Burroughs of Barsoom

So I did something which they tell me is rather unique for me. I went to go see a mainstream movie on its opening night. Weird, I know. I saw Disney’s John Carter (2012). I went into the theater expecting to be sadly disappointed as I had been when I saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)—which I also saw opening day. Douglas Adams and Edgar Rice Burroughs were the science fiction guys in my house growing up. Them and Isaac Asimov. Also H.G. Wells. And a bit of Jules Verne. All this to say I was fully prepared to see a cherished childhood memory tarnished. I must confess I was pleasantly surprised.

John Carter has been receiving mixed reviews at best and I think I can see why, but can I tell you something super dooper secret? I kinda really liked it. It felt like reading the old pulpy Burroughs’ books again. As the images kept coming I was reminded of exciting passages ripped straight out of Princess of Mars (originally written in 1912). A thousand past imagined battles and characters were alive and moving across the vast screen before me. Some images even bore the watermarks of the gnarly Frank Frazetta illustrations. Frazetta is to Burroughs what Sir John Tenniel is to Lewis Carroll. I was surprised by how much of the story remained intact. Amidst the wash of fond memories of the smells of the attic of my boyhood and sitting in the old chair reading these Martian books, I was struck to my core. This may be the closest Burroughs adaptation ever made.

Seriously. Tarzan (also a product of 1912) has been adapted so many times with so many different visions, but all fall short. . . although I’m still rather partial to the hokey Johnny Weissmuller ones from the 1930s. Burroughs would take perfectly masculine heroes to the darkest jungles, to the wild west, to Mars, to Venus, to the center of the earth, to dinosaur times, ad nausea. Tarzan is still his most well-known character. John Carter may not have had the impact of Tarzan, but he’s still a great character. Hey, wait. John Carter totally had an impact on American culture. Maybe even more than Tarzan.

One of the biggest problems with the movie John Carter is that so many of its elements seem derivative of things like Star Wars, Superman, and so much more. But Burroughs predates all of them. In fact, for however pulpy and ludicrous a scribbler Edgar Rice Burroughs was, his work really changed the way America sees its heroes. An average, rugged American bashing around the country and getting zapped into outer space may sound fairly innocuous, but when he lands on another planet and discovers that he has superhuman strength and agility there and he decides to fight for what is good and unite the world’s peoples and ultimately save it you get Superman! But Siegel and Shuster didn’t come up with Superman until 1932. There are several scenes where hideous alien monsters battle the protagonists in sporting arenas. It may sound like Luke fighting the Rancor or the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, but the pages of Princess of Mars were scrawled long before these shadows were dreamed up. Even the language. Compare Burroughs’ “Jeddak” with Lucas’s “Jedi.” My dad always wondered about that. Even consider the fact that Burroughs developed several elaborate fantasy universes and cultures before Tolkien described Middle-Earth in 1937.

The trouble is that the mechanics and ingredients of a once original author’s worlds have become commonplace now. Since he has inspired so much, been copied so many times, and been reinvented over and over again, a faithful screen telling would undoubtedly seem somewhat deflated compared with other space opera blockbusters. The truth is that Burroughs’ Barsoom books could never have been realized on screen before now because of the necessary visual complexity. The movie may not be as fresh as it would have been 100 years ago, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In a time when superhero movies with explosive action and mayhem are becoming tired and boring, it’s no wonder a movie like John Carter can get lost in the shuffle. It looks like more of the same. It looks like a knockoff of Clash of the Titans (2010), Avatar (2009), or Thor (2011) but not nearly as mind-numbing as any of the Transformers movies. Now I thought all of those films were pretty godawful, but something about John Carter was different. Was it mere nostalgia? Was it the classic feel the movie had? Was it the wave of memories that surged through my mind at the theater? I don’t know. I do know this though: Andrew Stanton’s John Carter has a winning personality and energy and perhaps, in keeping so close to its source material, it has bottled some of the original magic. For all its new-fangled frills and costly special effects, it feels authentic and old-timey. I’m glad director Andrew Stanton didn’t feel the need to update or reboot the story.

