Friday, August 05, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: True Lies (1994)


An elaborate and expensively-mounted remake of the French farce, La Totale! (1991), James Cameron's blockbuster True Lies reveals once more the director's absolute panache in staging and directing spectacular action sequences. 

Here, a climactic sequence involving a Harrier jet, a secret agent, a teenage girl, and a Middle-Eastern terrorist is so perfectly played, so vertiginous, that you may find yourself crawling out of your skin for the duration of its running time.   I've seen the scene at least three times but watching it last week, I again felt myself growing anxious in my seat...subconsciously wishing to seek safer ground.

Much of this beautifully-shot action film is similarly rousing, particularly the motorcycle vs. horse chase sequence that ends atop a Marriott Hotel roof, and a "war" scene set on the long, narrow bridges connecting Florida Keys.  Cameron knows how to expertly layer on unconventional elements in traditional shoot-outs or pursuits -- such as horses, bathroom urinals, elevators, etc. -- and makes the scenes play as both intense and funny.

Visually then, True Lies is unimpeachable.  In fact, the imagery remains astounding some seventeen years later, an example of true cinematic "shock and awe."   More than anything, the film makes one wish that James Cameron would helm a James Bond film one of these days.  This is doubly so, actually, because True Lies knowingly opens with an homage to Goldfinger (1962).  There, in the pre-title sequence, Sean Connery rose from the water in a wetsuit.  When he took it off, 007 was wearing a pristine dinner jacket.  Schwarzenegger pulls the same stunt here after a dive through icy water, and it's a nice way of paying tribute to an action-hero legend and predecessor.

Yet beyond the astounding visual effects and breathtaking action, True Lies is a weird, quirky film with some very dramatic ups and downs. 

For instance, the 1994 film spends an inordinate amount of time on humorous scenes that actually play as mean-spirited, and the screenplay doesn't really delve into the film's main characters in very meaningful or deep fashion.   

Also some sequences -- while visually powerful -- have no contextual follow-up.  A nuclear bomb is detonated in the Florida Keys, and it hardly seems to move the nation -- or the main characters -- at all.  The horrifying moment almost seems to play as a (misplaced) romantic background during a passionate kiss.  

These concerns established, True Lies does feel very contemporary in the sense that it accurately forecasts the twenty-first century ascent of Middle-Eastern terrorism against the United States.   And it certainly predicts a powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy in the U.S. Government as the response to such terrorist attacks.  Here, that organization is "Omega Sector," the "last line of defense."   Leading Omega Sector is none other than Charlton Heston as "Spencer Trilby," and once more, his right-wing reputation carries a brand of symbolic power and weight.

Indeed, True Lies works primarily as a kind of time capsule of 1994's cultural concerns, echoing the conservative tide that swept Newt Gingrich into power as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Therefore, the next time a newspaper columnist or reviewer informs you how unduly liberal and seemingly slanted left filmmaker James Cameron is (see: Avatar), just bring up True Lies as counter-evidence. 

Seriously, it's funny how so many right-wingers wanted to beat-up and tar Cameron over Avatar even though he had already directed a huge, successful film that looks like it came straight from GOP talking points both in terms of foreign policy approach and culture warrior concerns.

"I Married Rambo..."
"Nuclear terrorists take on the nuclear family and live just long enough to rue the day in "True Lies," wrote Rita Kempley in The Washington Post. Her rhetorical flourish is an excellent way of introducing the film's storyline.

Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent working for Omega Sector, but he leads a double life. His bored but beautiful wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) believes Harry is a mild-mannered computer salesman, when in fact Harry is responsible for having saved the world on more than one occasion...with some much-needed help from his acerbic partner, Gib (Tom Arnold).

Because of his secret life, Harry has little time to spend at home with his family, and even forgets his daughter Dana's (Eliza Dushku’s) exact age. But Harry’s absence from home carries a heavy price. When Helen becomes entangled with a con man named Simon (Bill Paxton) pretending to be a secret agent, her boredom and feelings of emptiness are revealed to Harry.

Seeking to provide his wife a little taste of the adventure she seeks, Harry arranges to send Helen on a manufactured "mission."  Unfortunately, a nuclear terrorist named Aziz (Art Malik) and known as the "Sand Spider" abducts Helen and Harry and transports them to the Florida Keys, where the terrorist plots to detonate a nuclear weapon.  He wants Harry to confirm for the world, and on videotape, that he boasts the capacity to use the weapons of mass destruction.

Now aware of her husband’s real vocation, Helen teams up with Harry to stop the terrorists before they can detonate several other nukes in the United States.

Unfortunately, Aziz escapes and captures Dana.

Now -- atop a skyscraper in downtime Miami -- the terrorist threatens to destroy the metropolis unless his demands for American withdrawal from the Middle East are met. 

After rescuing Helen, Harry races to Miami flying a Harrier jet...


"You aren't her parents anymore. Her parents are Axl Rose and Madonna.  You can't compete with that kind of bombardment."

In terms of context, True Lies largely reflects the political and national zeitgeist of 1994.  First and foremost, this was the year of the reactionary white, male voter. 

So what was the white man angry about back then? 

Many things, actually.  There was widespread displeasure with the Democratic-led Congress, particularly over corruption and waste, as evidenced by the Dan Rostenkowski House of Representatives post office scandal. 

Similarly, First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton attempted to reform America's health care system with a plan for increased government involvement.  She met with fierce resistance, and the plan failed. 

More generally-speaking, many on America's right had grown increasingly angry about an increasingly toxic popular culture, and about what they viewed as "political correctness" and the "PC police" in the national discourse. 

Much of this anger and hostility was ginned up by a relatively new name in talk radio and on the national landscape -- Rush Limbaugh -- but it was also in evidence as early as 1992, when Pat Buchanan spoke at the Republic Convention about a newly engaged "culture war" (one to replace the ended Cold War.)  The year 1994 culminated with the historic overturning of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the dawn of Speaker Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America." 

The reactionary white voter was heard.   After the staggering loss of both Houses of Congress, President Clinton modulated his approach to governing.  He announced his relevancy, declared the end of Big Government, and then proved once more the adage that only Nixon could go to China by reforming Welfare.

In some very obvious and very subtle ways, True Lies mirrors the conservative mind-set of the mid-1990s. 

In broad terms, the film is about a family man, Harry, re-asserting his dominant role as head of the nuclear family. 

To re-establish this role, he must eliminate sleazy competitors for his wife's affection such as Simon, re-capture the affection of his estranged daughter following her indoctrination by pop cultural influences (named above as "Madonna and Axl Rose...") and finally, outwit a "nuclear" competitor who has kidnapped his child.  It's not an easy assignment, but Harry proves up to it...especially with the full weight and might of U.S. secret ops behind him. 

In clever fashion, Cameron approaches "nuclear family life" in True Lies as a concern as grave and serious as nuclear terrorism.  When the smooth, suave Harry returns home from a mission at Lake Chapeau, Switzerland, for instance, Cameron opens the scene with a high-angle view of Tasker and Gib huddled in the car. 

The camera peers down through the open sun roof of Gib's ride, and the film grammar interpretation of this shot selection suggests Harry's doom and entrapment.  He looks small, and in jeopardy as he prepares to return home, to "normal life."  We get both a high angle shot and a box or frame (the sun roof window) surrounding the character.  It's a double-doozy, so-to-speak. 

Later in the film, the Tasker family house is shot from a menacing low angle during a heavy thunderstorm, no less  It looks like an imposing haunted house in a horror movie.  The choice of shot informs the audience that there's trouble brewing here, both in terms of the wife and the daughter.  It's trouble that Harry will need to correct.  And boy will he correct it!

Finally, I don't know if I've ever seen a better metaphor for the delicate dance between career and family than the nail-biting finale of this film, which finds Harry flying a Harrier over downtown Miami.  His daughter clings precariously to the nose cone of the plane, crying for help.  Meanwhile, on the tail fin of the plane, Aziz is on the attack, armed with a machine gun. 

