Film Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the Pain of Endings

Spoiler:  Full plot details for the film follow.

As anyone who has read this blog is well-aware, I am a filmgoer who is fascinated by the endings of films. To my mind, the ending of a film can tell us much about not only how the narrative of the drama works (or doesn’t), but also how the film understands the world works (or doesn’t).

Thus, I was particularly compelled by the ending of Rogue One, which tells the story of the group of rebels who undertake the perilous journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. Among them are the young woman Jyn Erso, the Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, the defected pilot Bodhi Rook, the reconfigured droid K-2SO, and Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen, a pair of warriors. While they succeed in beaming the plans to a waiting Rebel fleet–thus enabling the destruction of the Death Star that takes place in A New Hope–the entire brave troop is killed, either in direct battle or by a focused

I have to admit, I was rather stunned–overwhelmed, even–at the ending, in which Jyn and Cassian hold hands as the power of the Death Star is brought to bear, overwhelming them in a cataclysm. How was it possible, I thought, that the two main characters in a Star Wars film would perish? Wasn’t this supposed to be the franchise in which all of the good guys survive? (One would have thought that the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens would have disabused me of this naïveté, but apparently I forgot that valuable lesson).

Further, the atomic overtones of that destruction, with an enormous cloud of debris and fire rising into the sky, are acutely terrifying. This is particularly true in this era of renewed nuclear threats (witness Trump’s tweet about the possibility of a new nuclear arms race). As anyone familiar with the 1950s and 1960s will know, the threat of atomic annihilation is an acute one in the American unconscious, dovetailing as it so often does with America’s penchant for eschatological fantasies and Christian doomsday prophecies. Given this deep history, and Trump’s happy-go-lucky attitude regarding nukes, it’s no surprise that such a bleak and terrifying ending should appear in a Star Wars film.

What are we to make of the fact that the film ends with the death of the entire cast of characters that have grown to love and respect during the course of the film? On the one hand, certainly, it is meant to fill us with a sense of mingled fulfillment and unease, as we recognize the terrible blood price that has been exacted on those who have engaged in the struggle against tyranny. This is, after all, a war with tremendous consequences, with the Rebellion’s success hanging on a knife’s edge, struggling with its own internal dissent and the fact that the Empire has resources–both military and technological–that they lack. After all, if the Death Star can destroy even a sacred space (which it does, obliterating the capital of the moon Jedha), what hope can the members of the Rebellion have if the Empire should bring its full powers to bear upon them?

The ending, therefore, helps us to understand that this is a full-scale war and, like all wars, it exacts a terrible price in bodies and lives. Freedom, to use a cliche, is not in fact free. Furthermore, there is no guarantee, diegetically at least, that the sacrifices made by this (blessedly diverse) cast of heroes is going to actually do anything to bring about the destruction of the Death Star. We, in the audience, presumably know this, but the characters do not (and I would even go so far as to say that we might even be able to suspend our knowledge of this fact at least temporarily). There is something disquieting about this fact, that the characters perish without the knowledge of whether their sacrifices will ultimately bear fruit.

At a deeper level, it’s hard not to read it also as the expression of the ethos of those who have been dealing with the reality of a Trump victory and what that means for the future of the world that they had envisioned. Is their only hope to be as suicidally obstructionist as possible, in the hope that one day their sacrifices will come to fruition in the fullness of time? Must we continue to work and fight, not knowing whether there is to be any reward for what we do?

As Gerry Canavan noted in an exceptionally astute reading of The Force Awakens, the recent spate of Star Wars films are significantly more pessimistic in their view of history than the original trilogy. That is certainly the case here and, in my view at least, this has as much to do with the rise of Trump and his ne0fascist allies as anything else, as those of us who have embraced the ideals of Western secular democracy find ourselves faced with a very real manifestation of the same dark impulses that brought Palpatine to power and allowed him to maintain it.

As such, Rogue One, despite the claims of studio executives to the contrary, cannot but be seen as the natural product of a world in which the forces of “order” (remember that Trump declared himself the “law and order” candidate”) are in the ascendant, threatening to bring about an end to to everything the Obama Era has come to stand for. However, as Rogue One almost makes clear, while the end of one era may give rise to a darker one, there is still an imperative for those of us who value justice to fight on, even when all hope seems to have vanished.

