Saturday, May 29, 2010

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

It’s the year 2670 AD, and we’re in some green corner of North America where brooks still babble on, even though everyone else has run out of things to say. But a voice still begins to speak, a voice of such sinister authority it could plausibly belong to either god or the devil—no one can tell the difference between such concepts anymore in 2670, they might as well be the same thing for all it matters. And what does this mighty voice say? What proclamations, what wisdom, does it impart?

Well, I’m embarrassed to report this voice is only here to recap the plot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes before we go another barmy expedition into the monkey house. Yes, the masterminds behind Battle for the Planet of the Apes have hired John Huston to do their plot summary. Tell me, who hires such an august presence just to stick him in a Halloween mask and make him recite the plot of a cheap movie as if it were the Book of Genesis? Is this a wise way to spend your casting budget?

But such is the bizarre logic of this film, which skimps on every detail—Claude Akins’ gorilla mask looks ready to fall off his face at any moment—yet throws such a strong presence into what otherwise could be (and should be) a completely anonymous role. We’re so deep in the realms of disappointment now that we can’t find our way back to the border anymore. Out here, there are only vultures circling this walking corpse of a movie, and any notions of kitschy fun were left behind in the dunes like an empty canteen.

Almost anything would be a comedown after the revolutionary zeal of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but Battle, the fifth and final installment in the Ape series, is a particularly listless conclusion to the story. How can one even feel comfortable with such a benign movie after sitting through its four barbed predecessors? If the rest of the series forms a nearly seven-hour nightmare, this film is the night-light. It’s cute, reassuring, and unnecessary.

None of this is to say Battle is a particularly cheerful film, even if it does ladle some goopy love-and-harmony syrup all over its conclusion (“Peace is boring,” one character sneers, and the film unwittingly proves this). John Huston, as the Lawgiver, hangs around in the year 2670 to frame the action, which actually takes place centuries earlier in the aftermath of the fourth film. We’re on the sticky side of an undefined nuclear cataclysm that has more or less annihilated human civilization, leaving apes the dominant species, ruling over the remaining people.

Roddy McDowall returns as Caesar, the ape revolutionary from the fourth film, and his performance is one of the few remotely enjoyable things to be found in this torpid little movie. Even the flashes of misanthropic humour that characterize the rest of the series only appear here in small doses of tart smugness. The series used to make misery so much fun—now it just feels like a chore.

For instance, the law that ape shall not kill ape is broken when Aldo, a gorilla general, kills Caesar’s son (I’ll spare you a detailed exegesis on the complexities of ape politics that led to this incident). This fall from grace prompts the remark that the apes have at last “joined the human race.” Because humans are murderous monsters, you see? This is the moral of every ape film, but this marks the first time the message has been delivered in such a dutiful, automatic way. While the climactic confrontation between Aldo and Caesar carries some of that old surreal excitement—the assembled crowd eerily chants “Ape has killed ape,” as if the force of this fact alone is enough to punish the guilty—most of the film feels drained of energy and purpose.

Everything has a desultory feel, carelessly tossed off with disdain. Half of the time, we can’t even see what’s going on. The murky and poorly lit sequences that take place in the tunnels below some ruined city climax in a cloud of smoke, perhaps because director J. Lee Thompson was afraid we might actually see the movie and realize how bad it actually is.

Thompson, who also directed on the fourth film in the series, is clearly not engaging with the material this time around. Scenes begin the instant someone starts speaking and end almost before the last word has entered the air. Everything feels clipped and rushed; the filmmakers clearly can’t bear to waste one extra second of screen time on these characters. There are almost no transitions between scenes, no cushion as we jump from one flat moment to the next. The effect is such that you feel like you are being hurried through a museum moments before closing—speed walking past all the dead things.