With absolute precision Harry must "balance" both situations, or risk total disaster.   If he tips one way, his family is destroyed.  If he tips the other way, Aziz gets the jump on him.  This scene is beautifully vetted both for what it represents (the delicate dance of maintaining home life and career), and in the physical, cliffhanging details.  It's also a great, pulse-pounding finale to the film.

By re-engaging with both Helen and Dana, Harry does rescue his family both metaphorically and literally, and that's the movies thematic through-line, a comparison between domestic dangers and foreign ones.   

The family that fights terrorists together, stays together, or something like that.

Where this approach becomes a little dicey, I would submit, is in some of the specifics of Harry's methodology.  He approaches his family problems with the same take-no-prisoners attitude as he confronts foreign terrorists.  On one hand, this approach can be funny.  On the other hand, Harry's actions are wildly inappropriate and actually illegal, and Harry is never called on the carpet or made to account for his behavior.  Instead, he's rewarded for bending the rules to suit his personal cause.

For instance, without a second thought, Harry engages national security apparatus to trail, apprehend, hold and interrogate Helen and Simon.   Forecasting Bush Administration policies, he uses wiretaps -- without warrants -- to do so.

Then -- also forecasting some of the darker imagery of the 2000s, namely in association with Abu Ghraib -- Harry dangerously bullies Simon, his competitor for Helen's affections, throwing him under a black, eyeless hood and threatening to drop him from a precipice overlooking a dam.

But hey, what's a little abuse of power between friends and family?  

Actually, this line of "humor" regarding Harry's manipulation of U.S. government funds and resources doesn't get under my skin nearly so much as some of the other material that's associated with it.  And that's because -- essentially -- it works with the film's central joke: family life vs. secret agent life.  A bit of exaggeration is certainly acceptable here in the name of humor.  And again, the idea is to throw political incorrectness to the wind.  Nothing wrong with that.

What instead feels a little disturbing about True Lies is the mean-spirited or at least questionable nature of several key moments and sequences. 

For example, Gib (Arnold) continually refers to women characters in the film as bitches.   Feeling magnanimous,  I would give the movie the use of that term three or four times.  But the word "bitch" just keeps coming up, and one starts to realize after the umpteenth repetition that it's not just for humor...it's some kind of creepy pathology.  

And then Gib actually says "Women: can't live with 'em' can't kill 'em."  Funny?  Well, is it funny to say "Men, can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em?"   I report, you decide.

It's a little bit like watching a comedian who is funny at first, but then keeps repeating the same borderline offensive material until it's not so funny anymore.  You realize you're watching someone with a problem -- nay an obsession -- and not someone who is very funny.

On one hand, the frequent use of the word "bitch" may be Tom Arnold's method of attaining some kind of important personal catharsis or closure after his marriage to Roseanne Barr.  I certainly wouldn't deny him his right to express those feelings of hostility.  But on the other hand, in a movie in which a family man must thoroughly wrestle and wrangle the women in his life (namely his wife and daughter), the last image you want presented is one of rampant misogyny. 

In other words, I don't think the near-constant refrain of "bitch" is an example of misogyny on the part of Cameron or other filmmakers, but I do think that -- when coupled with the incredibly traditional plot line of a man wrangling his women -- it adds to the sneaking suspicion that this movie does not like women very much.  Which is unfortunate, given Cameron's excellent history with strong female characters.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in True Lies involves Helen's strip-tease in a hotel room.  Jamie Lee Curtis looks absolutely phenomenal here, and the scene is certainly amusing on some level.  At the very least, Ms. Curtis proves she is quite adept with physical comedy.  But the scene is also extremely controversial, and many critics have made note of the unsavory quality beneath it.

Again, when coupled with the sort of male-fantasy aspects of the film and the all-too-casual utterances of the word "bitch," the scene also takes on another shade of, well...ickiness. 

It's truly cruel to put Helen into the position of fearing she will have to act as a prostitute for a john, even if Harry's motive is pure; so that she "feels" she has done something adventurous with her life. 

Yes, the moment is perhaps funny for us, because we -- like Harry -- realize that Helen is in no danger.  But she is left to worry about exploitation, rape and even death.  At the very least, Harry's behavior is un-chivalrous.  It's as though he's paying her back for making him worry she was having an affair (which she wasn't...).  I'm sure someone will say I lack a sense of humor for quibbling with this scene, but that's not it.  Maybe I just possess a surfeit of empathy.

How would Harry feel, if he were made to perform sexually like this -- not knowing how far it would go -- for another man, for instance?  Then it wouldn't be quite so funny, would it?

Again, there's this kind of cloying adolescent male fantasy aspect to True Lies.  Harry never discusses with Helen, in any more than cursory terms, his lifetime of lies.  He never has to really deal meaningfully with the fact that he kidnapped, interrogated and manipulated her.  Because there is a crisis -- and because he's a hero -- he gets off pretty much scot free.  In fact, Helen likes the new Harry so much, she even ends up joining him as a secret agent.    Well, if you can't beat 'em...

One might be tempted to argue that Harry couldn't tell Helen the truth because of national security.  But just look at how easily Harry manipulates the tools of national security when he wishes to; when he believes he has been wronged.  Again, study this objectively.  When Helen is unhappy, she seeks adventure, but doesn't betray her principles.  She doesn't cheat on Harry.  When Harry is unhappy, he brings down the full force of the American government to bludgeon his wife!   Seem even-handed and principled to you?

Another mean-streak is evident in the treatment of the essentially comedic Simon character played by Bill Paxton.  He's a cad and a jerk and an exploiter of women, and deserves a comeuppance.  But again,  to be pushed to the edge of a precipice overlooking a huge fall?  To be made to wet his pants...twice? 

First of all, the idea of a frightened man peeing himself simply isn't so funny that it requires an encore in the film's conclusion, and secondly the set-up for the second gag is so ham-handed you want to wince. 

Simon just happens to be on location during a mission involving Helen and Harry, giving Helen the opportunity to make him piss his tuxedo? 

It's dumb, contrived, and again, more pathetic than funny.  Simon has suffered amply already, and it's just sadistic and pandering to bring him back to repeat the lame pants-wetting gag.  Again, I have to laugh when people complain about the Billy Zane character being two-dimensional in Titanic.  They object to that character, but not Simon in True Lies?  Really?

True Lies has also been accused of being anti-Arab, but I don't believe that's a fair attack on the film. One of Harry's associates, Faisil (Grant Hevlov) is also of Middle Eastern ethnicity, and he proves a valuable hero in the film.  On the contrary -- and I don't mean to rile anybody with this statement -- True Lies actually very clearly gets at some of the motivation behind Islamic radicalism against America. And that motivation is, simply, blowback over American policies regarding the Gulf States.  That was Bin Laden's reason for declaring war on America in 1998, and the self-same reason is spoken -- in detail -- by Aziz in this film.  True Lies is cannily accurate on this front, as much as we would prefer it were not.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, we get many familiar ingredients in True Lies.   Helen is the fish-out-of-water character who is forced to take on a new role (that of covert agent).   She is also, in the tradition of Ripley or Sarah Connor, a character who -- after some trepidation -- proves herself up to the challenge of defeating a grave threat.  Though the scene with Helen dropping an uzi and it falling down the stairs -- all while blasting terrorists -- is cringe-worthy and patronizing,  her confrontation with Juno (Tia Carrere) is pretty impressive.  Like every film except Titanic, True Lies also features a nuclear weapon in some capacity.

I cannot tell a lie: True Lies is my least favorite James Cameron film. 

I enjoy the time-capsule qualities of the film (bringing us right back to what was happening culturally in 1994...) and I respect the thematic through-line about the American nuclear family and nuclear terrorism.  I also believe the action is staged in brilliant, exciting fashion.  The film is a roller-coaster ride.

But I still wish Cameron had something deeper to convey here.  The film doesn't exactly "screw the pooch," as Gib is fonding of saying, but it's pretty clear, given his career trajectory, that Cameron can do a lot better (and has done a lot better...) than True Lies.


