Saturday, July 12, 2014

At Flashbak: The 5 Most Historically Significant Humans in the Planet of the Apes Saga

My newest article at Flashbak is the follow-up piece to the one I wrote for Go Ape Week about historically significant apes.

This one is the yin to that article's yang, and it looks at humans from the same franchise who shaped the course of "future history."

"In my earlier post this week, I gazed at the five simians that -- across the Planet of the Apes multiverse -- had significantly impacted the media franchise’s “future history.”

Today, I want to remember the five human beings in the Planet of the Apes saga who did much the same thing. 

As is the case with the apes, not all the actions of these characters prove positive in either the short term, or the survival of the species."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr (1987 - 1988): "Brother's Keeper"

In “Brother’s Keeper,” an old man named Charlie is struck by a deadly virus, leaving his wife and Doc Clayton with nothing to do except wait for a delivery of the much-needed antidote.

Meanwhile, BraveStarr has arrested two bandits who happen to be brothers, but he doesn’t have sufficient evidence to hold them. Jamie, Fort Kerium's judge, orders them released at once, and BraveStarr isn’t happy about it.

Unfortunately, the strato-coach carrying the antidote Charlie needs is robbed by the brothers, and now BraveStarr must convince one brother to turn against the other…

“Brother’s Keeper” is another fairly-adult minded segment of this animated sci-fi series from the late 1980s.  In this case, BraveStarr -- the series protagonist -- wants to bend the law because he has a “feeling” about two bandits. He knows they are guilty, but he can't prove it, in other words. 

Judge Jamie tells him he must behave “legally,” whatever his feelings, and BraveStarr’s instincts are correct.  Another crime is committed by the two bandits he wanted to put behind bars in the first place. 

This story-line gets us to a fairly prickly and divisive issue. 

And that is, simply, that people can’t be arrested and held by police based on gut instincts or feelings.  To do so makes for tyranny, and the rule of law collapses. In this case, BraveStarr’s suspicions are right on the money, but even being correct doesn’t make it right to hold the men.  The law hinges on evidence, and BraveStarr has none.

I’m surprised the series tackled this idea, and set its two leads against each other in examining it, but it makes the episode stand-out as something other than the typical Saturday morning run-around, which usually consists of a good guy being captured, and then rescued by his friends.  

I especially like Jamie’s answer to BraveStarr after he tells her "I told you so."  

She tells him “I’d do the same thing again” (meaning release the bandits…) “if you didn’t have reasonable proof.”

Less impressive is the episode’s final “message,” that no one cares about you as much as your family does, so you should always listen to your family’s counsel at the expense of others. 

Sadly, in real life, this isn’t always true. It’s true for some people, of course, but sometimes it is, actually, your family of origin that is working against you, or jealous of you.  It would have been far better for this episode to end with a re-assertion of its simple theme: freedom for everyone requires that we obey the laws, even if, on some terrible occasions, bad guys go free until evidence against them can be gathered.

In terms of visuals, BraveStarr again proves intriguing.  In this case, we get a few brief looks at Fort Kerium’s hospital, and it looks very cool, and highly-detailed. Like many of the backgrounds we see only briefly, it seems eminently worthy of further exploration.

 I also love the ramshackle look of the frontier courthouse.

Next week: “Kerium Fever.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "Albert/Alberta"

In “Albert/Alberta” the Monster Squad combats a villain who is half-man/half-woman: Albert/Alberta (Vito Scotti).

This nefarious fiend is using a highly-advanced laser weapon to melt the polar ice and cause a second great flood. 

Meanwhile, he plans to convert his ship, the Mezzo-Mezzo, into an ark carrying two of every animal species…including vampire bats and werewolves.

Dracula and the Wolf Man sneak aboard Albert/Alberta’s ship and attempt to reverse the melting of the ice, but they are captured and Albert/Alberta plans to tear them asunder inside his weird device, “The Great Divider.”

Fortunately, it’s Frankenstein to the rescue…

Monster Squad (1976) comes to an end with Victor/Victoria…er “Albert/Alberta.”  The episode is the same sort of nonsense we have been treated to in previous weeks: an unimaginative, thoroughly derivative regurgitation of Batman’s high-camp TV adventures, right down to the threat of the week (in this case, the Great Divider), the notable villain, and the final tussle.

