Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Lottery" (November 20, 1976)


This week on Ark II (1976), the post-apocalyptic exploratory vessel and its crew head into an area called “The Forbidden Zone.”  The Ark II doesn’t find a half-buried Statue of Liberty there, but rather a primitive community that has “squandered its resources.”  

Captain Jonah’s (Terry Lester) mission is to render aid to the community and help with the resource shortage. In particular, the society has run out of water.

As Samuel (Jose Flores) soon learns, the community in the Forbidden Zone is built on the ruins of an old, pre-apocalypse laboratory that once conducted experiments in "time and space."  

Now, the community's authoritarian leader, Kane (Zitto Kazann) exploits that old old experiment, ordering dissidents to “face the lottery.”  If they lose the lottery, they are sent off across a plain…where they disappear into another dimension…a rip in the fabric of reality.


Ruth (Jean Marie Hon) volunteers to travel inside the pocket dimension – a zone of mist and darkness – to rescue the dissidents, while Jonah and Samuel deal with the despotic Kane and his trickery.

In short, “The Lottery” is one of the most enjoyable episodes of Ark II I’ve yet watched, and that’s a direct result of the fact that the episode (by Martin Roth) contends with a strong sci-fi concept: alternate universes.  For once, the matter at hand is not simply teaching some poor, cowed villagers a lesson (although that element is also here), but reckoning with a compelling sci-fi mystery.

As a Saturday morning series, Ark II boasts a low budget, and if you look closely, that low budget is  apparent here.  The “alternate” dimension seems to be confined to only two people, Ruth and the dissident Steven (David Goldmund).  

And yet, the depiction is not entirely ineffective.  It’s actually frightening in a way, and the fact that we see so little of this "other world" contributes to the narrative's sense of anxiety, especially when it looks as if Samuel and Jonah can’t rescue Ruth.



The moral of the story -- and Ark II remains incredibly didactic in nature -- is that when faced with shortages, some planning is necessary.  Jonah delivers a lecture to the villagers that they “should have planned instead of doing nothing” when water first became scarce, while reminding Kane and his minion, Borg (Eric Boles) that they are not off the hook; that they set out to deceive and obfuscate rather than tell the truth about the lottery.  In fact, they discovered a new water source and were keeping it for themselves...

In some ways, “The Lottery” is a thinly-disguised remake of  an earlier episode called “The Slaves,” with the Ark II crew again seeing through the deceit of a tyrant (here Kane instead of Baron Vargas), but the addition of the overt sci-fi concept makes the episode a little more exciting, and adds a level of tension to the proceedings.  

Often times on the series, the Ark II crew seems free from peril.  They possess the technology and the vehicles and the know-how to always carry the day.  So the fact that Ruth is almost trapped in a dark dimension adds a new layer of danger to the storytelling this week.

Next week: “The Drought.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: "The Great Voice Robbery" (September 19, 1970)


The evil Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) fails to get Rock City's DJ, Peter Platter, to play her latest record album on the air. In fact, the album practically explodes on the turn table.

While fuming over her failure, Benita overhears a song coming from Tranquility Forest. It is Joy (Caroline Ellis), who is house-cleaning. To make the chore more palatable, she sings "I'm as Happy as can be."

Benita captures Joy and uses a strange machine to exchange voices with the Bugaloo. When the boys return from surfing, they learn what has happened, and plan to return Joy's voice to its rightful owner.


The second episode of The Bugaloos is very much like the first. Benita Bizarre attempts to create a hit by using the Bugaloos' vocal talents, and by capturing one (or more) of their number.  In this case, Joy is the victim, and she loses her voice to Benita.  At this early juncture in the series, there is one fact I can claim for certain: Caroline Ellis is enormously appealing to watch as Joy. She is so beautiful, and her musical numbers are great.  I understand why a generation of kids fell in love with her, in particular.