Next week on the Cameron Curriculum: The Terminator (1984).

CULT TV FLASHBACK: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)


Yesterday as part of my blog's ongoing Ape-o-thon (leading up to my review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes on Sunday...) I wrote about a re-imagination I didn't much care for: Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001). 

By contrast, today I want to gaze at a different re-imagination, and one that's a lot more fun, the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Return to the Planet of the Apes is a program developed for television by David De Patrie and Fritz Freleng.  It assimilates and re-invents characters, plot lines, devices and technology from all previous incarnations of the once-popular franchise, including the Pierre Boulle novel, the 1968 film and sequels (Beneath, in particular…), and even the short-lived 1974 live-action TV series.

The result is an invigorating shot in the arm for the franchise. I hadn’t watched these half-hour episodes for something like thirty-five years, but re-discovering them on DVD, I was shocked and pleased at how attentive and committed to details (and to an overall story arc) this animated series remains.

Because frankly the buzz from the old genre press wasn’t good.

Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977 that I've always adored, the author writes in a summary review of the NBC series that it “was a not very exciting animated version of the short-lived CBS live-action series,” and that the artwork and plots were “simplistic.” (page 177).  The comment about the art work is correct, and yet some times "simplistic" can also mean...interesting.  Once you get used to it, the design of the cartoon series is actually pretty terrific, at least in a baroque kind of way.

The premiere episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes, “Flames of Doom,” (by Larry Spiegel), finds a NASA space capsule called the “Venture” traveling on a routine deep space mission on August 6, 1976.

Aboard are three astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American man) and Judy Franklin (a woman).

Bill narrates the captain’s log and confirms Dr. Stanton’s theory of “time thrust;” that man can utilize faster-than-light speeds to propel himself into the future. Admirers of the 1968 film will recognize this comment as a reflection of Chuck Heston’s opening narration, and Dr. Hasslein’s theory named there. It’s been simplified for children in this cartoon, but the idea is identical.

No sooner has Hudson informed us about this scientific theory than the ship’s chronometer goes wild and the Venture literally plunges into a time warp. The “Earth Clock” goes crazy, and the Venture arrives battered and bruised in the year 3979, where it crashes on a strange planet, and into a dead lake.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the surface  – in a city ruled by intelligent apes – General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide against all humans.

Arguing the opposite case is the kindly chimpanzee Cornelius, who pleads for a “different course.” He and his wife, a behavioral scientist named Zira, wish to study humans as the key to “simian origins.” Arbitrating this dispute of national importance is the ruler of the apes, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius.

I must note that the level of attention to detail in this scene is remarkable.  For as Zaius issues his decision on the matter at hand, the edit cuts to a stone relief on the wall behind him which reveals the long history of ape-human relations. There are images of apes hunting humans and even domesticating them.

Humans may be hunted as legitimate sport, Zaius concludes, or brought into the city to perform “menial tasks.” They may even serve as domestic pets, but Zaius will not demand their total destruction. However, on an ominous note, he warns that Article 18 of the “Book of Simian Prophecy” demands that man must be destroyed at any cost if he develops the power of speech. In other words, this is a temporary victory for Cornelius’s cause, and for the primitive, mute, stone-age humans who populate caves outside the technologically advanced ape-city.

Watching this portion of the episode, a few matters become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle’s original novel. In other words, the apes dwell in a twentieth century city with television, radio, automobiles and the like.

Their city is not a rock-outcropping like in the popular original movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings and skyscrapers that resemble those from human history in a wonderful nod to the adage “monkey see, monkey do.” The ape culture of the original film was almost medieval, despite the presence of guns and such medical advances as brain surgery. Not so here.

For instance, the imposing ape council building resembles nothing so much as our own Capitol Building where Congress deliberates. Since this is a re-imagination and updating of Planet of the Apes for the mid-1970s, not only is there the burgeoning nod to gender and racial diversity (this was the era of the equal rights amendment...) in the make-up of the astronauts, but the focus on the Council and its proceedings reveals a more bureaucratic bent to the apes.

Instead of ape culture being essentially of one mind (as in the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil triumvirate of the Schaffner film showcases), here Ape society is bedeviled by partisan politics, with chimpanzees representing the pacifist left, gorillas the militant right, and orangutans the sensible center. This is especially important considering the context of Return to the Planet of the Apes: immediately post-Watergate and soon after the Vietnam conflict. Again, this is an example of updating and changing a franchise, but not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Continuing with the story, Bill, Jeff (voiced by Austin Stoker of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Assault on Precinct 13), and Judy abandon their sinking spaceship and flee into the Forbidden Zone. Recalling the portions of the original film shot in Death Valley, the series offers an artistic montage here as the three astronauts search for water and food under the glaring sun of what they believe is an alien world.

The animated frames turn a bright scarlet hue to represent the heat of the desert and there are close-ups of human faces caked in sweat. Close-ups of tired feet marching in the sand also appear. This montage doesn’t rely on dialogue, but rather on clever images that express an emotion.

The animation is limited perhaps, even crude but these limitations are marshaled as a strength on the program. Overlapping views, double exposes, intense close-ups, insert shots and first person subjective point-of-view shots all provide a texture to the desperate march through the wasteland.

This march ends, appropriately, with the sighting of an Ape Mount Rushmore. Another new touch, but again one that along with the ape metropolis reveals the ape talent for mimicry (monkey see, monkey do) and is therefore thematically valuable; a subconscious reminder that all of the simian accomplishments are built on “aping” human society.  Later episodes go further with this idea, visiting "The Tomb of the Unknown Ape" or mentioning the famous author, William Apespeare.  One episode, "Invasion of the Underdwellers," even casts eyes on -- at least briefly -- a simian Mona Lisa.

In the desert, Jeff and Bill lose Judy when fires spontaneously erupts in front of them, and an earthquake splits the ground in a series of lovely frames that reveal a high degree of fidelity to images from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (particularly Taylor’s abduction by the underground mutants).

The astronauts have little time to ponder the loss of their companion, however, as Bill and Jeff encounter a tribe of stone age humans, including the beautiful Nova.

Suggesting an interesting mystery, Nova wears the dog tags of another astronaut, someone named Brent (again, a reference to Beneath the Planet of the Apes). His birth date was May 2, 2079, so Jeff and Bill are forced to ponder the notion that an astronaut who was born after them arrived on the planet of the apes before they did. Boggles the mind, no? This is a pretty advanced concept for a kid’s show, and it also provides an underlying mystery for adults to enjoy. Where is Brent? What happened to him?

Before long, the apes arrive, on the hunt,  in tanks, jeeps and with heavy artillery. The gorillas even lob gas grenades at the primitive humans. Here, the series utilizes zooms inside individual frames (not actual motion, but rather camera motion…) to suggest the frenetic pace of the hunt. Jeff and Bill are separated, and Bill is captured and taken to Ape City.

That’s where the first episode ends, but already, the attentive viewer can detect how this canny re-imagination assimilates the critical aspects of the Planet of the Apes mythos with something akin to 20/20 hindsight. Instead of making up the saga as it goes (a deficit of the otherwise outstanding motion picture series…), Return to the Planet of the Apes accounts for – from the very beginning – the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed “The Underdwellers.”) It also employs familiar characters in new ways and in  new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story. 

In terms of characters, Urko derives from Mark Lenard’s character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, a similar character was known as “Ursus.” He is essentially the same ape here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most.

Zaius is no longer a hypocritical religious zealot, but rather an equalizing force of moderation in Ape Society…almost heroic!

The free ape is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought,” he even states; an ideal that the movie’s “chief defender of the faith” could never get behind. This is actually an intelligent structural change as well as a symbolic representation of the left/right divide in our culture. Why? Because with Zaius moderating pacifists and war-mongers, we can more logically believe that humans (particularly the astronauts) can continue to escape and outmaneuver a technologically advanced simian culture. The whole planet isn’t out to kill them; they do have allies.  Dr. Zaius is even referred to by his enemies, the Underdwellers, as being "just...for an ape," and again, this is a sea change in the character's depiction.