I’ll be honest, re-watching all thirteen episodes of Monster Squad in 2014 has been a bit of a chore, but I wanted to do it because I loved the show in 1976, and felt it was great that the long-forgotten Saturday morning series was getting a DVD release. 

I appreciate all the performers on the show -- particularly the actors who play the monsters -- because they gave the production their all, even when the props department, the sets, and the writers let them down.  I especially like Henry Polic II as Dracula.  He’s always been my favorite performer on the series, and despite the high camp, his take as the count is indeed memorable.

If you watched Monster Squad back in the 1970s, I recommend that instead of watching the series from start to finish, you instead rely on your no-doubt foggy memories and affection of the series. Pick out two shows, perhaps, to revisit.  I would recommend “Ultra Witch” (with Julie Newmar) and perhaps “The Tickler.”  If you’ve seen one episode of Monster Squad, you’ve pretty much seen them all, so try to pick the top of the formulaic heap…

Next week, I will begin blogging the 1978 Godzilla cartoon, so let’s see how that goes for a bit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Go Ape Week: Final Post!

Well, except for one more Ape-centric post from Flashbak which hasn't appeared yet, I think Go Ape Week is all over but the cryin'. 

I hope you enjoyed all the posts this week about the Apes Saga, as I had a great time re-visiting one of my all-time favorite franchises.

Look for my review of the new Apes film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) next Tuesday morning at 6:00 am sharp.  

Go Ape Week: Planet of the Apes Coloring and Activity Books (Artcraft)

These images of Artcraft Planet of the Apes coloring and activity books of the 1970s come from regular reader and fellow New Jersey-ite, Greg.   

Thanks for sending these, Greg: I love the artwork and they make a perfect addition to Go Ape Week.

Go Ape Week: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is not only a great adventure movie, it's a terrific Planet of the Apes movie too.  The film's special effects are downright astonishing, but more importantly the "human" story -- concerning an evolved ape seeking his destiny -- proves wholly affecting. 

In terms of the franchise, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes features perhaps a dozen hints or links to future (or past?) events in the series and most of all, doesn't spoon-feed the audience all the answers regarding them.  Therefore, as much as the film sets up a new Apes franchise (in the mold of Star Trek [2009] or Batman Begins [2005]), it also showcases more than enough mystery to stimulate the mind. 

A new "future history" has been initiated here, and that hard work is done with real intelligence, detail and depth.  Just please be certain you don't leave the auditorium until after the end credits, or you'll miss the film's final (terrifying...), information-age coda.  I have the distinct feeling some major critics may have missed this coda, based on their reviews.  They seem to think that the apes only get so far as Golden Gate Bridge, when in fact another entire subplot reveals why Earth could very soon become a planet dominated by apes.

In assessing the quality of a Planet of the Apes film, one has to gaze at several criteria.  Does the film permit the audience to see human beings in a new light; from the outside (ape perspective) as it were?  Does the film then comment meaningfully on human nature, and compare it to ape nature?  Does the movie boast a convincing narrative with closure and distinct purpose while -- all the while -- laying the groundwork (or tying the knot...) for other entries in a film series that is a giant loop?  And, of course, is the film thrilling and action-packed in a way that supports that narrative?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds admirably in every single one those arenas.  Actually, I'll go further: it's the best movie I've seen theatrically in some time, and perhaps the best genre film I've seen this year.  In large part, the re-boot's grandest achievement is that it focuses so powerfully on one character, Caesar, and takes the audience through almost his whole life, from birth to young adulthood (ten years, perhaps).  Given that Caesar is created via digital special effects (and through the incomparable talents of Andy Serkis), the film's success is all the more surprising and admirable. 

"You'll learn who is boss soon enough..."

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco) at Gen-Sys develops the cure of Alzheimer's, called ALZ-112.  The chemical causes damaged brain cells to repair and re-build themselves, a brand of "Neuro genesis." 