Beyond that notation, it is likely unnecessary to note the sexism of the episode set-up. But I'll do it anyway.  It's time for spring cleaning, and the boys don't want to do it. They go out surfing (on clouds), leaving the one female Bugaloo to tend to the homestead. (In fairness, Sparky -- who may be male? -- also hangs around).

Nice.

On the other hand, it is also fair to note that the two best-drawn characters on the series thus far are  the female ones, Benita Bizarre and Joy, so that factor could weigh against accusations of sexism.

Although this episode (and series) aired first, Lidsville had a similarly-named episode a year later, "The Great Brain Robbery," which suggests that the writers were working over-time to think of plots and titles for these kids' series.  The Lidsville episode concerned brainwashing.

I watched this episode with my ten year old son, Joel, and he seemed to prefer The Bugaloos to the episodes of Lidsville that he watched. He felt that this episode at least had a plot line that he could follow, whereas Lidsville, he said, seemed like an incoherent free-for-all.  I can't quibble with his review.

Here's Joy's song of the week:


Friday, July 14, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Cure" (November 29, 1974)


In “The Cure,” Virdon (Ron Harper), Burke (James Naughton) and Galen (Roddy McDowall) learn that malaria is ravaging a village of humans they recently visited.  Over Galen’s objections, they return to help the infected.

Meanwhile, General Urko (Mark Lenard) wants to burn the village to the ground to destroy the disease, but Dr. Zaius (Booth Colman) sends a renowned Chimpanzee doctor to discover a cure, especially since the disease begins to fell apes as well…


“The Cure” is a not-particularly-scintillating episode of the short-lived Planet of the Apes series from 1974. The episode features an intellectual debate pitting determined ignorance (Urko) against the quest for knowledge (Burke/Virdon), but the debate is a little too simple-minded for my taste.

It’s all well-and-good that the human astronauts represent knowledge and wisdom, but it would be nice if some apes could do the same occasionally. 

At its worst, the Planet of the Apes series is all about humans putting the “primitive” talking apes in their place for thinking they are so superior to man. 

Yet if one considers the history of Earth in this universe, this is really faulty thinking. It wasn’t the apes who destroyed the world, after all, but “advanced” humans.  When the series forgets that, it isn’t very dynamic, interesting, or -- frankly -- intellectually honest.  This is the same premise that scuttled some episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981). 

The guy from the era of global nuclear war and a worldwide holocaust is going to lecture the people of the future about being a good human being?

It’s a bit hypocritical.

The point is that for Planet of the Apes to really function adequately as a series, the human characters must confront and reinforce or alter their beliefs too.  When it's just about them smugly beating the apes, there's a flatness to the storytelling.


Also, it’s a little tiring that the human astronauts are always romancing, at least to some degree, human villagers that they encounter.  Virdon (a married man…) must gently turn down the advances of Amy (Sondra Locke) here, and he does the same thing with Arn in “The Legacy.” 

In “The Surgeon,” Burke shows more than normal concern for a shunned young woman.  

I realize that the series was trying to capture many demographics simultaneously, but it just seems terribly predictable and hackneyed that there is always a beautiful woman for the astronauts to romance…and then promptly leave behind.

Similarly, Virdon can be really insufferable as a lead character. He constantly gets his friends into trouble, and acts in a kind of imperious fashion.  He always does what he wants, and rarely consults the others. 

Galen calls him on that tendency here, and Virdon apologizes, but he doesn’t really take the feedback seriously. When Galen reminds Virdon that he not only trusted Amy with his life, but he trusted her with Galen’s, Virdon says “chalk it up to the fact that I’m only human.”

I hate to tell Virdon this, but not all humans act so inconsiderately, or so arrogantly.


I like the Planet of the Apes series more than many critics and fans do.  I think it is very good when it diagrams the differences between ape and human culture, a kind of race-based class system.  But some episodes tend toward dullness because they simply involve helping humans we don’t really care about, and outsmarting the ape establishment.