From the original Planet of the Apes movie, “Flames of Doom” also incorporates other powerful visuals. We see the ape scarecrows on the border of the Forbidden Zone again, and, on a connected note, hear the same gorilla “hunt” horn on the soundtrack. We see a small, yellow rubber raft and a U.S. flag planted in the Forbidden Zone too, as well as the discovery of a first green plant indicating life on the fringe of the desert.

Again, the approach here seems to be to this: take what worked in the apes movie, book and TV series, and then put them all together in a more coherent, cohesive story, smoothing out the bumps and making everything jibe.

That’s important, because long time Planet of the Apes fans will remember some of the more dramatic gaps fouling continuity in the film series. In Planet of the Apes, for instance, it is the year 3978 when Taylor arrives, but when Brent arrives on his heels in the follow-up, Beneath, it is magically 3955. Similarly, there are discrepancies between Escape and Conquest in the story of how the apes ascended to superiority in man’s world. Cornelius’s story involves an ape named Aldo (whom we meet in Battle), but does not take into account the true ape revolutionary, Caesar.  Coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle, Return to the Planet of the Apes benefits from knowing everything that came before.

Indeed, this is the only valid reason for the re-imagination of a franchise. Taking what worked in one production and maintaining it; and taking what didn’t work and improving upon it.  It must be done, with a degree of love, patience and restraint involving the material. 

Notice that there is not merely change for the sake of change here; that characters have not miraculously switched sexes, and whole swaths of mythology have not been removed or altered to suit a "developer"s ego, or need to be "creative."

What I’m suggesting is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the Apes mythos. So yes, a re-imagination can work, and this dedicated animated series is one example where it did so.

None of this means, however, that Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn't sometimes lapse into childishness and silliness.  The series was made, after all, to air on Saturday mornings in the 1970s.  The intended demographic was young children.  

This factor plays out in some funny ways throughout the series.  One episode involves two giant monsters clashing (an ape and what looks like a giant turkey...), for instance.  The Underdwellers are also notably more friendly to humans in this incarnation than in earlier ones, and suddenlt possess incredible powers.  They can "mind-transfer" images and physical beings from one location to another, for instance.  They are more than a match for Urko and his apes, so that his bullying tactics won't carry the day.

Similarly, the human astronauts depicted in Return to the Planet of the Apes are not nearly so desperate as the astronauts in the films and live action TV series.  In "Invasion of the Underdwellers" by J.C. Strong, for instance, Bill and Jeff use tools from their spacecraft to avert a crisis, including a laser drill.  Again, considering the intended audience, it's easy to see why such modifications have been made.  You don't want to scare the living daylights out of the children with a tale of over matched humans and threatening apes. 

Of course, by the same token, every kid watching in this cartoon in 1975 had probably already seen the Apes movies on the 4:30 PM movie or some equivalent, so perhaps hedging bets was an unnecessary accommodation.  After you've seen the Earth get incinerated, Urko isn't going to scare you that much...

I'd love to see the 20/20 hindsight approach of Return to the Planet of the Apes mirrored in a new, live-action TV series.  Send three astronauts into a high-tech ape society, and then tell stories about Ape City and the Forbidden Zone, and the gulf between.  Aim it squarely at adults this time, include lots of social commentary on the subject of man's self-destructive nature and race relationships, be true to the "time loop" aspect of the original films, and you'd have a winner. At least if it were produced for a premium channel like HBO where you can get away with pushing the envelope.

I'd definitely go ape over that.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK: Planet of the Apes: The Series: "Escape from Tomorrow"

In the fall of 1974, the Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to CBS network television for fourteen hour long episodes.

Planet of the Apes - the series - featured the continuing adventures of human astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (Jim Naughton), in the far-flung year of 3085 (starting March 21, 3085, if we're to believe the spaceship chronometer...) on a world run by intelligent, talking simians.

In "Escape from Tomorrow," the introductory episode written by Art Wallace and directed by Don Weis, we begin with an old man (in a bad wig) being pursued by a child chimpanzee and his pet dog in a rural setting.

My first thought watching this sequence was that it was a canon violation (alert! alert!), since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had established that a space plague had arrived on Earth in the late 20th century and killed off all the cats and dogs. It was the death of "beloved pets," in fact, that led humans to enslave apes...which would then lead to the uprising of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. This fact seems like something that the producers of the series should have taken care to remember, since it is a lynch pin of apes continuity.  On the other hand, this sequence occurs a thousand years after the plague, so I suppose it is possible that "life has found a way," (to quote the Jurassic Park films), and dogs have re-entered the chain of life on Earth.

Putting aside this sloppy faux pas, the story continues as the old man hears a strange aircraft overhead and then finds the crash site of a spaceship in a nearby field. He rescues two astronauts (Virdon and Burke) but the third (Jones) is dead. When the shaken, disoriented astronauts awaken, the old man explains to the humans that apes rule this planet and that humans (who still have the power of speech here) are inferior underlings. Alan immediately wants to find a way to return home to his family (a wife and son). He recounts how the ship experienced radioactive turbulence near Alpha Centauri and he ordered Jones to activate the homing beacon. Burke is more defeatist. "This is home now, and you know it," he says. His words, however, carry a double meaning even he is not aware of.


After the Old Man presents the astronauts with a book of pictures from New York City in the year 2505 (another troublesome continuity point that contradicts the movies...), the astronauts realized that they have returned home indeed. That the planet of the apes...is Earth.

As the episode progresses, Alan and Pete meet Galen (Roddy McDowall) a friendly chimpanzee and member of the ape aristocracy who possesses many misconceptions about human beings, never having gotten to really know any. Worse, the astronauts face off with Urko (Mark Lenard), the chief security officer in Ape City who wants them dead. Now. Chief Counselor Zaius (Booth Colman) is willing to keep the astronauts alive, if only to learn of their technology and find a way to keep them from influencing the primitive humans of his world. Zaius is worried that the astronauts' love of freedom and independence will transfer to the indigenous humans and foster an uprising.

In this episode's scenes with Zaius and Urko, the writers accomplished something interesting and forward-thinking for episodic television in 1974. They began to develop - from this first episode - series mysteries that presumably would have been solved had the series lasted more than half-a-season. For instance, during a confidential tete-a-tete, Zaius asks Galen "did you ever have a recurring nightmare?" He then launches into a discussion of the fact that other human astronauts have arrived on the planet before (and again - it can't be the characters [like Taylor or Brent] we saw in the original films, because those events occurred in 3978...almost a thousand years after the events of the TV series).

"Another ship, Zaius," states Urko, "it's hard to believe." One can imagine that had the series lasted, viewers would have heard much more about these other astronauts and their (apparently-not-very-pleasant...) adventures on the planet of the apes. If that had been the case, the series would have been all the stronger for it.

"Escape from Tomorrow" ends with Virdon, Burke and Galen allied and on the run, while Ape forces destroy their spacecraft. Fortunately for the humans, Virdon has recovered a small magnetic computer disk from the ship which - if they can find a computer in this post apocalyptic topsy-turvy world - might help them find a way back to their time. Future episodes involve the triumvirate traveling from one human province to another, in search of technology that can help them return to the Earth of the past.  In the episode "The Legacy," the humans find working computers and a hologram of a 'future' human in a nearly destroyed 20th century city, but still aren't able to glean the information they require for a trip home.

As we've seen, the original Planet of the Apes films served as brilliant social commentary on the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. They concerned (among other things): nuclear war, man's self-destructive nature, and the pitfalls and total hypocrisy of religious zealotry.

By contrast, the television series limits its commentary to one fascinating subject: the issue of race relations, of a class society separated by race and species. This is an important point, considering this was the era after the Watts Riots and the Camden Riots (1971). The Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end for all intents and purposes, and suddenly here's a sci-fi TV show about "species" stereotypes and irrational, implacable biases.

