Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis (possibly) and James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

12 July

 

 

Julius Caesar born, 100BC

Most people have some inkling about the death of Julius Caesar – “et tu, Brute” etc – but he was born too, so it seems. In the year 100BC, on this day, to a family of patricians who already bore the cognomen Julia – descendants of the mythical Iulus (or so they liked to say) aka Ascanius, king of Alba Longa, son of Trojan hero Aeneas. Julius Caesar’s given name was Gaius, his family name Julius, the cognomen or family nickname Caesar – because one of his ancestors was born by caesarean section (from the Latin caedere – to cut), or had a thick head of hair (caesaries – hair), or because he had bright eyes (oculis caesiis – blue eyes), or that he killed an elephant in battle (caesai – Moorish for elephant). From coins struck during his rule, bearing images of elephants, it would seem that Julius Caesar preferred the last explanation. At 16 Julius Caesar’s father died and he became head of the family. He was also lined up to become the high priest of Jupiter, but intrigue against the family meant Julius Caesar was stripped of his inheritance and all titles, actual or pending. Which is how he ended up joining the army and embarking on a circuitous route to the top, won by prowess as a military man and administrator rather than connection to an important family. Sounds a bit like Gladiator.

 

 

 

 

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, dir: Rupert Wyatt)

There are reboots and reboots. Rise of the Planet of the Apes goes right back to basics, calling on neither the original sequence of films made between 1968 and 1973, nor Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 waste of everyone’s time. It’s the real reboot thing – a “here’s how it all happened” reimagining of how the Earth might have been taken over by apes. Or will happen, since it’s set in a ten-minutes-into-the-future present where a scientific researcher (James Franco) comes up with a drug for restoring brain function, tries it on the chimps at the lab and also sneaks some home for his beloved dad (John Lithgow) who has Alzheimer’s.
The bewildered/lucid Lithgow is little more than a humanising backstory to Franco, as is another of the film’s stars, Freida Pinto as Franco’s perpetually worried girlfriend, struggling to show off her range after being catapulted to fame by Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Andy Serkis completes the quartet, yet again in a mo-cap role (after playing the hero beast in King Kong and Gollum) as Caesar, the ape who has been born with consciousness and superior intelligence as a result of his mother getting a shot of Franco’s wonder serum. Add that to Caesar’s pre-existing animal cunning and we have… trouble.
I’m no fan of any of the Planet of the Apes films – people in chimp masks, whether riding horses or carrying a clipboard just doesn’t do it for me – and it’s said that Stanley Kubrick was furious when the original POTA won an Oscar for make-up. What about his apes – in 2001: A Space Odyssey – did the Academy think he’d used real ones? But good though Serkis is at conveying Caesar’s awakening as a sapient ape and his evolution as the sort of military strategist that his Roman namesake would recognise, the film actually spends most of its time operating as an update on the sort of 1950s B movie where concerned scientists would say things to each other in concerned-scientist monotones. On this level it’s a very good film: brisk, entirely sure of what it’s about, with a driving forward thrust and a keen interest in technology and the brains required to use them. The twist being that it’s the apes who start to learn; the humans are all over the place, unsure whether to let their head or their heart win out in any closely contested decision-making.
So we forgive Pinto’s flattish performance, the same way we forgive Franco, who could be just about anybody, because too much personality would just slow things down, make everything just a bit less slick.
As for its message – don’t be mean to the beasts, or the beasts might just be mean to you – it chimes entirely with species-ist claims for rights for animals in a way that’s incredibly direct and yet never obtrusive. Good work. No wonder the doctor ordered a sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

 

 

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Andy Serkis as Caesar
  • The film that rebooted a franchise
  • The clean modernist cinematography of Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings)
  • Its thrilling “ape takeover” third act

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman surrounded by dwarfs in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 September

 

 

Publication of The Hobbit, 1937

On this day in 1937, George Allen & Unwin first published a children’s story by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was called The Hobbit: or There and Back Again, and had grown out of pipesmoke gatherings of an informal literary group of Oxford academics called the Inklings, who met at a pub on Tuesday mornings. Perhaps as a reaction against the modernist experimentation of writers such as James Joyce, the Inklings favoured strong narratives and fantasy, both of which are present by the imperial ton in Tolkien’s story of a hobbit who sets off on a great quest with a wizard. The wizard is of course Tolkien himself, or more generally, Oxford dons. Hobbits are the students, small in stature compared to the great men. Women? As in the Oxford of the time, they barely featured and were drawn as creatures of great scarcity and wonderment. The cosy atmosphere of Hobbiton is the snug, toasting-fork world of the Oxford don. Meanwhile, outside the Shire in the industrial Midlands, in which Oxfordshire sat, lay the fire-breathing regions of industrial production, such as Birmingham. The Black Country more generally might be thought of as the model for Mordor. Though it’s also worth remembering that Tolkien served in the First World War, where he fought on the Somme, so scenes of tumultuous battle and great bloodshed were not unfamiliar. The Hobbit, grounded in the personal but flying into the fantastical, was an immediate success, and the publishers asked for more. As for Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, CS Lewis, he said, “Prediction is dangerous, but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, dir: Peter Jackson)

Agreed, there was very little reason to turn a short book into three long films, apart from the obvious financial one. But director Peter Jackson does manage to do some wonderful things with the original source material. The casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is a masterstroke, Freeman coming across as a gentle, funny and homely kind of soul who would not be tempted easily out of the Shire onto a wild chase towards danger. Jackson has also picked up a few tricks from the Harry Potter series, and spends time working on the more human touches, building character, establishing milieu. And there are a few tips of the hat to Pirates of the Caribbean too, the quips, the backchat. Which really helps the extended opening sequence – the arrival of Gandalf and the huge dwarf party held at Baggins’s home. After that we’re all off on the adventure to banish the dragon Smaug and recover the kingdom of Erebor. And though there is a touch of the same problem that bedevilled Lord of the Rings – if you can magic someone back to life every time they die, where exactly is the jeopardy? – Jackson really comes into his own with the extended first meeting with Gollum, the hobbit originally called Smeagol until prolonged exposure to the Ring turned him into the hideous subterranean creature. It is the highlight of the book, in fact it’s one of the great passages in children’s literature. And Freeman and Andy Serkis (back in mo-cap as Gollum) make the most of it. The film is much flabbier than the book, admittedly, but Jackson’s achievment is to make his first part of the Hobbit trilogy immersive. And as the CGI starts to overwhelm the human actors, it’s easy to either lose interest and start complaining that it’s all a bit too much like a video game. Or to disappear almost entirely into Middle Earth with the characters on screen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The 48 frames per second technical innovation
  • Play “spot the face” with the dwarfs as familiar actors are rendered down to pint size
  • A fabulous eccentric turn by Sylvester McCoy as crackpot wizard Radagast the Brown
  • It is probably going to be better than part 2

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – at Amazon