Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Feminism in Media

In modern North American society, feminists have about as bad a rep as a man goosestepping down the street with a Swastika on his shoulder. That's not to say that everyone necessarily thinks that women should get back into the kitchen and collectively make us a sandwich. Rather, it would seem to me that both men and women are sick of feminists shoving their agenda down the public's throat. I'm sure there's a good deal of failed communication which is at the root of this problem (this is a huge generalization but from my observations, feminists don't bother to explain their views to the uninitiated and get really angry when anyone goes against them). There's also the issue that many people think that feminism is beating a dead horse - after all, aren't women equal to men in society now more or less? I'm not exactly versed in women's studies so I'll leave that particular question to someone else to handle.

In any case, despite the stigma which is attached to feminists, I do have to say that I have really noticed considerable sexism and misogyny recently in the media I have been viewing. Three 2013 releases have gotten me thinking about the state of feminism in film today: World War Z, Gangster Squad and (to a much lesser extent) Machete Kills. World War Z is what really kick-started this entire article for me. If you saw the movie, then you probably know what I'm talking about - the entire first half hour of the film features Brad Pitt protecting his useless wife and equally useless daughters who seem to be doing their damnedest to get them all killed. I can guarantee that no one walked out of that film thinking "wow, I really liked Gerry's wife and kids, they were great characters!" Now I'm not saying that the women should have suddenly picked up machine guns and blown away the zombies while making an obtuse point that women are as good as then men (a la 80s action films). Rather, it would have been nice if they had done... I dunno, anything. Sure, Karen can try to keep her children safe, but she can do that by trying to fight off the zombies sometimes. Or maybe she can not call her husband in the middle of an important life-threatening mission (and subsequently getting a lot of people killed). Oh and when Karen and the kids are holed up on the aircraft carrier, maybe they could try to help out? Hell, read up on the original ending of the film - it was supposed to be even more misogynistic than it ended up being.


Clearly the writers only threw the female characters into World War Z to be plot devices. In a movie like World War Z which feels like it was written and directed by committee, it's clear that the studio didn't give a damn about how the women were portrayed in the film or that casual misogyny would affect their bottom-line. In fact, I'm surprised by how well it did and was received in spite of this glaring issue. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Chinua Achebe's essay "An Image of Africa", where Achebe decries Joseph Conrad for reducing Africans and the continent of Africa in Heart of Darkness to nothing more than a plot device. While I don't entirely agree with Achebe on his criticisms, he does make a good point, that reducing people and places to plot devices strips their history and identity away, making them little more than a reflection of the male protagonist.


If World War Z kicked off this article, then Gangster Squad sealed the deal that I was going to have to write about it. I was actually very surprised by how Gangster Squad handled women, although considering that it was a rip-off of The Untouchables I probably shouldn't have been. I'm not really referring to Emma Stone's character either, the generic femme fatale love interest (and plot device to add some tension for good measure). Instead, I'm referring to basically the only other female character in the film, O'Mara's wife, Connie. Like World War Z, the women in the film are reduced to plot devices who the male characters don't seem to actually be all that invested in. The film tries to be uber-macho, with the protagonist O'Mara dealing with organized crime the only way he knows how - by shooting it in the face. Of course, Connie whines to him that he shouldn't be risking himself because she can't live without him. Obviously, the point this puts forth is that violence is a man's realm and passivity is for women... and according to the film and it's hilariously hamfisted finale, violence is the only thing that gets results. Of course, the whole movie's a complete fabrication, although you might have figured that out when you saw some of the over the top action in play. Regardless though, it seems that the whole "action gets results" message the film tries to get across is total bunk, making the entire film even stupider in retrospect. That said, I will acknowledge that Connie does get one surprisingly interesting scene where she actually helps O'Mara pick out his "gangster squad".


Which brings me to Machete Kills. I actually don't have a huge beef against it in regards to sexism or feminism or anything like that - it's a tongue-in-cheek exploitation film and therefore it gets a lot more leeway than a mega-blockbuster like World War Z or "historical" film like Gangster Squad. However, it did remind me of a Cracked article in which the authour stated that women rarely get shot in the head on-screen in American cinema. To sum it up, the article states that "the reason that we so rarely see women getting their brains splattered? Masculine violation of, and domination over, a woman occurs on her body and not her head". Machete Kills actually seems to subvert this idea, since in the opening minutes a female character is shot graphically in the head, on-screen. However, near the ending a pair of women fight and the more physically domineering of the pair shoots the other in the head, but this is left off-screen. The implications there are interesting, since that character's actions seem to make her androgynous (not that she's really overtly feminine anyway). I don't really have any real profound conclusions to give in regards to that, but it's certainly an interesting observation that's worth keeping in mind and mulling over.