Deal with it. I hated Avatar.

As for the film itself, it’s not perfect. Burroughs’ books, which originally appeared as cliffhangers in magazines, are pulp adventure and tales of violence and this movie does not veer from that origin and I don’t think it would be appropriate if they did. Consider Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). It took the Tarzan story way too seriously and it didn’t work. It also didn’t help that Christopher Lambert (The Highlander) was cast in the title role. No, Barsoom needed to be treated with affection and levity. I’d say they succeeded. It reminded my roommate of some of the cheesy B-movies made in the science fiction craze of the 70s and 80s, but with a better budget. Perhaps an apt description and that’s exactly what it needed to be. I’d be a sucker anyway. I kinda love those old B-movies.

The movie has action, humor, great special effects, engaging characters, monsters, cool vehicles, and some fun battles. It does have a few dialogue scenes that may go on a smidgen too long, but I can forgive it. I had my doubts about almost every character from the trailers; from John Carter and Dejah Thoris to my favorite character, Tars Tarkas. I must confess that Taylor Kitsch (Carter) was not as wooden as I’d feared and actually elicits some humor and embodies the character well. Lynn Collins (Dejah) is a fiery and sexy Princess of Mars (maybe a bit too sciency, but oh well). She looks great and her character is decidedly more interesting and fun than a lot of female characters in similar veined movies. The great Willem Dafoe does one heck of a Thark as Tars Tarkas too. Even the minor characters like Sola, Kantos Kan, Tal Hajus, and Woola are pretty great. We did need more of Kantos Kan, by the way. A note on the Martian (Barsoomian) dog, Woola: I know you may be thinking a quirky monster pet comic relief character sounds positively nauseating, but believe me when I say he is quite a delight and a pleasure to observe whenever he is onscreen.

The film does lack a concrete villain. We get that Mark Strong is playing another bad guy (he’s gonna get a rep if he’s not careful), but his motives are very unclear for the most part. That’s another thing though; Burroughs always seemed to prefer writing great, impossible heroes over memorable baddies. So be it.

The biggest problem with the movie is the title. I get not naming it Princess of Mars after the book, but John Carter is misleading and ambiguous. In an effort to give the movie broader appeal Disney has given it the kiss of death with one of the worst movie titles. Yes, the main character’s name is John Carter, but John Carter of Mars would have been so much more descriptive and appropriate. It’s all marketing and it seems fairly obvious that the suits in charge had no idea what they were doing.

People have called this film dull and derivative, but I say there is a noble soul deep down in there, despite the occasional convolutions. As cynical as I am about a lot of new Hollywood movies, I can honestly report that I greatly enjoyed John Carter. It stays very true to the original novel that was written 100 years ago. It’s fun, exciting science fiction entertainment (heavy on the fiction side of things, just the way we Star Wars dorks like it) and it should please the whole family. I went in with a jaded heart, but the movie won me over. Don’t let bad reviews scare you away from having a good time with this adventure. Who reads reviews anyway?

A final word. Don’t pick up an Edgar Rice Burroughs book expecting to find great literature. They are merely wonderful entertainment with loads of monsters, heroes, and violence. They’re also a bit racist. Okay, I love you, b-bye.

Mickey Mouse is Watching

Disney Chicks are like Trekkies. They are bizarre and insufferable and make whatever their prospective obsession happens to be appear terrible and soul-devouring.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Disney movies and I like Star Trek. I can say things like that because I am a nerd myself.

Maybe I’m just bitter Walt Kelly never got an amusement park.

Scene from "Escape from Tomorrow."

Scene from “Escape from Tomorrow.”

I’m sorry for the hostility in the first bit there. I’m just testy because I’ve lost a few friends to the mind-numbing positivity that is Disney. You know the ones I mean. They’ve been indoctrinated and have only love, admiration, and fear for the Mouse and zero tolerance for anyone who didn’t particularly care for High School Musical.

