Film Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes” and the End of Humanity

Warning: Full spoilers follow.

As everyone who is even vaguely familiar with this blog knows quite well, I am an avid fan of all things Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, then, I have been waiting for the release of this film pretty much from the moment that the last film was finished. I watched the most recent entry as part of a triple feature, and I also watched it on its own (in 3-D in RPX, no less). I can say, as both a fan of the franchise and as someone who loves a well-made movie, that this is a stirring, magnificent conclusion.

The film begins two years after the conclusion of Dawn, as the forces of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempt to utterly eradicate the sentient apes, who have retreated ever further into the forest in a desperate attempt to survive. When the Colonel assassinates Caesar’s wife and child, he sets out–with the orangutan Maurice, the gorilla Luca, and the chimpanzee Rocket–to gain revenge. Along the way, they meet Bad Ape, another sentient chimpanzee (who is not part of their tribe), before coming across the hideous concentration camp the Colonel has staffed with Caesar’s captured troop. The Colonel manages to capture Caesar and uses him as a means of motivating the other apes to continue building a wall around the camp. Ultimately, Caesar leads his troop to a promised land, though he gives his life to do so.

The vision of the world that War presents is the logical culmination of the narrative arc begun with Rise and continued with Dawn. In other words, it is a brutal, bleak world where both apes and humans have to contend with the darker parts of their natures. The spirit of vengefulness that Koba represented in the second film continues to haunt Caesar, a reminder that, for all of their advanced cognition and increased self-awareness, the apes are never far from sliding into violence. That this affects Caesar, just as much as it affects any other character, makes it all the more explicable and, to a degree at least, understandable. When the world has fallen apart and all you want to do is survive–and that is the one thing that humanity seems intent on preventing–it would be very difficult indeed to keep from slipping into barbarism.

A large part of Caesar’s continuing charisma stems from his portrayal by Andy Serkis. It’s not just that Serkis is the undoubted king of motion capture; it’s that Caesar is a character as complex and contradictory as any human character. He has seen so much in the course of his life–the best and the worst of humanity–and he has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He is also far from infallible; it is his decision to pursue vengeance that leads, however inadvertently, to the imprisonment and death of many of his beloved apes. Even the greatest of heroes, it seems, are as flawed as the rest of us.

While the Colonel gets a lot less screen time than I expected, he is also a man driven by a mission. Once it becomes clear that the virus that wiped out so much of humanity has begun to mutate and cause cognitive devolution, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone–including his own son–if it means that collective humanity will be saved. For it turns out that the virus that exterminated so much of humanity has once again begun to mutate, and its new form works to rob its victims of both speech and their upper cognitive capacities. Brutal, utterly convinced of his own sacred duty (he even believes that his sacrifice of his son is godlike), he represents mankind’s worst impulses, a willingness to destroy any individuals who pose a risk to the collective. Harrelson endows this creation with a certain charismatic cruelty, and that is the brilliance of the role.

If the Colonel represents the end of the emotional attachments that make us human, the mute girl Nova represents a possible new beginning. Having already survived the new form of the virus, she cannot speak, but she is fully capable of emotional attachments, and she becomes particularly bonded with Maurice. While she may not attain the same heights of intelligence as her human forbears, there is a measure of hope that she represents a new, possibly more innocent beginning for the human race.

In the end, War ends on an ambiguously uplifting note. The seeds have been sown for the ultimate decline of humanity into the mute primitives that were seen all the way back when the first film came out in 1969. The apes have at last found a place where they can build their world in safety. Maurice and Rocket, Caesar’s most devoted acolytes and disciples, will be able to train his son Cornelius so that he can take up the mantle of leadership that his father has left behind. Caesar has left the world, but his benevolent spirit, represented by the final glimpse of the sun, will continue to live on among his people.

Speaking of Maurice…I know that Caesar is the film’s star, and I have cheered for him from the beginning, but to my mind Maurice is one of the franchise’s most complicated characters. There is a richness and a depth to him that always shines through, particularly in his eyes. Like Nova, he represents the brighter, more optimistic part of the apes’ nature, a source of wisdom and serenity. Just as importantly, he will, it is hinted, form the foundation for the future of ape society.

