Happy 10th Anniversary from The Post!
Two Hundred for Ten
Well, hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that just can't seem to take a hint. Pleasing synchronicity abounds this week: initially, in that the tenth anniversary of the first appearance of 24LAS should be marked by the release of a film in the same franchise as the subject of my first ever review. But on top of this, looking back at the history of the column (I know, but I've got a lot of free time at the moment) has revealed (so far as I can work it out) that this is the 200th piece under the 24LAS banner on h2g2. To say nothing of the felicitous release of a second film this week which complements our main feature rather splendidly. What would Jung make of it all?
The Lives of the Caesars (Part Two)
Normally, approaching the seventh film in a series I would expect to be entering distinctly Oh God Not Another One territory: let us not forget, even the mighty Bond and Star Trek franchises had quality control issues round about that point. With Rupert Wyatt's new movie, however, all bets are off and my trepidation sprang from an entirely different source. This is, of course, because Wyatt's movie is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a new take on one of my very favourite SF series (regular readers will be in no doubt as to my affection for this particular branch of simian cinema).
This movie trades heavily on the Apes brand in some ways, but it's really something new and startlingly different. Our story opens in a peculiar world dominated by apes and their strange society, the apes in question being human beings and the society being a market-driven western democracy. Chief human this time around is Will Rodman (James Franco), a neurological researcher trying to develop an effective therapy for Alzheimers, from which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering, despite the scepticism of the heartless suit he works for (the suit is played by David Oyelowo).
A fairly major lab setback forces Rodman to start again, almost from scratch and leaves him the unwilling paterfamilias of an infant chimpanzee (Andy Serkis – no, really), the child of one of his lab apes. It soon becomes apparent that his mother's exposure to the therapy has affected young Caesar's development, giving him a vastly boosted IQ for a start. The problem is that he's no longer merely an ape, but neither does he have a place in human society.
Caesar's growing self-awareness coupled to his alienation and attachment to the Rodmans eventually leads to trouble with the law and Will and his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) are forced to place him in a local ape shelter. The fact that the shelter is operated by Brian Cox (whom you may recall as the bad guy from The Bourne Supremacy, X2, Troy, etc) and Tom Felton (whom you may recall as the bleach-blond kid at Hogwarts) should tip you off as to the kind of establishment this turns out to be. Caesar's intelligence does not prepare him for the brutality of his new life, but, characteristically, he rapidly adapts to it and is soon planning a break for freedom, not just for him but for all the inmates.
Most people, I expect, will have two starting points when it comes to talking about this movie– either the last attempt at an Apes reboot, directed by Tim Burton, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which is the original movie this most closely resembles. That said, the resemblance is not a particularly strong one– while the Burton excrescence didn't reference any of the original films, the whole look and style of the film made it very clear it was wholly in their thrall. Rise, on the other hand, would only need a few fairly minor changes in order to operate as a wholly original independent movie.
Possibly aware of this, the writer-producers have opted to shotgun the movie with what felt like dozens of references to the cast, characters, and stories of the original films, some of which are very obscure indeed; I'm not even sure I spotted them all myself. (That said Pierre Boulle, Rod Serling and Paul Dehn aren't credited, which struck me as a little cheeky.) The subtle ones work best– when Tom Felton is required to recycle dialogue from the original series the effect is wearying rather than iconic. On the other hand, this does set up a moment which manages to be quintessentially Apes-y and yet also wholly and satisfyingly original: it certainly had your correspondent horripilating in his seat.
What's slightly unexpected about this film is what a small-scale and relatively personal story it tells, and the story is that of Caesar rather than Rodman. With the first act completed, all Franco gets to do is to drive around trying to keep up with a plot that doesn't really centre on him any more (Frieda Pinto is even more ornamental). By this point Andy Serkis has already stepped into the spotlight and proceeds to dominate the rest of the film.
While Wyatt's direction is good, this film really belongs to Serkis, the other ape performers, and the motion-capture techies at Weta: the special effects in this movie are truly astounding, creating each ape as a separate individual with his or her own personality. The creation of convincingly photorealistic apes is flawlessly done, and yet the wizardry still permits Serkis's remarkable and deeply moving performance to shine through.
As with The Lord of the Rings, the action sequences of the movie are immaculately done but it's the character interactions and performances that really make the film work. You should probably be aware that the action stuff is really only limited to the final act of the film, and given the promise of man-on-simian conflict and genuine ape-ocalypse which the title suggests, I think it would be remiss of me not to mention that the film doesn't really go down this route. That's not to say that the status quo is unchanged come the end of the film: it's quite clear that the balance of power may well be undergoing a significant alteration very soon, but they're leaving that for the sequel. I would have appreciated a little more of the darkness and fatalism that ran throughout the original series.