I recently read [skimmed] a book called Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member by Kevin Yee. For some reason, perhaps it was the title and the seemingly ironic uber-happy cover, but I was somehow under the impression that this memoir was going to be a dark examination of the seedy underbelly of Disneyland. I was expecting some mad ravings from a deranged, disgruntled, and disenfranchised former employee. I thought it was going to be the unmasking of the Mouse. A shameless deconstruction of the Happiest Place on Earth. Totally biased and skewed, but entertaining! This was not the case.

As I wearily perused the remaining chapters, I was hoping for something good tucked away. It soon became clear to me that Mr. Yee had no intention of staining his former employer. I thought, well there’s a big man. He can walk away with respect for the Man and he can take the time to collect his thoughts and share with us what he learned. It was not this either.

Then I thought maybe it was gearing up to be an account from a male Disney Chick (we’ll call them Disney Dudes). It would be a super-happy-saccharine-cotton-candy-sweet-tooth-deluxe-eat-it-up ad nausea ode to the One with the Round Ears. Totally biased again but in the reverse thrust. So delighted and positive it would prove dishearteningly hilarious. Again, not the case.

Instead what I found within the pages of Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member was one of the most tepid and toothless accounts of anything anywhere in existence. I was astounded at how boring it all was. Yee hasn’t recorded naughty backstage stories. He has compiled his work schedule, the minutiae of his shifts, and a list of the random events the park threw for its workers. And no feeling behind any of it. This was not a memoir but the account of a single cog in a monstrous contraption. I hadn’t been this disappointed in literature since I read Amberville.*

I might actually be more inclined to go if they still looked like this.

I might actually be more inclined to go if they still looked like this.

There was no mouse trap at all. There was nothing. When Yee comes close to something that might be interesting he completely handles wrong. There are passages that explain the importance of good customer service and then there’s the part where he tells of how of he had to inform people the elevator was broken and the time where he talked with Henry Winkler that simply states he “had a long chat with Henry Winkler, a real down-to-earth guy.” This is a man who had worked in Disneyland for 15 years and most of his stories feel emotionally distant and monotonously robotic…which I find even more telling.

The damp writing style reminded me of how I imagined the inner-monologue of one of my old managers at Barnes & Noble must have played out in his head. Everything is like looking through a foggy View-Master but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all about providing quality customer service. Total bureaucrat. It’s like the teleplay to a “Welcome to Wal-Mart, New Employee!” video. Why write this book? Who is the audience? Who could possibly find any of this entertaining? Then it all hit me. Almost everyone I had ever known who had worked for the Mouse on a peon level had become this. This was not the Kevin Yee that existed before Disneyland. This was aftermath. If you ever wondered what someone without a soul would write like, check out this book. It’s a disturbing horror story of what clean employment can do to a man.

Disneyland suckers you in with its pristine everything-is-always-perfect approach. It gets almost everybody. Some are repelled by suspected phoniness, smelling a rat. Others embrace it as the Atman joining with Brahma. Still others see it simply as a business that tries really hard to uphold a quality reputation. Whatever you think it really is, the cold fact lays before us: Yee has joined the Mouse. It is too late for him. It will undoubtedly be years before he can readily relate to normal society. He writes this memoir with the last strength he has to tell the truth, but the Mouse’s hold is strong and his words are mangled and his purpose is lost. A telling account indeed.

No Jews.

No Jews.

I feel bad for ragging on the one guy like this. He’s a victim here too after all. I’m sure he’s a splendid guy. Probably loves his kids. Pays his taxes. Don’t worry. He’ll get his soul back. The cog doesn’t see much of the rest of the machine, but his ambivalent and dim perspective, although familiar and tedious, might just give us a glimpse of something truly chilling at work.