Coda

At an extra-diegetic level, the film also raises some quite unsettling questions about the nature of endings and the life of the actor. There has, of course, been no small amount of consternation about the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin (played in the original film by the late Peter Cushing) has been reanimated through digital technology, with Guy Henry playing the actual part and the rest being added through CGI. There is something (not entirely unpleasantly) uncanny about seeing this re-created Tarkin onscreen, a reminder of both the character from the first film and the actor who played him (both of whom are, it should be remembered, dead for those of us currently sitting in the theater). At a larger level, such a manipulation of both the digital image and the living body of the actor raises significant questions about whether, in fact, any actor’s performance is ever truly dead and passed, since it is now clear that any actor can be resurrected through digital performance.

As it always does, motion-capture continues to raise ethical and aesthetic questions about the role of animation and technology in the way we experience cinema and the world around us.

Film Review: “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)

Well, we’ve finally made it to the last of my write-ups of the original Planet of the Apes films. Sometimes derided as the worst of the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes occurs some time after the previous installment. Mankind has nearly destroyed itself with a terrible nuclear war, while Caesar has led a group of exiles–comprised of both humans and apes–into a sort of peaceful coexistence.

Not all is as serene as it might appear, however. While the apes have quickly adapted and evolved in their social habits–having already donned their signature suits and attained the use of speech–humans remain a somewhat subservient class. They are not quite reduced to slaves, but it’s clear that Caesar has not forgotten the hard lessons learned during the reign of Governor Breck, and that he is not foolish enough to give them the same power that they possessed before they brought about their own destruction. They are almost, but not quite, equals to their ape companions.

One of the things I’ve always found utterly fascinating about this film was the decision to cast it as basically an extended flashback recounted by the aged Lawgiver several centuries after the events have taken place. It’s a bit of a stroke of brilliance to have John Huston play this venerated ape figure, as he always adds a touch of class and gravitas to the proceedings, and this Lawgiver, at least at this point, embodies the principle of peaceful coexistence that seems to be the film’s endpoint. He is even shown teaching his wisdom to a mixed group of ape and human children. This, at least on the surface, represents a more promising, optimistic future than the one presented in the film that began the series.

Throughout the narrative, the film essentially pits four different groups against one another:  the reasonable apes led by Caesar and his loyal followers such as Virgil, the bellicose gorillas led by the general Aldo, the humans led by MacDonald (the brother of the character of the same name from the previous film), and the mutants that remain in the ruins of the radioactive city (led by a new governor named Kolp, the chief interrogator under Breck). Each of them represents a different vision of the future, whether it will be one of peaceful coexistence of humans and apes or whether it will be one in which the two races remain locked in conflict until one utterly destroys the other.

In that respect, Kolp and his fellow mutants act as some of the most compelling characters. Kolp has clearly been driven mad by his confinement in a world increasingly restricted and poisonous. For their part, the mutants that still dwell in the ruins of their former home are just as disturbing and compelling as any other creations from this film series. Of particular note are Alma, Kolp’s right hand, and Mendez, one of the few mutants who understands the need for a more peaceful world. Indeed, their final scene in the film shows him declaring that they use the doomsday bomb not to bring about the end of the apes–which were Kolp’s last orders before his death–but instead serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. Clearly, he is meant to be understood as the progenitor of the Mendez cult that will come to rule the mutants in the centuries and millennia to come.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Aldo is the other primary villain in this film. Canny fans will remember that when Caesar told of how apes came to dominate the world, it was an ape named Aldo who first uttered the word “no” and struck the first blow in the revolution. Now, in a timeline in which that revolution has been accelerated by several centuries, Aldo has been reduced to little more than a failed revolutionary, a belligerent, not very intelligent gorilla general who fails in his attempt to mold the future in his own image. The fact that he is portrayed by Claude Akins (known for his portrayal of bluff, belligerent types in many TV shows) heightens the contrast between him and the more cerebral, thoughtful Caesar.

What I really love about this film, however, is how truly ambiguous it remains. Unlike each of the previous installments, which struck a decidedly bleak and despairing tone about not just the future but about human nature itself, this film seems a bit (just a bit, mind you), more optimistic. The final shot of the film, in which a statue of Caesar appears to weep is, by all accounts, a touch from the screenwriters to suggest that the more peaceful vision of the future this film offers ultimately failed. This, of course, leads to all sorts of questions. Does something happen during the lifetime of the Lawgiver that makes him turn against his human pupils? When does the final break between human and ape occur? These are all fascinating questions, and the film (rightly so, IMO), leaves them unanswered.