The test of ALZ-112 on Chimp # 9, "Bright Eyes," has proven that it works admirably, but when the affected chimpanzee suddenly goes crazy and breaks out of confinement, the Board at Gen-Sys opts not to pursue human tests.  Later, Will and the chimpanzee handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine) discover that "Bright Eyes" may merely have been protecting her newborn infant.

With his work shut down, or at least set back, Will brings the orphaned baby chimp home, where his father, Charles (John Lithgow) names the ape "Caesar."  Charles suffers from Alzheimer's and Will, acting in secret, gives him the ALZ-112.  The cure works its wonders, at least for a time, and Will learns that Bright Eyes passed on the ALZ-112 to her son...meaning that Caesar possesses incredible intelligence.  By the age of three, Caesar is already smarter than his human counterparts...

As the years go by, Caesar becomes like a son to Will.  Along with a lovely zoo veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), Charles, Caesar and Will often visit Muir Woods, where the ape can climb the tall redwoods and roam free.  Unfortunately, Caesar acts violently against a cruel, callous neighbor when Charles' Alzheimer's returns, and for his defensive action is remanded to the San Bruno Primate Shelter run by the cruel Landon family (Brian Cox and Tom Felton).

While Will attempts to bring Caesar home, he also develops ALZ-113, a new strain of his cure that may have side-effects the scientist has not foreseen.  This fact does not stop Will's profit-hungry boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), however, from pursuing development of "the cure..."

"What is Caesar?"

Early in this film, animal handler Franklin reminds Will (and the movie-going audience) that apes boast "personalities" and that they "form attachments." 

In many ways, this line of dialogue is the key to the film.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes concerns an orphaned chimp of extreme intelligence who becomes part of a family, Will's human family. 

Thus Caesar wears clothes like a human child, plays games like a human child, and forms attachments to those he loves.  He views Will as his father, and Charles as his grandfather.  Caesar even gazes out the attic window of his house and -- we can see it on his expressive face -- wants to play outside, like human children.  His happiest moments are those in Muir Woods, where he can fully exercise his ape heritage.  But importantly, even those wonderful moments are spent with his human family...the other part of Caesar's equation or make-up.

As Caesar grows, he begins to wonder explicitly about his nature.  "What is Caesar?" He asks Will, rather pointedly (in sign language).  The answer is that he's not quite a human and no longer a mere, unevolved ape either. He's something singular; something different.  And in that difference Caesar is lonely and confused.  Caroline warns Will at one point that as Caesar grows, he will no longer be the obedient, supplicating son, but rather a rival, a competitor.  In this dynamic, quite clearly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes develops a metaphor for both human adolescence and the perils of fatherhood.  

When Caesar's home is taken away from him and he's remanded to a facility where the apes are treated cruelly, we see what happens when an emotional, vulnerable being is abandoned by family.  To quote the film, evolution becomes revolution.  After a time, Caesar gives up the hope and belief that he will return home to Will, and turns his attention to the apes incarcerated with him. They are treated -- again to quote the film's most important dialogue -- as if they don't have personalities and as if they don't form attachments.  They're just stupid prisoners to be controlled, and Caesar's evolved mind becomes awakened to the idea that such captivity is wrong.  He finally sees a place for himself where he does a leader of his kind.

Again, this process very much mirrors the journey into adulthood we humans face.  There's the inevitable rejection of the "father" or the previous generation, and the search for one's own purpose, outside of "family of origin" definitions.  There's the leaving of home, and the discovery and building of a new home.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes feels very personal in its depiction of this theme.  Will's character proves very interesting in that he is both  a son and a father, and in some sense, he fails in both roles. 

The film largely adopts Caesar's perspective, and we sympathize with the character as he loses his mother, his home, and then even his already-limited freedom.  When he leads the apes on an escape from captivity (again, to Muir Woods), it's not so much a rebellion against humanity as it is a flight to a better life.  Again, this idea is very easy to sympathize with.  Growing-up and finding one's place can be a tempestuous process.  We all ask ourselves the questions: Who am I?  Who do I want to be?

