Posts Tagged ‘Ben-Hur’


Are we not all apes, in the bigger scheme of things?

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, others. 88 minutes. * 1/2

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Pamela Silver, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis. 105 minutes. ***

Related Films: A host of Planet Of The Apes movies, from both incarnations. Plus a TV-show, and, ummm, Spartacus, I guess.

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Of all the films that play the remake game, Conquest and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes probably have the most reflexive, Moebius-Strip geneology. Consider:

1) Because time travel (in both directions) informs the backstory of the first set of movies, the first version of this particular story is simultaneously both sequel (as it details the adventures of a chimp whose genes originated in a post-apocalyptic future) and prequel (as it details how he makes a version of that future come to pass).

2)  Because the first Planet Of The Apes was remade, badly by Tim Burton, in a version that failed to make a lick of sense, this latest incarnation is not really billed as either sequel or prequel to that film but shows signs of being aware of the first Planet’s backstory.

3) It can also be seen as a stand-alone film, and probably should be.

So what you have here is ipso facto, a stand-alone film that is also a remake of a film that is both prequel and sequel. (And then, the makers deny that it is a remake, which only complicates this; but then some of us have memories that extend back as far as earlier in the year, when the makers were less shy about trumpeting its connections to the earlier Conquest).

This is almost as impressive as though not nearly as elegant a feedback loop as  a sequel to a remake which is itself a remake of a sequel.

Either way, both stories detail the lonely struggle of a super-intelligent chimp named Caesar, freeing his less evolved brethren from bondage to human beings, in the first of a series of events that will, we’re meant to understand, culminate with those apes in charge of the Planet Earth. But both deal with that story germ in significantly different ways; the first is shackled to a torturous backstory and a minimal budget and really doesn’t work all that well, and the second has the benefit of advanced technology as well as the performance of a guy who, by now, really does deserve to be a household name. Let us now take a look at both.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)

The lower budgets and more limited technical capabilities of some past films sometimes required its viewers to fill in some blanks, a responsibility that was sometimes good for our collective imaginations but which also sometimes smacked us in our faces when we were faced with circumstances where those imaginations had to fail.

For instance, take the various species of ape in the original Charlton Heston Planet Of The. The makeup that permitted McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and divers others to hobble about as hyper-evolved chimps, orangs and gorillas was a marvel, in that it both evoked the desired level of otherness while still permitting the thespians to act. It also left the actors recognizable to some small degree, even if, in one famous incident, Heston later encountered Hunter at a party and had absolutely no idea who she was even though the movie they’d just made together had included a scene where they’d kissed goodbye. Hunter was reportedly very amused. She must have enjoyed watching Ben-Hur wrack his brains as he wondered how the hell he knew her.

In the context of a science-fictional universe, subject to lord alone knew how many millennia of evolution, it was acceptable that the creatures evoked but didn’t actually look all that much like the species of ape we know from the real world. They were apelike but humanoid; animalistic, but civilized. It wasn’t anything anybody saw reason to remark upon, except insofar as the story remarked upon it already.
 
But this became somewhat more problematic as the arc of what had become an extended movie series sent two apes back in time and obliged them to set a hyper-evolved chimp, the future Caesar, loose in that famous science-fictional realm, “the near-future.” By Conquest, a plague established in Escape From has killed all cats and dogs and set humans to seek animal companionship somewhat further up the evolutionary scale, a development that has eventually led to chimps, orangs and gorillas doing menial work in our cities as a kind of downtrodden slave race.

Here, the same makeup that worked in Planet Of The  now fails miserably. Even if the viewer refrains from analyzing the images on screen to the degree a science fiction writer would, he can see that the apes shuffling about on the city streets are not the apes we know from our world, but a kind of strange hybrid, half-man, half-ape, that is for some reason being treated by fascistic human beings as all ape. The proximity to our time wrecks the illusion and adds a layer of cheese thick enough to make a dietician blanch. Especially to our modern eyes, accepting it requires active forgiveness on the part of the audience – which may have been possible in 1972 when this was the fourth film in a blockbuster franchise, but is pretty damn difficult when the movie is watched as a stand-alone artifact.