While some might regard this as the weakest Apes installment, it will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Film Review: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)

Continuing onward with our exploration of the original Planet of the Apes film series, we come to what has always been one of the most genuinely disturbing and frightening entries in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this film, Zira’s and Cornelius’s son (originally named Milo by his parents but renamed Caesar by the circus owner Armando), is brought to the (unnamed) city, where he witnesses the horrible treatments that apes endure at the hands of their human masters. In the years since his parents’ death, cats and dogs have been wiped out, replaced by apes who moved quickly from being pets to being servants. In this strange, disturbing space, apes fulfill the menial jobs previously filled by humans. Caesar, as the lone talking ape, is the spark that ignites this smoldering powder-keg of a world.

It does not take long for the film to show us that this is a stark and totalitarian vision of America’s future. The apes have already been degraded to the point where they are dressed according to their species, a key means of ensuring that they remain separated from one another, unable to form the bonds of solidarity that would, any good Marxist leads knows, lead to the revolution and overthrow of the existing power structure. However, even in this early point in the film their latent dissatisfaction is obvious, as it takes a great deal of human-inflicted violence to make them fully quiescent.

Indeed, Armando represents in the film’s imagination one of the few humans who actually possesses a sense of compassion, and his death at the hands of government-sponsored interrogators stands for Caesar as the final piece of evidence that there is nothing remotely redeemable about the world that man has created. Caesar knows that he only has two options:  he can either fulfill his destiny as the harbinger of ape revolution, or he can embrace the death that surely awaits him at the humans’ hands.

Thus, one cannot really blame Caesar for eventually leading the rebellion. Who could not, seeing the tremendous cruelty that humans continue to perpetrate against their ape slaves, ranging from the everyday abuse they suffer at the hands of their human masters to the more extended rigors inflicted at the Ape Management Center? The humans, in their desperate attempt to keep their simian cousins under control, end up producing the very catastrophe they so assiduously sought to avoid. Even at the level of narrative, humankind reminds trapped in a mesh of its own creation.

Formally, this is a tremendously complex and compelling film, and it certainly makes the most of an obviously-decreasing budget. The half-hour or so of the film is shot in very stark lighting, with the austere office buildings and too-bright light showing us that this is a world that has already slipped precipitously into totalitarianism. Humans have gradually abrogated any of their moral superiority, and by the time the night of fire and death arrives, we can’t help but cheer for our own downfall.

Governor Breck, the film’s primary antagonist, may be an absolutely disgusting and terrifying tyrant, but he is an utterly compelling villain. Like his predecessor Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, he recognizes something fundamental that eludes most of the other characters; he knows that part of the reason that humans have enslaved apes is because they recognize in their simian cousins the aspects of human nature that he most wants to abolish and control. Within every human, he knows, lurks the dark, primate doppelgänger just waiting to leap out and wreak havoc. Caesar, for better and worse, is merely the inverted reflection of his archenemy Breck.

Now, there is one thing you should know about this film:  there are actually two very different endings, depending on which version you watch. The one that actually reached theaters was a more hopeful ending, in which Caesar declared a measure of mercy for the humans that he had just overthrown, sparing Governor Breck’s life rather than allowing his fellows to have their vengeance. In this vision, there is hope, however frail, of a rapprochement of sorts between the humans and the apes. It is one of the few moments of optimism in an otherwise quite bleak film series.

The restored ending, however (now available on the Blu-Ray), has Caesar unabashedly proclaim his desire to take the reins of power from the humans who, he knows with certainty, will one day bring about their own destruction. Breck is then beaten to death by the gorillas that have surrounded him.  This version also features a great deal more blood, as well as a scene in which human bodies are heaped on one another in the aftermath of the revolt (a scene eerily reminiscent of the hunt of the very first film). Being the person I am, I actually prefer this version, precisely because it denies us the optimism that so often acts as a opiate, dulling our awareness. If you can, watch this version and embrace its visceral bleakness.

