Monday, August 15, 2011

A War That No One Can Win

So I'm mostly onboard the Rise of the Planet of the Apes train. It's smart in how it goes about telling its story, does a good job of not randomly assigning antagonist roles to those who aren't deserving of them (though admittedly, Tom Felton does push things a little far), and its action scenes are surprisingly organic to a story that really doesn't call for them. The characters seem to make decisions of their own accord, not because the plot dictates it, and I'm quite fond of the relationship that builds between Will Rodman and his surrogate son, the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), not because they build convincing chemistry - they do - but for how their relationship eventually crumbles.

What I'm not so hot on is the ending. As you may have guessed from the title (or the original film released in 1968), the world is going to be taken over by apes. It's going to happen. So how do you create appropriate sympathy for the simian dissidents in a film centered around their uprising without celebrating the fall of humanity? Even without the continuity-required ending, you couldn't exactly make a whole movie to make us feel sorry for super-intelligent apes only to have them gunned down in the end. Either way, you're going to create a feeling of unease.

Which is exactly what they should have done.

I finally saw the original Planet of the Apes the other day (a decade after my local comic shop guy told me I should be ashamed to walk into a comic book store and admit I'd never seen it), and while I obviously knew the ending going in (I had seen Spaceballs after all), I was struck by the note on which it ended. No music, just the wind and the ocean. Desolation. It could've been a moment out of Through a Glass Darkly (if not for, you know, the huge Statue of Liberty). And that's the exact right note to end that film on - a condemnation of the nuclear age in which the film was released, and it perfectly evokes Taylor's personal and philosophical isolation.

The tone wouldn't have been inappropriate in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, either. Instead we get a huge, swelling, triumphant score as the apes soar up into the heavens and survey the kingdom which will soon be theirs. And sure, you can say that it's just a summer film and most of the humans are bad guys anyway, but if you don't think Frida Pinto's going down with that plague or eventually with the fall of the human race, you're selling yourself a bill of goods my friend. What makes Planet of the Apes so effective is that, for as silly as it is (and it kind of is), it takes its story and moreover its purpose seriously. If you trivialize the fall of the human race as a component of popcorn entertainment, you're also trivializing the stakes of the film, thus leaving us without a reason to be invested. The Terminator films always toed this line nicely (haven't seen Salvation), building very entertaining films but never forgetting the enormity of what's at stake. The same could be said for the first Matrix.

Of course, those have the advantage of not needing our sympathy with our enemy, a push-pull that works well in the structure of the Apes franchise.

Like I said, I mostly dug the film, but the ending just reeked of a studio note or screenwriting textbook saying, "always send them out on a high note!" without any regard for the thematic significance of it.

1 comment:

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