Second problem, which may be almost impossible for people of our era to comprehend: in 1972, sequels to hit movies were not given larger budgets than the originals. They were asked to get by on less. This was in part because sequels were  not widely respected (Heston, for one, played his role in the first Ape sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, reluctantly and with a clear sense of sheepish embarrassment), but also because it was felt that the name was enough to get asses into theatre seats and that larger budgets were therefore unnecessary. Conquest did not have the money to build a futuristic city, so it staged all the action around a number of ugly concrete-and-steel municipal plazas, often in closeups designed to hide any revealing contemporary details that might have been invisible around corners or over the tops of buildings. It is difficult to escape the impression that the action involves no more than about six city blocks. The scale seems tiny, cramped, and ugly.

The third problem is that this future society sure likes public address systems. Cops don’t have dispatchers; they have loudspeakers telling them exactly where they need to go to break up riots. Guys at control panels don’t tell their co-workers to do something; they broadcast it to the entire building so everybody within ten blocks knows what orders are being given. This is the opposite of fascism, which usually tends to be a little more secretive. This is just being pushy.

Fourth, the story has many moments that are just plain stupid. Take the fate of Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the kindly circus owner who was entrusted with the infant Caesar at the end of the prior film. Now Caesar’s surrogate Dad, he takes the evolved chimpanzee, the only one in the world who can reason and speak, for a visit to the big city where the future liberator ape will receive his first glimpse of the slavery to which others of his kind are subjected. Caesar is warned at length that the authorities have never given up on finding the offspring of his deceased parents, who is regarded as a clear threat to humanity’s survival. The chimp nods and says that he understands and naturally reveals himself by shouting an angry epithet at some fascistic cops in the first few minutes of the film (an act that proves he may be sentient, but is not necessarily intelligent, if you can get the difference). Write that off as a moment of youthful passion on Caesar’s part and you still arrive at the next logical development, Caesar on the run pretending to be another uncomprehending ape, while Armando falls into the hands of the police and is interrogated at length over his charge’s whereabouts.

Interrogated at length, Armando tells the cops at length, I don’t know about any talking ape.  This, if you believe the film, goes on for days. The cops say that they’ve decided to believe him, then bring out a magic futuristic device which forces people to tell the truth. This, in turn, obliges Armando to leap out a nearby, conveniently breakable window to avoid narking. Which is great when it comes to providing this film with a taste of tragedy, but really: if the fascist cops of this posited era have such a device on hand, and believed all along that Armando was lying and that finding Caesar was high priority, why keep that device locked up and only haul it out when their prisoner believes that he’s pulled a fast one? How much time have they wasted, by their lights, just to keep the past and future Khan Noonian Singh in suspense all those hours while they sweated him? That’s dumb. Or mean: the kind of thing Dick Cheney would do, just to prove he can be sufficiently cruel to suspected terrorists.

More clumsy plotting manifests when Caesar is placed on the auction block. The villain of the piece, Governor Breck (Don Murray), who seems to have few government duties other than snarling, spots him from a distance and says, there, that ape, THAT’S the one I want as slave. Since Breck has been ranting about the missing Caesar at length, it is easy to believe at this moment that Caesar has in some way betrayed himself, or that Breck has in some way spotted him as the super-ape he’s hunting. But, no: the purchase is totally random, Breck just happening to have the impulse to buy the one ape he’s looking for. This would be forgivable were there an important narrative reason for it, but no; in fact, it serves the story only so Caesar can find himself in the same room with Breck and hear some of Breck’s vicious ranting about the threat posed by the apes. After which, Breck just as quickly decides, no, I don’t want this ape as my bartender after all.

Deep Racial Sensitivity

The other major purpose in inviting the chimp up to job interview as bartender is introducing him to MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), who, as a black guy, is sympathetic to the plight of lower-evolved simians being used in slaves. (This is not my characterization, but, inherently, and wincingly, the film’s; a side-effect of the recent developments of the Civil Rights Movement being that some cinematic allusions to it were not only strident and obvious but, as in this case, tone-deaf.) MacDonald must endure a number of moralistic sentences about the indignities suffered by the apes that begin with phrases like, “You, of all people…”  He takes this with the expected level of stoic nobility. Today we wish we could peel away that actor’s skull and see what was going on inside his brain: perhaps a number of sentences that began with, “Fine, so I’m the human face of the chimps, now. Thanks a fuckload, whitey.”

Anyway, Caesar rallies his fellow apes via a series of secret meetings (arranged via methods that are swiftly glossed over in this society where two or more apes congregating in a public place can be met, on sheer principle, by riot police). He is captured but freed in part because MacDonald intervenes. Violence ensues, and after the titular “conquest” (actually, a street riot, which the movie acknowledges will soon be put down), Caesar rants some inspirational words about how word of his act of defiance will soon spread throughout the world, and reach every place where apes are held in bondage.