Next up, I’ll cover the last film in the original film series, Battle for Planet of the Apes, in which the future fates of humans and apes will at last be decided.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Safehold”

So, here we are. The penultimate episode of The Shannara Chronicles has dawned, and it was definitely one of the finest episodes (if not the finest) that the series has produced so far. In this episode, the brave fellowship of young people finally make their way to Safehold and the Bloodfire, while Allanon ensures that Ander at last takes the throne that is rightfully his. And, of course, the last leaf at last falls from the Ellcrys, ensuring that the Dagda Mor is now free to march on Arborlon with his demon army at his back.

This episode had a lot of gems for those fans of Brooks’ novels. Those who have read the entirety of his oeuvre recognize in the rhetoric about the children of the armageddon (of which Eretria is a descendant) the Genesis of Shannara trilogy which revealed that the world of the Four Lands is indeed our world in the distant future. Furthermore, the emphasis on Eretria’s blood–it ultimately unlocks the Bloodfire–suggests that it may be her heritage, as much as Wil’s, that will influence the fate of her children and their many descendants.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This series has really done wonders bringing Eretria to magnificent life. While she was certainly a feisty and compelling character in the original novel, Ivana Banquero manages to convey both her phenomenal strength and her intimate vulnerability. Even now, as they near the end of the quest, she still feels the pangs of love for Wil (which she believes are not reciprocated), and it is this deep, and very human, need for love and acceptance that grants her character such depth.

And how amazing was it that we (we being Brooks’s faithful readers) finally have a solution to the mystery of Safehold’s location. We can now say with certainty that it is in the ruins of San Francisco/Oakland (Wil uses a stone to scratch in the missing letters on an old street sign). This is a bit of a mixed blessing, as it clears up one of the most enduring mysteries of Brooks’s world, and yet there is something a bit bittersweet about learning the exact location of this mysterious form. Fortunately, the series also leaves a great many questions unanswered (we still don’t know exactly what the Bloodfire is, for example, nor do we know why it’s located in the ruins of San Francisco).

If there was one thing I did not particularly like about this episode, ti was the way in which the witch sisters Morag and Mallenroh appeared. They were always one of my favourite parts about the novel, precisely because we knew so little about them and yet they seemed like such an integral part of the world Brooks had created. They were, according to the mythos, part of a coven, and they had long existed in a stalemate of hatred. None of that complex backstory made its way into the adaptation, alas, with the two witches appearing as straightforward guardians of the Bloodfire.

That minor quibble aside, this episode managed to bring out the very best that this series has to offer. We got some politics, the fulfillment (almost) of the quest, and the climactic death of the Ellcrys. This is the kind of storytelling that the series should have focused on all along. Indeed, I would argue that it really does best dramatically when it stays true to the epic roots from which it so clearly draws. With this kind of emphasis, it gives the characters, and their arcs, more depth and heft than they have gained (up until this episode, that is). Hopefully, this is a lesson that the writers will take into account if the series is granted another season by the powers that be.

Given the strength of this episode, I can say without a doubt that I am eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this first season. I will also admit that I am fervently hoping that it will be renewed for a second season. With the vast tapestry of Brooks’s work to draw on, especially the intergenerational component, the series could easily fit into the anthology model that has become increasingly popular and common in the cable media sphere.

Are you listening, MTV?

Film Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2 (2015)

You know, I have to admit to a fair amount of skepticism (I might even go so far as to say cynicism) about the recent Hollywood trend of taking the final volume of a book series and splitting it into two films.  While that has been a decidedly mixed blessing for The Hunger Games, the final film, Mockingjay–Part 2 manages to bring this sprawling YA epic film series to a stirring, and mostly satisfactory, conclusion.

The film picks up where the previous film left off, with Katniss recovering from Peeta’s failed attack on her life.  Deciding that she will finally take it into her own hands to assassinate Snow, Katniss goes with her elite team into the Capitol itself.  After Prim is killed in one of the last Rebellion-led bombings on the Capitol, Katniss agrees to be Snow’s executioner, only to assassinate the newly-declared President Coin, who was responsible for the death of her sister and has already shown that she will become just as cold and heartless as Snow.  Having accomplished her goal and set the stage for free elections in Panem, she retires to a life of domestic harmony with Peeta.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the highlight of the film.  As some reviewers have noted, she does seem to have outgrown this role a little bit, but she still fits quite easily into the action-heroine persona that helped to vault her into the realm of Hollywood super-stardom.  She quite ably portrays the deep emotional conflicts that Katniss must confront as she realizes and contends with the consequences of going to war against a brutal dictatorship.  She realizes, when it’s almost too late, that in war, and in politics, it is all too easy to become the very thing that you are fighting against.

