Saturday, 19 July 2014

I Thought We Had A Chance: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"








Warning: This article discusses Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in depth, so don't read until you've seen the film.


Pierre Boulle wrote the novel Planet of the Apes in 1963. He created an absurd and ingenious vision of a planet where civilization had been turned upside down. On this alien planet apes- who drove cars and wore suits- ruled over primitive humans. The novel had depth but when it was adapted in to the classic 1968 film with Charlton Heston the story became a much darker allegory. In the novel the ape planet was an alien world light years from Earth. The film’s ending reveals that Heston’s astronaut George Taylor was on Earth along. He discovers the ruins of the statue of liberty on the shore. This image of the statue symbolizes mankind’s ultimate self-destruction. As the series progressed through four sequels the films became even bleaker and we found ourselves becoming emotionally invested in the ape characters. The mythology also deepened and expanded, eventually becoming a circular tale via time travel.


In 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes we're no longer merely in the realm of the absurd. Instead we’re treated with a world that feels remarkably real and emotionally immediate. These films lean toward a more realistic take on the mythology, which isn’t too surprising given Hollywood’s tendency to “ground” certain genre properties nowadays. But thankfully these two films aren’t self-consciously grim and gritty.  Even so, the Planet of the Apes series was never without its dark elements. Moreover- these two films are so distanced in the timeline from the world of the original film- that this tonal grounding doesn’t feel like posturing on behalf of the filmmakers.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does the mythology justice and succeeds as both a standalone film and a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn builds upon the foundation laid in its predecessor, both enriching the first film as well as using that foundation to tell a complex story about the quest for peace and the possibility of co-habitation between apes and humans. Rise was a re-working of the series fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn, in turn, reinterprets the final film in the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. On paper, using the fourth and fifth films in a franchise as the basis for a new starting point for a series seems odd. But in the case of Planet of the Apes, these films make sense in terms of re-starting the franchise. Taking influence from Conquest and Battle allows the new series to work both as a spiritual prequel to the original film as well as doing something different with this franchise rather than just re-visiting the initial concept.


Dawn takes place 10 years after the events of Rise. After the obligatory news broadcast opening, which details the spread of the simian flu- the result of scientific testing on apes in the pursuit of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s- we’re reintroduced to Caesar (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis)-the hyper intelligent ape around which the first film largely centred. Caesar now rules over a clan of apes in post-apocalyptic Earth.  I do love the opening scenes of the apes hunting food- which harkens back to apes hunting humans in the original film- then returning to their home, where we see them living a peaceful existence, no longer in fear of captivity. The apes are unsure that humanity even still exists but are soon made aware of human survivors.






They come in to the apes' forest, hoping to gain access to a dam that could provide power to the city in which many remaining humans live. The apes tell them to go away, which shocks the humans, since they didn't know the apes were capable of speech. Caesar and the apes follow the humans back to the city. Caesar states that apes don’t want war. He wishes for the humans to stay in their territory while the apes will stay in theirs. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) goes back to the forest in an attempt to persuade Caesar to allow them access to the dam. Caesar concedes but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) presents a threat; he still harbours hatred toward humans from his days being a guinea pig.




Caesar isn’t entirely a pacifist but he’s no war-monger either. He doesn’t want to go to war with humans, though Koba does. Caesar feels that by allowing the humans access to the dam he’s working in the best interests of his kind, avoiding any conflict that could get the apes killed. But it’s evident that Caesar has learned kindness and compassion from the noble humans he’s met. He also sees Malcolm is a good man and senses the humans are desperate.  


Caesar and Koba represent “two sides of the same coin.” Both were the result of testing by humans that made being super intelligent- and both were imprisoned by humans and treated with cruelty. But while Caesar knew love from his surrogate father, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) and Will's Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow), Koba never knew love from humans. When Caesar mentions that humans need to work on the dam Koba points to his numerous scars and repeats “Human. Work.” It’s this moment that encapsulates Koba’s back-story and his view on humanity. Caesar doesn’t completely trust humans but he’s left a lot of his bitterness behind, becoming a family man- married to Cornelia (a underused Judy Greer) and the father to both Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a new born ape. Koba is a complete lone wolf (or ape).


