Sunday, August 21, 2011

Musing Pictures: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

This Rupert Wyatt-directed reboot of the franchise made famous by Charleton Heston in the 1968 film (and several of its sequels) is a sophisticated, serious approach to what has become an iconic example of mid-20th-century camp.

I liked the movie, mostly for the fact that it took itself seriously, telling the story smartly, with a few nods to its predecessors (Caesar, the ape, builds a 3D model of the Statue of Liberty, and later, one of his captors watches Heston's version on TV), but without their unavoidable hokeyness.

Many of the sci-fi/fantasy films and TV shows from the '50s and '60s seem campy to modern viewers. It's interesting to ponder how much reactions may have changed over the years. To be sure, a monster pic like "Them!" (1954) was probably always campy, and was probably meant to be so. But what of "Apes"? Or the original "Star Trek" series? These are examples of material that seems campy, but which has been "re-booted" (an industry term these days) as much more noble material.

Was it possible to make a monster film in the '50s or '60s without making it campy? The technologies, effects and techniques of the time certainly didn't lend themselves to much seriousness. The apes opposite Heston were clearly people in monkey-suits (and Heston, well, he was Heston.) A decade later, George Lucas showed the world how to take those costumes seriously, by treating them as matter-of-fact, with the frankness of a contemporary documentary (see the "Cantina" scene in "Star Wars" (1977) for a wonderful example -- all of the creatures look like people in suits, but Lucas makes no effort to hide this, honoring our intention to suspend our disbelief, and letting the story lead us). But really, where was the serious sci-fi before then? (A side-note, of course, to mention Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), which remains a cinematic hapax legomenon)

This new "Apes", at once a re-boot for the series, and a re-make of "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972), exemplifies how far the degenerate genre has come in the past forty odd years. And as the genre matures, so do its stories, becoming more nuanced, more character-driven.

Of course, this doesn't mean that new adaptations of old, campy films always turn out well: See Peter Jackson's "King Kong" (2005) or Tim Burton's 2001 version for examples that failed to make contemporary sense of their source material.