rise is, indeed, "capably made," as one major critic put it - its big set-pieces all land about as they should; it may in fact be "the best popcorn of the summer."  But what's the competition?  Thor?  Well, sure, Rise is better than that - and it's certainly more effective than Super-8, the season's other reboot (of Spielberg's 70's hits) that technically wasn't a reboot, because the movies involved weren't quite a "franchise."  So maybe the reviews are justified;  Rise does get a mild rise out of you here and there; there's a momentum to the slow build that leads to the animal jail-break at its center, and some punchy moments, too, when the apes rumble through San Francisco, and then rock the Golden Gate Bridge (below).

They saw, they swung, they conquered: the monkeys go ape on the Golden Gate Bridge.

But the brilliant satiric glories of the original Planet of the Apes - or the wit of Escape from, or even the low-rent vigor of Conquest of - have gone missing.  (The original series had one dud, Battle for, and one outright bomb, Beneath - which fittingly enough, ended with the Bomb itself going off.)  Indeed, the kind of kicky, Star-Trek-level metaphors that Planet - and science fiction in general - used to trade in are utterly absent from Rise. This "reboot," oddly enough, is never clever or up-to-the-minute, so the satiric edge of its predecessors seems utterly beyond it - even though its plot is stuffed with appropriate targets (mercenary pharmaceutical companies, sleazily sadistic scientists, etc.).

But of course there's little or no dialogue to carry anything like an idea (the most Caesar can generally manage is a monosyllable, like "No!").  And a damp earnestness pervades almost every scene that doesn't include a physical attack; we get the idea that we're supposed to be touched, then terrified, then touched then terrified, ad infinitum, until the closing credits: like pets (come to think of it), we're steadily given little treats (or tricks) to keep us in line and make us think an actual "movie" is underway - and distract us from stray plot points (like that Alzheimer drug's eventual side effects) that the script never bothers to tie together.

I think this weird vacuum where the pop "content" of the Ape series used to be may be what's most interesting about Rise  - only not in a good way; I don't want to overrate the original franchise, but I just watched the first installment on DVD the other night, and I have to say that after a slow start (by today's standards), it proved just as much smart fun as I remembered it being.  Rod Serling (among others) contributed a literate script that blithely skewers church, state, and just about everything else; Franklin J. Schaffner's direction is eccentrically epic, while Jerry Goldsmith's bizarre score is weirdly memorable.  And through all this the forty-something (but still hunky) Charlton Heston scampers about buck-naked half the time!  The whole frisky, sexy, pithy thing is utterly unimaginable today; the culture is just too dumbed-down - and politically polarized - to tolerate such satiric freedom.

Indeed, I can't think of a successful satire at the multiplex for ages - unless you count a gross-out vehicle like Bridesmaids.  Yet even a dozen or so years ago, you could still find satire at the movies, in scripts like Scream or Election  - these weren't Dr. Strangelove, true, but you could sense in them something like a witty, critical engagement with society. Today you only find that in the relative privacy of premium cable, or late night TV - the mainstream, public sphere won't admit political horseplay; even the smart folks at Pixar will only hint at jokes about "lifestyle" (in movies like Wall-E or The Incredibles), not actual political structures.

That is if the millennial audience would even understand such commentary. There is at least one weirdly troubling metaphor buried in Rise of the Planet of the Apes - its rebels can't express themselves, know nothing of history or the world, and can't understand the powers that manipulate and repress them. Science in their eyes is a mystery, and the corporation is the only real power they know. So after they win their big, meaningless battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, they retreat, angry but impotent, to gaze on the city from their lonely treetops; they have no idea what to do next. And neither do we.

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