“The Cure” has a strong point to make about how it is necessary, sometimes, to undertake dangerous tasks to help others, and to simultaneously push forward the boundaries of science.  But “The Cure” could also be a little more lively, a little less rote.

Next week: "The Liberator."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Films of 2014: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Near the end of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Caesar (Roddy McDowall) vanquishes the insurrectionist, Aldo (Claude Akin) and simultaneously reinforces Ape Law, paradoxically the edict that “ape shall not kill ape.” 

Meanwhile, Caesar’s human adviser, MacDonald (Austin Stoker) notes that by confronting the notion that laws must occasionally be bent and values re-examined, the apes have irrevocably joined “the human race.”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) is a vibrant, moving, beautifully-dramatized series entry that very much concerns the same reckoning. 

The film revolves around Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) fall from grace or innocence, and the lesson that apes are not superior to man merely because of their nature. The world is not always a case of us vs. them, good vs. bad.  Caesar learns this in the film, though with great difficulty.

In addition to being a rock-solid remake of (and improvement over…) Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the new film -- in the best tradition of the long-lived franchise -- features a powerful subtext and social critique. 

In this case, much of the new film revolves around the very quality that is damaging our nation so grievously today: tribalism

And in gazing at the pitfalls of tribalism, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asks explicitly (in its very dialogue) about something else. 

It asks about strength, and what that word truly means.

Does strength stem from superior numbers? From family?  From racial unity?  From the barrel of a gun?  

Does strength come from an irrational refusal to compromise with those who don’t see the world precisely as you do?  

When faced with facts that disprove your world-view, do you double-down anyway, in hopes of being seen as "resolute?" Or do you adjust to facts and go a different way?

Instead of these answers, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes suggests another definition of strength. Strength can, perhaps, emerge from an understanding that your tribe has made a mistake. Strength, in some cases, is all about having the guts to do something about an injustice you have played a role in creating.

In terms of the film, this is the chaotic terrain that Caesar must navigate, and there are no easy answers, and no guarantees that his answers are the right ones, either.  The humans and apes by-and-large double down on hatred and distrust, and the film's climax reveals exactly where that kind of thinking leads.  This is not an empty lesson in America of today, where we have become divided by labels like liberal and conservative that, in the final analysis, don't even adequately describe our beliefs.

A serious-minded, carefully-structured morality play, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also daringly eschews all the bells-and-whistles we have come to expect from modern summer blockbusters. For instance, there are no action scenes in the film that exist just to wow us or bowl us over. 

Furthermore, there is no gimmicky “surprise” final shot in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that attempts to up-stage the famous Statue of Liberty ending of the 1968 original.  The film ends as it begins, with extreme close-ups of a leader’s intelligent eyes as he carries the weight of his people, and the future, on his shoulders.  These book-end images place emphasis exactly where it should be: on Caesar’s learning curve as a rational leader, family man (or ape), and guardian of moral values in an uncertain world.

Most delightfully, there is no fan service to speak of in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, no moments that make us reckon with the existence of a larger franchise, or franchise history. Not a soul jokingly quotes famous Charlton Heston dialogue or plays with Statue of Liberty toys.   

Instead, director Matt Reeves lands us smack-dab in the planet of the apes, and tells us a great, involving, heart-wrenching story while we are there.

In the process, he’s given audiences the best Apes movie in a generation.


“Who the hell else am I going to blame?”

Ten years after the Simian Flu wipes out most of humanity, Caesar (Serkis) leads a society of intelligent apes in the safety and beauty of Muir Woods.  A father to a new-born son and a teen, Blue Eyes, Caesar and his friends, including Koba, Rocket and  Maurice, have established new laws to guide the primates, including the edict that ape shall not kill ape.

One day, in the woods, Blue Eyes and another ape, Ash, encounter a human, Carver.  The human immediately draws a gun and shoots Ash, though the ape survives.  Caesar orders Carver and his human cohorts, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm’s boy, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to return to their home, and never to return to the forest, the realm of the apes.