"Escape from Tomorrow" is illuminating in the language it utilizes to describe humans, here deemed the "lesser" or "inferior" class. Both humans themselves and the ruling apes make pervasive derogatory comments in "Escape from Tomorrow" that we - living today - would certainly understand as bigoted or as examples of stereotypes. "Humans know their place," one chimpanzee prefect notes, "that musn't change. They'd begin to think they're as good as we are..."

A nearby village, Chollo, is described (by a human...) as "the village where humans are supposed to live," in other words a ghetto.

Galen describes humans as "laborers, farmers and servants" and was always taught to believe that they are an inferior breed. To suggest otherwise is heresy and treason on this world. But Galen is inquisitive and smart and looks beyond the stereotypes, finally. His experience with Alan and Burke makes him realize that human beings have feelings and dreams and hopes too. He asks Zaius's human serf what it is "like to be human" and then confronts Zaius after he learns that human beings have a history of technical and scientific achievement. "Why Zaius?" He asks. "Why should truth be against the law?"

Galen also suggests that "maybe the world would be better if no creature" was deemed superior to another. This point-of-view makes him a strong ally for the fugitive astronauts, but his objective, inquisitive nature also makes him a radical and fugitive among his own people. 

Yesterday I reviewed the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and complained about the lack of background on the part of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).  She was a human rights activist, but we didn't understand why or how she came to this perspective.  By contrast, "Escape from Tomorrow" at least lets the audience share in Galen's development on that front. We see him questing for answers and learning, step-by-step, about human beings. 

Another element of the Planet of the Apes series also seems to derive from another 1970s real life source. Namely, Zaius and Urko engage in a secret cover-up to destroy the spaceship and keep knowledge of the astronauts a secret from the general populace. In other words, the ape ruling class is working against its people (both human and simian). The apes live in a rigidly conservative or traditional society here, one where the status quo must remain intact at all costs, and the aristocracy lives in mortal dread of losing control, of seeing their imposed "natural" order change. "Heresy" and "treason" are common accusations for those who reject ape dogma. The idea of a cover-up and an authoritarian government (it's legal if the president says its legal...) surely reflect the Watergate Era, and Nixon's imperial presidency. All of that was coming to a head in 1974 America as this series aired.

Yet too often on the Planet of the Apes TV series, the story lines and plot details felt uninspired and repetitive. It all usually came down to one of the three heroes captured by the apes and then rescued by the other two cohorts before the hour was up.

And yet, I remember this series with tremendous fondness and affection because it had a great deal of value in terms of depicting a society separated by class and race. By putting white humans in the inferior position, the series makes quite a few trenchant points. Ultimately, that's the purpose of good science fiction....to comment on society, and here the set-up is nearly Swiftian. On top of these elements, the series features good actors and a modestly well-drawn future world, thanks in part to the costumes left over from the feature films and the occasional use of stock footage (for Ape City exteriors, for instance).

I suppose to enjoy the Planet of the Apes series to its fullest, you must forgive the repetitive, action-oriented storytelling a bit and be willing to look for the underlying points, the subtext. These factors are present in most episodes (especially "The Trap," one that finds a gorilla and a human - Urko and Burke - trapped in an underground subway system together...), but also just a tiny resonance in quite a few programs.   If theisseries had lasted more than half-a-season, perhaps we would have seen the underlying social commentary rise to the surface more frequently.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Planet of the Apes (2001)

If you frequent my blog with any regularity, I hope you know I'd much rather praise a movie than damn it.  Frankly, it's a matter of my own continued mental health: I don't relish devoting my time or energy to movies or TV programs I don't enjoy.  Not when there is so much out there that I do very much enjoy.

In some cases, obviously, it's just not possible to avoid a negative review.  Tim Burton's re-imagination of Planet of the Apes is surely one of  'em.  I first saw the film in theaters in the summer of 2001 and disliked it immensely. Then, in preparation for this review, I watched it again for the first time in a decade, hoping that it had aged in some fashion that would make the film seem more interesting or at least palatable. 

Sadly, that isn't the case, either.

Before I delve into the specifics of the  re-imagination, I'd also like to establish for the record that I'm a big Tim Burton fan, and that I admire many of his films, but especially Edward Scissorhands (1990),  Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Big Fish (2003). 

The following review isn't about any dislike for the artist or his oeuvre, only my dislike for this particular 2001 film.  I hope, in fact, to blog a Tim Burton retrospective, perhaps next summer, especially since he's involved with the re-vamp (pardon the term...) of Dark Shadows.

But his version of Planet of the Apes?  It's a missed opportunity on a colossal scale, and -- for long stretches -- a surprisingly dull and joyless film.  Many of the movie's egregious flaws can be traced back to the script, which focuses on off-the-shelf, uninteresting characters who prove almost impossible to care about.  Additionally, Mark Wahlberg is badly miscast in the lead role, and can hardly feign interest in even the best aspects of the material. 

Worse than those problems, this re-imagination of Planet of the Apes feels largely studio-bound and claustrophobic rather than epic, and the film offers only very little in terms of the franchise's trademark social commentary.  In fact, a central moment late in the film actually undercuts the original franchise's strong anti-war message.

In short, Planet of the Apes -- the re-imagination -- is an empty, mechanical exercise in blockbuster movie making, and one without a beating heart to call its own. 

Extremism in defense of apes is no vice

In 2026, the USAF Space Research Station Oberon encounters a strange electromagnetic storm nearby in space.  A test-pilot -- a chimp named Pericles -- launches a pod to investigate, but becomes lost in the space vortex.

Pericles' human trainer, astronaut Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) attempts to rescue Pericles, but is drawn into the phenomenon himself.   His tiny ship crash lands on a nearby planet in the year 5021 AD, and Leo finds himself on a world in which intelligent apes rule, and humans are slaves and second class citizens.

After his capture by the simian slave trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti), Leo finds himself a servant in the home of Senator Sandar (David Warner) and his "human rights faction" daughter, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).  With  a group of slaves in tow, including the beautiful Daena (Estella Warren), Leo attempts to escape the city.

While Leo, Ari, Deana and others make for "the Forbidden Area" called Calima where ancient ruins from ape pre-history are located, the human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) and General Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) attempt to hunt down the fugitives.  Thade's dying father also warns the General that humans once possessed fearsome technology.

In the Forbidden Area, Leo discovers the ruins of his home base, the Oberon, and learns that the station crashed on the planet thousands of years earlier, while attempting to rescue him from the temporal vortex.  The test pilot apes aboard the station then rebelled against their human masters, and a new order -- a planet of the apes -- was born.

Now, Leo must rescue the human descendants of the Oberon crew, who have gathered at the Forbidden Area's ruins in search of a leader, and defeat the forces of Thade.  Helping Leo in this cause, the great ape God, Semos (really Pericles...) puts in a surprise appearance during the final battle...

Can't we all just get along? 

There are many Planet of the Apes fans, I realize who disliked this re-imagination almost a priori because it totally discarded the familiar franchise mythology and went in a totally new direction.

I actually don't hate the film on that basis.  The screenwriters, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, and William Broyles Jr.  clearly studied the existing franchise and decided to go in a new direction that would -- despite the fresh take -- re-shuffle the  familiar ingredients already popular in the five-strong saga, 1968 - 1973. 

To wit, this re-imagination involves time travel, a human-friendly chimpanzee female, a spaceship crash in a lake, a hunt of humans by apes, desert scarecrows (!), an artifact from an earlier, technological era (a gun here, instead of the original's baby doll), and the secret of ape history...buried in the Forbidden Zone/Area.  The new film also boasts a surprise ending in the spirit and mode of the Statue of Liberty climax, and re-purposes much of the original film's most memorable dialogue, including "Damn them all to Hell" and "take your stinking paws off me..."