Before I close, I'd like to mention another example in a video game I played recently, called Lollipop Chainsaw. Again, it's a tongue-in-cheek exploitation venture so it gets more leeway, not to mention that video games in general have a pretty big sexism issue. However, while I found the game to be quite fun, there was one annoying aspect which I found very grating and more sexist/misogynist than any of the objectification in the game. This aspect was that the enemy dialogue almost always consisted of gendered insults - seriously, nearly every time an enemy yells at you they call the heroine a "slut" or "whore" and, on one particularly colourful occasion, a zombie declares he's going to "fist his ass with her face". Ahem. Maybe if it had happened once it would have been shockingly funny, but when the game barrages you with that sort of dialogue over and over it just becomes annoying (at best).

Anyway, hopefully this little write-up has shown that as much as we love to hate them, feminists do have a purpose in society. Equality is still a work in progress, and media still has a way to go before it is truly adequate. Besides, equality doesn't have to equal hamfisted morals, it can be an epic and subtle action romp like Dredd (seriously, buy the damn movie already!!!).

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Quick Fix: "Fat Shaming"

I was at work the other day listening to the local rock radio station's morning program. It was the typical somewhat-raunchy banter you'd expect from morning hosts on a rock station, but it helps get through the day. Anyway, as I was listening the morning hosts mentioned that they had posted a photo on their Facebook page which was causing a bit of controversy. This got me curious and so I went and checked it out:


Apparently this photo has gone viral, and I can't say I'm surprised. It's clearly ripe for generating debate... although this being the Internet, that really means people screaming at each other and ignoring everyone else's perspective. On the one hand, the woman who made the picture is coming across as being rather smug. Considering that her job is to be a physical fitness trainer, it shouldn't be quite so difficult for her to get ripped in comparison to, say, someone who works 40 hours a week in a cubicle. The radio hosts were mentioning that there were people commenting on the photo claiming that it was an example of "fat shaming", that the woman is bullying fat people and that she should go jump in front of a bus (again, it's the Internet).

On the other hand, I kind of agree with the picture. I'm pretty skinny, but I wouldn't kid myself into thinking I'm in great shape or anything. The picture isn't shaming fat people, it's shaming anyone who isn't fit, which pretty much everyone seems to have ignored. But anyway, what's my excuse for not having a six-pack? It really does come down to laziness. Sure, I could probably look like that if I put the effort in and reordered my priorities, but I don't have the motivation to do so. Sure some people may physically be unable to look like that and then okay, you do have an excuse. That said, if you're like me and (I imagine) 99% of everyone else who the image is directed at, then you need to fess up that maybe you don't have an excuse beyond laziness. Obesity is becoming a major epidemic (not to mention those of us who just aren't in shape to begin with) and I'm sure the vast majority of us don't have some sort of incurable malady to give us a get-out-of-shame-free-card. Honestly, instead of being offended, many of us just need to look at ourselves and take the blame for once instead of deflecting it onto others.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Quick Fix: 2013 in Film (aka Bitching About This Year's Movies)

I'm back! For those who didn't know, I spent the last week on vacation in Cincinnati and Atlanta and so getting out that last Apes retrospective entry was a bit of an ordeal... that said, I'm back in Canada and good to get back down to business on the blog! Before we get into the rambling meat of this entry, I want to mention that the open beta for Battlefield 4 has been up for almost two weeks now. If you haven't checked it out yet, then do so ASAP (it's free)! I'm only able to play it on the PS3 right now (which is extremely inferior compared to the PC beta), but I'm looking forward to playing on PS4 as soon as it launches.

2013 might be the best year for gaming ever. The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite would both be effortlessly Game of the Year winners if they hadn't come out in the same year as GTA 5 (although I'm still rooting for The Last of Us). However, the same cannot be said for Hollywood, as it seems to me that 2013 is one of the most disappointing years in popular film in recent memory. Now to be clear, I'm talking about "major" films in the public conscience - there's always good festival fare and indie darlings, but these usually fly under the radar of the general public. It should also be mentioned that we're just getting into Oscar season, so the big Best Picture candidates are going to be making their way into cinemas quite soon, if they aren't there already.

Here's your Big Five winner right here.