Formally, the film is absolutely beautiful. Reeves has really matured as a director, and there are scenes that truly take your breath away: the moment when the gorilla Luca shares a bright pink flower with Nova; the bleakness of the Colonel’s camp; the sweeping vistas all combine to make this a truly astounding film. Michael Giacchino’s score, more subtly orchestrated than Dawn’s, contains allusions to the original film and also ably conveys the operatic grandness of the film’s narrative.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, a means of forcing 21st Century humans to confront the uncomfortable questions about what, indeed, makes us different from the other primates with which we share this planet. The films’ answer seems to be pretty unequivocal in many ways: not that much. War in many ways marks the definitive moment at which the planet has definitively turned aside from the path that humans once took. Given the amount of wanton cruelty that the humans have shown–both inside the film and outside of it–it’s hard not to feel that that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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Book Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations” (Greg Keyes)

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Greg Keyes’ movie tie-in novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm, which detailed the efforts of the chimpanzee Caesar and his fellow apes to evade the attempts by humans to eradicate them. Now, Keyes is back with a novel that serves as a bridge between the events of Dawn and those of the forthcoming War, entitled War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations. 

The novel narrates the events that immediately precede those in the forthcoming film, in which the human forces (led by Colonel McCullough) come to San Francisco and have to confront the reality of the ape presence. Meanwhile, Caesar and his apes must contend with both the increasingly brutal human military force and dissent from within their own ranks.

The novel switches frequently between several viewpoint characters both major and minor, but it pays the most attention to Colonel McCullough, Ray the orangutan, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s eldest son and putative heir. Other characters include Cornelia (Caesar’s wife and, in her brief time in the novel, a true badass), John (the Colonel’s son), and of course Caesar himself. All of them increasingly find themselves caught up in the increasingly large-scale conflict between the human survivors of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s apes.

Of course, nothing is easy for either side. Caesar must continue to deal with the fallout from Koba’s rebellion, including a number of apes who harbour resentment toward him, including both Red and Silver (the former of home will come to play a large part in the upcoming film). The Colonel, meanwhile, is depicted as a man of honour but also as a brutal military mastermind who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his actions. Steeped in the military traditions of the past–he references The Iliad, Beowulf, and numerous other texts–he sees in the conflict the stage for both the salvation of humanity and, just possibly, his own chance at greatness.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the extent to which it shows us the gradually-evolving consciousness of its ape characters. Many of them still remember a time before the awakening, when apes still inhabited a consciousness that was powerful but qualitatively different than their human counterparts. Keyes has a remarkable ability to allow us to inhabit the minds of the non-human characters, particularly Ray and Blue Eyes. Ray has a desire to move beyond the limits of the corporeal, and he is clearly something of a mystic, someone who sees something that others do not. Likewise, Blue Eyes has the makings of a great leader, if he is able to overcome his own sense of inferiority and embrace his inner strength. Both must also contend with the fact that the world is not nearly as simple as they would like it to be, that there is much about politics, life, and death that they must contend with as they move inexorably into adulthood. The world that they inhabit is a dangerous one, and it is likely to grow more so as the years progress and humanity struggles (probably vainly) to rebuild its vanished civilization.

More importantly, it also suggests that the war that is about to unfold between the brutal colonel and Caesar and his allies is one that will determine not just the fate of the two species, but also the future trajectory of history itself. Both leaders, in their different ways, recognize the stakes of what are about to unfold, but they have very different outlooks on what the future will be like. The Colonel, in keeping with his repeated references to the wars and soldiers of the past–the heroes at Troy, his ancestors who fought in America’s conflicts, etc.–sees life as a brutal battlefield with winners and losers. Caesar, while recognizing the need for battle, is deeply wounded by the knowledge that such battle will mean the death of many of his apes. He bears the scars of leadership, and he knows that the confrontation with the Colonel will be the one that determines the future of his people, possibly for decades to come.