By purposefully re-using all of these familiar ingredients (down to a cameo by original star Charlton Heston), this 2001 version of the Planet of the Apes attempts to re-capture the vibe and aura of the original franchise, if not the narrative details. It's not a terrible gambit as far as "re-imaginations" go.   After all, would we want to see a shot-for-shot remake, or the same exact tale depicted again?  Either of those options would have invited only invidious comparisons to the 1968 film.  Part of the game in remakes is finding a fresh angle, and altering some of the narrative details so as to keep knowledgeable audiences off-base.   So I give the film it's premise, and it's invention of a new planet of the apes.  I would have preferred a straight-up sequel to the original franchise, or even a faithful adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel, but okay.

And yet the re-imagination fails so dramatically because the people and apes who populate this new story are not interesting, unique, or well-written....even in the slightest degree.  In fact, everyone is a two-dimensional cartoon character, and that fact severely limits the narrative's capability to surprise, amuse or otherwise involve the audience.  If you don't care about the people involved in an adventure, the clever details of the adventure are almost unimportant.

The biggest problem is Leo Davidson. He's a test pilot who flies into a time vortex in pursuit of a rogue chimp and crashes on the planet of the apes.  He then spends the entire movie trying to get back home.  Because Leo's only purpose is escape and a return to space, he never truly engages or confronts the ape culture, at least not in the thorough, dramatic fashion that Taylor had to countenance it. 

In the original film, there was no escape for Taylor...and he knew it.  His ship was destroyed and he was 2,000 years beyond his own time period.  Where was he going to run?  Taylor had to stand trial before the apes and battle wits with the cunning Dr. Zaius.  The planet of the apes was his (very big) problem, and there was no avoiding it.  He had to be emotionally and personally involved in what happened to Zira, Cornelius and Nova because he was going to spend the rest of his life on this planet.

In the new Planet of the Apes, Leo breaks out of Ape City and just runs and runs until he can run no further.  He hardly countenances the apes at all.  They're just a temporary and bizarre inconvenience until he can track down a ship using his homing beacon.  His involvement with the politics and problems of the apes then, is nil.  And since he doesn't seem to care about the apes or the humans of this world, the audience doesn't care either.

Worse, Leo doesn't seem to have much happening in terms of his personality. As was immediately clear from the original Planet of the Apes, Taylor was a cynic, a misanthrope, and an acid wit.   He had a perspective on life that was evident in every action he took.  Leo is essentially a run-of-the-mill jock, a pilot who has haphazardly wandered into the planet of the apes and wants to get off, to quote The Simpsons.  There's absolutely nothing else to him.  What's his philosophy about mankind?  About space travel?  Why is he in the space service in the first place?  Any touch of color or differentiation would have appreciated.

Early on, there's the tiniest bit of attention given to the fact that apes get to fly spaceships instead of humans, and that this strategy irks Leo.  He wants to be an explorer and a leader of men, we intuit, and yet when he is thrust into this active role of leadership on the planet of the apes, he completely rjects it.  He denies and shirks his duty until the very last minute.  There's simply nothing unusual, interesting or noteworthy about this character, and since Leo is our surrogate in the picture, almost every aspect of the movie falls flat. 

At one point in the film, Ari notes that Leo is different from the other humans she has met; that he is unusual.  How so?  He hasn't spoken to her with greater sensitivity, revealed to her particularly much by way of superior intelligence, or even demonstrated remarkable physical agility.  We're just informed that he's special, and yet it just doesn't ring true with what the audience sees.   Why is he special or unusual?  The movie can't be bothered to show the audience.  We just have to accept that he is unusual because Ari says that he is, and because he's obviously the movie's "hero."  It's lazy.

I like Mark Wahlberg.  I think he's a great actor, especially given the right material. Boogie Nights (1997) is one of my favorite films of the 1990s, and I think he's also terrific in last year's The Fighter (2010). 

But he's out of his depth, or comfort zone, or something, in Planet of the Apes, and just doesn't carry the film in the way that he should.  And he doesnt' get any help from the flat writing, either.  Wahlberg's "inspirational" speech to the humans before battle in the Forbidden Area is a career low-point for the performer.  It's  half-heartedly delivered...on top of being poorly written. 

Unfortunately, the other characters in Burton's Planet of the Apes are no better drawn than Leo.  The villain of the piece, General Thade (Tim Roth) is another  two-dimensional cartoon character, an ape who just really, really, really hates humans.  There is no motivation for his overhwelming, epic hatred for humans voiced in the film (except the flimsiest of excuses about them infesting the provinces outside the city...), so he's just a cog in the screenplay's wheel.  The film needs a human-hating bad guy, and Thade provides that.  But no more.  Roth is another great actor ill-served by the script.  Thade sneers and hisses and jumps and growls, but doesn't register beyond those over-the-top histrionics.

Ari is likely as bad, in the other direction.  She is the "liberal" daughter of an ape senator and part of the "human rights faction" but we never know or understand what drives her activism.  As much as Thade is bad because the movie requires a villain, Ari is "good" because the movie requires a friend to help Leo.  In the original film, of course, Zira got to know Taylor and came to understand and like him.    At first she was fascinated and a little afraid of him.  By the end of the film, they were friends.  Ari is automatically on Leo's side from her first meeting with him, and risks everything in her life to help him escape.  Again, it doesn't quite ring true.  How did the indulged, affluent daughter of a politician come to be such a fearless human rights advocate?  The movie owes the audience some kind of explanation.

Then there's Warren's Daena, a very, very pale echo of the Nova character in the original.  Only here, Daena clearly wears glossy lipstick in all her close-ups (where'd she get it?) and is good for nothing plotwise except casting jealous looks at Ari and Leo as they grow closer.  Daena inspires none of the action in the film, and isn't even a romantic interest in the narrowest definition of that word.  She's just eye candy.  And at the end of the film, Leo leave the planet without hardly a glance back in her direction.  She is probably the most useless and ill-used character in the film, and that's saying something.

Even ostensibly weakest of the original Planet of the Apes films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, thought to add layers of individuality to the film's characters.  Caesar was gripped in an existentialist crisis about his decisions, and how to bring about the future he desires.  Mandemus was the custodian of Caesar's conscience, but one who was tired of being locked in the armory and yearned to be free of the grave responsibility.  Aldo and Kolp -- the film's villains -- were depicted in either reoognizable human terms, or at least quirky ones.  They had some semblance of personality or distinction.  The characters in the new Planet of the Apes are all drones who plug story holes, but aren't recognizable as individual personalities. We've got a hero, a villain, a love interest and the by-the-numbers comic-relief, Limbo.

Another big disappointment with the film is the betrayal of the Planet of the Apes' franchise's anti-war (and especially anti-nuclear war) legacy.  Late in the film, Leo discovers that the Oberon's nuclear fuel is still operational and conveniently powering the ruined ship.  He rigs it to deliver a death blow to the advancing ape army.  Where the other ape films expressed anxiety about the use of nuclear weaponry, here a weapon of mass destruction is merely a convenient tool to even the odds in combat.  We are encouraged to cheer when Leo pulps the attacking apes by the hundreds, and again, this simply isn't true to franchise history. This ape story is thus merely an adventure about a freak twist of time, and not a comment on man's self-destructive nature.  It's okay for Leo to kill the apes; there's no commentary or rejection of his actions.  Again, he's the "good guy" a priori, right?

In terms of social commentary, there's not much significant here at all.  One character, Limbo, gets to give voice to Rodney King's plea for civility, "can't we all get along?"  There's also a line about  a "human welfare state," but these are the limits of the film's social conscience.   This dearth of commentary or subtext is a double disappointment, because Tim Burton's films often feature commentary on what it means to feel disenfranchised; to be an outsider to the establishment.  Planet of the Apes could have been re-formed and re-purposed to adhere to this career-long obsession with a better, more knowing script.  Instead, Burton's familiar theme is just barely touched upon in Ari's predicament, since she's accepted by neither apes nor humans.