As strong as Lawrence is, however, she is matched by both Sutherland and Moore.  Sutherland seems to take enormous delight in bringing the deliciously evil President Snow to life, savoring each line and and delivering in a voice that is disturbingly calm and reflective.  Say what you will about President Snow, he is a man who knows both himself and Katniss phenomenally well, and it is this particular form of self-possession that makes him such a compellingly dangerous enemy.  For her part, Moore manages to combine a certain icy stoicism with a political acumen that makes it all to clear that she is willing to do whatever it takes to obtain the power that she feels she can wield better than her predecessor Snow.  Due to Moore’s icy self-possession, we are left in no doubt that Coin will be just as despotic, and just as methodical, in her ability to kill for political reasons.

I did have a few small gripes with the film, mostly on the way in which it skates over some significant character development that would have helped it make more sense.  The rift that ultimately develops between Gale and Katniss is sketched out in the barest of terms, leaving much to the viewer’s interpretation (this might be a flaw of the translation from page to screen).  Still, one would think that with two films to work with, the writers could have found a way to make these gaps in characterization and plot logic a little less glaring.

If there is one significant complaint I have, it would be the coda, which shows Katniss and Peeta in wedded bliss, drenched in soft colour.  Katniss has gone from kick-ass action heroine to thoroughly domesticated housewife (with paisley dress included!)  Now, I realize that this is at least somewhat faithful to the novel, but still, it is so saccharine and trite that it undercuts the the sense of hope-tinged bleakness that has made these films so compelling.  It feels, to me at least, as if a studio boss somewhere decreed that the film was too depressing and needed a traditional Hollywood romantic ending to minimize the risk of alienating potential viewers.  It was easily the most frustrating moment in the entire series, a rather unfortunate circumstance given that it is also the scene that sees it to its conclusion.

All in all, however, this last installment of The Hunger Games franchise is a compelling and entertaining film, with a few reflections and political comments thrown in for spice.  Is it the most thoughtful and philosophically complex blockbuster film?  No, it isn’t, but then, it doesn’t really have to be.  Taken at face value, it is definitely worth seeing, and in this day and age that is no small accomplishment.

Score:  7.5/10

Film Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

When I first heard that another version of the Mad Max story was in the offing, I wasn’t terribly excited.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction (being obsessed with the anthropocene and with the ways in which humanity seems fixated on its own imminent destruction), there was just something about the way this film was advertised that made it seem like just a bunch of stuff getting blown up without much more than that behind it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with scenes of wanton destruction per se (Michael Bay has practically made a career out of it), but it’s not my personal cup of tea.

But somehow, Mad Max, either in spite of or because of its particular mix of narrative sparseness and excessive visuality, manages to reach a level of operatic viscerality that seems all too rare in our age of blockbuster cinema.

Throughout its two hours, not a great deal happens.  Max (Tom Hady), the titular character, becomes enslaved by the minions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who utilize him as a “bloodbag” for Joe’s “War Boys.”  After Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escapes with several of Joe’s enslaved wives (who bear with them the possibility of flawless children), the enraged dictator sets out with an enormous war band to reclaim them.  A lot of bloodshed, violence, explosions, and thunderous music occurs, and in the end Joe is slain by Furiosa who, along with the wives, reclaims Joe’s colony for the people.

Of course, I would have gone to see the film for no other reason other than that it seems to have aroused some MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) to heights of apoplectic rage typically reserved for feminist reading groups.  While I’m still not quite certain what about the film aroused such fits of spleen (other than the fact that it features female characters that have agency that can fight as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts), there was much else about the film that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Indeed, despite some initial reservations about the film, I finally just gave in to the power of the image and the sound and embraced this raw experience of cinema.