Despite the fact that the outcome of the larger conflict is, to some degree already known, what remains to be seen is just how many tribes of apes will eventually split off from Caesar’s original founding colony. There is no question that there are many who still see their first leader as ultimately a failed effort to co-exist with humans. Perhaps there will be a series of peaceful revolutions, but it is far more likely–given the path that many apes have already taken–that there will be as many violent confrontations between apes and others apes as there are between apes and humans. These apes are very different from humans in some ways, but in others they are far too much like us for comfort.

Revelations gives us a sense not only of the brewing conflicts that will probably take generations to resolve but also the various tribes of apes that are already taking shape at this early stage. While the chimpanzees and bonobos emerge as the clear leaders in this universe, the orangutans (as characters such as Maurice and Ray make clear) are the philosophers and the gorillas, for better or worse, are the muscle (they even refer to themselves as the wall that protects the village). I greatly appreciated the fact that Keyes had clearly done his research into ape behaviour, and it is this level of research that gives all of his ape characters such a profound sense of depth and individuality. Each of them represents a possible path forward for the heterogeneous ape culture, and it will clearly be a struggle–though a worthwhile one–for them to find unity in their difference. As Caesar himself would say, “Apes together, strong!”

I don’t know if Keyes plans on continuing to write books within the Apes universe, but is my fervent hope that he does so. He is one of those rare authors of tie-in fiction who actually knows how to write a taut, compelling story that nevertheless breathes and sighs with at-times lyrical beauty. If anyone is capable of ensuring that the stories of Caesar and his descendants are given the justice they deserve, it is surely Greg Keyes.

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: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)

Since I’ve already written reviews of the first two Planet of the Apes films, I thought I would keep things going by jotting down some of my thoughts on the third installment, Escape from Planet of the Apes. In this film, Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) have managed to escape the conflagration that consumed Earth in the previous film, along with the genius chimpanzee scientist Milo (Sal Mineo, in one of his final film roles). They crash land on the Earth of Taylor’s time, and once there they are taken into custody by the U.S. government, setting in motion a chain of events that will have tragic consequences for everyone involved.

For better or worse, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has always been my least favourite of the original Apes films. Part of this has to do with the very comedic element that suffuses the majority of the film. While this has always struck me as somewhat odd (given the somber, even bleak tone of the preceding films), it’s only fair to acknowledge that some of the film is actually quite funny. For example, in a tense scene in a courtroom in which the two apes are being interrogated, Cornelius is asked, obliquely, whether he can speak. With a delivery that could only come from McDowall, he says, “Only when she lets me.” It usefully breaks the tension, but it also sets the stage for the tragedy that gradually unfolds.

In keeping with its predecessors in the franchise, the film does ask some troubling philosophical questions. During a heated debate between Dr. Hasslein and the U.S. President,  the latter expresses the belief that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if apes displaced humans as the dominant species. After all, he points out, humans haven’t done such a great job as stewards of their own planet and besides, perhaps it is beyond the ability of humankind, even the (arguably) most powerful man in the world, to prevent the workings of fate. Hasslein, of course, remains unconvinced and it is his belief–which the film encourages us to understand as sincere–that leads to his unrelenting pursuit of the talking apes who represent, for him, the extinction of the human race and all it holds dear.

There are a number of other things that I always enjoy about this film. One is Armando, portrayed by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban, the owner of a circus that shields Cornelius and Zira from the avenging government agents out to sterilize them and abort their offspring. He also, it turns out, shelters their children, ensuring that the very future Hasslein fears with such panicked intensity will come to pass.

For me, though, the most powerful thing about this film is its tragic ending, in which both Zira and Cornelius are murdered by humans, the final shot of the film taken from overhead, capturing their last embrace. It’s a heart-wrenching end to the film, especially that we have been with these characters through two previous installments. It also serves as a brutal reminder of the cruelties of which man continues to prove himself utterly capable.