The re-imagination of Planet of the Apes also suffers from its look.   Matte paintings have replaced the life-size structures of the original Ape City, and studio locations have largely replaced exteriors.  Alas, these are two of the enduring delights of the original Planet of the Apes.  There, you had the sense of a full-blown world, from the arid Forbidden Zone to the green belt surrounding the city, to the simian metropolis itself.  It was a fully-realized world and not a closed-off movie world in so many ways.  This re-imagination forsakes those strengths.  It also forsakes any attempt at suspense or build-up of anticipation regarding the appearance of the apes themselves.  Where the original film took forty minutes to get Taylor captured and to Ape City, Burton's Planet of the Apes gets Leo and the apes together within just fifteen.  It feels rushed. 

The make-up work of Rick Baker is impressive, to be certain, but after a week of watching ape films, it doesn't seem to me that the work here is a quantum leap ahead of the sixties film.  Especially when the make-up is essentially the only truly interesting element of the film.  The new concept of the apes -- which puts them on all fours when they run, and allows them to jump and swing from trees -- is certainly a new wrinkle, but somehow it registers as being less civilized, which runs counter to the point of the whole enterprise.  I also must confess, I missed the idea of an ape social hierarchy or caste system here.  There's almost no thought given to the details of the ape culture in this film.

Planet of the Apes' surprise ending has been the source of much debate over the years.  In the climax, as you will recall, Leo returns to Earth and discovers that General Thade has been there and managed a coup.  Earth too, has become a planet of the apes, as the Lincoln -- now Thade -- Monument memorably attests.  

Since the movie concerns a time paradox in space, I don't find it impossible that Thade could have somehow, in some reality, accomplished this revolution on Earth.  Instead, what bothers me concerning the finale is that the ending carries almost no emotional weight. It feels like a trick or gimmick, not an outgrowth of the film's story.  Like so much of the film, there's just no emotional connection to it.  What does Leo learn about himself, human nature, or life in terms of this ending?  Nothing, really.  Unlike the joyless, interminable battle in the desert, at least the ending of the film in Washington D.C. boasts the distinction of being beautifully shot.  It just comes out of left field.

The 2001 re-imagination of Planet of the Apes lacks subtext, characters to care about, a connection to the franchise's past, and a driving narrative beat.  It almost seems to curl up and die on the screen while you're watching it, a veritable cinematic disaster. 

When General Thade grabs Leo Davidson and looks down inside his throat, asking "is there a soul in there?" audiences may want to direct the very same interrogative to this flat, lifeless "brand name" movie itself.

Is there a soul in there?  Anywhere?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)


"In the beginning God created beast and man so that both might live in friendship and share dominion over a world of peace. But in the fullness of time evil men betrayed God's trust and in disobedience to His holy word waged bloody wars, not only against their own kind, but against the apes, whom they reduced to slavery. Then God in his wrath sent the world a saviour, miraculously born of two apes who descended on Earth from Earth's own future and man was afraid, for both parent apes possessed the power of speech."

- The Lawgiver in Battle for the Planet of the Apes

The fifth and final film in the Planet of the Apes saga, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, has long been saddled with the title as "worst" entry of the series.  Unfortunately, there are several solid reasons for this assessment. 

First and foremost among such reasons is the fact that Battle was made by 20th Century Fox for a pittance.  It's a very low budget effort, and one that resolutely lacks the sense of scope and epic background that made the 1968 original such a landmark genre film.  This is not a spectacular film in any sense of that word, and so disappointment is undeniably fostered.  The Apes saga deserved, certainly, an ending befitting its imaginative, brilliantly-stylized beginning.

Also, Battle features a controversial shift in creative authorship, from Paul Dehn to Joyce and John William Corrington, and apparently even its casting decisions bespeak of  "the diminishing stature and budget of the series."

Beyond these concerns, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is frequently edited in exceedingly sloppy fashion, particularly in the underwhelming climactic battle (in a tall tree, of all places...) between Caesar (Roddy McDowall) and his own simian Brutus, General Aldo (Claude Akins).  There are several instances during this fight when a viewer can actually see that close-ups of both Aldo and Caesar from an earlier scene (a stand-off at the corral...) have been inserted.  Without any difficulty, you can actually make-out the gorillas and other apes standing behind them, which doesn't make any sense in the context of the tree fight, high above the ground.

But all the news is not bad. While it's undeniably true that Battle for the Planet of the Apes is not great film making  by any standard, the sequel is nonetheless an eminently watchable and entertaining film, which is something that can't be said, for instance, of the 2001 Tim Burton re-imagination (to be reviewed tomorrow...).

And what Battle for the Planet of the Apes clearly lacks in budget, scope and editing, it largely makes up for in terms of intimacy, characterization, and even rhetorical flourish. This last quality is clearly the most significant.  Battle for the Planet of the Apes has enough on its troubled mind for a full three entries in a science fiction franchise, and explores ably the idea of the ape culture's "fall from grace," as well as the possibility that one (dark...) future need not be written in stone. 

Also, the J. Lee Thompson film nicely squares the circle in terms of series continuity, bringing the final film right up to the beginning of the first film. Battle opens in 2670 AD.  That's roughly the same time that Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston) makes his recording from outer space in Planet of the Apes regarding the denizens of Earth.  In that log entry, he wonders if he is speaking to a "new breed."  With this film, we have our answer.  The five-strong saga becomes, essentially, a loop or circle.

Every Caesar must have his Brutus...

Some years after the ape rebellion and  a global nuclear war, the King of Ape City, Caesar (Roddy McDowall)
struggles with civil rights in his metropolis.  The humans there are second-class citizens, but some apes, including the treacherous General Aldo (Akins) would prefer to see them dead.

When Caesar's human aide, MacDonald (Austin Stoker) informs the ape leader that the world is headed for disaster if the breach between humans and apes isn't repaired, Caesar asks for evidence of this assertion.  MacDonald suggests that Caesar watch visual tapes of his own father, Cornelius, stored in the archives of the old city, which confirm his tale of Earth's destruction in 3955.

With his scientific counsel, Virgil (Paul Williams) and MacDonald in tow, Caesar visist the old city, now flattened by a catastrophic nuclear exchange.  Inside the radioactive city, the new governor, a "malformed" Kolp (Severn Darden) spies the interlopers, and attempts to capture them. 

After seeing the tapes of his own father, Caesar escapes with his friends from the City, but the damage is done.  Kolp plans to launch an all-out war against Ape City.

Upon his return home, Caesar makes preparations for war with the mutants, even as his beloved son, Cornelius (Bobby Porter) die following a fall from a high tree branch.  Virgil and MacDonald suspect the death was no accident: that Aldo himself killed the boy.

The mutants under Kolp's command lay siege to Ape City even as Caesar mourns the loss of his only son.  Meanwhile, General Aldo plans for future in which he is the king, and all the humans are dead...

"Do what you will" is the Devil's Law...
As writer Joyce Corrington has aptly described it, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a story about the apes' expulsion from Paradise. 

Here, Ape City is a kind of agrarian Garden of Eden, and the apes, though intelligent, are also clearly innocent.  The Serpent (in the deadly form of the firearm) is locked away and protected by Caesar's "conscience," an orangutan named Mandemus (real life pacifist Lew Ayres), and all the apes live by a sacred edict: Ape shall never kill ape.

When Aldo violates that law, however the apes sacrifice their innocence.  It's not merely the story of Cain and Abel revisited, it's that, as MacDonald states, the apes have finally "joined the human race."  Notably, the treacherous Aldo's demise involves his fall from a great height, and therefore recalls, at least subtly, Lucifer's fall into the pit, even as it also directly references the death of young Cornelius.  At one point, Caesar even tells Aldo that he is headed for a great fall, though the warning is ignored.   Again, and again, Battle for the Planet of the Apes seems to grasp for connections to Biblical stories, and it's an interesting leitmotif, at least.

After killing Aldo, Caesar asks Virgil if it is right that one murder should be avenged by another, getting at the fact that both man and ape are, at their core, violent creatures.  This is another thematic through-line in the film, well expressed.  The mutant Mendez, similarly, confronts Kolp over his war preparations and notes that "this bloody chain reaction has to stop."  Kolp does not heed his advice.  In fact, he's willing to destroy the world for his cause.

