Satellite of the Simians 3: Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.

Et tu, Brute?

Et tu, Brute?

It is fascinating to watch the goals and underlying social themes shift in the Planet of the Apes series. I’ll come out and say it. I love the series. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starring Charlton Heston is one of my favorite movies. Definitely one of my favorites from the sixties. I just got out of a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the latest incarnation and direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Without hesitation, Dawn is the new second best Planet of the Apes movie.

For starters, I should begin by mentioning that I saw it in Korea and, while the dialogue was in English, whenever the apes were signing things the subtitles were all in Korean. At first I was concerned I might be missing crucial plot points, but kudos to the amazing effects team at WETA and the motion-capture performers for making silent ape dialogue wholly understandable. I feel bad for the 5 year old Korean girl who sat next to me and buried her terrified face in her hands for the film’s duration.

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Our story begins where Rise left off. The intellectually enhanced and organized ape revolutionaries had escaped into the forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. An infected pilot, unwittingly carrying a deadly virus developed in a lab, embarked on a tragic journey that would effectively spread the disease to every corner of the world, wiping out a majority of Earth’s human population and all semblance of order and civilization. Now, several years later, the humans live in a tribal post-apocalyptic nightmare and are quickly running out of power and means to utilize their limited resources. Meanwhile, ape society is flourishing in the wilds and a developing culture is forming strong social bonds. Caesar is the leader of the apes.

Well, I'd be crapping myself.

Well, I’d be crapping myself.

The troubles in this movie begin when humans stumble into ape territory in search of a lost dam that might help restore power to their ailing ruins of society. A shot is fired and a chimpanzee is hit. Caesar, rather than having his mighty army make short work of the lost search party, shows mercy and banishes them. This introduces the conflict that is firmly seated at this movie’s core: trust and tribal bonds. Caesar has a clear duty to protect his people (and he, and the rest of the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans harbor an understandable fear and hatred of humans—*see previous film) and the humans have a clear duty to themselves to protect their own and get the power back to avoid more violent anarchy. Communication proves difficult for no matter how well-intentioned some peace-seeking individuals on either side of the table are, it only takes a few reckless or wicked individuals to keep tensions high and trust destroyed.

The movie is intelligently written, well acted, and like the previous film features some top-notch computer special effects and spectacular action scenes. I really liked Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but in all honesty Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the superior film. Rise was great, but I had a few problems with it (mainly archetypal cartoony human characters like the evil money-loving bureaucrat, the benevolent scientist, the ape racist who works with apes, the girl, etc.). Thankfully, most of the problems are corrected in Dawn. The strongest chapter of Rise was the ape sanctuary scenes where Caesar, an intellectually superior animal, has to learn real ape society rules and rise to power to become their leader. With almost no dialogue or humans, the film soars to fascinating heights and keeps the tension building in these impressively animated sequences. Dawn plays like an extension of those scenes and centers around the apes cultivating their own society, while the human subplot focuses on mankind desperately trying not to slip back to the dark ages.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing "If I Had Words" to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No.3 in C minor.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing “If I Had Words” to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor.

Rise, perhaps, put a little too much into the fun fan-service of referencing the 1968 classic. Without knowing what the signed ape dialogue was specifically, I don’t think I saw much evidence of this in this new film. The only reference might be the music which did remind me strongly of the original in places. Dawn still has a weaker human storyline, but their role is vital for the story. Dawn is about establishing peace and trust in a volatile situation. Mankind itself is not the enemy. There are a few cartoonishly dickish humans who muck up the works more than a few times, but they are symbols of the fear and closed-mindedness that is also present in the ape society. Koba, a chimpanzee (or bonobo, who knows?), is the real villainous foil. His fear, anger, and hatred—regardless of how personally justified or rooted in past experiences—stands for the fear, hatred, and self-interest that blocks cultural progress everywhere.

While we're on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

While we’re on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

Questions:

1. Where did the apes get the horses?

2. What are the ape sentiments toward monkeys and tarsiers? Slow lorises?

3. Why no gibbons? Gibbons are apes.

4. Not a question, but we were so close to seeing a bear fight a gorilla in the first 10 minutes! So close! And they blew it by having it fight some chimps.

5. Why aren’t there more orangutans? I love orangutans.

6. Why is it apes versus humans? Humans are technically apes too. The title “Planet of the Apes” is actually not that descriptive. We currently live in the “Planet of the Apes.”

Chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn't make you want to see this nothing will.

Raging chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn’t make you want to see this nothing will.

I said at the beginning that what I find interesting is how the same series can change its tone and message with the shifting of the cultural tides yet still operate under the same basic rules. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 was about dogmatism versus science and the possibilities of the collapse of human society and the possible future of ape evolution. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) was about making more money. That’s about it. A little bit concerning the dangers of nuclear weapons at the end. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) dealt with how we react to outsiders and how we defend our own self interest at the expense of outsiders (because they be different!). Conquest of the Planet of the Apes(1972) was about racism and revolution. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was about making money again, but also about how some of the best social rules must sometimes be compromised or broken to keep the peace (hit on again in Dawn—one very appropriate nod the earlier movies). The Tim Burton one (2001) was about “remember these movies?” Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) shifted tone to be about scientific ethics and perhaps ecology, especially in how we treat animals. It asked questions like: Is it okay to treat animals the way we do simply because we don’t perceive them to be on our intellectual level? Are we really the most important species? Could another surpass us? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) focuses much of its energy on the tenuous nature of diplomacy in hostile territory where emotions run high. It basically states that emotion should not rule the roost when it comes to maintaining peace—and that this message rings strongly for both sides. In a sense, Dawn is a critique on the hazards of nationalism and isolationism and how it only takes a few extremists to characterize and demonize an entire social group. It is easy to see how a simple tit for tat exchange can escalate quickly to tragic ends. This is something we witness throughout history and today in human geopolitics and conflicts.

Moral of the story: peace is hard and destruction is easy.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

All in all Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably one of the more socially significant blockbusters out there at the moment. It suffers from some less interesting human characters (minus Gary Oldman who manages to be more than the archetype you might expect from the trailers). The effects are mesmerizing to watch and the fight sequences are high octane, high emotion thrill-scapes. If you enjoyed anything about the earlier films this is a welcome treat with a bigger brain than most of the series and what appears to be a genuinely prescient conscience concerning escalating real-world geopolitical tensions. I recommend it.

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Picture references:

http://www.truemovie.com/2014moviedata/DawnofthePlanetoftheApes.htm

http://blogs.indiewire.com/boxofficeinsider/cool-trailers-part-2-robert-downey-jrs-the-judge-kevin-harts-the-wedding-ringer-and-the-final-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-trailer-20140623

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/final-dawn-planet-apes-trailer-premieres-article-1.1836336

http://herocomplex.latimes.com/books/firestorm-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-prequel-novel/#/0

 

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Generic Belgian Boy Sleuth and the Quest for the Implausible Rube-Goldbergian Action Set Pieces

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)When I was a kid I loved The Adventures of Tintin. Hergé’s colorful, mystery-filled world was the perfect amalgam of The Hardy Boys, Johnny Quest, and Emil and the Detectives. I always preferred the boy reporter, Tintin, to Johnny Quest because of the cool time periods and atmosphere. The jury’s still out on whether Snowy is better than Bandit. It was everything a young boy loves: action, adventure, danger, mystery, and rapidly shifting exotic backdrops. Both the comics (published between 1929 and 1976) and the animated series from the early nineties are excellent fun.

Indiana Jones director, Steven Spielberg, it would seem should be the most logical choice to bring the beloved character to the big screen (with aid of one Peter Jackson). Sitting in the theater I can see where people might have some quibbles with the film adaptation. It is jam-packed with wild action sequences and gun play and explosions and very little character development and some of the old-timey flavor and sensibilities might not be what modern audiences are craving. Like most things, there are positive things about Tintin and then there are negative things.

For those uninitiated into the world of Belgian artist Hergé’s Tintin they might not experience that same surge of nostalgia. A film should not be dependent on that surge, especially for a character that might not be as familiar in the United States. Tintin is a flat character. He always was. Even in the comics. One is meant to be experiencing the adventures through Tintin’s eyes. He is a blank cypher so we can more readily assign our own personalities to him. It works in the comics when you’re a kid. This idea may not work so well on the big screen. Despite Tintin’s apparent innocuousness and infernal purity he still looks good on screen. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Munich) plays the evil Professor Sakharine but his motivations are silly and he’s not a particularly memorable screen villain. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) are the bumbling identical detective set of Thomson and Thompson and they play the parts very true to the source material but they do not add much new. Fortunately not all of the characters are so bland. Andy Serkis (The Two Towers, Topsy-Turvy) gives an extremely enjoyable and kooky performance as Capt. Archibald Haddock.