Though somewhat marred by its tendency toward silliness and comedy, the third installment in the venerable Apes franchise does, nevertheless, manage to set the stage for the struggle that will eventually lead to man’s self-immolation and his supplanting by the apes that he will ultimately seek to enslave and bend to his will. The irony, of course, is that Hasslein’s relentless pursuit of Zira and Cornelius is itself the manifestation of mankind’s relentless desire to dominate and control both his fellow creatures and his own future, two forces that always seem to find some way to confound those very desires.

Like the other Apes films, Escape suggests that human (and, I would say, ape) agency remains caught up in a double-bind of its own creation. In attempting to prevent the future from happening, the various humans and apes who try to forestall the day of their doom end up hastening its arrival. It’s a rather bleak understanding of the way the world works, but one entirely in keeping with the angsty nuclear age that produced it.

Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

Film Review: “Star Trek Beyond” (2016) and the Political Power of Compassion

I am not, as they say, a Trekkie. I have only passing familiarity with the original series, though I did enjoy The Next Generation in my youth. However, I’ve been keeping abreast of the most recent cinematic incarnation of the property and, I have to say, I was very impressed with the most recent installment, Star Trek Beyond.

The film follows the crew of the Enterprise as they enter an unmapped nebula in an attempt to rescue a group of stranded researchers. Unbeknownst to them, this is a ruse by the sinister alien warlord Krall, who is determined to unleash a terrible biological weapon on the Federation and bring about its destruction.

Part of what makes this such a compelling film is that it really showcases the acting talents of its cast in a way that the previous films did not. Chris Pine continues to grow into the role of Captain Kirk, and in this film he struggles with his own sense of self and identity. He wonders, as we all do, whether being the captain of the Enterprise is everything that he had wanted it to be.

The other characters face similar struggles, including Spock, who believes that he may be better suited continuing the work of Ambassador Spock on New Vulcan and has parted ways with Uhura. The emphasis on the personal and the bonds among the characters and their loved ones is, I think, one of the things that grants this film its sense of pleasantness. Extraordinary in this regard is the revelation that Sulu is married to a man, a move which I (unlike George Takei) found touching and a fulfillment of the inclusive, compassionate ethos that has long been a hallmark of the Star Trek brand.

For his part, Krall is a compelling villain, both because of the way in which Idris Elba (who is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors of his generation), portrays him but also because he is the distillation of the bellicose spirit that seems to animate so much of contemporary American political and social life. As reprehensible as his acts are, he is understandable precisely because he was a product of a worldview that seems eerily and uncomfortably close to our own. What can or does a person do when all they have been trained to do is kill? The Federation ethos (with which we are meant to identify) suggests that compassion and cooperation are the bulwarks against chaos and relentless aggression; Krall believes that the world should be returned to that Hobbesian state of primordial anarchy, so that only the strongest will prevail. Ultimately, of course, compassion wins out in terms of the narrative struggle, and that is an important facet of the film’s political project.

This compassionate ethic plays out at both the macro and micro levels of the film’s narrative. On the micro level, such compassion ranges from Bones’ caring for Spock’s injuries to Scotty’s willingness to help out a complete stranger. On the macro, of course, it is the entire Federation that stands opposed to Krall’s vengeful wish to bring about the dismantling of this era of peace and prosperity. The fact that the film satisfactorily resolves these narrative threads and reveals the newly-constructed Enterprise helps us, as viewers, feel similarly sanguine about the political future.

All in all, I found this the strongest of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, in no small part because it manages to deftly handle the various emotional registers that it puts into play. The spirits of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin seem to hover over this film, adding a wistful and rather sad note to the proceedings. Yet they also remind us of the power and the joy of life and of the promise that this particular universe continues to hold out to us.

While it would certainly be going too far to say that Star Trek is an allegory of our contemporary political moment (one can assume it was in production and the script written before it became clear Donald Trump, a real-world Krull if I’ve ever seen one, would become the GOP nominee for president), I do think it would be fair to say that the film can serve as a sort of collective conscience for all of us. At this point, we can either give in to our baser impulses and become the destructive, chaotic forces that Krull represents, or we can surrender to the better angels of our natures and work toward a brighter, more justice, more verdant future for all of us.