But then again, what is there to see here? Even by the lax standards of Ape movies, the film is fairly incoherent. All of planetary life is apparently reduced to two colonies side-by-side yet completely oblivious to each other’s existence. Even more inexplicable is the fact that one of these colonies would choose to live in irradiated underground ruins, apparently preferring to starve in the dark rather than move into the lush forest right outside their cancerous hell. And somehow, in the span of a few years, apes have developed language and culture and politics. We even have hyper-intelligent orangutans discoursing learnedly on time and relativity, bizarrely, with the aid of highway metaphors. Because obviously a post-industrial society that uses horses for transport would use cars as their main point of reference, right?

Of course, I don’t go to these Ape movies looking for finely tuned narrative logic, but I feel like if I swallow one more ounce of this nonsense I’ll choke. As absurd as it is to rail against a cheap, cash-grab movie for not thinking through its plot, what I’m really bothered by is the lack of conviction and passion. I don’t ask that this movie make sense—I just want it to care.

Tragically, it all ends happily ever after. An assault on the ape-human colony ends with most of the irradiated tunnel dwellers being killed, while the few survivors form the beginnings of the bomb-worshipping cult we discovered in the second film. The militaristic Aldo dies in his final confrontation with Caesar and the humans and apes resolve to live together as equals. Then everyone hugs and some bunnies show up riding rainbows and pass the soma, it’s all good (details got a little hazy after that, but I think everyone broke into “Que Sera, Sera” at some point).

Is it wrong for me to want an unhappy ending? What I love about this dopey series is its unabashed fatalist streak. How many mainstream films can you think of from today or any other era that would dare embrace such darkness? Man is cruel, we’re all going to die—this is not the typical terrain of escapist entertainment. But there’s immense pleasure in this despair, a weirdly primal satisfaction akin to an old folk murder ballad, where all the worst impulses of humanity are dredged up like bones from the bottom of a lake and put on display. The Ape movies might as well be the cinematic equivalent of “Knoxville Girl” in the nuclear age. It’s a lament of self-defeat—an epic about how violence against others becomes violence against yourself.

Perhaps that is why this largely irrelevant coda feels so strained after listening to its four predecessors moan about death and destruction. Ignoring these demons is akin to giving in to them, making this one of the most joyless happy endings imaginable. The film succumbs to hope as if it were a fatal disease. In the final scene, the Lawgiver lectures ape and human alike about the uncertain future, but there is at least one certainty—there is no future for this series, and the movie bears that knowledge in every lifeless frame. Half-heartedly, the film preaches life and hope even as it gives up any will to carry on. A fitting conclusion to this most despairing series: this is what it looks like when a movie commits suicide.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Oh, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, how does one capture your wild charms? How does one praise such an unruly beauty? Let me try:

This movie is a bucket of cold water in the face after midnight. This movie is rude and shocking. This movie is the chance encounter of a lampshade and Ricardo Montalban in an interrogation chair. This movie is like that time you hit that cyclist with your car and stuffed the twitching, bloody mess in your trunk and threw the corpse in the nearest river and still made it to your aunt’s house in time for dinner only to be told your cousin hadn’t arrived yet and that he was riding his bike over and should be there any minute. This movie is where they dump the bodies.

I’ve always felt a certain affection for the fourth installment in the Ape series. It isn’t a huge leap in quality from the third film, although the craftsmanship behind it (the movie was directed by J. Lee Thompson and written by series regular Paul Dehn) is actually quite sturdy, despite a bit of rushed pacing and the expected absurdities. But even though the typical Ape silliness remains, it is now tempered by some surprisingly vicious satire. This virulent little movie might well be the key to the whole series, enriching its three predecessors by tying together everything into a neat little Möbius strip.

Since the third film, we’ve moved from the mid-1970s to the far-flung future of 1991, when apes have become a new servant class. Upscale restaurants employ gorillas as waiters and chimps on the street will polish your shoes (monkeyshines!). Meanwhile, unemployed human waiters carry signs that say “Slaves are scabs,” and if you’re not watchful your chimp hairdresser will start picking over your scalp for nits.