“Where there is fire,” he says, “ there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!”

McDowall, bless him, actually manages to sell this. As he also manages to sell an immediate pull-back, when the apes seem about to beat the captive Brock to death.

“But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding.”

Way to be mushy, Caesar.

As it happens, this was not even close to a sufficient bridge to the final film in the series, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, so the makers of that one had to provide a flashback which establish that a convenient nuclear war erupted almost immediately after the events of this film. It was a nuclear war that had nothing to do with any of Caesar’s actions; it just happened, and left the apes on top. So what we have here, really, is a movie about an incident that doesn’t amount to much, that doesn’t have any resounding effects, and is rendered wholly irrelevant by events that took place off-screen not long afterward. Nice going.
  
Incidentally, the less than impressive direction was, believe it or not, by a pro responsible for at least one genuine, pulse-pounding classic: J. Lee Thompson, who had about a decade earlier made The Guns Of Navarone. See what difference a budget, a script and enthusiasm for the source material makes?

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

In between the 1972 and 2011 versions we had a much-derided Planet remake by Tim Burton that didn’t do much to advance the fortunes of the franchise, and which may have come to naught had not somebody skipped forward several sequels and alighted on Conquest as the one with the germ of a story that might be revisiting all by itself.

Early publicity actually had it called Rise Of The Apes, which might have been preferable, as it’s not only a decent film with some actual resonance to the way we treat our fellow creatures, but one good enough to deserve to stand apart from a now-hackneyed franchise.

Which is, really, not saying that it fires on all cylinders. Its main problem, really, is that it comes alive only when the apes, led by this film’s Caesar (a wondrous motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis,  the unheralded human face behind Lord Of The Rings’s Smeagol and Peter Jackson’s King Kong), are on-screen. The film makes Caesar a sympathetic, flawed three-dimensional being, and accomplishes much the same for many of his  fellow apes, but neglects to do the same for any, repeat any, of the human characters. They all speak in declarative sentences that propel the plot, and sometimes in villainous utterances that propel our hatred for them, but none of them have fully-rounded personalities, not even Will Rodman (James Franco), the dedicated Alzheimer’s researcher whose formula makes the infant Caesar smarter than the average ape. Sure, we know that he’s driven by love for his ailing, demented father Charles (John Lithgow, best of all the hairless apes on display), and he’s far as we can see a nice guy who means well, but it would be nice if he was actually memorable in some way, if he was a person whose fate we cared about and whose presence on screen was more than an interruption in the fateful saga of Caesar. As it is, his romance with pretty young veterinarian Caroline Arinha (Frieda Pinto) is about as bloodless a pairing as anything we’ve seen in movies for years.

Most human beings in the film don’t make out even that well. Tom Felton, who played a snotty, cruel twerp in the Harry Potter series, plays a snotty and cruel twerp here; way to enlarge your range, Tommy. (And, yes, I know that he’s a working actor, at the mercy of whatever role comes next; I’m just saying.) There’s a next-door neighbor named Hunsinger (David Hewlett), who out of some misplaced understanding of the rule of conservation of characters must be the story’s designated abrasive asshole and the guy who makes things worse every single time he appears; thus, he not only wields  excessive force against Caesar when the baby ape gets loose, but also assaults the clearly confused Charles for getting behind the wheel and damaging his car and is cast as the human face of the deadly plague that, we’re meant to understand, goes worldwide and wipes out human civilization within days of the final fade to black. To call treatment of his character, and of Felton’s, and of a number of others, unforgivably primitive on the face of it is to understate the case. It’s rubber-stamp writing, which is dumbfounding in a film that has such a fully-realized, fully-imagined character at its center.

Because Caesar himself is a wonderment, maybe the most fully realized movie ape since any version of King Kong. A character who, unlike the predecessor played by Roddy McDowall, pretty much doesn’t speak except via the sign language he’s been taught (and eventually via the few words he eventually manages to vocalize), he inhabits the center of a movie that is, pretty much, the arc of his life: from the brutal trapping of his pregnant mother in Africa, to his adoption as pet by the ill-advised Rodman, to his carefree and adorable childhood to his gradual realization as he reaches adulthood that he’s not like the humans who have raised him and not at all like his fellow apes either.  It is as expressive and as silently articulate an animated character as any that have ever been put on film, and much of the credit accrues to Serkis, who was actually on a set wearing a motion-capture suit and providing the film with the body language that went into making this put-upon chimp such an engaging and sympathetic presence.

