Friday, August 12, 2011
I’ve never felt cognitive dissonance like reading my Twitter feed this week—but maybe that was all the cold medicine—seeing nonstop (and counterintuitive) raves for Rupert Wyatt's blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film about an abused underclass taking back the streets, er, trees for those of us without access to Attack the Block, side-by-side with condemnations of British kids doing exactly that. Yes, it’s a hell of a lot easier to cheer on superintelligent apes fighting for their rights in a very PG-13 revolution than it is English kids in baggy hoodies wielding bats at shopowners and stealing even from children. But that says more about Rupert Wyatt’s way-past-animal-rights film taking the easy way out, what with cuddly pal Caesar doing the Nolan Batman thing at the end: “I don’t have to kill you, but my negligence will result in your death and I’ll still feel like a superstar. Integrity!”
Because no shocked and giddy souls on Youtube have documentation of the decades-long abandonment of this segment of western civilization but plenty are shooting the eruption, selection bias utterly obliterates our sympathies. Which is a persuasive argument for the first hour of Apes, a nonstop subway ride of boredom as we fly mechanically from Oscar nominee James Franco’s tired cardboard performance art to Best Picture star Freida Pinto’s pretty prettiness to John Lithgow’s best attempts to transcend Hollywood Illnessland. We don’t need any of that, most of which is origin story exposition required to bridge every gap from 2011 Tottenham to whenever Charlton established an NRA chapter in Planet of the Apes because we couldn’t possibly leave a little mystery or wonder in there. What we absolutely need—what is vital to this film’s faith in a mass demographic to demand its rights and win—is the systematic oppression of an animal much smarter than its society realizes. Maybe it’s cheap to give our hero fur, consolidating our sympathies with that sad, little creature, but Andy Serkis’ performance is the most nuanced characterization in the film, and what’s really sad—and sly—about Rupert Wyatt’s democratic B-flick is that our compassion isn’t as strong for the abused furless primates among us.
It’s frustrating that even a movie called Rise of the Planet of the Apes about apes who, through sheer force of superintelligent will, sprout enough of an alveolar ridge to speak English is struggling somewhat to please its respectable financiers instead of going all-out campy B-movie, but at least we get that gorgeous, fluid final sequence capping a film riddled with plot holes. Wyatt loves giving us (and his gymnastic heroes) aerial views of gorgeous San Francisco, so we have a firm understanding of the geography of the bay area just in time for the finale, and the rest delivers exactly what the trailer promised by way of showing us all of the major beats. You can’t entirely blame the marketing, since the film delivers as much uprising as Harry Potter features the Deathly Hallows, but Wyatt’s restraint does his action no favors, and his politics are too simple and idealistic to resonate much beyond a basic grating against suppression. What he does have is a promising visual clarity. That shot where Caesar draws the chalk outline of his attic window on his cell is one of the most moving images of the year, respectful and compassionate, in a film that cheers its apes on to violent revolution as long as it isn't too violent for the comfortably done-up guardians of the status quo. It could have used more rising, frankly, but then how would they make sequels?