But the incident has already set in motion a series of events that can’t be undone.  Distrustful of humans, Koba begins to form an insurrection against Caesar, recruiting even the leader’s own son, Blue Eyes.

And back in San Francisco, the leader of the human colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) prepares for war with the apes.  His people need to generate electricity using a dam in ape territory, and rather than see humanity fall back into the Dark Ages, Dreyfus is willing to kill to keep the lights on.

Malcolm and Caesar work together to help the human city maintain its power, but dark forces on both sides of the tribal divide plot to break the fragile peace.



“War has begun.”

Firstly, there can be no doubt that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a remake of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  Events and some specific characters are different, it is true, but in terms of spirit and intent, the two films boast many connections.

Both films, for example, reveal Caesar’s Ape civilization at an early stage of existence in the middle of a picturesque forest.  

In the Ape worlds of both Dawn and Battle the apes are depicted learning written language on the equivalent of chalk boards. More than that, they are learning a new law, which in both films is that, explicitly, “ape shall not kill ape.”



Similarly, both Battle and Dawn involve the march of the generations. 

In both films, we see that Caesar is a husband and a father. In Battle, his son is murdered by an insurrectionist, Aldo, and that is nearly the case, as well, in Dawn. Uniquely, the son of Caesar character is also visually associated with guns in both pictures.  

In Battle, we see young Cornelius playing a childhood game with a stick.  He pretends it is a gun, and make-believe “shoots” a human opponent.  

In Dawn, Caesar’s boy, Blue Eyes, picks up a real gun, and goes to war, though ultimately he regrets his actions.



Significantly, both films also find Caesar returning to the ruins of an old (human) city and unearthing there the wisdom of his father.  

In Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar sees film-reel footage of Cornelius, who warns him that the world will end in bloodshed if the militarism and anti-human beliefs of ape culture are not put down.  

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar returns to the San Francisco home we saw in the previous film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and watches recorded images from his own childhood.  He sees that Will Rodman (James Franco) loved him…and gave him a home.  This footage reminds him of a fact he once knew: not all humans are bad.

In both cases, the (dead) father provides the wisdom that Caesar needs to help him choose sides, and avoid unnecessary blood-shed. 



Many of the story beats in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also follow those featured in Battle. 

For example, in both stories there is an inter-species war (ape vs. man) that “good” apes (like Caesar, Virgil, and Maurice and Rocket) don’t wish to undertake.  Apes and humans fight, but the war is expressly against the will of this group, who argue instead for peace.

Secondly, both films also feature an insurrection in the fragile, protean ape culture, led by a war-like ape that steals machine guns from an armory. 

In Battle, that ape was a gorilla, Aldo.  In Dawn, it’s Koba.  

In Battle, Aldo steals from the Ape armory, which is guarded by Caesar’s "conscience," a kindly old ape named Mandemus (Lew Ayres).  

In Dawn, Koba robs from the humans and takes their guns.



In terms of specific set pieces and theme, both films also end with a literal fall, one visually representing a fall from innocence. Aldo falls to his death from a high tree branch in Battle, after combating Caesar. Koba falls to his death from a high skyscraper scaffold after combating Caesar in Dawn. 

The setting has changed subtly in the battle, but the nature of the setting -- the highest branch that apes always seek out, so-to-speak -- and the conclusion (a fall from grace…) serve as the metaphorical and physical climax of both Ape pictures.



The fall from grace plays out in another way too. 

In both films, Caesar is forced to kill an ape that he trusted, in direct contravention of the law that ape shall not kill ape.  Yet he does so, ironically, to assure the continuance of ape culture and ape law. Thus his people -- in both films -- must reckon with a complicated nuance or shade of gray. The law must sometimes be bent or broken to save it for future generations. Values must periodically be hauled out and re-examined. In this case -- and only sometimes -- to save civilization, an ape must kill an ape, alas.

