Saturday, May 08, 2010

Apes Rise...?

By now, I'm sure you've all read that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is being re-imagined as Rise of the Apes.

Here are the details
of the upcoming production:

Twentieth Century Fox has set a June 24, 2011 release for RISE OF THE APES, a completely new take on one of the Studio’s most beloved and successful franchises. Oscar®-winning visual effects house WETA Digital – employing certain of the groundbreaking technologies developed for AVATAR – will render, for the first time ever in the film series, photo-realistic apes rather than costumed actors.

...RISE OF THE APES (tentative title) is an origin story in the truest sense of the term. Set in present day San Francisco, the film is a reality-based cautionary tale, a science fiction/science fact blend, where man’s own experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy.

These days, I try to take remakes, re-boots and re-imaginations on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, I'd spend my life in an indignant snit and miss out on some very intriguing films, including last year's Halloween 2 and The Last House on the Left. Still, the Land of the Lost movie was an insult.

And, in theory I love the idea of a new apes film, since Planet of the Apes (1968) is my all-time favorite movie, and one of my favorite genre franchises to boot. I would like to see the story make a successful transition to the next generation, so I'm not opposed outright.

What concerns me a little about this new initiative to revive the property is simply that Hollywood doesn't do subtext very well these days. Thus, I fear a remake of Conquest will excise all the incendiary racial subtext of the original, leaving the new film a big, dumb action epic; the lobotomized cinematic equivalent of Taylor's friend, Landon. That's something that just shouldn't happen. But I am going to try to keep an open mind.

In the meantime, here's a snippet of my review of the original Conquest, in preparation for the summer of 2011.

The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes motion picture cycle is also the most overtly violent and controversial entry you'll discover in the classic, five-strong franchise.

Schaffner's original Planet of the Apes (1968) offered an anti-nuke, pro-peace message to top them all with that trademark, shocking Statue of Liberty climax. The fallen, rusted Lady Liberty was a tragic visual reminder that man had ruined himself and his posterity over clashing fleeting political ideologies (CCCP vs. U.S.A.). "God damn you all to Hell!"

Even Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970) -- the sophomore series entry which ended in the Earth's final obliteration -- was anti-violence in thematic thrust. The first sequel gazed at the polarization between races -- in this case simian and mutant races -- and suggested that if we didn't all learn to "get along," our world would become but a burned-out, lifeless cinder. Dark? Indeed. But encouraging of violence....certainly not. The film even featured the equivalent of college-age, Vietnam War Era, pro-peace protesters. Only in this topsy-turvy world, they were intellectual chimpanzees...

By contrast, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes -- written by Paul Dehn (and based on characters by Pierre Boulle) -- is dramatically different in both tone and theme from these cinematic predecessors.

The best of the four sequels to Planet of the Apes -- and a great science fiction film even as a stand-alone venture -- director J. Lee Thompsons' film suggests -- in unblinking, brutal terms -- that in the case of subjugation, oppression, slavery and injustice, violent revolution is the only solution to rectify the problem. In the words of the film, despotic masters won't be kind until they are "forced" to be kind. To force kindness, your people have to be free. To have must possess power.

This notion of violent revolution as panacea to matters of social inequality didn't just arise from the ether. Like all great works of art, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, released in 1972, strongly reflects the time period during which it was produced. And from 1965 through the early 1970s, the United States suffered a number of debilitating, disturbing and violent race riots in many of its most populous urban areas. Angry African-Americans took up arms, looted merchants, and destroyed property in an attempt to express their grievances with the social injustice they witnessed and endured.

The Watts Riots occurred in Los Angeles in the year 1965, and 4,000 rioters were arrested by the police. 34 rioters were killed, and over 1,000 were injured. A political commission convened after the riot judged that the outbreak of violence had been caused by the following conditions: racial inequality in Los Angeles, a high jobless rate, bad schools, heavy-handed police tactics, and pervasive job and housing discrimination.

The LAPD chief at the time of the lawlessness didn't exactly help calm things down either. He referred to the rioters as "monkeys in the zoo," according to Social Problems, 1968, pages 322-341. As silly as that may sound, that very description -- of rioters as monkeys -- is literally translated in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

The Watts Riots did not represent an isolated incident, either. There was also the Washington D.C. Riot of 1968, the Baltimore Riot of the same year, and the Chicago Riot too. And -- perhaps most dramatically -- there was the so-called "Detroit Rebellion" of 1967 which lasted for five days (during a hot July) and saw 7,200 arrests, 40 million dollars worth of property damage, and over 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. The root causes of this violent spree were -- again after the fact -- deemed the same as those that had been observed in Watts. Unemployment by blacks doubled that of whites (15.9% to 8%) in Detroit; the community had little access to adequate medical facilities; there was distinct "spatial segregation" in the city; and 134,000 jobs had been lost over the previous decade-and-a-half.

In toto, half-a-million African-Americans were involved in the various race riots of the late 1960s. To contextualize that sum total, this number is equivalent to the number of American soldiers serving in the War in Vietnam. (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 79). This huge figure alone should put truth to the lie that the riots were but isolated incidents, or somehow just involved career criminals. Clearly, this was a social movement, not a crime spree.

From this turbulent era of violence, riot and protest was formulated Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi film which projects an ape slave uprising in technological North America in the far-flung future year of 1991. As also suggested by author Greene, the film's text is actually "key for re-reading the Watts Riots as a justifiable reaction to intolerable oppression, rather than just an outbreak of lawless abandon." (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 16). In Dehn's script, the rebelling apes are even specifically referred to as "rioters."


  1. I heard rumor that Fox might be picking up the Apes franchise again. Thanks for confirming and sharing which film they'll be reimagining. The first film is my favorite of the series, with Conquest as my next favorite given its interactions with race. I too hope the forthcoming film will have similar depth as the original, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't in that we are hardly postracial these days, and Hollywood does little to engage in reflective science fiction. Another element disturbs me as you describe the new project: while Avatar certainly demonstrated the promise of performance capture CGI, no special effect should be used in all situations, but instead in those contexts where appropriate. I'd rather see makeup prosthetics used and don't understand the rationale for the computerized actors. Here's to hoping this effort is better than Burton's last Apes film.

  2. Glad to read you're in favor of a new Apes movie. I keep hearing long-time fans say "Hell no!" and I don't get it. I've always believed PotA is such a great concept that it could support another movie. If handled correctly, "Rise" could be fantastic.

  3. My concern is that we'll get another Burton fiasco, given that this will be a reboot rather than a sequel. I think a lot of fans are so reluctant to embrace it simply because there are SO many bad remakes, reboots, reimaginings of late. Star Trek and Casino Royale were the exceptions to the rule, in that they were amazing. But so many others have been awful. I just hope Rise of the Apes falls on the Trek/Casino end of the spectrum, as we need another good Apes film.

    --Rich Handley