And I’ve got to say that I’m with the film on this one. A brighter future for everyone looks mighty fine to me.

“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

Film Review: “Ghostbusters” (2016) and the Deconstruction of Masculinity

From the moment that it was announced, the reboot of Ghostbusters attracted all of the vile misogyny that has taken root in that nebulous, noxious space we call the internet. Everywhere you looked there were the usual suspects decrying the film because it dared to cast women in the lead roles, because heaven forbid we allow women the opportunity to headline an action comedy. It was, truly, one of the ugliest and most unpleasant internet spectacles I’ve seen.

Well, as I like to say, fuck the haters. Ghostbusters is a surprisingly clever, funny and, dare I say it, nice film, and that is something of a pleasant surprise. I won’t spend too much time rehashing the plot (since, let’s face it, we kind of know already), but let’s just say that it deftly interweaves the action and the comedy, with some genuinely funny and eye-popping moments.

While the plot slips a little too easily into the sort of blockbuster, CGI-fest that has become all too familiar in today’s Hollywood, the performances are what really help the film hold together. I actually think it was a good choice to have Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig tone down their usual over-the-top or excessive performances, as this allows both Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones some room to shine. There is definitely a great deal of chemistry among the four leads, and there is a lot of room for growth if the (hopeful) success of this film leads to further productions in the franchise. One can definitely see how they could build upon these relationships to make some truly great (or, well, great for this genre) films.

What really fascinated me about this new iteration of Ghostbusters, however, was its relationship to masculinity. The primary antagonist is a (unsurprisingly entitled) misfit named Rowan, who embodies all that’s wrong with that particular type of self-important, self-aggrandizing masculinity. What’s more, there’s a particularly potent image at the end involving a non-so-symbolic moment of castration (which I won’t reveal because of spoilers). The film invests a great deal of narrative energy in revealing to us not only how ridiculous masculinity can be, but also how easily it can be punctured and rendered (relatively) harmless.

And then, of course, there is the overt sexualization of Chris Hemsworth. Of course, this was bound to happen, as he has sort of made his career out of being a beefcake, but it also reveals the extent to which he seems to be consciously aware of his star text. As one of my students pointed out recently, it seems Hemsworth has reached a point where he has begun to poke fun at his own male body persona. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, though of course it does come with its own set of problems. But, I will say, there is nothing quite like seeing Chris Hemsworth dancing; who knew that he had such good moves?

Is Ghostbusters a perfect film? No. But it is enormously entertaining and genuinely (if not uproariously) funny. Don’t get me wrong:  there are many moments of genuine humour in this film. It’s just that they aren’t of the gut-busting sort, and for me that’s totally fine. What’s more, it’s a film that seems to have a good heart, and in that sense, it is a very sincere film, and there are, in the final analysis, worse things to see during the summer film season. It has a little bit of something for everyone, and it hits most of the notes quite well.

And, on the political end of things (because really, isn’t everything political in some form or other?), can I just say how great it is to see an entirely female-led film in the summer season? Even if I absolutely hated this film, I would still recommend that others go see it, if only so that studio brass would finally realize that women can actually lead a film. One would think that the success of Bridesmaids would have made that fact plain, but we all know that Hollywood is notoriously slow to adapt to change and include any form of diversity. So, if you care about such things, and if you want to see a pleasantly entertaining film in the bargain, then treat yourself to a night out to the movies and go to see Ghostbusters.

Film Review: “Star Wars Episodes VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

I debated about writing a review of this film. After all, the internet is literally full to bursting with thoughts, speculation, reviews, and box office analysis. But, since this is my own little corner of the internet, I thought I’d share my thoughts (I’ll largely eschew rehashing the plot, both the avoid spoilers and also because the internet is full of synopses).