Anyway, as you can probably tell I'm a bit of a film buff. Certainly not as much as some people, but I'll usually see 15-20 new movies each year (not counting the films I then catch up on in the next year, at which point I'll be closer to 35-45 movies released in any one year). That said, 2013 has been extremely disappointing for me - I'll usually see any movie which interests me, but it's now October and I've only seen 8 2013 films (Evil Dead, The Purge, Kick-Ass 2, World War Z, Iron Man 3, Oz the Great and Powerful, This Is the End, Red 2 and Gravity). Of these, I'd only say half were in any way decent, with Gravity being the only one which I thought was actually good (seriously, FREAKING SEE IT!!!). Sure I'm missing some high-profile films, but looking through the general consensus of what was "good" this year, I'm basically just missing Star Trek Into Darkness, Side Effects, The Conjuring, The World's End and Rush. Unfortunately, these are disproportionately outweighed by the disappointing, mediocre or bad films released this year. Among the major disappointments were Gangster Squad (I seriously was predicting Best Picture when I saw the trailer), The Purge (how the hell did they screw it up so badly!?!) and Man of Steel. Legendarily bad films have all seemed to converge on 2013 like a plague: Movie 43, InAPPropriate ComedyA Good Day to Die Hard, The Host and Scary Movie 5 to name a few. Then there's the just plain uninspired which was the rule rather than exception during the summer movie season: Jack the Giant Slayer, Olympus Has Fallen, The Hangover Part III, The Lone Ranger. Hell, even high-profile indie films weren't spared as Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling both destroyed their reputations with Only God Forgives. Sure, there's always more bad than good films in a year, but this year it seems to me like the good stuff is in much lower supply than normal, and the disappointments were far more high-profile.

I don't have all the answers for why 2013 has been such a disappointing year in film. However, it has gotten me thinking about one particular issue in Hollywood which I'd like to address (and which is a factor in some of this year's releases). As usual, Hollywood is concerned with making money, but this year they seem to be taking more of a stranglehold on it and compromising their productions in the process. One of these trends which has reemerged recently is taking an R-rated film and editing it down to PG-13, because PG-13 films have the widest prospective audience. Now obviously this is hardly why 2013 has been a bad year for cinema, but it is a contributor in the downfall of at least one high-profile example. World War Z was totally neutered by its forced PG-13 rating. Now I'm not one of those ratings snobs who believes that every movie would be improved with an R-rating and gratuitous violence and nudity (hell, I agree that Robocop wouldn't be all that much worse if they cut it to PG-13), but some subjects don't lend themselves to a family-friendly audience. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I don't think that a movie about mass human extinction, cannibalism and visceral violence really would be best served by being PG-13. As a result, then entire film feels compromised, an issue which doesn't even get fixed by the Unrated cut (the zombies seem to just jump on people, bite them, and then run away). This is a Hollywood trend which has been annoyingly pervasive since at least 2004, with such examples as AVP, Live Free or Die Hard, Terminator Salvation, Priest, Taken and Taken 2. Of course, the upcoming Robocop remake is coming out with a PG-13, which is going to further create backlash against this trend (even if it isn't as abysmal as everyone is predicting it will be). As someone who loves good movies, I wish that studios would have a bit more faith in their audiences and give their filmmakers a bit more freedom... but that'll be the day.

On an unrelated note, here's a picture of some fat cats...


UPDATE: Since posting this I've also watched Gangster Squad and Machete Kills, both of which were rather average, held back by disappointing elements (this seems to be the trend with 2013 releases... I'm curious to see what I think about Man of Steel when it comes out on DVD).

Monday, 7 October 2013

Retrospective: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the latest film in the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes! After the major misfire that was the Planet of the Apes remake, faith in the franchise was at an all-time low. Despite making a healthy profit off of the remake, Fox did the right thing and let the series take a bit of a break. However, ten years after the Apes remake destroyed our faith in Tim Burton, the franchise was rebooted with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Could this entry restore faith in the franchise, or were the Apes doomed to extinction? Read on to find out...

SHITTY TAGLINE ALERT! SHITTY TAGLINE ALERT!

After Planet of the Apes became a go-to example of one of the worst remakes of all time, it seemed like the franchise was pretty much dead in the water. In spite of this public perception, around 2006 husband and wife screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (what's with these ape films and husband-wife screenwriting duos?) became interested in stories about pet chimpanzees. I can't find a confirmation of this, but it's very likely that one of these stories was that of Nim Chimpsky, an ape whose story is somewhat similar to that of Caesar in the final film. Whatever the case, Jaffa and Silver realized that the story they were formulating would fit into the Apes franchise quite well, and so wrote a script which they sold to Fox. While not officially a remake, the film plays out like a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes on a very superficial level (in that it's about the fall of humanity, brought about by an ape called Caesar who leads an ape uprising). That said, its themes of genetic engineering and human-ape interaction largely replace the revolutionary overtones and vengeance prevalent in Conquest. Early in development, the film was simply titled “Caesar”, which was the first I heard of the project. Considering that Conquest was my second favourite Apes movie, I was excited to see what they could do with the premise given a respectful budget to make it. However, the film seemed to have a bit of development trouble because Caesar was officially cancelled at one point before the project reemerged as Rise of the Apes (which was changed to the mouthful that is Rise of the Planet of the Apes because the studio was afraid people wouldn't realize that it was an Apes movie otherwise).