However, while the aesthetics and affect of this film do rely, for the most part, on intensity, there were a few genuinely touching and soft moments thrown in, such as the steady conversion of War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who gradually finds his thirst for blood replaced by genuine affection for the escaped women.  The fact that he ultimately gives up his life so that others may live gives his presence in the film a certain poignancy that serves as a nice counterpoint to the more laconic and hard-edged presences of Max and Furiosa.

As in so many dystopian films of the anthropocene, our future is a bleak one, with a landscape blistered by hot sun and scarce water, many of our descendants deformed from the damage that we have so willfully inflicted on our planet.  However, as with most dystopian tales, there is also a strain of utopianism, an expression of a desire that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world after all.  And, in this case, that means that the waters of the Colony will be made available to all, and women’s bodies will no longer be subject to the sexual whims of a deformed and diseased dictator with the effrontery to position himself as a savior.

Overall, there is something disorientingly and perturbingly bizarre about the mixture of technology and the primitive that is a central part of the film’s aesthetic.  This sense of the bizarre and the almost unthinkable, I believe, is key to the film’s general appeal.  I’ve begun to wonder recently if there is still room for awe and wonder, awe, or shock in our modern world and especially in our explosion-ridden cinema.  If anything approaches that possibility, I argue that it is Mad Max.  While on the surface it appears to be just another action flick, there is a lot more going on here than at first meets the eye.

Through its narrative leanness and its startling and sometimes horrifying visuals, Mad Max pricks us with the fatal and dark reminders of our own hubris and vanity.  If there was ever an era when we needed those kinds of reminders, when we needed to be shocked by the powerful nature of the cinematic image, it is this one.

Let’s just hope that we can finally take heed.

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.

Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

I will admit to no small amount of trepidation going in to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  As a long fan of the franchise and a devotee of the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I had high expectations of this sequel (made all the more intense by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the film has so far garnered from the critics).  Even as a devoted acolyte I couldn’t help but wonder:  will this film live up to my expectations?  Is it even realistic to think that it will?  I honestly didn’t think I could stand the disappointment if it turned out that I couldn’t connect with the film in the way I had to its predecessors.

Luckily for me, I did.

Not that there weren’t a few touch-and-go moments.  The beginning of the film is very deliberate in its pacing, showing us in great detail the society that Caesar and his fellow apes have painstakingly carved out of the Muir Woods.  For a while, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to connect viscerally and emotionally with Dawn, although I should note that from the beginning I was intellectually engaged with the aesthetics and politics on display.  Two scenes (neither, ironically, involving the main protagonist Caesar, but instead his chief lieutenant and confidante Maurice the orangutan), proved unequivocally that this film indeed reaches into the depths of emotion, both human and nonhuman.  In the first, Maurice carefully instructs young apes in the laws that govern their fledgling society, including the cardinal rule that ape shall not kill ape.  In the second, Maurice bonds with the young human Alex, both of them connecting over a comic book.  Throughout these two scenes, and indeed throughout the film as a whole, the deep, soulful eyes of Maurice beckon to us, suggesting a world of wisdom gained through suffering and pain, but also through witnessing the miracles of compassion and triumph through adversity.  At the same time, they also remind us of the fact that, for all Maurice and his fellow apes may behave like humans, part of them remains beyond the pale of human understanding.

Perhaps no figure exemplifies that message better than Koba, the tortured and scarred bonobo from the first film.  Having made it through the rebellion and risen in the ranks to stand next to Caesar, Koba represents the fundamental distrust that nonhuman apes  have of their human counterparts (and with good reason, considering the troubled and violent history that undergirds the relationship between the two groups).  When a troop of humans seeking the use of a hydroelectric dam to keep their struggling colony stable stray into ape territory–shooting a young chimpanzee along the way–it is Koba who pounds the drums of war.  And it is Koba who ultimately betrays Caesar by shooting him and leading the apes on a march on San Francisco.  And it is, alas, Koba  who not only imprisons Maurice and others he deems too faithful to the memory of Caesar, but it is he who also breaks the ultimate commandment and murders Ash after he refuses to kill a defenseless human.  In the end, after an epic battle between Caesar and Koba, between conciliation and annihilation, Caesar sends his erstwhile friend plunging to his death, having proclaimed that Koba, through his betrayal of his own kind and his warmongering, is no longer an ape.