A part of me does want to give him the benefit of the doubt. One of my roommates pointed out while I was yelling at the book that it’s exactly the sort of thing I would do. I would bill my book as a tell-all memoir but only write boring passages about what I had to eat on a given day and what the weather was like. I would do that because I would find it personally humorous and delight at the expense of my idiot readers. I would do that. Might there be other comedy sociopaths like that out there? Maybe Mr. Yee just pulled a fast one.

*Amberville by Tim Davys so did entice me. A hard-boiled detective novel except all the characters are stuffed animals? It was irresistibly askew in premise…but mind-numbingly disappointing in execution. All but totally devoid of wit or irony. Sad day for stuffed animals everywhere. All this being said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity go out and enjoy these too awful books, you schlubs.

Satellite of the Simians: Blowing It All to Hell

Do you believe in de-evolution? I do. Watch the Planet of the Apes series and you will too. More than a story of apes developing human-like culture and the subsequent domination of the human race, the franchise offers a glimpse into a world of merchandising hell. Each sequel is a little bit worse and exponentially more ludicrous than its predecessor. Such a shame as the original 1968 film is such a brilliant masterpiece of science fiction and allegory. Revisiting the entire series of five movies was like watching a beloved friend being pummeled into the ground by a parade of increasingly dumber people. I kind of enjoyed it.

A nice spaceship crash preceded this moment.

A nice spaceship crash preceded this moment.

The first Planet of the Apes (1968) focuses on lost astronaut, Taylor (played by Moses himself, Charlton Heston), as he travels to the distant future to a world where everything is run by damn, dirty apes and humans are primitive and mute underlings used primarily for sport in this society . Taylor is tormented by the stiff dogma of ape society that embraces tradition over facts and science. Taylor’s primary primate foe is a rigid, but highly intelligent orangutan named Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans (Rosemary’s Baby). He is helped by two chimpanzee scientists, Cornelius and Dr. Zira, played by Roddy McDowell (The Legend of Hell House) and Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire). It’s a fascinating story that can be read on multiple levels. It can operate as a comical metaphor for the Scopes Monkey Trial and the battle between science and religion or it can function as a racist parable of white fears and prejudiced paranoia of what the world would turn into if the blacks were given too many rights. Edgy and controversial and lots to think about and discuss. Of course, I’d love it. The film also has one of the greatest twist endings of all time (sorry, Shyamalan). You can really see the Rod Serling watermarks on the script. Also Nova is hot.

Dawkins must feel like Heston every day...that would sound really ironic if I wasn't referring to his character in this movie.

Dawkins must feel like Heston every day…that would sound really ironic if I wasn’t referring to his character in this movie.

The makeup and acting is good and the frustration endured by the main characters is compelling. It’s everything great science fiction should be and it was directed by Frank J. Schaffner (Patton, Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon, and the kinda screwy Boys From Brazil). So where did it go all go so wrong? Answer: the sequels. If you think all the lousy sequels and remakes Hollywood cranks out by the bushel is a new trend, think again. Remember Spielberg’s classic Jaws (1975)? Remember Jaws 4: the Revenge (1987)? Yeah. Unlike the Jaws franchise, however, that really didn’t have much place to deviate from a plot about a shark that eats more people, the Planet of the Apes had a really novel concept (from the Pierce Boulle novel) and a lot of potential to expand. But instead of evolving like the great apes in this series, Apes got raped, cinematically speaking.

Damned dirty what? Dude! That's our word.

Damned dirty what? Dude! That’s our word.

It starts gradually. You almost think for a brief, fleeting instant that maybe Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes [or : how I learned to stop having a face and love the bomb] (1970) might go somewhere that’s not a total waste of time. After all, it picks up right where the first movie left off and hey look, there’s Charlton Heston again…oh, wait. No. He just disappeared into a boulder. Here we go.

At least we still have Nova.

At least we still have Nova.