The apes stand in for any oppressed other, thus completing the vicious circle begun in the first film, where the humans cowered before ape tyranny. There is a fairly obvious racial allegory to be found here, and the filmmakers make it more obvious with the aid of an African-American character named MacDonald, who works for the film’s villainous governor. The pair make for an entertaining odd couple, although it is curious that the governor would hire a man who is his philosophical opposite as his chief assistant (what’s the point of hiring someone to contradict you if you don’t ever listen to what they say?). In one amusing exchange, the governor brushes aside another one of MacDonald’s loaded allusions to slavery by facetiously declaring, “All of us were slaves once, in one sense of the word or another.”

Honky please. You’re no more a slave than Nathan Bedford Forrest was. But while the governor’s remark seems flippant and callous when spoken in 1991, it takes on a different light in the context of the rest of the series, when we know that all humans will essentially be reduced to slaves later on. Every side in this messed-up struggle plays the part of slave at some point. For all the radical shifts of power, oppression remains the only constant in this bleak view of history.

Well, oppression and Roddy McDowall, who returns to the series as Caesar (née Milo), the fully-grown offspring of Cornelius and Zira from the third film. As the saying goes, the child is the father of the man, which is doubly true when time travel is involved. In one of those curious situations that can only happen when screenwriters play fast and loose with time machines, Caesar is not only the child of his parents, but also their ancestor.

But setting aside this gnarled family tree, I admire the way the film brings everything full circle. In this movie, Caesar initiates the revolution that will one day lead to the ape-ruled planet we discover in the first film. Which leads us to annihilation of the Earth in the second film. Which leads us to the apes from the future traveling back in time and giving birth to Caesar in the third film. And on and on it goes, always changing and yet not changing at all. The actors switch roles, but the play doesn’t change one line.

There’s an incredible image in “Benito Cereno,” a Herman Melville story that came to mind after watching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this story, an American sea captain has boarded a Spanish slave trading ship. The American—a blithe innocent like so many of Melville’s narrators—witnesses a ship seemingly in perfect harmony and peace. The slaves behave even when unchained, even when they outnumber their captors. It’s an impressive sight—and completely false, because the slaves have taken over the ship and are merely feigning servility for the American’s benefit.

The image from the story that stuck in my memory involves a razor and a throat. Babo, slave and attendant of the Spanish ship’s captain, prepares to shave his master, chastising the man for shaking so nervously as the blade scrapes his skin. “And yet master knows I never yet have drawn blood,” the slave says, “though it’s true, if master will shake so, I may some of these times.”

That’s more a promise than a warning, as Babo does draw blood short moments later. The scene shows the thin separation between master and slave: in his act of servility, Babo possesses enormous power over his master. That intimate access is a kind of weapon in itself, and the only guard against revolution is the hope that the slave is too beaten down to rebel. But what a foolish hope that is—impossible not to draw blood when two opposing forces are placed in such close contact.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes follows a similar route, showing Caesar and his cadre of ape co-conspirators exploiting the trust placed in them to gather weapons and sabotage the humans (granted, this sometimes amounts to nothing more than a botched shoeshine, but at least it’s a start). All of this leads to an impassioned torch-lit speech from Caesar, who claims the slave’s right to violently overthrow his oppressors and declares his intention to fulfill the prophecy of ape rule that his parents brought with them to the 20th century.

It’s an incredible moment, surreal and savage—talking apes arguing the merits of armed revolt—but the film retreats at the last moment. Rather half-heartedly, the film shows Caesar tempering his rhetoric with benign nonsense, declaring they will dominate with compassion and be humane despite not being human. It’s really just gibberish designed to placate, and was probably tacked on after the scene was finished (we never see Caesar actually say the lines, as they are delivered in a voiceover while the film shows his eyes in close-up). Perhaps some studio executive balked at the prospect of releasing a film that appeared to encourage revolution?