Far more than a typical action flick, this film is instead a tragedy, brimming full of pathos and the seeming inexorability of war between humanity and apes.  Koba, far from being an outright villain, emerges from this film as its antihero, but this is not to say that his vision of the future is an unjust one nor that Caesar’s is the only viable option.  When Koba, having successfully overcome the human defenders of the San Francisco colony, stridently and defiantly announces that now they know what it is like to live in cages, I honestly felt the same thrill I felt when the apes succeeded in escaping from San Francisco in the first film.  Given the tortures he has endured–made clear when he shows, in brief and poignant gestures, the human-inflicted scars on his body–how can we, as viewers, not be sympathetic to him?*  The fact that his body, especially his face, is rendered in such exquisite detail, underscores the dark depths of his tortured and twisted psyche.  The film may not ultimately ask us to approve of his actions, but it does invite us to understand them.

All of this is not to take away from Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allows us to see the ways in which he has evolved as a leader and as a character.  If Rise chronicled Caesar’s loss of innocence in the face of human cruelty and subsequent rise to leadership, Dawn shows us the terrible price exacted by that role.  There is a world of sadness and melancholy in Caesar’s eyes as he views the digital footage of his long-dead father-figure Will, and even more when he regretfully tells his human ally Malcolm that all-out war between humans and apes has already begun.  We, in the audience, also understand that Caesar has finally accepted the unfortunate fact that violence and bloodshed will only end when one side has finally emerged triumphant.  It is a truth all the more bitter in that it so nakedly reflects the unfortunate realities of our own geopolitical experience.

This film is, ultimately, an expression of what the best science fiction can do.  It can utilize the filmic technologies available to evoke a world so completely that we believe it is possible.  The cinematography here is brilliant, ranging from the murky, blue-tinted shadows of the apes’ forest home to the glaring reds, oranges, and blacks of Koba’s triumphant yet costly (in terms of ape life) siege of the human colony.  Just as importantly, Michael Giacchino’s score manages to evoke both soaring emotions, as in the final scene of Caesar’s acclamation by his followers, to deep and abiding unease, as in the score’s numerous disturbing and unsettling orchestral allusions to the original 1968 film’s soundtrack.

In the end, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a potent reminder to humanity of not only how precarious our species’ existence is but also, as Caesar ultimately realizes, how little separates us from the nonhumans with which we share the world.

Five Things to Do Before Watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Now that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is almost ready to hit theaters, it’s time for all Apes fans and newbies to start preparing for the movie of the year.  Though one can certainly go into this film cold, I would recommend enjoying many of the other films and novels that comprise this venerable franchise.

1.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Novel

Whether you’re new to the franchise or an experienced Apes veteran, you should definitely take a look at the novel that started it all.  Though substantially different in tone and plot than its subsequent adaptations, Pierre Boulle’s novel is nevertheless a masterpiece and classic of science fiction and well worth the read.

2.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Films

If you haven’t seen the original entries in the franchise, you should absolutely do so before the release of Dawn.  Though the first in the original five films is by far the best, the others have their virtues as well, despite declining budgets and box office returns.  The fifth and final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, has a great deal in common with the upcoming Dawn, and it will be interesting to compare how the two films respond to the different cultural and social pressures of their moments of production.

3.)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When it was released in 2011, very few thought that this film was going to be anything close to a success.  With the bitter taste of Tim Burton’s unfortunate remake still lingering ten years later, it was with unalloyed joy that many Apes fans greeted this thoughtful and intellectually challenging reboot.  Far from relying on trick endings (as Burton’s remake did), this film, like its venerable predecessors, asked some tough questions about the nature of sentience and the complex and fraught relationship between humans and their closest living relatives.

4.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm

Normally, I am not a fan of media tie-ins, largely because they are often full of bad writing and execrable plotting.  It was with some surprise, therefore, that I read Greg Keyes novel, which chronicles the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s successful rebellion.  The plotting is deftly and concisely wove and the writing is at times profound.  It takes a special kind of talent to create ape characters who can be both similar and yet utterly alien to human sensibilities, and Keyes does this admirably with Koba, the tortured bonobo.  Like the two films it straddles, this novel forces its human readers to evaluate their own complicity in the oppression of nonhuman animals.