Attached to direct was Rupert Wyatt whose only other directing credit was The Escapist in 2008, which had fairly positive reviews. For the visual effects, the producers decided that the apes were going to have to look like actual apes instead of the anthropomorphic ones which had populated the previous films. To accommodate this need, Weta Digital (the effects company behind The Lord of the Rings and the appropriately ape-centric King Kong remake) was brought in to do performance capture for the apes. Andy Serkis was also brought in to play Caesar, due to his unparalleled experience, mastery of motion capture and experience with playing an ape (again, King Kong). James Franco was also cast as Caesar's owner, Will. When I heard all of this stuff for the first time, I was giddy with excitement: “A new apes movie with Andy Serkis, Weta Digital and Jame Franco? Holy crap it sounds like they're actually trying this time!”

Unfortunately, as the release drew closer and closer, my optimism began to diminish. It started with the first trailer which, as this blogger sums up quite well, was not very good. The early marketing for the film just wasn't very good, focusing more on the action than the emotional core, and making it look like we were in for a disappointment. Then there was the title change and some mediocre posters which just further until I found myself approaching the film very cautiously leading up to release...


Rise follows a scientist named Will who is developing a serum to cure Alzheimers. After a lab accident in which Will's reputation is shattered, he discovers that the child of a lab ape has had the serum passed on to him, which makes him incredibly intelligent. Will ends up raising the ape, dubbed Caesar, as if he were a human. However, as Caesar grows he finds that he doesn't fit in with the humans and is eventually taken to a corrupt primate shelter. It is here that Caesar realizes that he has to do something to liberate the apes, sparking a revolution...

As you can probably see, Rise isn't nearly as simplistic as many of the previous Apes films. It has a smart script with plenty of twists and turns, and one which is extremely relevant to modern audiences, much like the paranoia of nuclear annihilation would have resonated with fans of the original 1968 Apes. There's also many genuinely affecting moments, such as when we discover that Will's drive to cure Alzheimers stems from the fact that his father is succumbing to the disease. It's pretty heartbreaking and turns Rise into something far beyond the stereotypical mad scientist trope. The “NO” scene is also incredible, and is easily going to go down as one of the most iconic sequences in the entire franchise. Simply put, Jaffa and Silver put together a fantastic script, and it really shows.


That said, there are some weak points in the story. Plenty of the characters are given very little depth or characterization. The douche bag neighbour and Will's boss, Jacobs, are both completely one-dimensional (the neighbour's always bitching at people and Jacobs is completely obsessed with making money). In both cases it works, but it's unfortunate that they couldn't have given them a bit more substance. They're far from the only characters who suffer though – the staff of the ape shelter are all given nothing to work with, despite featuring Brian Cox and Tom Felton in their ranks. Probably the biggest disappointment in terms of character depth though would have to be Freida Pinto as the veterinarian, Caroline Aranha. Again, she isn't given much material, being little more than a conscience and generic love interest (funny how we still can't get past that trope 45 year later).

While many of the human characters are weak, the apes are far more interesting (this is probably intentional too, since the apes are the “heroes” of the story). Being the first apes movie with completely CGI apes, one could be forgiven for worrying that the effects may not be sufficient, but the special effects really are great. I'm worried that they might look kind of dated in 15 years, but if nothing else the facial expressions are spot-on. This is really a testament to the amazing mo-cap work of Weta and the actors, since the apes rely on facial expressions and gestures to convey their emotions (Wyatt “cheats” only on a couple occasions with subtitling, but generally he lets the audience figure things out for themselves). Caesar is brought to life fantastically by Andy Serkis, who I was hoping would win Best Supporting Actor in 2011 (he didn't, sadly). We follow Caesar from his childhood innocence and see him grow into a capable leader, but we're never really sure if he is going to go over the homicidal edge or not. The other apes are given recognizable characters as well, and it's impressive that we actually find ourselves caring for and cheering them on as the film progresses. Maurice is Caesar's orangutan advisor, Rocket's the former alpha male at the sanctuary who becomes one of Caesar's most reliable followers and Buck is Caesar's gorilla enforcer (it's truly tragic when he gets gunned down). There's also Koba, the long-time lab test subject who clearly has psychotic tendencies and wants to get revenge on the humans.