The social commentary in this film arrives in  few key points.  Other than Will's family and Franklin, humans in the film are seen in light of the old proverb that money is the root of all evil.   Landon and Jacobs put profit ahead of humanity, ultimately to the detriment of humanity itself.  They would rather be rich than be good, and though this leitmotif doesn't equal the powerful anti-war sentiment of the original franchise, this idea is certainly timely in our culture right now, following the Great Recession.  Wealth -- the accumulation of money -- has become more important than safety concerns to many businessmen, as we saw in the BP Oil Spill of 2010.   Helping people seems secondary to lining pockets, or protecting interests.

Like Jurassic Park (1993), Mimic (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also about the common horror movie idea of science run amok; of science unchecked.  The film glides past the idea that "some things shouldn't be changed" in relation to Will's experimentation, right to the idea that business can't regulate itself when it comes to new (and potentially profitable...) science.  In other words, Will may have been wrong for testing ALZ-112 and ALZ-113 illicitly, but his actions weren't a threat to the world until his creations fell into the avaricious hands of Big Business. 

In some way, the film is very much about human arrogance too.  From Rise of the Planet of the Apes' first frames -- a brutal chimpanzee hunt in the jungle -- it obsesses on the almost casual way that humanity assumes that other creatures (such as apes) are his to do with as he pleases: to abduct, to experiment upon, and to imprison. 

In our arrogance, we believe that other creatures don't possess souls, or don't feel emotions  as we do.  In 2011, we have heard an awful lot in the media about government taking away our "freedoms" or "liberties," but how stingy mankind appears in regards to the freedom and liberties of other mammals or non-humans.  In that way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is very much about animal rights, and this brings us full-circle to the original Planet of the Apes.  There, we saw Zaius's religious hypocrisy and the ape belief that only simians possessed the "spark" of the divine.  Today, many people similarly believe that Man is made in God's image and other creatures are just...dinner.  These folks believe what Ann Coulter espouses "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.Rise of the Planet of the Apes asks us to question that kind of cruel, selfish thinking.

Before I saw the film, I was very anxious about the CGI aspects of the movie.  If they failed...the movie would fail too.  Fortunately, I had no cause for concern.  The apes in this film are completely convincing and "real," and -- mirroring the through-line about personality and attachment -- register as real, recognizable individuals.  Caesar is the film's crowning achievement, but a gorilla named Buck is pretty amazing too, as is a slightly-mad chimpanzee named Coba. 

I haven't read many reviews to mention this fact, but in terms of physicality, Caesar actually seems to echo the contours of Roddy McDowall's face, at least after a fashion.  And his responses also strongly echo details of McDowall's performances, particularly in Conquest.

There's an instant in the film where Caesar hisses at a threat and then, after a moment of reflection, seems to reconsider and actually disapprove of his own "animal" behavior.  If you're a fan of the series, it's an emotional response you'll recognize instantly as McDowall's.  Seriously.  The effects-work isn't only gorgeous and realistic, then, it is actually faithful to the franchise and succeeds in making us sympathize with Caesar to an incredibe degree.  James Franco does a fine, restrained job as Will -- by selling the reality of the special effects, essentially -- but Caesar feels like a flesh and blood person, or ape.

In terms of thrilling action, Rise of the Planet of the Apes features several incredible scenes of Caesar's apes on the loose in San Francisco.  On first blush, it might not seem plausible that high-tech human law enforcement officials would have a problem containing this escape of the apes, but the film makes the case surprisingly well that the apes don't think like humans, and therefore keep surprising the humans. 

For instance, there's a great exterior visual of the apes leaping out of a building -- through glass windows -- by the dozen.  In another impressively-staged shot, we see that the apes apparently believe the quickest way to their destination is to go through an office building, not around it.   Again and again, the movie reveals how the apes operate on different principles of behavior, and how that behavior prevents law enforcement from responding effectively to the crisis.  That the apes are "evolved" plays into the matter too, of course.  The police don't expect the apes to pick up spears, use city buses as barricades, or deploy advanced battle tactics. 

The film's final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is really fantastic work, in large part because we come to understand Caesar's tactics and movements, and the film doesn't cheat on spatial relationships or placement of the two "armies."  So many action films made these days rely on quick cutting and shaky cameras, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes builds its climax in relatively traditional film grammar terms, so that we understand where the characters are, who they are fighting, and what's at stake.  It's accomplished work, especially considering the complexity of the effects.