The director of Hang ‘Em High seems ill-equipped to deal with the Apes series and the movie devolves into a cheaper production with thin elements oversimplified from Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp fiction and wanton rehashing of the original. After Taylor disappears in the Forbidden Zone (not the Oingo Boingo movie), Nova (the lovely and scantily clad Linda Harrison) is left alone until she finds another astronaut from another failed space mission (the one that sought to rescue Taylor…and ONLY Taylor, because forget those other guys). This new fella’, Brent, played by James Franciscus (Valley of the Gwangi) is a tedious replacement, but Linda is still foxy as ever. He spies on ape society and the film decides to portray ape society more at odds with the dimwitted, militaristic gorillas rather than the dogmatic orangutans that plagued the more scientific chimpanzees of the original. 

God is an all powerful atom bomb.

God is an all powerful atom bomb.

Zira and Cornelius return (briefly) to help Brent escape and Dr. Zaius leads an aggressive expedition into the Forbidden Zone where we meet a race of subterranean mind-controllers who worship an atom bomb and like to peel their faces off. Very Burroughs. It’s hokey in a kind of stupid yet enjoyable way but it feels like this is the sort of film more suited to Doug McClure (The Land That Time Forgot) than Heston. SPOILER ALERT: at the end everybody dies—even Nova!!!—and the whole world blows up. The end. Well, if all the characters are dead and the world done got blowed up and crap then we can’t possibly have another movie, right? Dead wrong.

It challenges everything we think we know about our own evolution...shouldn't that bus be like dust by now?

It challenges everything we think we know about our own evolution…shouldn’t that bus be like dust by now?

Next came Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) directed by Don Taylor (The Island of Dr. Moreau). Nova is missed. Who am I supposed to look at now?! Cornelius and Zira (once again, Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter) evidently found Taylor’s spaceship and somehow got it to fly back in time to earth in the 1970s (not sure how). They just miss the explosion that obliterates earth in the future. All of this information is really only mentioned in passing. It never deals with the actual escape part! The bulk of the film concerns Cornelius and Zira reenacting scenes from the first film only in reverse—apes studied by sympathetic scientists while misunderstood by the general public. The film chiefly features Cornelius and Zira doing press conferences and special events and shopping for clothing.

Double mask!

Wouldn’t they stretch out the sleeves a little?

Although the ape society they came from was pretty basic and they were living in rocks and didn’t have much technology beyond cages and nets, they are never impressed by TVs or cars or anything or even by how much more gracious and accepting humans are of them than they themselves were of Taylor. They continuously believe 1970s earth to be dim and primitive because apes are treated like animals here despite our technology being centuries ahead of theirs and apes actually being animals here. This drove me nuts!

The apes conceal their knowledge of the destruction of earth because they just know that human society will see that apes blow up the world and thus will try to exterminate them to prevent the ape revolution of the far distant future. I know what you’re thinking. It disrupts the laws of cause and effect. You can’t go back in time to be your own grandfather and expect to be in the same timeline. Well, an evil human scientist (who is a self-professed expert on time) misses this detail as well and sends the government out to stop them.

Boasting almost as many conference meetings as Star Wars Episode I.

Boasting almost as many conference meetings as Star Wars Episode I.

Cornelius becomes a fugitive after he kills a hospital orderly by knocking a tray out of his hand. Also Zira is pregnant. Eww. SPOILER ALERT: all the monkey characters die, but not before Zira’s baby is switched with a baby chimpanzee at a circus run by a kindly Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan). Everything Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did right and had fun with is handled so ridiculously in this movie it defies description. The tone is all over the map. You don’t have happy, campy ape shopping montages and then the brutal slaying of these characters (along with a regular baby chimp) in the finale.

My god. When I go back I'm gonna pitch an idea for an ape Price Is Right.

My god. When I go back I’m gonna pitch an idea for an ape Price Is Right.

The last shot isn’t bad and it’s a decent twist. Zira’s baby in the circus grabs the bars and says “mama” over and over and the credits roll. Chilling.