There’s almost something Shakespearean about the power play between Caesar and Koba. Like many characters in Shakespeare, including the kings, Caesar is brought down by someone he trusted. Akin to his namesake, Caesar has a Brutus, which is Koba. There’s even a silent “Et tu Brute?” between them. Koba shoots Caesar using a human gun and blames the supposed assassination on the humans, leading the apes in battle against the humans. Caesar “loved wisely but not well," to quote Othello. He tells Blue Eyes- after Koba has taken over the city- that he trusted Koba because he was an ape.

Caesar’s character arc through this film leads to the realization that apes can be as treacherous as humans. When Malcolm finds Caesar alive, Caesar has them stop at his former house. He views the video recording of Will teaching him sign language. Caesar and the audience are reminded in this scene of how far Caesar has come, from a baby to a revolutionary to a leader. I also think this video shows Caesar how the love he received from Will is what made him trust Malcolm. When Malcolm asks who was on the video Caesar simply tells him “A good man. Like you.” Malcolm and Caesar don’t have the same emotional connection as Will and Caesar but a mutual respect grows between them.



One element I found fascinating while thinking back on the film relates to its anti-gun message. While it’s Koba’s actions that lead to the mass violence in the story the film uses the image of a gun to represent the threat between ape and human peace.Caesar doesn’t want the humans to bring in guns. In one scene it’s discovered that Carver (Kirk Acevedo) has brought in a gun. This leads to tension after a charming moment between Ellie (Keri Russell) and Caesar and Cornelia’s baby. Koba uses a gun to frame the humans for Caesar’s death and manipulate the apes in to violence.

The anti-gun message stands out to me because Charlton Heston- the star of the original film- became infamous for being the president of the NRA in his late years. He famously declared “From my cold dead hands” in defense of the second amendment. While I won’t be as presumptuous as to say the film is an attack on Heston’s political views, it’s hard to imagine that the image Heston created for himself wasn’t in the back of the screenwriters’ minds. The issue of gun rights has arguably never been a more pressing issue in the States then it is now. The Apes films always commented on the state of the world during the 60s/70s. It only seems appropriate that the film would confront this particular issue.






While most blockbusters present violence and destruction as the only means to defeat evil, violence doesn’t solve anything in this film. Even when Koba is defeated his actions have led humans and apes to brink of war. Despite having some spectacular images of apes on horsebacks using machine guns (which to be fair is awesome) and a stunning action climax, Dawn is sincerely anti-violence. As in Battle the apes themselves even preach against violence against their own kind. main ape commandment is “ape shall never kill ape.” To be better than humans the apes must not murder each other like humans. Koba breaks this commandment when he kills Rocket’s son Ash, who won’t kill a human. Despite hating humans, Koba is not above killing apes if they stand in the way of destroying humanity. By killing an ape Koba shows that he's no better then the humans he despises. He's capable of the same treachery and murder of his own kind.
And as a leader, Koba is the opposite of Caesar, a tyrant.




Koba hangs on a edge at the film’s climax, after a fight between him and Caesar. He says to Caesar  “Ape shall never kill ape,” to which Caesar grabs his hand and then intones “You are not ape,” letting him fall, echoing Koba’s execution of Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) at the end of Rise.  By betraying the commandment Koba is no longer an ape. He’s a twisted version of an ape that needs to be let go. But while Koba dies he still gets what he wants, a war between apes and humans. The ending of the film is similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in that the heroes don’t really win. Caesar didn’t want a war but now he has to fight against humans if his kind is to survive. Just as how Batman had to take the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes to save Gotham's soul.

Malcolm tells Caesar he thought humans and apes had a chance to live peacefully together. Caesar replies that he did too, calling Malcolm his friend. This is an incredibly sad ending. Malcolm and Caesar parting ways represents the final breaking of apes and humans, the destroyed hope of peaceful co-habitation 



Similar to Rise, Dawn’s main flaw is the characterization regarding its human characters is a touch too thin. I really wish I got to know these people a little better. I do, however, like that the film allows these people to share very human moments. The characters as a result aren’t completely soulless. I like the parallel between Malcolm and Caesar being fathers who are attempting to get close to their sons. Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is still adjusting to his new step mom, the aforementioned Ellie. The film is very male dominated. The female characters- Ellie and Cornelia- have even less characterization than the males. Clarke makes a solid lead, showing both vulnerability and an inner strength. Russell does well with what little she’s given. Gary Oldman also does fine work as Dreyfus, the human leader. While Dreyfus could’ve been made in to a shallow human villain there’s an devastating moment where we learn what Dreyfus has lost.  