For the dedicated ape fan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an absolute delight. There are so many clever series touches here that it's difficult to remember and enumerate them all.  One involves Caesar's birth.  Nobody knew that "Bright Eyes" was even pregnant, and when Caesar is found, he's wrapped in a brown blanket....a blanket very much like the one that Zira wraps up baby Milo in during the conclusion of Escape from the Planet of the Apes.   To me, this raises a mystery.  Is Caesar really Bright Eyes' child, or the child of another ape, perhaps even Zira herself?  It's true that Caesare possesses the "green flecks" in his eyes that are a telltale sign of ALZ-112, but since this is passed on genetically, all evolved apes (even future apes of the year 3955...) would also possess them. 

Another mystery regarding Caesar's origin: What does the birth mark on his chest mean?  Is it present simply so the audience can recognize and differentiate Caesar more quickly and easily in the battle sequences?  Or does it carry another, deeper meaning?  Is it some kind of future-ape culture "brand" (in a caste system?) that was put on him by his real mother and father (whomever that may be)?  I don't know, and I like that the movie doesn't tell us too much.

Many reviews have also made note of the TV newscast that reports the disappearance of the spaceship "Icarus" on a mission to Mars.  At least unofficially, Icarus is the name of Taylor's spaceship from the original film, and it's disappearance suggests the time-dilation or Hasslein Curve that we're expecting.  A sequel to this film could have that spaceship arriving on Earth in a thousand years and finding Caesar's progeny. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes also finds ways to work in Charlton Heston and famous lines of dialogue such as "take your stinking paws off me..." and "It's a madhouse,  madhouse!," but frankly, such touches aren't even really necessary.  The film works so impressively as a re-imagination of the franchise that the more overt pop culture shout-outs only seem to take away from the film's strong sense of dedication and fidelity to the source material.  My only wish is that in the primate shelter we had seen some ape name-plates that read Aldo, Lisa, and Mandemus.

I've read some critical complaints about the Tom Felton and Freida Pinto characters in the film, but these arguments largely miss the point.  hese characters are not extraordinarily well-developed, to be certain, but they're as well developed, at least, as Julius in the original film, or Stephanie Branton in Escape.

Focusing on their superficiality misses the point: this is Caesar's story.  It's his story of determining "what he is," what he's supposed to be, and what purpose he is supposed to fulfill in his life.  The other characters are developed enough, but they aren't the focus.  In other words, you see about as much of them as you want to see, and no more.  It looks a lot to me like many critics were just trying to find things to quibble about in a movie that they largely liked, but didn't want to admit that they really liked.

Thrilling, intelligent, and emotionally resonant, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is everything I hoped it would be going in -- even with expectations high -- and perhaps more too. Finally, a re-imagination that doesn't make a monkey out of the audience.

Go Ape Week: 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. 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 rfine 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 the 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 overwhelming, 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 plot-wise 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 recognizable 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 visuals. 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?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

At Flashbak: The Five Most Historically-Significant Apes in the Planet of the Apes Saga

My newest article at Flashbak ties in with the Go Ape theme of the blog this week.  In particular, I enumerate the five most historically significant simians in Ape history!

"The Planet of the Apes franchise consists of five original feature films made from 1968 to 1973, a short-lived CBS TV series in 1974, a Saturday morning animated revival, Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975), Tim Burton’s 2001 widely-disliked re-boot, plus a second re-boot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and its follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), due in theaters this week.

All heads of this multi-platform media hydra revolve around one central topic: future history, particularly the fall of man, and the rise of intelligent apes as Earth’s dominant species.

Uniquely – and completely in keeping with the time-travel aspect of the franchise -- each branch of the Apes legacy, whether TV series, cartoon, or re-boot -- seems to exist in a similar but slightly different alternate reality.  One might view this as evidence that the future can indeed be altered, but the final destiny of the planet -- the fall of mankind to intelligent apes -- is immutable.