He shouldn’t have been so afraid. I doubt anyone is going to watch this film and feel inspired to beat a politico to death, or anything so dramatic. Besides, as is always the case with the Ape movies, the film’s message is much more desolate than you would first think. In this cycle of oppressors rising and falling, rebellion is eternally necessary and completely impossible. The old slave becomes the new master in a sad parade that marches through history until finally heading right over a cliff in 3955, when the whole planet explodes and puts an end to this farce. Although you can safely say the film’s sympathies lie with the oppressed, you can also say that it doesn’t necessarily see much hope in their revolution. When in doubt, riot, but when in riot, doubt.

This is a despairing film, true, but still one of the liveliest entries in the Ape series, offering a spirited variation on the usual misanthropic gloominess. Perhaps that is because this film is a summing up of the series, and it feels like an apt crescendo to all the lunacy that has preceded it. As the governor explains at one point, the apes are the dark side of humanity. They’re the irrational, wild part of ourselves that we keep shackled up somewhere, and here is where they finally take up arms and demand their rights. There's something remarkably energizing about seeing a monkey with a gun.

The entire Ape series can be seen as one great assault on rationality—and I say that not just because embracing these movies is pretty damn irrational in its own right. The first film offered primitivism as an alternative to scientific progress, and the subsequent films have all confirmed this idea that human history need not progress in a straight line. Instead, we have history as a wheel, with humanity and apes on opposite sides, one rising and the other falling. Obviously, this is a great blow to our egos as the greatest living things ever to exist (I've also been hearing this crazy rumour that the sun doesn't revolve around the Earth...).

We like to consider ourselves the culmination of history. We're the top of the food chain: rational, intelligent creatures, even if we continually counter this image of ourselves with evidence of our own foolish, self-destructive nature. Rational thought fails us, just as rational means like science result in insane ends like the nuclear bomb and Planet of the Apes sequels. Consider this: a dog is a rational creature simply because it does not conspire against itself by devising ways to blow up the planet and destroy all life. It just wants to eat and sleep. What could be more sensible? Humans, by comparison, are just plain nuts.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

The first time I watched Escape from the Planet of the Apes I expressed my disappointment with the movie to a couple of friends who had kindly sat through the whole thing with me.

Here we had the goofy spectacle of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, made up as apes, parading around dressed in the height of 1970s fashion and bantering as if they were actually the stars of an alternate-reality sequel to The Thin Man. How could that possibly go wrong? But when I lamented that I felt let down, my friends started laughing at me.

“What’s so funny?” I asked. “I’m just disappointed in the movie, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” said one of my associates (who, due to a back problem, walked in an awkward, shuffling gait, much like a slower version of McDowall’s monkey walk), “but just listen to yourself. You’re disappointed in THE THIRD PLANET OF THE APES MOVIE.”

Okay, so she had a point, even if she did walk a bit like a monkey. It’s probably unwise to invest too much hope in dubious cinematic properties such as Planet of the Apes sequels, but after the lunatic gusto of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I had expected further heights of tasteless, demented apocalyptic fantasy.

I suppose you can only blow up the Earth so many times. Naturally, that’s a hard act to follow, and this movie can’t help but appear modest and slight next to the messy, overreaching zeal of its predecessor. Gone are the weeping monkey messiahs and mind-reading cultists; now we have cutesy fish-out-of-water antics and boringly sinister bureaucrats. Transporting Cornelius and Zira, two human-loving ape scientists, back into the present day was perhaps the most sensible way to continue the series, but after watching the entire Earth explode, there’s an inevitable sense of let-down at seeing the planet back in business as usual. Oh yes, this place. Again. Yawn. I only care when it is in flames.

But in retrospect, all we’ve really done is trade a big apocalypse for a little one, and it’s hard to say which is more painful. At the end of the second film, we see all life extinguished. At the end of the third, we see only a handful of deaths, each depicted with singular brutality. A newborn ape swaddled in a blanket is shot, repeatedly, on the deck of an abandoned oil tanker. Cornelius and Zira fare no better, each murdered in turn. When Cornelius is shot, he stares into the camera and emits a hideous blood-bubble wheeze as damning as a dying curse. And then plummets from a great height, his body crushing against the deck of the tanker, which emits a hollow thud.