 
Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair from Rise’s Rupert Wyatt. This is Reeves’ fourth film, following The Pallbearer, (1996) Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010), the remake of the Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008). Reeves is also known as the creator of the TV series Felicity (starring Russell.) Let Me In is the only previous directorial effort from Reeves that I had seen before this film. While that film strewed too close to the original, Reeves’ direction was elegant and his command of tone impressive. Reeves bring that same directorial elegance to this film. While there is plenty of action as the film progresses, Reeves doesn’t stage the action in an empty, bombastic fashion. The ape attack on the city has real dramatic weight and a conscious sense of  horror to it. A 360 degree shot on the top of a tank blends beauty and utter destruction majestically. This shot reminds me of the shot from Let Me In, in which we're in a car as it rolls over. Like Wyatt, Reeves favours build up to outright bombast. This is even more leisurely paced in some ways than Rise was. But I like how the film is more interested in story-telling and atmosphere then it is in set pieces.







The motion capture work in the previous film was impressive but it feels like it’s on another level here. Serkis has revolutionized film acting over the last decade. His work as Gollum changed how we thought about CGI characters on film. His work on Caesar is even more nuanced and emotional. To me Caesar feels as real any modern film character and it’s been amazing witnessing his journey as a character over these two films. Kebbell also deserves props for making Koba a haunted antagonist, a character whose evil masks their own hatred and bitterness. Koba is an incredibly tragic character who’s as important to this film as Caesar.



I don’t want to oversell Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but I think Hollywood would be in better shape if more blockbuster type films were like this. In its strongest moments it comes as close to an artistic vision we’ve seen in a franchise tent pole this summer. Rise and Dawn show that franchise films don’t have to be completely corporate mandated and soulless- that there’s potential to create compelling stories using a familiar brand. Both RIse and Dawn have redefined- for me at least- how I view this franchise and what it’s capable of artistically. And I'm excited to see where the series goes next.   


Sunday, 13 July 2014

"A Planet Where Apes Evolved From Men?:" A Look Back at the Original Planet of the Apes Series






Spoiler Warning: This retrospective will be discussing specific plot points from the five original Planet of the Apes films.


The Planet of the Apes franchise is one of the most audacious, bizarre, bold and bleak film series of the 20th century. Released between 1968 and 1973 the original five films took an allegorical look at the social and political issues that America confronted during this time, such as racism, war, and the fear of nuclear war. As opposed to the James Bond franchise, Planet of the Apes wasn’t merely escapism. They were high entertainment that also presented its audience with cautionary tales about the future of civilization.

 

The idea of a planet on which apes were the dominant species and humans the primitive creatures sprang from the imagination of French novelist Pierre Boulle. Boulle had previously written the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, which became the Oscar winning film from David Lean in 1957. Boulle wrote Planet of the Apes in 1963. The novel-while somewhat overshadowed by the film franchise- is a brilliant piece of science fiction that should be read by all fans of the genre. It's narrated by Ulysse Merou, a journalist who takes part in a space journey with Professor Antelle and a physician named Arthur Levain. They land on a planet much like earth, which they name Soror. They realize the planet is dominated by intelligent apes who enslave humans. Levain is killed and Antelle becomes animal-like while locked in a zoo. Unlike the other humans on the planet Ulysse can speak. He shacks up with a woman named Nova and becomes friends with Zira, an animal psychologist, and her archeologist finance, Cornelius. 



In 1968 a film version of Boulle's novel was released. And after nearly 50 years Planet of the Apes is still the definitive film of this franchise. The film stars Charlton Heston as George Taylor, an astronaut on an unspecified mission with three others: two men- Dodge and Landon (Jeff Burton and Robert Gunner), and a woman named Stewart (Dianne Stanley, un-credited). The film opens with Taylor recording a message in which he says their ship is travelling at the speed of light. Even though they have been away from the Earth for only several months (their time) the Earth has aged hundreds of years.