With that notion in mind, enumerated below are the five most historically important simians in Planet of the Apes history.  Some of these five characters described below, you will note, play roles of extreme significance in more than one parallel reality, a fact which cements their status as focal points in the franchise and in the fate of Earth."

Go Ape Week: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Battle of the Titans"

In “Battle of the Titans” -- the final episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) -- a desperate General Urko attempts to regain power in Ape City, while the astronauts and Zira and Cornelius take the opportunity to bring peace to the planet of the apes.

In particular, Cornelius and Bill return to the icy mountain where they stashed the book “A Day at the Zoo,” which revealed intelligent 20th century humans and primitive apes in zoos.

After recovering the text, the astronauts and the pacifist chimps prepare to present the book to the Ape Senate…and to change a planet in the process.

Although Return to the Planet of the Apes sometimes succumbs to childish story-telling instincts (and does so again in this final episode…), I nonetheless have great appreciation for the animated series because the characters and situations don’t remain locked in stasis.  The episodes aren’t interchangeable, and character and story arcs are, actually, present.

To wit, the humanoids rescue their companion, Judy, from the Underdwellers during the course of the series.  They also find the other human astronaut, Brent.   They acquire a weapon with which to defend the primitive humanoids in the form of a World War II fighter plane.  Additionally, Urko attempts to seize power from Zaius, and then ultimately loses it. 

And finally, in “Battle of the Titans,” the series ends with the suggestion of another tectonic shift; a chapter notably consisting of hope.  In particular, the series comes to an end with Cornelius preparing to reveal the truth about Earth’s history (and evolved man…) to the Ape City Government.  The series thus culminates with the belief that humans and apes working together “can change the history of the planet…peacefully.”

That’s a huge shift from the beginning of the series (and the other installments in the movie and TV franchise), and away from Dr. Zaius’s admonition to Zira and Cornelius that even the mere idea of intelligent human beings is enough to warrant the genocide of the humanoids. 

But the animated series has traveled some distance since that statement of principle, and some of that mileage includes Urko’s power grab.  It is now entirely believable that the time has come for change, and peace, and that many apes would be open to the notion.

So “Battle of the Titans,” and Return to the Planet of the Apes truly end on a note of strength.  

Commendably, this episode also features much continuity with previous episodes.  We return to the Buddhist Apes and mountaintop settings of “Terror on Ice Mountain,” and once more encounter the squawking, flying monster from “Attack from the Clouds.” 

Again, this is a commendable and intelligent approach to children’s programming, though, finally, watching a giant ape -- Kygor -- and a giant bird duke it out hardly seems like the appropriate territory of a Planet of the Apes series.  This kind of monster fight, in lieu of more solid science fiction concepts, is the kind of thing that keep the series from reaching a level of universal approbation, I feel.   The fights are repetitious and not that interesting, and they eat up precious screen time that could have been utilized to further wrap-up dangling plot threads, or deepen characters.

Still, it’s important to remember that this series aired in 1975, when concepts of story arcs and serialized television series were not fully formed, let alone for Saturday morning kid’s show. 

There are some franchise fans who prefer the cartoon series to the live-action series, and that’s because, I believe, Return to the Planet of the Apes actually shows momentum, movement and growth, whereas the live-action series -- as much as I enjoy it -- seems stalled forever on ideas of capture/escape, with very little new or original occurring episode to episode.

So in its own way, and with a few caveats for the nature of the thing (as a kid’s show), Return to the Planet of the Apes is a real triumph for the franchise, and I’m sorry to see that it didn’t lead into a second season.  I would have loved to see the next chapter of the saga…

Go Ape Week: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Invasion of the Underdwellers"

In “Invasion of the Underdwellers,” Ape City suffers a number of robberies of precious historical artifacts and objects, including Zira’s precious first edition of the collected works of William Apespeare.

Eyewitnesses report to the Ape Council that the Under Dwellers are responsible, but the real culprit is General Urko.  He plans to use the robberies as an excuse to invade Under Dweller territory and start a war.

The astronauts, meanwhile, learn from Krador, leader of the Under Dwellers, that Urko has stashed the valuable items in the Tomb of the Unknown Ape, on the outskirts of the city.