Mama...mama...mama...

Mama…mama…mama…

So the last two sequels were getting progressively silly, but there was still a bit of odd appeal to them. This time things get so unbelievable and stupid that you feel bad for even laughing at it. For Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Don Taylor leaves the directing chair and hands over the franchise to J. Lee Thompson. How could the guy who directed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear screw up so bad? Well, he also did King Solomon’s Mines. It doesn’t help matters that Paul Dehn who wrote the last two sequels is still attached. Wait! Paul Dehn has been writing these things? The guy who wrote the scripts for Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Murder on the Orient Express?! What is going on? It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!

See the symbolism? That means it's a good movie.

See the symbolism? That means it’s a good movie.

Anyway, here’s the big, dumb story in a nutshell: all of the world’s cats and dogs have died in a plague therefore the human race makes apes our slaves, so ostensibly in this distant future [1991] there are only two jobs: fascist ape-hating leaders and people who violently train the apes to do every other job. Everyone else just pickets to try and get their jobs back. You have not lived until you’ve seen grown people dressed as apes dressed as waiters and barbers. Another humorous point is the way they train them is so primitive and bizarre. They hold bananas out and then blast them with fire sometimes, but mostly they sit them in front of any given task (pouring a glass of water or operating a computer) and simply bellow the word “do!” at them and then whip them when they don’t comprehend English. The funniest thing about this whole mixed up society is that the apes are actually comically terrible at most of these jobs and the economy is evaporating and a lot of people seem to be jobless and unhappy, but they stay the course (because the dogs and cats are dead).

Gorillas = dumb. Got it.

Gorillas = dumb. Got it.

Enter Caesar (played by Roddy McDowell who really couldn’t seem to get out of this series), the son of Zira and Cornelius. He leads a revolution because he discovers that he can tell apes to do things via telepathy. A battle ensues and so begins the conquest. There are so many insultingly dopey elements to this film, but perhaps the most insulting of all is the ape makeup. Up until this fourth movie I was under the impression that the civilized apes looked the way they did because they were more evolved or mutated. This film tells me that this is simply what all apes would look like if we put clothes on them. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas would all have the exact same proportions as people and I am supposed to accept this because there is a serious commentary about racial oppression in the subtext.

Where do monkeys fit into all of this?

Where do monkeys fit into all of this?

There are too many silly and stupid things in this movie to count. I do wonder about Caesar’s motives too. He is an ape, but can reason and communicate as well as the humans, but he still identifies with the oppressed apes who are still dumb beasts. I wonder if I went back in time and witnessed the enslavement of neadertals by a race of lizard people—who I could actually relate to—if I would lead a caveman revolution. Ultimately it’s sad because it could have been so good. A lot of the societal ideas the movie wanted to explore were fascinating, but poor execution killed it (there is a serious indictment of racism…but it’s a littler racist itself to compare the black Civil Rights movement with the oppression of dumb apes).

Boys and girls, this corpulent, bearded man with the goofy ski goggles is our villain.

Boys and girls, this corpulent, bearded man with the goofy ski goggles is our villain.

Finally comes Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Thompson directs again and Dehn writes again, but this film is actually slightly better than Conquest. There is just one gargantuan logical leap you will have to make at the very beginning. This leap is so big that it pretty much destroys any fragment of respectability Battle was hoping for. The leap is this: the film takes place about 10 years after the events of the previous movie and in that time there has been nuclear warfare and all of the great apes have evolved and developed a complex culture, military, educational system, history, morality, hierarchy, and can speak English perfectly. At first I thought maybe Caesar (again, Roddy McDowell) just banged everybody and their kids got his smarts, but no. Caesar has only one child and many of the apes were part of the revolution when they were still non-sentient beasts with no civilization. Some humans are subservient to apes and others try to work with the apes, but many apes are much smarter than people. Don’t make sense, do it?

Not the best matte painting, but we get the idea.