 

Taylor goes in to hibernation with the rest of the crew and after the title sequence the ship crashes on an unknown planet. The three men discover there was an air leak in Stewart’s tube, which killed her. The three remaining astronauts eventually happen upon primitive humans who cannot speak. Gorillas come along and begin hunting the humans. Dodge is killed but Taylor and Landon are captured. Taylor is shot in the throat so he can’t speak. Thus the apes believe Taylor is just another dumb human. As in the novel Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) become his allies. When Taylor regains his ability to speak he utters one of the film’s most iconic lines, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”  



 

A tribunal is held to discover why Taylor can talk. It’s in these scenes that the film explores the conflict between faith and science. The orangutans believe that its scientific heresy for Zira and Cornelius to claim that Taylor is a missing link in the evolutionary change. Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans)- an orangutan and the film’s chief antagonist- holds two contradictory positions. He’s both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. Near the end of the film Taylor says Zaius's position as Defender of the Faith interferes with his obligations towards the progression of science. Zaius responds by saying: “There is no contradiction between faith and science...true science.” Zaius  can’t or won't acknowledge the conflict in his duties. Zaius knows that man used to rule the planet but believes it’s best to keep the true history of the planet a secret from ape society. He even goes as far as destroy Cornelius’ archeological dig, which contained evidence of an earlier non-ape civilization. Zaius is a great antagonist because his motivations and philosophy make complete sense and we can the situation from his point of view. He feels he’s acting in the best interests of his species. He’s not a noble character but he does have- in his mind at least- noble intentions.




 

In the closing moments of the film Taylor-on horseback with Nova (Linda Harrison)- discovers the ruins of the statue of liberty on the shore. It turns out this "alien" planet was Earth all along. The final shot of the film is one cinema’s most indelible images and of the greatest closing shots of all time. It’s an image that represents the downfall of civilization-in particular American civilization- the fear of nuclear destruction and the how remnants of the past are always present. The ending of the film also relates to Taylor's character arc. At the beginning of the film Taylor says he has no regrets upon leaving the 20th century and mocks Landon for having any affinity for humanity. By the end Taylor has regained some appreciation for humanity. He tells Zaius that whoever was here before the apes was “better than you.”  When he sees the statue we see a man who's hatred of humanity is arguably validated. The ending also shows that Taylor cared enough about humanity that it's self destruction deeply anguishes him.





 

What’s also notable about the use of this image is it represents the cultural difference between Boulle’s novel and the film series. While the novel was written through a French perspective the film was directed and written by Americans. The statue of liberty is a thoroughly American image and it’s placement at the end of the film speaks to the fall of America even as it also represents the downfall of civilization at large. Rod Serling was already famous for his TV series The Twilight Zone, which tackled social issues on a weekly basis through the prism of science fiction and fantasy. Serling   co-wrote the screenplay for  Planet of the Apes with Michael Wilson and suggested the now famous ending. In Boulle’s novel the planet is not earth. The novel ends with Ulysse, Nova and their son travelling back to Earth only to discover that it’s also become a planet of the apes. The seed of the film’s ending is there but Serling expanded upon the ending.  The film's twist ending defined the entire mythology on here onwards. It’s strange now to think of the planet being anything else but Earth. It’s a perfect thematic resolution and brings home all the social commentary of the story. The upside down civilization isn’t just a mirror version of our society but the result of man’s self-destruction.

 

While the Planet of the Apes films aren’t usually thought of as directors’ film, Franklin J. Schaffner’s work here can’t be overlooked. Schaffner invokes and sustains a mood of surreal and nightmarish dread. He makes us feel we’re on a completely “alien world.” Schaffner’s direction captures Boulle’s absurd vision. Jerry Goldsmith’s score also adds to the tension and atmosphere of the film. His score matches the primitive nature of the world.