First off, it is immensely satisfying to see the reunion of the key characters of Luke, Chewie, Han Solo, Leia, and of course the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. It’s hard to describe exactly what lends this series of moments their power, other than to say that it’s like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in 30 years reunited once again.

Aside from the nostalgia factor, the four strongest appeals of the film were:  the reunion of the principle cast members from the original trilogy; Adam Driver’s portrayal of the broken and tragic Kylo Ren; the introduction of the most kickass heroine yet to appear in a Star Wars film; and the budding (b)romance between Finn and Poe.

I’ve always been a fan of Adam Driver’s, ever since I first saw his Byronic/Heathcliffian turn in Girls. Here, he brings that experience to good use, and his slightly elfin good looks lend an almost tender appearance to this torn and fractured character. Yes, it’s clear that he has begun his inevitable spiral into the horrors made possible by the Dark Side, but in the Star Wars universe there is always hope for redemption, and Driver’s particular brand of charisma makes me hope that there may be some for him when the trilogy reaches its conclusion.

For her party, Rey emerges as the film’s center. While she slides neatly into the role of the brave young hero (Joseph Campbell, anyone?), she is also a character in her own right. No small amount of digital ink has already been spilled debating whether she is the feminist character that Star Wars fans have been yearning for a long time, and I think that she is. She is resourceful and clever, independent and also complicated, yet driven by friendship and compassion. In that sense, she serves as the light to Kylo’s tortured shadow, the hope that perhaps, he can attain the redemption that eventually saved the grandfather that he so desires to emulate.

Lastly, we have the obvious romance between Poe and Finn. Okay, maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but I certainly noticed a bit more than friendliness between the great pilot and the escapee from the First Order. The sharing of the jacket, their unalloyed joy at being reunited after a separation, all just seemed to contain more than mere friendliness. Do I think that the filmmakers will go full-on and make the ship a reality? Probably not. But still, they’ve given us more than a little to work with (the fact that it is two men of colour makes it even better).

But of course, no review of The Force Awakens would be complete without mentioning the soon-to-be iconic droid BB-8. He is definitely one of (if not the) most endearing robot I have ever seen (with the possible exception of WALL*E). I’m still not sure how those beeps and clicks can make the heart melt at their cuteness, but they do, from beginning to end.

There were a few rather unfortunate CGI moments, both of which raised the unfortunate spectre of the much-maligned prequels. While Supreme Leader Snoke has some potential as the successor to the great Emperor Palpatine, the CGI used to render him made him almost too-cartoonish. The same goes for Maz Kanata, who was just a bit too CGI for my own taste. While motion capture really does allow for a flexibility of facial movement not attainable with prosthetics, something about it just doesn’t quite work in The Force Awakens.

While The Force Awakens didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel when it comes to plot (even a cursory look at any synopsis will raise more than a few echoes of A New Hope), through some strange alchemy it manages to make itself stand out. I would say that this has a lot to do with the increased diversity on offer, as the powers that be seem to have finally recognized that both women and people of colour comprise a large part of the sci-fi audience. Whatever the cause, The Force Awakens is a delightful way to experience the Star Wars , both for those inhabiting it for the first time and those who have been there many times before.

Film Review: “Jurassic World”

I have to confess:  I was unashamedly excited about the release of Jurassic World.  In fact, they had me at the sight of that Mosasaurus eating the dangling shark.  And, given my expectations, the film didn’t disappoint.  While not nearly as brilliant nor as terrifying as the original, I still found Jurassic World to be an intensely entertaining action film with enough pop culture philosophy to give me something to think about while I was watching.

The film takes place in the same universe, and on the same island, as the 1992 film, with the original park largely abandoned and a newer, glossier, and fully function park now in its place.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of drumming of financial investments, while Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is a raptor trainer and expert.  When the incredibly intelligent Indominus rex–a genetically created dinosaur–escapes its enclosure, it sets off a chain reaction that seals the fate of several people on the island, including park owner and John Hammond disciple Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the chief of security.  Meanwhile, both Claire and Owen attempt and succeed in rescuing Claire’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins).  In the end, the I. Rex is defeated by the combined efforts of the humans, the T. Rex, and one of the raptors, before being definitively devoured by the park’s resident Mosasaurus.