The animation is incredible. I don’t generally like motion-capture films (with the exception of Gil Kenan’s Monster House) and I am not a fan of the current 3D trend, but most of my misgivings regarding motion-capture are gone for Tintin. The photo-realistic textures donned upon Hergé-inspired cartoon features actually work well and gone are the glassy-eyed stares that gave everyone the willies in Robert Zemekis’s Polar Express. The colors pop and the world looks sharp and clear. There is a healthy balance between characters who look real and characters who look like cartoons. Visually it all works. With animation the camera is able to go places and do things that would never be achievable in a live-action film. This glorious freedom of the camera unencumbered by logistics of any kind enables the filmmakers to film the action in incredibly new and exciting ways.One big complaint is that there is too much action. It is a smoke screen to disguise the thinness of plot and absence of engaging personalities. The action does become rather exhausting after awhile and towards the end of the movie I was wanting it to wrap up so I could go home. Instead of mood and solid atmosphere we get action. Instead of a clear objective and understandable character motivations we get action. It’s pretty much wall to wall action once it gets going. It reminded me of the first and last 20 minutes or so of Temple of Doom in that regard. I generally see 3D as a gimmick for rides and shows at Universal Studios or Busch Gardens so I treat The Adventures of Tintin as a big, long, exciting ride that features some of my favorite characters from my childhood. I do feel that although they really wanted this ride to be worth the cost of admission the spectacle does go on about ten minutes too long. I wanted a more satisfying and final conclusion.

So what do I really think about The Adventures of Tintin? I liked it. Thank God it’s not a pop-culture onslaught reboot like The Smurfs and such. It stays extremely true to its source material and would be a good escape for children young and old. Although it’s not nearly as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in many ways it is everything Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was supposed to be but just outright refused to deliver. Perhaps Tintin is Spielberg’s apology and way of saying the whole Crystal Skull business was all George Lucas. For all its faults and limitations The Adventures of Tintin is a fun adventure that hearkens back to classic action-mystery stories of childhood yore. I don’t think Hergé would have had many objections to the film. I hope kids will like it. It’s about time American kids got a little bit more exposure to culture.

Satellite of the Simians 2: Return to the Mad House

Sooooooooo if you recall I had a few things to say regarding The Planet of the Apes series from a previous article. Well, as it so happens I realized the other day that I had to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes for sheer completeness’s sake. So I saw it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was seen by me. For my immediate thoughts on the film kindly enjoy the following paragraphs.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt in this year of our Lord 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an effective redux of the original’s third sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) which deals with the ape revolution. It is also quite easily the best Apes movie since the first Planet of the Apes in 1968. Rise features some impressive special effects, compelling characters, exhilarating action, and some truly fascinating motion capture performances (the main character of Caesar being performed by Andy Serkis who is definitely going to start getting a reputation for this sort of thing after Gollum and King Kong). Rise, however, is by no means a perfect movie.

My main beef with Rise comes from the cold simple fact that the filmmakers are so preoccupied with conveying a believable and complex ape plot that they forget about the humans. I go into a movie like this not expecting to buy every pseudo-scientific detail spewed at me, but I would have liked it better had a little more care been placed into the human storyline. James Franco (Pineapple Express) does an OK job as the stereotypical good scientist with ambition who winds up taking care of Caesar, but the role never calls for much and we lose track of him and what his goals actually are before the halfway point. John Lithgow (Third Rock From the Sun) is back on the screen as Franco’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father, but again not much is given to him. The gorgeous Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is the biggest loss. She is essentially a wasted character entirely. She provides nothing to the story except its basic need for a female character. Literally nothing she says or does is important in this movie (BECHDEL TEST). She is so woefully underwritten that it makes me very sad indeed. Brian Cox (25th Hour) has the most interesting human character as the ambiguous “monkey jail warden,” but he’s given very little screen-time and most of it comes down to what he can do with very little. His animal-hating son is played by Draco Malfoy himself, and I certainly hope that he gets better work in American films after this. David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland) plays the final piece to this cliche-wrought puzzle: the greedy rich guy who controls the apparent progress of science. I found all of these fine actors wasted here. It begs the question of why you would cast big names for stock roles that could be played by anybody? I think had they spent a little more time developing the human world (and maybe casting it a bit more along the lines of District 9) it could have saved much for me.