While Planet of the Apes was never designed to be an ongoing series the success and popularity of the film led to a sequel two years later. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1971) is one of the most gonzo and audacious sequels I’ve ever seen. Its ending alone may be the greatest example of franchise self-sabotage in film history. However, the film suffers early on from feeling like the original film in miniature. Heston only agreed to appear at the beginning of the film (in which he disappears) and then reappear at the end only to be killed off. Thus the filmmakers had to introduce another leading character and actor.

TV actor James Franciscus was cast as Brent, another astronaut who was sent to find Taylor’s ship. Like Taylor Brent lands on future earth. He meets up with Nova, Cornelius and Zira. Then along with Nova searches for Taylor. The early parts of the film do feel like we’re going over familiar ground, with the added wrinkle of looming war as General Ursus (James Gregory) rallies gorillas behind his mission to enter the Forbidden Zone. Franciscus is solid in his role but he can't help but feel like George Lazenby to Heston's Sean Connery. It's too apparent the filmmakers were attempting to "replace" Heston but I feel a different kind of human lead than just another all American astronaut would've made things fresher. Ted Post took over directing duties from Schaffner and does a serviceable job. His direction doesn't feel too inconsistent with Schaffner's and he keeps the pace rolling along smoothly.





 The film becomes more its own animal when Brent and Nova’s search leads them underground. There they discover mutated humans with telekinetic powers worship a nuclear bomb capable of destroying the entire planet. Brent and Nova become the mutants’ captives and we learn Taylor is also imprisoned. The mutants don’t exist in Boulle’s novel but are a creation of the script by Paul Dehn. Their society is a startling new piece of the planet’s mythology. This aspect of the world that was suggested in the first film. Its theorized that Taylor is a mutant. This idea comes to full terrifying light in this film. These mutants are a twisted and perverse representation of how the world’s destruction has changed humanity. Moreover, the worshipping of a bomb as some kind of God is a satirical jab at religion. It's also a play on idea that humanity invented God and not the other way around. If this bomb is the mutant’s God it’s not a benevolent God but a violent and angry one.




The film also comments on the Vietnam War. There are chimpanzee protestors who are against the war, representing the negativity towards the conflict in Vietnam and the generation gap between the powers that be and the younger generation who wanted love, not war. Ultimately, It’s war that brings about the world’s complete destruction. After escaping, Taylor attempts to stop the bomb from going off but is shot by Ursus. Taylor confronts Zaius for the last time and asks for help. Zaius blames humanity for all the destruction in the world. Taylor witnessed Nova being shot by a gorilla. Nova was all Taylor had left and his final act is to activate the bomb, obliterating the earth.  I think the film is saying that history not only repeats itself but repeats itself to an even greater degree. Human civilization as we know it has already been destroyed due to human war but now the entire world, including apes, will cease to exist due to the gorilla war. But it’s a human that sets off the bomb, which may validate Zaius’ fear of humankind.



Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ ending is incredibly bleak and it’s remarkable that the filmmakers got away with it. It’s hard to imagine a major studio today would allow a major franchise film to  eliminate the possibility for more sequels. But while this ending appeared to end the franchise for good, the studio demanded another sequel. In a strange twist of fate destroying the world forced the filmmakers to be creative in how they would continue on the franchise and expand upon the mythology.





In Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) we learn a chimpanzee scientist named Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) was able to repair Taylor’s sunken ship. He, Cornelius and Zira escaped from the planet before it exploded and travelled back in time to 1970s San Francisco. This was an ingenious way for the series to continue and find a fresh context in which to tell another story, despite it being a stretch that Milo could fix Taylor’s ship. By bringing apes to present day Earth the film reverses the dynamic of the previous films. The apes are now the outsiders.

 

While Cornelius and Zira (Milo is killed by a gorilla when the three of them are first put in a zoo) are first treated as celebrities and the film functions as a light comedy, the film takes a darker turn when it becomes more apparent that the apes will eventually cause the world to be destroyed. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) wants the apes- including Zira’s unborn baby- to be killed. (Hasslein is the scientist whose theory on light speed travel Taylor mentions in the first film.) The apes have allies in Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trudy), along with Armando (Ricardo Montalban), a circus owner. But tragically Hasslein kills both Zira and Cornelius- after Cornelius fatally wounds Hasslein- at the film’s conclusion. Hasslein also kills what he believes to be Zira’s child, which is actually another baby ape. Zira’s real child is with Armando.