I've also got to give a shout-out to Rupert Wyatt who directs the film with real expertise. As I mentioned earlier, Wyatt elects to show, rather than tell, more often than not. This makes many of the film's details into real heartbreaking moments, such as when we discover that Will's father has Alzheimers (and when it returns as well). He also is very adept with action sequences, as the entire ape “revolution” is very exciting and funner than... well, a barrel of monkeys. He also manages to make an end credits sequence totally epic... how many movies can boast that!? Of course, Patrick Doyle's score helps significantly as well, I really can't stress enough how great it is.

That said, there is one aspect of Rise which bugs me more than any other, and that's the sheer number of immersion-breaking references to the original film. Sure, a few call-backs are fun for fans of the franchise, but when it feels like entire plot points are only present to serve as a reference it gets a bit grating. For example, here's a list of references I compiled while watching: the film opens with a hunt reminiscent to the famous human hunt, the intelligent apes are called “bright eyes” because their eyes have green flecks in them, Caesar is seen building a Statue of Liberty puzzle, Dodge yells “It's a madhouse!”, the “damn dirty ape” line and sprays Caesar with a hose and one of the characters watches a Charlton Heston movie. If that wasn't enough, the names of many of the characters are also references: the orangutan Maurice is named after Maurice Evans (who played Dr. Zaius), Dodge Landon is named after the other two astronauts who arrived with Colonel Taylor and Caesar's (likely) future love interest is named Cornelia. At that point it's just excessive and distracting, especially for someone like me who knows the original film inside and out. That said, it's a relatively minor complaint overall.


It should be pretty clear that I love Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's fantastic, I love it more every time I see it. It's easily the best Apes movie since the original and hopefully bodes well for the franchise's future. If you haven't seen it yet then I heartily recommend that you do so immediately!

8.5/10

So how is the future of the Apes franchise looking? Well there's a new film in the pipeline for a 2014 release called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Much like Rise is a loose remake of Conquest, Dawn looks like it will be a remake of Battle. Clearly there's going to be conflict between Caesar and Koba, with Koba being a stand-in for General Aldo. Considering how clearly unhinged Koba was in his limited screen time in Rise, Dawn should feature some brutal showdowns between the warring factions. As bad as Battle was, this was largely due to its budget – with the proper budget that Dawn's getting, I'm totally stoked that it will be another awesome film. In fact, Dawn is up there with The Hobbit films as my most anticipated films. Sadly Rupert Wyatt isn't back, but he's been replaced with Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), which I have to admit might just be an improvement. With Weta and Andy Serkis back, plus a new cast featuring such famous actors as Gary Oldman (!) and Kerri Russell, it should be an amazing time. Plus Rise has left plenty of room for sequels – I almost wonder if Brian Cox was left with little to work with in order to bring him back in a sequel as a General Kolp analogue... not likely, but possible. Whatever the case, I'm happy that one of my favourite franchises is still going strong and looks to do so well into the future.

This is how I would rank the series from best to worst:
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (it's a better film than Conquest, but they're both about neck-and-neck for me)
4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
6. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (this and the remake are pretty much equally bad, it's hard to objectively decide which I dislike more...)

7. Planet of the Apes (2001)

Thanks for getting through this retrospective series and as always feel free to comment and give suggestions for future franchises for me to review!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Retrospective: Planet of the Apes (2001)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the sixth film in the franchise, Tim Burton's remake of the original Planet. Before we get to it though, I want to highlight a new section of the blog, "Safe Haven", which will hopefully reduce interruptive prefaces (like this one). It's dedicated to interesting articles I come across in my travels of the Interwebs. I'm going to try to keep it current, so feel free to check it out every week or two (it's permanently been added to the Pages sidebar with the links to my Youtube channel and Google+ page. Anyway, back to the Planet... quite a bit has been said about the remake over the years, but it's been over a decade since its release - have the years changed the public reaction to it at all? Read on to find my take on it...

The ape soldiers look pretty awesome but overall it's a pretty generic poster.

While the original Apes film series ended on a low note with Battle in 1973, the franchise continued to stay in the public conscious. Two separate TV series were released in the 70s, both of which had merchandising tie-ins. In anticipation and promotion of these TV series, Fox studios also released a Go Ape marathon of the franchise which drummed up further interest. Of course, the classic status of the original film also meant that the series was always going to be remembered, and so it was only a matter of time before the apes would rise again...

