Friday, August 19, 2011

They Blew It Up

Sadly, this conversation between actor Troy McClure and his agent was omitted from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (reviews), the latest in a long series of films devoted to the perils and possibilities of ape role reversals:
[phone rings]
Parker: Troy! Mac Parker. Ever hear of... Planet of the Apes?
Troy: Uh... the movie or the planet?
Parker: The brand-new multimillion dollar musical. And _you_ are starring ... as the human.
Troy: It's the part I was born to play, baby!
While every film should have something as rewarding as that exchange, and while Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RPA) lacks even a cameo from the ghost of Phil Hartman (as far as I know), I have not come to bury RPA, but to praise it. Jeffrey Sconce was right --- it's actually quite good!

How is this possible? Am I sure that yet another man-ape species confusion caper isn't stretching the already too extended conceit a few notches too many? Isn't RPA just another two hours of fucking stupid, bloated Hollywood dreck?

No, it really is quite good. Here are some ways:
  • Though rife with CGI -- including but not limited to the movements and facial expressions of the main character, Caesar the drug-enhanced chimpanzee -- the visuals are not distracting. This is not to say they're perfectly convincing in all instances, but the makers of the film did a good job of using these techniques in the story rather than passing them off as the story.
  • Speaking of that, no one in this film is entirely monstrous, and no one is entirely virtuous. Well, OK, maybe the Brian Cox character and his assistant are total monsters throughout, but at least they are monsters of a kind that exist in the real world.
  • Through several fight sequences, physical and verbal and semi-verbal, the scenes are consistently arranged in a way that makes clear which ape is doing what to which ape -- and as an added bonus, we know why the ape is doing the thing to the other ape, and we have a rooting interest without feeling too manipulated -- this is definitely so by the prevailing standards of huge-budget films.
  • The film did not insist on giving us a shocking "Oh dear gawd the chimp just spoke!" moment. I had been dreading that.
  • There were homages to the original P of the A films, but RPA did not insist on echoing -- fore-echoing? -- every last theme, scene, and character. Just to pluck an example from the ether, we did not have to endure a visual that recapitulates the image of the Statue of Liberty's ruins protruding from the sand, let alone a set of narrative contrivances to get us there.
  • The film did not insult us by reaching to be too "topical." It is not a mailed-in commentary on, I don't know, the financial crisis or the Arab Spring or (gawd forbid) the Teabagger movement. Or is it? It could be, but the connections are abstracted more than enough to keep the gag reflex in check. It concerns the specific way hubris can combine with technical and analytical acumen to produce disaster, but beyond that, it declines to read the headlines at us. It is, in other words, the next retelling of Frankenstein, and good for it.
  • Most unexpectedly, and most favorably by my lights, the film left off in a way that leaves sequels genuinely optional. By the end, enough story has been told to allow us to fill in the gaps between this film's conclusion and the original 1968 film's opening. At the same time, it leaves plenty of story to be told to fill out the passage of time from those two points. This manner of storytelling is all but heroic in this time when the ideology of the cancer cell dominates and films exist only to perpetuate franchises, most of which should never have existed in the first place.
Well played, Hollywood. You win this time.

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