 

Director Don Taylor does an admirable job at balancing the light and dark elements of the film’s script (written by  Dehn once again). The emotional journey on which the audience goes along with the characters feels tonally cohesive and not too jarring. McDowall wasn’t able to come back for Beneath so the role was recast with David Watson but thankfully he was able to reprise his role as Cornelius here. He and Kim Hunter are really the heart of this franchise and it’s devastating to watch them die- especially since we’ve grown close to the characters for two prior films.



Escape is a very philosophical film, particularly when it comes to the ethics of murder. Hasslein asks if we'd kill Hitler when he was a baby or his mother when he was pregnant. Is murder justifiable if it can stop horrible things from happening. The harsh irony in this film is that Hasslein believes murdering Cornelius and Zira will save the future. The truth is the opposite. Cornelius recounts how poorly apes were treated by humans and this cruelty led to the ape uprising. It’s only through love and respect that the future can be saved. I presume the film is attempting to say that even a man of science can be driven to violence but I feel Hasslein too easily slips in to the role of murderer. There needed to be more development for that particular shift.



 

The final shot of the film, with little baby Milo saying his first word over and over- “Mama” is haunting and a perfect finish to this film. Beneath’s ending was very close ended- Escape’s clearly sets the stage for another sequel.



That sequel would be Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). I feel this may be the best of the four sequels. Emotionally it’s the most powerful of the five films- as well as least “fun” of the series. While Escape had its share of lighthearted moments Conquest is consistently unpleasant. This is an angry film and continues the perspective shift found in Escape. It’s no longer the humans are the victimized. We finally see the cruelty and injustice that led to the apes taking over. The film picks up in 1991, 8 years after a plague wiped out all cats and dogs. Humans have taken on highly evolved apes as pets- and essentially slaves. America has also become a police state. Milo (now going by Caesar) is now a teenager and is still in the care of Armando. Caesar has to pretend he can't speak so he won't be discovered as Cornelius and Zira's child.  Montalban does subtly look older and a little more world-weary, which I like. While in the city Caesar curses a police officer who is abusing an ape. Armando attempts to take the blame so Caesar is not discovered. Armando is taken in to custody and Caesar becomes a slave. Armando dies after attempting to escape an interrogation, spurring Caesar to lead a rebellion against humanity. 






 J. Lee Thompson, the director of the original Cape Fear (1962), was brought in for this installment. Thompson creates a harsh atmosphere and a gritty aesthetic to the film, and stages the rebellion scenes with a brutal bluntness and lack of glamour.

 

Cornelius died in the previous film but Roddy McDowall returned to play his former character’s son. What’s remarkable about McDowall’s performance is Caesar feels like a totally different character than Cornelius. Caesar is a much angrier, rawer and impetuous character than Cornelius. Through makeup McDowall crafts a performance that makes us feel both empathy and terror. It’s a tremendous performance that solidifies McDowall as the signature actor of this series. We understand Caesar’s motives and the film makes us angry along with him. The humans in this film aren’t the primitive savages of the first film but they’re savages nonetheless. They've learned nothing from Cornelius and Zira's arrival- that the mistreatment of apes will be humanity's downfall.




 

There’s another sympathetic character named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the aid to the cruel Governor Breck (Don Murray), who briefly becomes Caesar’s owner. MacDonald is black and he mentions he is the descendant of slaves, which ties him and Caesar together thematically. Caesar tells MacDonald that he is shedding blood by the right of slaves to punish his oppressors, to which MacDonald says that “I, a descendant a slaves am asking you to show humanity.” MacDonald knows that an eye for an eye will just bring on violence, not peace.





Caesar doesn't heed MacDonald's plea and has Breck killed. This is after he gives a speech that foreshadows the world we’ve seen in the original film. This ending had to be changed due to poor test screenings.  The changed ending has an ape named Lisa (Natalie Trudy) say “No” to Caesar, imploring him to show mercy. McDowall recorded another speech which follows the originally shot one, in which Caesar says humans will be ruled with compassion. This speech plays over close up of Caesar’s eyes and reversed footage of gorillas bringing their guns down on Breck. It’s an awkwardly edited ending and the original is much truer to the film’s dark vision. It does, however, match up better with the subsequent film.


Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is the final film of the original series. I think this film is the least of the sequels. The film is let down by having the lowest budget of the five films. Battle needed to be a grand and spectacular finish to the saga but ends up feeling anti-climatic and small in execution. It takes place over a decade after the events of Conquest. The world has been ravaged by nuclear war. Caesar, his apes and a small band of humans are attempting a peaceful cohabitation in ape city. It’s an uneasy truce, particularly with the gorilla Aldo (Claude Akins) not wanting anything to do with humans. Caesar is a softer ape now, comfortable in his role as leader. But Aldo proves a threat to Caesar since Aldo wants to be leader. There’s also the looming danger of humans who are radiated and are the ancestors of the mutant humans from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.




 

Thompson returns to direct and he brings a somewhat softer touch to this film then with Conquest. I feel Thompson does the best with a limited budget. He can’t quite make a full on epic but he does give the film some stakes as Caesar has to decide whether to fully accept humans as equals or to continue looking down on them . The ape commandment “Ape shall never kill ape” is also broken when Aldo accidently murders Caesar’s son Cornelius.


McDowall's performance is strong once again. And I do like the idea behind this film- the whole question of whether ape and man can live together peacefully and whether history repeat itself. Battle has the most optimistic ending of the series, giving us hope that peace is possible but both humans and apes will need to work hard to gain it- even centuries after Caesar’s death. However, the film's optimism doesn't contradict the previous films. Instead, the film moves on from the bleakness of the previous films and brings the saga full circle. Thematically it feels like a logical ending to the series. The film isn’t as fully realized in terms of its scale but it’s earnest and direct in terms of what it wants to say. There's a melancholy quality to this film's ending. In part because we're sad to leave the series behind and that the bookend to the film- with John Huston as the Lawgiver- takes place many years after Caesar's death. We feel we've lost a great ape who did much for his kind- as well as human kind.

So,  that's the original Planet of the Apes series. In the years before Star Wars and the resurgence of Star Trek, these films shaped the science fiction genre. The first is the strongest but the entire saga is a wonderfully told science fiction myth. And it all came from a little novel over fifty years ago.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Some Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Tim Burton's "Batman"





Richard Donner’s Superman (1978)- starring Christopher Reeve- made people believe a man could fly and laid the seeds for the domination of the superhero genre years later. But if Superman is the father of the superhero genre than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is its creepy uncle. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Batman’s release and in the 25 years since the superhero genre has evolved significantly, with superhero films becoming the dominant blockbusters of modern cinema.  Many superhero films now feel manufactured but Batman is still a distinct and twisted vision- funny, dark, and compulsively re-watchable even after the impact of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
 
Before Batman’s release many non-comic readers’ image of the Caped Crusader was of the 1960s Adam West TV series. Those more familiar with the comics became accustomed to a darker vision of the character thanks to late 80s takes on the character such as Frank Miller's Batman Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, as well as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Batman brought that more mature take on the character to life, aiming to satisfy comic fans and to show that the character was more than the comedic West series.
 
Though before the film was released many were afraid the film would be an updated version of the 60s series. These fears stemmed from the casting of Michael Keaton, best known for his performances in comedies such as Night Shift and Mr. Mom. People presumed Keaton’s presence meant the film would be a comedy. Upon hearing about the controversy Jon Peters- one of the film’s producers- released a trailer, highlighting the film’s dark tone, to squash peoples’ fears about the casting. In many ways Keaton’s casting was the first controversial casting in a superhero film. Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., and now Ben Affleck as the new Batman would follow in the years to come.
 
While actors such as Willem Dafoe (who would go on to play the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man), John Lithgow, and Tim Curry were considered for the role of Batman’s nemesis the Joker, screen legend Jack Nicholson was chosen. He had been a favourite of producer Michael Uslan for the role since the early 80s. Nicholson’s contract gave him a large percentage of the film’s gross along with his salary for the film.