The notion of tribalism overwhelming reason is a consistent leitmotif in the film.

For example, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his human cohorts risk everything for...electricity. They have decided, at some point, that electricity equates to civilization in their eyes, and they are not willing to step-down from that belief.  

No matter what. 

The humans could use torches or fires to light the night-time of San Francisco, but instead they cling to a delusion. They want things exactly the way they used to be....even though the Old World is now completely dead. They thus cling to a convention or tradition not because it makes sense in the present, but because it made sense in the past. They can't adjust to the present, and rather than do so, will kill to preserve a tradition that they cherish.

The same humans then double-down over this need for electricity. When faced with a challenge in acquiring it, they don't re-examine their beliefs. Instead, they decide it is valid to start a war and take it by force, killing many innocents on both sides in the process.  

Similarly, humans like Carver blame the apes for Simian Flu, successfully marginalizing them as enemies of humanity when that isn't precisely the case. When Carver is pointed to the facts by Ellie: that the apes were experimented on by humans, and that humans created the Simian Flu, Carver -- like others -- doubles-down on his ignorance and refuses to acknowledge the unpleasant truth.

Importantly, Koba also doubles-down on hatred and false beliefs. Even though situations have changed dramatically in ten years, he can see humans only as the monsters who tortured and abused him. He is now free of that captivity and safe, and human civilization has fallen to ruin, but he doesn't let such facts interfere with his consuming hatred for an "enemy."

In reckoning with such notions, Dawn operates on a plateau of moral and storytelling complexity well beyond its impressive predecessor. In Rise, it is easy for Caesar and his ape army to hate humans, for they have come to know humans only as sadistic and cruel. 

Caesar’s learning curve is much more difficult in Dawn, as he deals with the fact that it is an ape, not a human, who endangers the future of ape society. Life is rarely so simple as tribalism makes it out to be. There are villains and heroes among "us" and among "them."

If Rise is about Caesar taking control of his life, Dawn is about Caesar realizing that life is far more complex than he had understood. But he is ultimately a strong leader (and a great character) because he takes responsibility for his actions and mistakes, specifically for trusting Koba instead of realizing that apes too can "double down" on violent tendencies and beliefs.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes examines the tribal mind-set well, without ever seeming preachy. Koba gains adherents by suggesting, explicitly, that Caesar loves humans more than he loves apes. This is not even close to being a true statement, and yet when apes see Caesar cooperating with humans, Koba’s words gain a certain level of surface legitimacy. 

In point of fact, Caesar is merely attempting to prevent bloodshed, because he knows how it will ultimately end: with many deaths among “us” and “them.”  But to some apes, he has become weak. Why give aid and comfort to the enemy?

On the flip-side, why not help someone who could one day be a trusted friend?

Ultimately, we see that it is Koba who is the weaker individual, because he cannot look past his own grievances and stereotyped views of humans to see that the men around him --Malcolm, Ellie and Alexander -- want only what the apes want: to survive.  Instead, he looks at them as being part of a tribe that he hates, and so writes them off without a second look.

Again, the message is one worth repeating.  Liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist, straight or gay, black or white, male or female, ape or man, we all love our children and all want to live happy lives in freedom. Why do we have to demonize each other when we have in common such important traits?

One nice aspect of the film is that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes treats human beings and apes as, essentially, mirror images, and no one side emerges as more villainous, thus making a point about tribalism that transcends partisan politics. 

Dreyfus cannot see the apes as anything more than mere animals, and so, like Koba, bases his decisions on faulty, out-dated information. In some way, then, the film suggests that the worst tribal instincts occur when we believe things of other people that perhaps once were true, but may no longer be so. We must examine such "truth" for ourselves, and see if it holds up. We must constantly adapt to reality, instead of trying to construct reality out of old, mistaken precepts.