All this aside, the only real reason anyone is going to see this movie is for the apes. This department delivers. With almost no dialogue the CG apes provide an incredibly emotional and nuanced narrative that is hard not to be sucked into. Caesar (the name obviously a nod to Cornelius and Zira’s son from Conquest and Battle) is a chimpanzee physically, but science run amok has sculpted his brain to be far more advanced and so he has an identity crisis of sorts. He can recognize injustice and he has a look in his eye that says he knows there is more that he does not yet understand. When he violently defends John Lithgow from the mean next-door neighbor the courts order James Franco put Caesar is a sanctuary for old apes. Once inside “monkey jail” the film really picks up. Up until now there have only been startling moments of realization and intrigue, here is where we get the lower primate retelling of Escape From Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, and maybe Hunger. No longer protected by his human father, Caesar learns what it means to be an animal in a human’s world…also what it means to be an animal in an animal’s world. You feel his frustration and you really follow his logic and learning. If you know anything about this movie you know they stage a huge ape revolt. No room for passive resistance or nonviolent civil disobedience when your main thought is regarding your own feces and exactly where to throw it and how hard. I won’t spoil all the details, but I will say that it is this chapter of the film—where we really learn who Caesar is and who he can become—where it really soars.

The revolt inevitably leads to action. The action is a lot of fun and I had a good time watching the dumb, dopey humans being consistently surprised by the wily ape strategies. My problem again was that all of the human characters are dumb, dopey cardboard cutouts, but it was enjoyable watching them get pummeled by Caesar’s army. The film ends well and I was surprised that I found myself actually hoping for a sequel. That almost never happens to me! I would like to see more of these apes in action.

In addition to the splendid tale of science gone haywire and the subsequent ape revolution, there are several in-jokes and references for Planet of the Apes geeks. Caesar’s mother is called “Bright Eyes” by the scientists, which is the same name given to Taylor (Charlton Heston) by his ape captors in the first Planet of the Apes. The name Caesar derives from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Mr. Malfoy’s character is named Dodge Landon (which I didn’t catch until the credits) and Dodge and Landon were the names of Taylor’s shipmates in the original movie. James Franco sort of plays a cross between the good human scientists in Conquest and Ricardo Montalban’s kindly circus proprietor from Conquest and Battle. To keep it pure, not just chimpanzees are present, but gorillas and orangutans as well. In possibly another nod to Montalban, one orangutan signs that he was from the circus. The humans have also named this orangutan  Maurice which I presume to be a reference to Maurice Evans who played the dogmatic orangutan, Dr. Zaius, in the original 1968 film. Since he is a good orangutan I also take it as reference to Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Also the gorilla in the movie is named Buck which is another reference to the original film because the gorilla named Julius was played by Buck Kartalian. Charlton Heston can be seen on the television a couple of times as well. One ape is referred to in passing by the name of Cornelia (the feminine form of Roddy McDowell’s chimpanzee character, Cornelius?). The lines, “It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!” as well as “Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” are both spoken. I’m sure there’s some I missed, but you get the idea and sometimes it’s good to know things were made by fans.

Things are also kept safe for the Apes timeline because it depicts the original revolution and not the second one that was instigated by the now second Caesar (the offspring of Cornelius and Zira when they went back in time following the destruction of the earth in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). So Escape from the Planet of the Apes can still take place and set up the revised timeline where Lawgiver presides over both ape and man harmoniously and essentially undoing all of the previous and future movies. Don’t worry.

I am sufficiently nerded out. I liked the movie quite a bit despite its many shortcomings. It’s not great, but it’s pretty darn satisfying. And you know what else? I have completed my mission. I have seen all seven Planet of the Apes movies now. If you loved the first movie with Charlton Heston and were let down by some of the sequels and remake then maybe this will give you hope. Apes ain’t dead yet.

http://www.beyondhollywood.com/category/conquest-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-remake-movie/

http://www.poptower.com/rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-pictures.htm

http://moviecarpet.com/2011/06/04/first-tv-spot-for-rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-and-new-photos/rise_of_the_planet_of_the_apes-09/