The film is superb in those scenes where he is banished to an ape sanctuary that is not nearly as benevolent as it seems when Rodman first brings him there, and must find out a way to survive among his fellow apes (and eventually, lead them to freedom). Caesar is a sentient creature among largely non-sentient ones, and though initially overpowered, is constantly watching and learning. He woos allies, makes plans, becomes radicalized. It is hard not to root for him over the stupid, arrogant, lord-of-creation people who keep him down. The audience cheers his every incremental victory and is driven to cheer him and his fellow apes in what amounts to a huge, brutal prison breakout, even when human beings are hurt. Why not? In the universe of this film, and generally, human beings suck.

It helps, too, that the movie exercises what is sometimes a remarkable visual imagination. There’s a splendid scene set on a quiet tree-lined suburban street where humans are minding their own business, which suddenly becomes a green blizzard as thousands of leaves plummet from their branches and fall all around them, courtesy of the mob of apes passing by in the upper branches. It is gorgeous, in its way; a last moment of beauty before an epic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, which the apes must traverse if they’re to get to their sanctuary among the Redwoods. (This would of course no permanent solution, if humanity remains intact, but some people are already spitting up blood, so that’ll be a moot issue within days.) The final battle is thrilling. Audiences are moved to passionately root against their own species. I don’t recommend putting the DVD on the players at any sanctuaries where apes interact with modern technology.

In the end, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes misses greatness because the human elements are so undercooked, but the simian elements are divine. Another pass at the screenplay and it might have been truly something else.

The Plaque On The Wall Of The Monkey House

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, a now largely embarrassing entry in a series struggling to keep the wheels spinning for one more installment. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,  a film where the apes get all the best moments and where humans should have been a little better developed.

And now, the wife falls to her knees in front of the shattered Statue Of Liberty and cries, “You maniacs!”

 

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Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, others. 88 minutes. *** (9 year old self);  * (adult me)

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Pamela Silver, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis. 105 minutes. ***

Related Films: A host of Planet Of The Apes movies, from both incarnations. Plus a TV-show, and, ummm, Spartacus, I guess.

I was such a happy me when I heard about the remake of one of the apes films.  Then I watched the remade Planet of the Apes and all my hopes were dashed. 

Zip ahead a few more years.  Here I sit , supposedly older and wiser, but again I let my hopes rise.  Another Apes film is being redone.  Will they get it right this time?  After all, my nine year old self LOVED the first version. It had a talking circus chimp that looked like a guy in a suit, but who cared.  There was action and apes beating up humans.  Who needed more at nine?

Well at this age, I need more.  What a painful hour and a half that recent rewatch was.  I squirmed and found reasons to run to the kitchen, bathroom, computer etc.  What had my nine year old self been watching?  This 1972 film was as preachy as they could make it without losing commerciality.  The speeches were overblown and the sets minimal.  They obviously had major budget cuts from the earlier films, but some contractual need to make this one. 

Do I need to even mention the uneven acting?  I felt I was watching soap opera at its worst. 

So, I was ready for anything when we went to see Rise .

Oh happy day!  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well thought out (for the most part), well acted and most importantly perfectly paced.

I’m sure Adam has done his usual stellar breakdown of both films, but I have to say Wow!  Andy Serkis more than deserves a lifetime achievement Oscar by now.  He brings life to a character that could have been nothing more than another CGI Yoda.  Caesar lives and breathes.  This is a chimp whose thoughts are there for humanity to see and misinterpret.  All of that is Serkis, the CGI interpreters did a bang up job of covering the human with chimp, but its still the human actor who makes the ape.

Now the storyline is plausible, though if I wanted to a could drive a few cars through the holes in logic.  And, the use of the timeworn science gone horribly wrong actually works here.  However I noticed too many audience members leaving the theater before the apparent effects are shown.  They won’t realize why this is called Rise instead of Creation or some such.  Foolish mortals!

Also, I was taken aback by the cheering audience.  Didn’t these folks know that these apes were about to become humanity’s oppressors?  I guess I needed less perspective to get past all of that nonsense.

All in all, a hell of a good ride for this remake.  Another one to prove that sometimes they can get it right the second time around.