At times, the film seems to struggle with the legacy of its predecessor.  Though it largely ignores both The Lost World and the more reductively titled Jurassic Park III (leading to this particular author to refer to it as a “selective sequel”), the original film looms large.  The founder John Hammond is alluded to (including in the name of a building), the sweeping and triumphant John Williams score is often in evidence, Zach and Gray stumble on the ruins of the original park (where they manage to jumpstart one of the old jeeps) and, perhaps most notably, it is the T. rex and a Velociraptor, the original villainous dinosaurs, that manage to take down the I. rex, the most visible and dangerous sign of the park (and the franchise’s?) increasingly hubristic ambitions.

Further, it is precisely its allusions to its predecessor that threaten to undermine the stakes that this film raises.  All told, Jurassic World is much less terrifying than Jurassic Park, precisely because it takes place in a fully-fledged theme park with all of the resources that such an institution can command.  Despite the truly frightening I. rex and its chaotic reign of terror, as well as the dive-bombing pterosaurs–which are inadvertently released when the Indominus careens into the aviary–the body count of fully-fleshed-out characters is actually relatively small compared to the original.  What’s more, there are few moments in the film where it feels as if everything could fall to pieces; the closest is when the I. rex manages to establish itself as the alpha among the raptors.  Yet even then we are never made to feel as if the main characters, nor indeed most of the hordes of people currently visiting, will not escape.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this mass of human bodies that keeps us from ever truly feeling a sense of genuine fear or existential angst.

To give credit where credit is due, however, it is worth dwelling for a few moments on what makes the Indominus rex (despite its silly name, which even Owen Grady mocks), such a terrifying creation.   In many ways, the Indominex Rex emerges as a terrifying female id that the film struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to contain.  From the first sinister images of the baby I. rex clawing its way out of its shell to the chilling revelation that she ate her sibling, the film seems intent on showcasing a specifically gendered dangerousness to this genetically modified dinosaur.  What’s more, her confinement and lack of socialization ensures that she does not possess a fully refined sense of her own place in the food chain, and it is even hinted that human DNA may be part of her make-up, given that she begins hunting for sport rather than for food (after all, humans are one of the few species that does so).  In that sense, she is like so many other inscrutable (and therefore dangerous) feminine energies that haunt the horror film.  Who could ever forget the monstrous mother of Alien or the radioactive maternal MUTO in the most recent Godzilla?  Or, for that matter, the “clever girl” Velociraptor in Jurassic World?  Clearly, the blockbuster cinematic imagination remains haunted by the dangerous undisciplined power of the feminine.

In that sense, she finds her human counterpart in Claire, whom the film also seems intent to punish for daring to be so focused on her career rather than on her family (for instance, she cannot say with any certainty how old either of her nephews are).  A key component of this transformation is her growing realization that the dinosaurs are actually animals rather than mere assets, an illumination brought home when she encounters a dying Apatosaurus (which, by the way, is probably the saddest animal death since Little Foot’s mother died in The Land Before Time).  The film seems intent on bringing her back into the fold of the traditionally feminine and maternal, by showing how her nephew’s endangerment (and the death of her assistant) is due in large part to her being too busy to properly care for them.  Again, however, we have to give credit where credit is due, for it is ultimately Claire who releases the T. rex and thus triggers the ultimate battle that vanquishes the I. rex and saves Owen, Zach, and Gray.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure how seriously I take the film’s avowed criticism of our current obsession with with making things bigger and better.  Nor am I entirely comfortable with its rigorous heternormativity and almost frantic recuperation of the nuclear family (everyone is reunited at the end, and Owen and Claire walk off into future happiness).  Still, there is something profoundly wonderful about the film’s final scene, in which the triumphant T. rex roars out its triumph over the ruined park, a potent reminder of the limits and the destructive potential of human hubris.