In fact, my only real grumble about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it does suffer a little from reboot syndrome: rather like Batman Begins, it painstakingly puts everything in place for a follow-up which will contain all the cool stuff you really want to see in this kind of movie, but the problem is that as a result this movie seems ever so slightly underpowered in its climax and resolution. Deferring many potential good bits to a potential sequel is a slightly annoying thing to do, but the overall quality of this film means Wyatt and his associates get away with it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may on some level be only an exercise in setting up targets to be knocked down at some indeterminate future date, but it does so with such aplomb that you emerge looking forward to seeing how they're going to do it. A superior blockbuster and a worthy (if slightly iconoclastic) addition to the series.
Plan for an Ape
Dearie me, you can wait what seems like an eternity for a movie about the troubled life of a chimpanzee raised in a human home and taught sign language as part of a scientific experiment, and then two come along on the same weekend. What are the chances of that happening?
Well, when you have fairly shrewd marketing people on the case, they're actually pretty good, as James Marsh's Project Nim certainly seems to be benefitting from riding in the slipstream of an, ahem, Certain Other Movie with which it shares very striking, if ultimately superficial, similarities.
The most obvious difference between Project Nim and the Other Movie is that Project Nim is a documentary, but one which definitely enters stranger-than-fiction territory. The Nim of the title is a chimpanzee, taken from his mother in early infancy to be brought up around humans as part of an experiment to test the language-acquisition capacity of higher primates. As Nim grows and the project develops, he is moved from place to place and forms relationships with a number of different teachers and handlers (many of whom are interviewed for the film: following his death in 2000, Nim himself was unavailable to participate). When the project concludes (mainly due to Nim's increasing size and aggressiveness) Nim finds himself sent to a primate shelter and conditions far different to the ones he is used to.
Well, I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, but suffice to say that the Statue of Liberty remains intact and the dominion of man is unshaken. Nevertheless, this is an engrossing and rather moving film deeply concerned with what it means to blur the lines between human and animal (do great apes count as animals? Even here we raise deep questions).
The focus of the Nim project itself and its findings are not really explored in the movie, which was a slight disappointment to me (teaching a language is my job), but I suppose a disquisition on the nature of syntax and Nim's inability to engage properly with it would doubtless have been a bit dry for what is, after all, a movie. (For what it's worth, given that a typical pronouncement from Nim was 'Tickle me Nim play', suggestions he never quite mastered grammar seem well-founded.) But the movie is unstinting in its implicit criticism throughout of the procedure.
There's something odd about the idea that raising an animal as a human being somehow constitutes cruelty – we do the same to our own children, after all– but that's what the film returns to time after time. And for all their protestations otherwise, all the project participants seem unable to resist treating Nim as an actual person. 'As Nim grew older he started to behave like a chimp,' reveals the project leader, which would probably be more surprising if he wasn't actually a chimp to begin with. It's clear that this didn't really benefit Nim at all (or indeed those associated with him: most of the trainers reel off lists of scars they received when Nim got tetchy and bit them).
One of the things that this movie reveals en passant is the deeply eccentric personalities of some of the people involved in scientific research in this period. Nim seems relatively well-adjusted compared to some of them. The project leader, in addition to being surprised to discover his test chimp is actually behaving like a chimp, also appears to have slept with practically every other person involved (but not Nim, I hasten to add) and to not consider this in any way peculiar. Most of Nim's handlers were, basically, hippies, and this inevitably must have impacted on the ape. 'I breastfed him for the first few months,' reveals his initial foster-mother, casually. Later on other handlers introduced Nim to the joys of alcohol and dope: one of them fondly recalls that hanging out with Nim with the best time in his life, with the exception of going to see the Grateful Dead in concert. 'What can I say, it was the Seventies!' another interviewee exclaims by way of explanation.
Parts of this film are blackly comic and parts of it are quite harrowing, mostly in the latter stages of Nim's life. Implicit again here is the fact that while the attempt to teach Nim human faculties may have been misconceived, it's only this which saved him from a potentially much worse fate. And if Nim is fundamentally no different from any other chimp, why should he alone receive special treatment?
The film raises these kinds of questions but leaves it to the audience to find their own answers to them. It's a well put-together picture without too many intrusive stylistic quirks, and without the forced surrealism that occasionally made Marsh's last movie, Man on Wire, slightly irksome in places. The scheduling of its release has probably won it a little more attention than it would otherwise have received, but it's still an intelligent and moving film that tells a fascinating story with great skill and compassion.