It turned out that it would take almost 15 years for a new entry in the franchise to come to light.* The first rumblings of a new Apes film came about in 1988 when Fox executives became impressed by Adam Rifkin's Never on Tuesday. Rifkin, a huge fan of the original film, pitched a new entry in the franchise, one which would be a sequel rather than a reboot. Perhaps most intriguingly, this film would form an alternate continuity branching off from the first film and ignoring the events from Beneath onward. This sounded like an absolutely fantastic idea since the direction of the original series left so much unrealized potential that was ripe to be mined by further installments. The film was titled Return to the Planet of the Apes, was meant to allude to Spartacus and was set 300 years after the original Apes ended. The film would see the apes' society reaching its Roman era, and would follow a descendant of Colonel Taylor, Duke. Duke would end up leading a human revolt against the apes... by all accounts, the film sounded fairly simple but also pretty damn awesome. To make matters even better, a young Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen were both in contention for the lead role, which would have brought a lot of clout to the production. Everything seemed good to go, but days before the film was to enter pre-production, new executives arrived at Fox studios. Suddenly the film was put back into active development and Rifkin had to go through a number of rewrites until the film was unceremoniously shelved. Dammit Fox, if there's one primary antagonist running throughout the Apes series, it's the bloody studio heads - from meddling to budget cut-backs, the damn, dirty apes can't get a break...

The next attempt to get the project off the ground involved one of my own personal favourite directors, Peter Jackson and his long-time collaborator/partner, Fran Walsh. Jackson and Walsh pitched their own version of the film which would see the apes undergoing their own Renaissance. The conservative ape government we witnessed in the original Apes movie would be clashing with the new arts movement as liberal apes begin sympathizing with humans. There would also be a half-human, half-ape child which would be central to the plot, an idea which was explored briefly in the development of Beneath (a tricky element to implement though, of course). To make things even better, Roddy McDowall was on board to play a Leonardo da Vinci-type ape character. Unfortunately, this version of the film failed to get off the ground as well (the executive Jackson met apparently didn't even realize McDowall was even in the original Apes films), and thus the Apes continued to languish in development hell. That said, I'm kind of glad this version didn't end up getting made - I'm an enormous Lord of the Rings fan and I wouldn't trade it in it's present (amazing) state, even for a new Apes film.

From there, Don Murphy tried to get Oliver Stone on board. Stone wasn't interested in directing, but did sign on as an executive producer. Stone pitched a film in his trademark conspiracy theorist style... in fact it's so confusing that I think it would be better to just copy/paste his own words rather than try to sort through it: "It has the discovery of cryogenically frozen Vedic Apes who hold the secret numeric codes to the Bible that foretold the end of civilizations. It deals with past versus the future. My concept is that there's a code inscribed in the Bible that predicts all historical events. The apes were there at the beginning and figured it all out". Umm ok then Oliver... Despite the rather out-there premise, the studio executives seemed to be impressed with Stone's pitch and a screenplay by Terry Hayes titled Return of the Apes was commissioned. This script featured geneticist Will Robinson trying to cure a genetic plague, which causes all humans to have stillbirths, by going back in time. Here he discovers that humans and apes are at war and that the apes engineered the genetic plague as a time bomb of sorts in human DNA. The president of Fox studios declared that Hayes' script was one of the best he had ever read, and Arnold freaking Schwarzeneggar was signed on to play the lead role. Unfortunately, the studio wasn't happy with Hayes' script, which they felt was too serious. Instead, they wanted something campier (remember, this was the 90s - think of Batman & Robin and you'll get an idea of the tone that was in vogue). Apparently this direction was spearheaded by studio executive Dylan Sellers who kept pushing for his "baseball scene": "What if Robinson finds himself in Ape land and the Apes are trying to play baseball? But they're missing one element, like the pitcher or something . . . Robinson knows what they're missing and he shows them, and they all start playing". Ugh, I don't even... sigh. Unfortunately, when Hayes turned in his next rewrite of the script and didn't include Sellers' precious baseball scene, he was fired and the entire enterprise crumbled once again. As confusing as the initial pitch was, it sounded like there was some real potential in this iteration of the production and it's unfortunate that it wasn't allowed to see the light of day.

After the Oliver Stone iteration of the film failed, it seemed that Fox still wanted to pursue a campy tone for the series (there were reports of makeup tests in which apes were seen skiing). Chris Columbus (known for Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films) was brought on to direct a new script which was more closely based on Pierre Boulle's original Apes novel than the previous films had been. This one featured an ape astronaut landing on Earth and releasing a deadly virus. Two humans use the ape's spacecraft to return to its homeworld to find cure for the virus, finding a planet where the apes hunt humans. When they get the antidote, the heroes return to Earth to discover that the planet has been conquered by the apes in their absence (which is actually the original ending of the book). However, there were still misgivings about the script (for good reason) and so a series of directors became attached and then dropped out. Among these directors were Ronald Emmerich, James Cameron (!!!) and Peter Jackson (again).