5.)  Quarantine, All Fall Down, and Story of the Gun

These three short films provide a window into the world that emerges after the Simian Flu begins to take its toll.  I have to admit that I was somewhat wary going in, but I was blown away by both the quality and the emotional depth of these short films.  Each of them has their own shining moments, but I was particularly struck by the ghostly presence of the apes that haunts the second and third films, in the forms of a pair of ghostly eyes/a footprint and the sound of screaming chimps/a silhouette, respectively.  Story of the Gun is especially moving, as it shows, in the ownership history of one gun, the gradual decline and collapse of human civilization as we know it and in the process shows just how fragile and illusory are the bonds that stand between us and anarchy.

And if you have time…

Planet of the Apes on Television

Believe it or not, there were not one but two Planet of the Apes television series, one a live-action drama that takes place centuries before the events of the original film and the other an animated children’s series that features a much more advanced civilization of apes.  While somewhat spotty in quality, they are still worth seeing as they help provide an even more in-depth look into the sprawling mythos that has emerged around the idea of apes becoming the dominant species on planet Earth.

(We’ll just try to collectively forget about the unfortunate 2001 remake, though it too has spawned its own mythos-in-miniature).

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” May Be the Best Movie of the Summer

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise, so it will also come as no secret that I am VERY excited for the imminent release of the newest entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and, unlike some, I don’t mind the repetitiveness of the titles).  Now that we have gleaned several tantalizing glimpses as a result of a fevered marketing campaign, it’s time to ask the tough questions.  What is there really to look forward to in this recent entry?

To start with the most basic, we will finally get to see the aftermath of what occurred in the first film.  While escaping from San Francisco and fleeing into the Muir Woods, to say nothing of starting a devastating flu epidemic were truly stupendous accomplishments, the trailer for the upcoming films suggests that we will get to see what the fallout from that is like.  (The immediate aftermath is laid out in the novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm by Greg Keyes.  It is a truly well-written work that asks the same sorts of questions raised by Rise).  This is a world, after all, that has been radically altered by the downfall of humanity into disease and lawlessness.  As a result, there is an openness to the world that this film will represent, in which the future is literally up for grabs as each side stakes out its territory.

As part of this, the trailers and other TV spots suggest that we will gain a greater glimpse of the social organization of the apes.  Clearly, Caesar will be the leader of his fellow non-human simians, but the society the trailers have shown is highly evolved.  We will at last get to see how it comes to pass that the apes have their own homes, as well as how some of them have mastered language, both signed and spoken.  While this society will, undoubtedly, bear some relationship to our own (since, as most readers will recall, Caesar was raised among humans and only left their orbit once they showed their cruelty to him and his kind), it will also be vastly different.  These are, after all, apes that have evolved to be human-like but not entirely human.  As such, the film provides a fascinating and tantalizing possibility of what a non-human civilization could look like.

While the apes will no doubt steal the show (as they did in the first film), the human characters also look like they will gain more development than they did in the first installment of this reboot.  Gary Oldman (his most recent asinine statements notwithstanding) will no doubt shine as Dreyfus, the human leader spurred on by a hatred of the apes and a deep mourning for his lost family (who presumably died of the flu).  I suspect that most of the human drama will hinge on their collective sense of precariousness.  Though certainly precipitated by 10 years of post-flu chaos and martial law, this feeling will most certainly be heightened by the looming possibility of an ape invasion that could snuff out what little tendrils of civilization humanity has managed to cling to and resurrect out of the chaos.

The truly pressing question, however, is this:  what will be the outcome of the battle that we have seen in the final trailer?  The stakes, we know, are as high as they possibly can be, as this seems to be the point at which the scales may tip decidedly in favour of the apes.  After all, at some point in the franchise we are going to have to learn how it came about that non-human apes came to be the dominant species on planet Earth.  Just as importantly, we will also find out whether Caesar will survive the battle that threatens to engulf both his people and the humans to whom he clearly feels some ties.  If he does not (and it is a definite possibility that he will meet his death in this film), then the misanthropy represented by the vengeful bonobo Koba could well set the agenda for future generations of apes.  And for humans as well.

While it will no doubt draw heavily on its precursor in the original series Battle for the Planet of the Apes (in much the same way that Rise drew inspiration from Conquest), Dawn looks as if it will, in good post-apocalyptic fashion, point out just how transient we humans really are.  And that is a truly good lesson for us as a species to learn.