In yet another instance, the film cuts to young Cornelius and a blond-haired human boy playing at "war" using sticks as makeshift guns.  The game is innocent and harmless, and yet it begs the question: is there just something about the mammalian brain that is drawn to death and destruction? 

Why are even the best of us wired to play at these violent battles for supremacy?  Is that the fatal flaw in man and ape?  Years later, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Cameron would stage a similar scene, using children playing at "war" to make the point.

When Battle for the Planet of the Apes meditates on such interesting questions about human nature, the film works rather nicely, if modestly, as a morality play or parable.  And I really admired the distinction the film draws between the apes and the humans in the destroyed city.  Virgil explicitly notes that human "leaders" had the capability in their hands to destroy cities and whole populations, but that no one was there to mind their "conscience." 

Caesar, at least, has Mandemus to prevent him from acting impulsively, or in the role of a madman.  This seems an entirely wise and prudent restriction on absolute power.  The flattened city is a potent reminder of what happens when a leader does not consider those he leads, or the future of the planet.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes gazes at these issues of innocence and self-destruction through the rubric of the "future."  Specifically, can we make the future anything we wish?  Virgil suggests that it is possible, and certainly, the last scene in the film, set in 2670 and a classroom for human and ape children, suggests as much. 

Importantly, the Lawgiver (John Huston) here is not the fire-and-brimstone, rabidly anti-human preacher of hatred that Ape Doctrine (the Sacred Scrolls) makes him out to be in Planet of the Apes.  Rather, he seems to very actively preach peace between the species. He does so primarily, it seems, based on Caesar's modeling of that principle by releasing all the humans from the corral and inviting them to live in peace in Ape City as equals. 

For the first time in a Planet of the Apes film then, the audiences sees a statue of an ape that is not the Lawgiver.  It is a statue of Caesar himself, indicating, perhaps, that the "peaceful" wise chimpanzee has usurped the role of the draconian Lawgiver in this timeline. 

We can extropolate then that it will be the teachings of peace and equality that march forward into the future of 3955, not the teachings of hatred and bigotry.  Thus, when Taylor arrives to judge the world he finds in this timeline, he will find -- we hope -- two species living together in peace.  If that's the case, he won't need to destroy the world with the Alpha-Omega Bomb.  That's the hope that we leave the Planet of the Apes film series with.   

This time, it can be different.

The valedictory visual of Battle for the Planet of the Apes series involves a close-up of the Caesar statue as it sheds a single tear.  Perhaps Caesar cries because his dream of peace has finally been realized.  His example has paved the way for the planet's eternal survival.

Contrarily, Caesar's single tear may be interpreted to suggest that the future is ever unwritten; that war is still easier than peace; that hate is still easier to come by than love.  It is, after all, a long way to 3955.  Caesar weeps, perhaps, because human and ape natures remains unchanging, even if a temporary detente is forged.  This reading of the film is supported by the imagery of an ape and human child teasing one another.

Although some might consider this final visual of the series -- a crying statue -- a bit hokey, I admire it very much.  I appreciate the fact that it is ambiguous enough to provoke debate and alternate readings.  And also,  the imagery provides a strong contrast to the Lawgiver statue we saw in Beneath crying blood.  

There, the draconian edicts of the Lawgiver created an environment of acrimony and hate and war, and the bleeding eyes suggested this very ably  In Battle, the tears of Caesar are much more "human" somehow, a reflection of the fact that peace is a fragile and ephemeral thing.

In the restored Blu-Ray cut of the film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes also reveals how the mutant survivors in the destroyed city ultimately select life over death.  Though Kolp has ordered the launch of the Alpha Omega Bomb upon his defeat, Mendez (Paul Stevens) and Alma (Frances Nuyen) make a better choice.  At Mendez's urging, the duo decides to "respect" and even "venerate" the bomb because one of its ancestors made them what they are.  If the bomb were activated, Mendez argues, they would simply become "nothing."  So this Adam and Eve choose life, after a fashion, and also begin to establish the mutant culture we see thriving in NYC in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). 

Frankly, I love this bit of continuity with the earlier film, and it's a nice tying together of thematic, historical threads, though I always (perhaps erroneously) assumed Conquest took place in California, not New York.  I'm glad this important scene was restored to the film.

Another aspect of Battle for the Planet of the Apes that I enjoy involves the writing and presentation of the character, Kolp.  He's not your average villain, and comes off as strangely quirky.  Take his line, "we're irradiated, but we're still active," which should be the slogan, I submit, for all big screen mutants.

Kolp actually seems to launch the war against Ape City more because of his own personal boredom rather than because of any strong ideological bent.  It's almost like he's offended that Caesar didn't drop by to chat with him.  Again, if the movie as a whole concerns the idea of advisers keeping their leader's conscience in times of conflict, Kolp is the perfect example of what happens when that safeguard doesn't occur (or when it is ignored).  He is willing to destroy the world just because, it seems, he has nothing better to do.

The mutant vs. ape battle featured in the film is pitifully small scale, but in some ways, the meager forces involved in the conflict also play directly to the movie's thematic point. 

There's hardly anybody left alive on the planet, and now it's come to this: about a dozen mutants carrying rifles, following a school bus, a station wagon and a jeep through an irradiated desert.  Kind of a sad commentary on humanity.  Even with his world almost entirely destroyed, all man can think about is wreaking more destruction and death.

In one great shot during this mutant march, the audience can actually see one of the mutant soldiers collapse and fall to the ground.  These guys are sick...and they're all that's left.  I enjoye that desperate aesthetic, and some of the picturesque shots of the small-time, automobile caravan moving across the desert definitely appear to forecast the direction of post-apocalyptic cinema in the 1980s.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes also works for me, I suppose, because I genuinely like the well-delineated characters featured in the film.  Caesar, of course, is a great hero, and he loses a beloved child in a scene that plays as genuinely sad.   He's a wise ape, but not an infallible one.  He's constantly questioning and groping for the right solution to problems.  He's a strong leader. 

MacDonald, Virgil, Mandemus, Abe, and Lisa also come across as more than cookie-cutter characters.  In short, they seem like real people/apes, and are interesting enough to follow, even if the film doesn't provide them an epic tapestry upon which to act.

Even Aldo -- who, like Kolp could be a very two-dimensional monster -- seems to boast deeper layers thatn you might expect.  When he is branded for breaking ape law, and cowers in the tree, for instance, you can see that he is weeping.  Aldo cries for all that he has brought upon himself; for all that he has lost, and will lose next. 

Again, a more conventional and less interesting approach would have seen him continuing to be a "strong" bad guy and posing a more potent physical challenge to Caesar.  I hate to keep bludgeoning the 2001 re-imagination, but none of the characters there boast anything other than stereotypical movie "motivations."    For all of Battle's flaws, that's not true here.  The characters ring true.

Many viewers may count it as a drawback, but the fact of the matter is that there are no "strong" bad guys in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and I submit that's sort of the film's point. You end up feeling a little sorry for both Kolp and Aldo by film's end.  Through their quirks and humanity (or ape-manity) we can actually see that they are people too.  If Battle for the Planet of the Apes is about ending conflict, hatred and blood-shed, then it makes sense that both these characters resonate in terms of their individuality.  It allows us to understand these "villains" rather than simply demonize them.

I suppose Battle for the Planet of the Apes is nobody's favorite "ape" movie, and I understand the reasons why all too plainly.  It seems sloppy and like small potatoes compared to Planet, or Conquest.  It lacks the pointed social commentary and sharp humor of Escape and the balls-to-the-wall, go-for-broke, searing surprises of Beneath.  Yet on its own small, almost TV-sized scale, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is an enjoyable and worthwhile effort.   I think it is probably a lot better than the film's reputation indicates.

As Virgil might remind us, Battle for the Planet of the Apes -- even with its lack of significant production value -- "reverts to type," and offers the thinking viewer much to ponder.  It asks us, specifically, if our desire for peace can ever overcome our penchant for self-destruction.  

For an answer to that question, take a look at Caesar's statue and arrive at your own conclusion.