The film finally began to take shape in 1999 when William Broyles Jr. turned in a script which caught the attention of Tim Burton. Richard Zanuck, who greenlit the original Apes film way back in 1968, signed on as producer since it was a very personal project for him to see the remake through. Unfortunately, Burton budgeted the script at $200 million (an exorbitant amount at the time), but Fox would only grant him $100 million to work with. Burton and Fox clashed quite frequently throughout production, as the studio had a very firm release date, forcing Burton to rush the shooting, editing and visual effects. Considering that it took them over 10 years to even get the film into pre-production, you think they could have afforded him at least another year to make it properly... Makeup effects wizard Rick Baker, famous for such impressive makeup-heavy films as An American Werewolf in London, was brought on to do the ape costumes, with Burton aiming for a more realistic take than any previous Apes film had attempted.

For the cast, Mark Wahlberg was cast as the lead, Leo Davidson. Currently he's easily one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but at the time his star was still rising quickly. If you're familiar with his work then you know he can be a great actor (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Fighter, etc), but his main issue is that he's as good as his script... and he doesn't necessarily pick the best projects to embark on either... Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, The Incredible Hulk) was cast as the lead villain, General Thade, a sadistic chimpanzee warrior. Rounding out the lead cast was Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club, Harry Potter) as Ari, an ape sympathetic to the humans' cause. Also cast were Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren and Paul Giamatti, with Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison in cameo roles.


Moving onto the film itself, the plot concerns an American astronaut, Leo Davidson, who works with chimpanzees on the research space station, Oberon. When the Oberon encounters an electromagnetic storm IN SPACE, Leo's favourite chimpanzee, Pericles, is set in a spacecraft to investigate. When things go wrong, Leo disobeys orders and attempts to retrieve Pericles, but ends up crash landing on a mysterious planet where apes hunt the humans. Leo quickly escapes their clutches and makes for the sacred ruins of Calima to link up with the Oberon before the bloodthirsty chimpanzee, General Thade, goes to war and destroys all of the damn, dirty humans. Now that might sound like a half-decent plot in summary, in practice it is pretty damn inadequate. On one hand, there's a lot of things that just don't make sense (why send an expensive, trained chimpanzee into the mysterious electromagnetic storm instead of a cheap, unmanned drone?). There's also lots of massive plot conveniences (why would the human-hating Thade love Ari when she's staunchy pro-human? Why does Thade kill the two gorillas who saw Leo's ship crash, other than to make him appear to be super evil? Why introduce Leo's gun and then destroy it minutes later if only to make the plot work? How the hell does the power still work in Calima (they say it's a nuclear power core, but considering how in ruins it is, how are the electronics still in a functional state...)? Simply put, the plot is quite simple, but it's undermined by a story that lacks logic and gravitas.

The next major problem with the film is that the characters are all paper-thin, totally undeveloped, useless or one-note. As a result, we don't really give a shit about what's happening or when one of them dies. Leo Davidson's a boring main character who we honestly do not learn a single damn thing about (except that he loves his chimpanzee). Predictably, Mark Wahlberg doesn't have a good script to work with and so his acting really suffers as he runs around with that constipated look he has in half his filmography. Estella Warren's character Daena is a totally generic love interest and while she's a (ridiculously) pretty face, she might just be even more useless than Nova was in the original Apes film. Ari and Thade are both completely one-dimensional (although Thade's at least enjoyable because Tim Roth really hams it up to delightful levels). Colonel Attar and General Krull are both interesting because the pair have a rivalry with each other, but it is so poorly integrated into the plot that it has no real resonance (and Krull dies so poorly that it's ridiculously anti-climactic). The other characters are practically useless and equally half-baked, with Paul Giamatti's Limbo being probably the most egregious offender - he does absolutely nothing and is just tagging along to be comic relief. That said, Charlton Heston's cameo is pretty cool, and I do not think he deserved his Razzie award in the slightest - his win was probably more due to his NRA politics at the time than his actual acting (which was serviceable, although the script was characteristically shitty here).