The astronauts inform Zira, Cornelius, and eventually Dr. Zaius, about Urko’s involvement, and after a confrontation with a barge, the gorilla is suspended from duty without pay for his egregious mis-use of power…

Something intriguing and unusual happens in “Invasion of the Underdwellers.”  The series’ villain, Urko, actually faces consequences for his behavior.  

While many other animated series of the same era exist in a kind of permanent status quo -- where no change occurs, season after season -- Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) permits for characters to react meaningfully to the changes that occur in their lives.  In this case, Dr. Zaius acts reasonably when he learns of Urko’s misdeeds.  He suspends the guy without pay, and demands he deliver a TV apology to the ape-nation.

This is an important development, and it sets in motion the events that occur throughout the remainder of the series.  It’s also a nice bow to realism.  In real life, Urko wouldn’t be able to get away with rank corruption and insubordination again and again without someone at least taking notice, or reprimanding him.  Fact is, he probably would have been replaced because of his sheer incompetence long before this particular installment.

Another aspect of this episode that seems realistic: a man (or ape) in power trying to forward his agenda by misleading a nation into war.  In this case, Urko gins up fear of the Under Dwellers to make the populace pliable, and even fosters outrage by jeopardizing treasures of ape heritage.  Once such primitive emotions are engaged, the war machine is not easy to stop, and we have certainly seen such things happen in our own history.

The only aspect of the episode that plays a little goofy to me is this notion that all Ape works of art have the word “ape” in them.  

Like the Ape-a-Lisa (Mona Lisa), or the works of Apespeare (Shakespeare).  An earlier episode featured a popular movie called The Apefather (The Godfather), and this notion has always seemed odd to me.  I mean, we don’t go around putting the word “human” or “man” in front of everything. 

It just seems…silly.

Go Ape Week: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Mission of Mercy"

In “Mission of Mercy,” a number of crises strike all at once for the astronauts.  

First, the World War II airplane that Bill, Jeff and Judy have been utilizing to defend the humanoid pueblo city runs perilously low on aviation fuel, meaning another dangerous foray to Ape City for supplies.

Meanwhile -- and even as General Urko searches “New Valley” for the humanoid populace -- Nova falls gravely ill from an illness in her lungs which is highly contagious.  

Unless a serum can be acquired, Nova will die, and the rest of the humanoids, including the astronauts, will follow..

This week’s episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) actually concerns a pretty good idea, and one which has re-surfaced in the pop-culture in The Walking Dead. Specifically, after the fall of human civilization, the survivors will fall prey to diseases and illnesses once conquered by modern medicine…but now once more grave threats.   Talk about having to swallow a bitter pill!  In this case, Nova nearly succumbs to a treatable disease, and Judy must make a dangerous trek to Ape City to get help from Zira and Cornelius.

Despite the interesting concept, the execution of it leaves something to be desired. In particular, Judy -- an astronaut capable of flying spaceships and even World War II war planes -- doesn’t know about serums and how they work.   No doubt, her ignorance is a result of the writers wanting to explain the topic to young audiences.  But still, it's handled pretty poorly.

Beyond this hard-to-swallow aspect of the episode, “Mission of Mercy” is mostly an action-oriented episode, with the astronauts struggling to beat the clock and once more save the day.  Bill and Jeff must cross a rickety bridge in a truck, just as it collapses.  And then their truck breaks down…in a lightning storm.  Suffice it to say that a lot of obstacles get thrown up against the astronauts as they struggle to hold onto the one advantage they have (the war plane), and keep Nova alive at the same time.

In some sense, the focus on action is true to the Apes film franchise, but the five movies alternated serious action with cerebral science fiction concepts (like infinite regression) and a sub-text about racism and religious zealotry.  As a cartoon series aimed for kids, Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite rise to that level, but “Mission of Mercy” seems a bit more pedestrian, even, than other installments. 

Also, it’s getting a little difficult to believe that Zira and Cornelius can go out into the wilderness outside of Ape City on yet another mission to help the humanoids, and not get caught either by Urko or Dr. Zaius.  The pacifist chimps take big risks in every episode, and with no repercussions.