Many criticize Nicholson for playing himself in the role of the Joker but whether you’re a fan of the performance or Nicholson as an actor, he’s much more memorable than several recent super-villains of the superhero genre. Personally, I find Nicholson incredibly entertaining in the role and get a kick out of his dialogue: “Can somebody tell me what kind of world we live in, where a man dressed up like a bat gets all of my press?” “Where does he get all those wonderful toys.” This film established the tradition of getting big names to play Batman villains- Jim Carrey as the Riddler, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, etc.  A significant flaw in the Batman franchise is that the villains would always get more back-story than Batman and would often overshadow the character in his own movies.

Tim Burton was a relatively new director to feature filmmaking at this time, having mostly directed shorts and two feature length films- Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, which starred Keaton. Burton was a risky choice to handle such a big property but this film would solidify Burton as a big Hollywood filmmaker. Burton was not a fan of comics growing up but he admired The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns.



Burton actually pays homage to Moore’s version of the Joker’s origin story. In both Batman and The Killing Joke the Joker’s origin involves Jack Napier (in the film)/the unnamed engineer (Killing Joke) falling in to a vat of acid and going insane upon seeing his reflection, his skin now bleached. What’s noticeable about Batman is it’s more of a Joker origin story than Batman origin story. While Superman and future superhero films focus on the hero’s origin, in Batman the titular character has already taken on the mantle of a vigilante. It's not until later on in the film that Batman's origin is revealed when Bruce Wayne thinks back to the night his parents were murdered. One of the most striking departures this film makes from the comics is that Napier, when he was a young hoodlum, was the murderer of Bruce’s parents. To my knowledge this is the first and only incarnation that interprets the Joker this way. This controversial re-interpretation is one the boldest changes in a superhero themed film and foreshadows the risks filmmakers would take when re-interpreting comic book mythology.
 
Burton keeps the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman largely a mystery to the viewer. Thus we need a character to be a representation for the audience. The character we actually follow throughout the film is Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who’s come to Gotham City due to her interest in the rumours about Batman and teams up with reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who's also obsessed in discovering who or what Batman is. Vicki begins a romance with Bruce and it’s through this relationship we discover who the real Bruce Wayne is behind the rich playboy facade. A large theme of the film is that Bruce has been locked away behind facades for so long that he doesn’t quite know how to embark on a courtship.     



Unlike West, Keaton creates a distinction between the two personas of Bruce Wayne and Batman, emphasizing the character's dual psyche. Keaton puts fears to rest as soon as the film opens with Batman beating up two criminals who committed a mugging that echoes the character’s origin. Gone is the “old chum” Batman of the 60s series. Keaton’s Batman is a stoic, intimidating creature who strikes fear in to the hearts of criminals.  
 
Batman came out in 1989. At this time the blockbuster/action movie scene was populated by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Indiana Jones and John McClane. This was long before the comic book superhero was the dominant franchise headliner at the cineplex. Despite his popularity, Batman wasn’t the hero people were used to seeing on screen.  And Keaton was not anyone’s image of an action hero. But this is what makes the film and why it had such an impact upon its release. It wasn’t like anything people were seeing at this time.
 
This is largely due to its production designs, which places Batman outside of any specific time setting. There’s a distinct 1930s/1940s vibe to the gangsters’ outfits, cars, etc. but the film doesn’t specifically take place during that period. Aside from the inclusion of music from Prince in one sequence the film’s aesthetic qualities lend it a timeless feel. Similar to the Christopher Reeve Superman films, the film attempts to creates a stylized reality rather than place the character in a modern setting.





The success of Batman led to the creation of the great Batman: The Animated Series, which premiered in 1992 and ran until 1998. The style of the series was influenced by Batman. The film's success also made Warner Bros. give Burton creative control over the sequel, Batman Returns. The result was one of the darkest, depressing,  and most twisted films, superhero or otherwise, to come out of a major studio. The darkness turned off people, namely parents who dragged their kids off to see it.. Warner Bros. then went in another direction and hired Joel Schumacher to helm Batman Forever, a much lighter take on the character.
 
I can’t call Batman a masterpiece or a great film but it’s a memorable, highly entertaining piece of pop entertainment. It's beautifully gothic and an interesting prototype for the future films in the franchise. Happy 25th anniversary Batman.