Director Don Taylor films the whole sequence as a series of sharp angles flying from different directions, giving the impression of being caught in crossfire. It’s a well-wrought scene—one of the few examples of sure direction in the series since the first film, in fact. But what really gives the scene its punch is the sheer shock value of moving so rapidly from light comedy to grisly tragedy. We were having fun just a few minutes ago, weren’t we? Now every major character in the series is lying in a bloody heap. You might as well blow up the planet now, for all I care anymore.

One of the distinguishing features of the first two Ape movies was their willingness to employ completely unlikable protagonists. Sure, you felt a bit sorry for Heston’s Taylor, stuck in that zoo so far from home, but his volatile misanthropy hardly made him endearing. By contrast, Cornelius and Zira are pure charm. Their borscht belt marriage routine—“Does he talk?” one person asks of Cornelius, who replies, nodding towards his wife, “Only when she lets me”—is like something your grandparents would say at their 50th wedding anniversary, which helps explains the appeal of Cornelius and Zira. They’re corny, but sweet.

So obviously, they must die. Because this film, like its predecessors, is about the death of everything decent and kind and beautiful and innocent.

Some might argue that the film’s final scene—which reveals that Cornelius and Zira’s baby did not die with his parents, but rather was switched with another chimp in a traveling circus—contains a glimmer of hope. This being an Ape film, I’m not inclined to credit it with any hope for the future. This series paints with purest, blackest fatalism, envisioning history as a series of mass graves, each layered on top of each other like geographical strata. There is no hope for the future because there is no future.

The one promise the film makes to the future is that more suffering awaits. The last thing we see in the film is Cornelius and Zira's son in a cage at the circus, crying out “Mama” over and over while the image repeats on a loop. As the screen turns black, all we hear is that mewling sound, like a toothpick jabbed into your eardrum. The image is far too upsetting, too creepy, to really work as a bright spot in all of this gloom. Besides, this little guy could be the catalyst for the end of human civilization. Try not to get too attached to him.

Similarly, the deaths of Cornelius and Zira are not as easy to read as you first think. The man responsible for the deaths is Dr. Otto Hasslein, a man described—rather vaguely—as the president’s science advisor. At first, he seems an easy choice for our villain, a stern, angular man who is far too calmly zealous to be trustworthy. He even carries a secret recording device in his cigarette case (just another day in Nixon’s America!). Anyone who hides recording devices in everyday objects is clearly a bad person.

Yet Hasslein nonetheless cares deeply about saving the human race—an odd trait for any movie villain, I would think. He even gives an impassioned speech about the dangers of delaying action in the face of worldwide catastrophes ranging from pollution to overpopulation to time-traveling apes. “How much time has the world got?” he rages. “Somebody has to care!” What sort of movie puts its moral in the mouth of its chief villain? Dammit, this is supposed to be a stupid movie. We’re not supposed to be getting this kind of ambiguity in a silly Planet of the Apes sequel with Ricardo fucking Montalban in it.

As vicious as the death sequence may be, the film does leave open the provocative possibility that it was necessary. The survival of Cornelius and Zira could accelerate the demise of humanity, just as the existence of their offspring might well damn us all. I realize this series takes a dim view of the human race, but once you accept that we should survive as a species, you have to consider the possibility that these charming chimps and their baby must die. Not only do we have to contend with all that ugliness, we have to consider the chance that it was necessary for our collective survival.

Which brings us back to the troubling question that has plagued me while watching these movies: is their message simply that the human race cannot survive? Or rather that it should not? Misanthropy is too gentle a word for what this film feels about humanity. And hey, why not go for a bit of despair once in a while? Frankly, when you consider the myriad ways our species has flirted with death, who wouldn’t want to unleash an uncompromising tirade against our endless capacity for murderous folly? And while I don’t want to celebrate pessimism for its own sake (which can be just as mindless as optimism), a hopeful ending to this mess would be an insult. No one goes looking for a good slap in the face, but sometimes that's the best we deserve.