Not the best matte painting, but we get the idea. I think it’s the blue skies.

They live in the forest and build a town and a strongly defined caste system is established along with dogmatic principles of society. The chimps are the brainy ones, the orangutans are wise keepers of law and religion, and the gorillas are dumb and love violence (the gorilla stereotype was hinted at in the original, but ever since the second movie they played it up more and more). There is one really bad gorilla named General Aldo who wants to kill all humans (Bender!), but Caesar wants to keep them around and learn from them.

These films just further the stereotype that gorillas are dumb.

These films just further the stereotype that gorillas are dumb.

When a human tells Caesar that recordings of his parents might exist in an irradiated ruin of a city, they go on the first journey to “the Forbidden Zone.” One new character, Virgil, an orangutan, is a nice addition (interestingly Virgil is played by Paul Williams who voiced The Penguin on Batman: the Animated Series while Roddy McDowell voiced the Mad Hatter). In the destroyed city they discover a warped subterranean culture of radiation-poisoned humans (the seeds of the skinless, mind-controlling, atom bomb worshipers of Beneath the Planet of the Apes???). Caesar’s intrusion is unwelcome and they launch a very underwhelming attack that plays like a poor man’s Road Warrior. A very poor man’s Road Warrior.

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?

SPOILER ALERT: Aldo kills Caesar’s son—disobeying the first rule of ape society, “ape must never kill ape”—and so Caesar kills Aldo and then we see in the far off future the Lawgiver (John Huston. I know, right!) narrating the events to a group of ape children and human children. So we all live in harmony together in this alternate universe and the first movie never happened. Interesting to note that Caesar claims that throughout all of ape history no ape has ever killed another ape and that only humans kill members of their own species. I think Caesar (or Paul Dehn) should have watched the Discovery Channel.

Ape must never kill ape was a good policy...until you never devise a penalty or deterrant for disobeying the policy.

Ape must never kill ape was a good policy…until you never devise a penalty or deterrant for disobeying the policy.

It didn’t end there, I’m afraid. There was a live-action series and an equally short-lived animated series (the likes of which rival Clutch Cargo for sheer production value deplorability). Roddy McDowell was also in the show. The funny thing is that for all the crap the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes (2001) got, it’s actually a far superior accomplishment in comparison to most of the series. It’s not good, but it’s not laughably bad. How did the franchise fall so far?

This is illegal in 46 states.

This is illegal in 46 states.

Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomena. It was such a popular science fiction series that they just couldn’t stop. The Apes were on lunchboxes and toys and everywhere. It’s just a darn good thing Star Wars came along. The first Planet of the Apes is still a great movie several decades later and watching the whole series can be fun (if you’re like me and like bad cinema sometimes just as much as good cinema), but man did they wreck it. The new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is actually a bit of a remake/re-imagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. 43 years later and the Apes ain’t dead yet…no matter how many bad movies they make. I’d still say they already blew it all to hell.

Almost as ill-fittingly iconic as "Soylent Green is people." At least the end to "Omega Man" was kept safe...and once you see "Omega Man" you will never see the intro to "Friends" the same way again.

Almost as ill-fittingly iconic as “Soylent Green is people.” At least the end to “Omega Man” was kept safe…and once you see “Omega Man” you will never see the intro to “Friends” the same way again.

A parting shot. We miss you, Nova.

She doesn't speak. She doesn't wear much. She's very devoted without expecting anything in return. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Chauvinist's Perfect Woman.

She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t wear much. She’s very devoted without expecting anything in return. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Chauvinist’s Perfect Woman.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 20, 2011.

Of Dogs and Bunny Rabbits

Warning: These are not children’s movies.

I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.

Frith speaks!

Frith speaks!

I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.

Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.

Fiver's ominous vision.

Fiver’s ominous vision.

 

Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very  beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.

scary bunny

The filling in of the warren.

Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.

Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.

 

I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.

drowning

Depressed yet? This is like the first scene.

Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009