In both cases, intelligent beings resort to tribal identities and loyalties rather than to reading the facts, and the results are disastrous for a planet already in dire straits. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also reveals what happens when toxic tribalism meets gun-ownership...and the results aren’t pretty.  


At the risk of wading into controversy, it’s difficult to deny the fact that the carnage in this film would have been much less significant without all the fire-arms. In this case, guns only make a tense situation that much more horrible and bloody. Guns don’t really protect anybody in the film, or make a single outcome more positive. Contrarily, they render every confrontation more dangerous by a multiplicative factor. When both sides are acting irrationally and with extreme violence, how, precisely, do you discern who the "good guy with a gun" happens to be?

What you're really doing in a situation like this is basing your judgment on a biased pre-conceived notion, choosing the side of someone who happens to dress or otherwise look like you do. And that too is a resort to tribalism instead of rationality and reason.



On another subject entirely, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes I worried some about the plot device of Simian Flu wiping out humanity, instead of humanity wiping out himself in a nuclear war, as was the case in the original 1968 film.  

How could apes hate man so much after 2000 years unless man had acted in such a rash, horrible, planet-destroying way?

To my delight, Dawn provides the answer. 

It suggests that even in an end-of-the-world scenario, apes and man can’t put down their tribalism long enough to talk, to logically reason out a lasting peace for both.  Generations may pass, but hatred lives on.

Since we are long out of the Cold War at this juncture in our history, and the kind of irrational tribalism featured in the film is getting scary and murderous in real life right now, I appreciate the re-boot saga’s focus on that problem. 

In 2014, we can readily extrapolate a post-apocalyptic future whereinn tribalism is all that's left of civilization. Separate tribes, huddled in fear, lashing out at anything different or new, the person with the biggest cache of guns dictating what is defined as strength, and what is seen as weakness.


Finally, I must note  that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is beautifully-shot, but I was especially impressed by the moments in the last act, wherein the titular orange dawn arrives at last. Caesar braces for a war he doesn’t want against people he doesn’t hate, with soldiers he doesn't want to see die. Malcolm, behind him, seems to recede into shadow...until he disappears into blackness.  

This is the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes indeed, but visually, it is also the Total Eclipse of Mankind.  Malcolm -- the good man -- disappears into shadow, darkness, and history as a new force, a new tribe rises.

What happens when a leader less wise than Caesar takes the reigns of ape culture?  What will that "new" tribe be like then?

I suspect we will learn the answer to such questions in future Ape movies, and I very much like the notion that this version of the story exists in the same universe as the first five films. This tale could be interpreted as the rise of the apes before the time travel interference of Milo, Zira and Cornelius, and their son, who “becomes” Caesar in that time line.  

This is how the ape revolution began the first time, and Rise and Dawn depict the events that led to the world Taylor found in the original 1968 film. His ship then returned to the present (in Escape) and altered that history, changing everything. 

What we are seeing, then, in Rise and Dawn plays like “unaltered” ape history, a chronology in which man causes his own downfall (through irresponsible science first, and then tribalism), and apes rise. 

Perhaps, even at some point, desperate humans will launch nukes in a last-ditch effort to prove their "strength" in the face of an ape culture on the rise, thus creating the Forbidden Zone. Who knows?  A clever writer can square the circle in any number of ways and get us right back to Chuck Heston paddling for shore on that picturesque dead lake.

But in the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, how Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fits in with a fifty-year old continuity. What matters instead is that this film speaks powerfully to us in the here and now as cogently as the 1968 original did to audiences of its day.

Back then, we thought we would blow each other up in a nuclear war. Today, our contentious tribalism is the danger looming on on the horizon, threatening to tear down what so many have worked so long and hard to build and protect.

And if that happens, says Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, our own worst human instincts will have made monkeys out of all of us.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Films of 2011: Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is not only a great 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 belong...as 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.  These 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.  When the film ended, I wanted to pay for another ticket and watch it again, to catch all the details I had missed.