There's also smaller problems with the script which further hurt the film. For one, the humans can talk in this film, but it's not established until well after they first appear. Since this is a remake of Planet of the Apes, the audience expects the humans to be silent, so when they suddenly just start talking to one another it is a bit of an (unintentional) shock. It's also just plain doesn't make a lot of sense either because if the humans and apes speak the same language and express themselves just as well, how can the apes possibly sustain their belief that humans are inferior for thousands of years? On top of that, if the humans can speak and are just as intelligent as the apes, why haven't they staged a revolution and armed themselves yet? This one little change just causes too many problems which no effort has been put in to address. The movie also completely jettisons the satirical elements which had been prevalent in nearly every previous Apes film, replacing them with more superficial racial overtones. While this isn't a death knell by any means for a remake (eg, the Evil Dead remake jettisoned the humour and still made for an effective and intense horror film), the satirical elements were a key component of the original films and so dumbing the film down and playing it straight really feels like a betrayal of the concept. Another complaint is more of a very minor one, but the apes in this film are even more primitive than those in the original film, and yet they are more modern sociologically (eg, religion isn't in vote, they've formulated the concept of evolution, etc). It's kind of nitpicking, but I hate how historical/fantasy/sci-fi films often casually force modern ideas without good reason (eg, Orlando Bloom's secular knight in Kingdom of Heaven). It just seems to me that Planet of the Apes was in serious need of a rewrite but the studio forced it into production too quickly, perhaps in fear that it would continue to languish in development hell.

The another problem with the film is its pacing (probably in part due to Tim Burton's minuscule 3 month editing deadline). The film doesn't waste any time with something as unnecessary as "set-up". For example, as soon as Leo lands on the planet, he's instantly being hunted by the apes (who show up about 15 seconds after the first human is glimpsed). On top of that, the humans escape the apes only 40 minutes in - in the original, the apes were only just showing up by that point. The breakneck pace makes events like the hunt lose all of their shock value, forces obvious plot conveniences and just further makes the story feel inconsequential to the action.


On the positive side, Rick Baker's ape costumes are FANTASTIC. Seriously the makeup effects are almost perfect and the actors really do look like real apes. There aren't even weak spots like in the sequels where background apes have noticeably inferior costumes - I didn't notice any extras who looked bad. That said, I'm not a fan of the female chimpanzees' design, especially Ari's - they look frighteningly similar to Michael Jackson. I also think that General Krull might have the worst-looking costume in the whole film... it's still pretty good but doesn't look as realistic as the other costumes and I think it makes him look more like a wookie than a gorilla. It's also cool to see the apes have actual ape mannerisms like jumping around during fights rather than just being cumbersome like a human. This should also go without saying, but the special effects vastly eclipse previous Apes films and still look pretty damn good 12 years after the film was released (perhaps in part because they are used sparingly and intelligently). Danny Elfman's score also has to get a shout out for being quite effective and primal, much like Jerry Goldsmith's original score.

The film's climax, the final battle between apes and humans, is also a highlight. It's a pretty damn awesome sequence, especially the fuel cell "bomb", but it's really the only plot highlight in the film. The battle itself is exciting, if muddled and lacking in emotion. However, it also doesn't make a lot of sense that when the battle ends the humans and apes are suddenly all friends with each other without any lingering tensions whatsoever. That said, while it could have been better, the final battle is definitely a cool sequence.


Of course, there's one element I've been purposefully withholding up until this point and that's the film's ending. Obviously trying to riff on the original Apes' classic ending, the remake tried to throw in a twist of its own (doubly so because twists were in vogue at this period thanks to The Sixth Sense). Unfortunately, the remake must have one of the absolute worst twist endings I've ever seen. It's so incredibly stupid and nonsensical. Leo leaves the planet of the apes and returns through the electromagnetic storm to Earth. He crashes his ship in front of the Lincoln memorial and discovers that somehow Thade beat him back to Earth and apes now rule the planet... WTF!?! Okay, this has to be broken down somewhat because it's just that confusing. For one thing, yes, this is how the original Boulle novel ended. However, the changes made in the remake make Boulle's ending a bad fit for this film. For one thing, ditching the satire makes this ending have no sort of comeuppance or logic. For another thing, there is absolutely nothing to allude to this ending and so it just comes out of nowhere and is given zero explanation.

That said, there is an "official" explanation which makes it make some sense, but it's still pretty inadequate in my opinion. This explanation involves the "logic" of time travel in the remake - things which enter the magnetic storm come out the other side in inverse order (hence why the Oberon arrives thousands of years before Leo Davidson). As a result, when Leo leaves the planet, Thade somehow escapes Calima and recovers Leo's ship, beating him to Earth in the process. Obviously you can see some pretty gaping logic gaps here (how did Thade escape, pilot the ship, conquer Earth, etc), but the bigger problem is much more simple - this explanation of time travel only works in a story. I mean, we only follow three objects going into and out of the storm, but obviously other things are going to pass through here and mess up the theory. On top of that, what (aside from plot convenience) determines when objects emerge from the storm? Pericles arrives only days after Leo after all. On top of all of this, how is the audience expected to think up all of this stuff to make the ending make a modicum of sense? People who think it's a very clever ending are deluding themselves - the Apes remake has an indefensibly terrible ending which is an insult to the audience's intelligence.

So all-in-all, I think you can tell that I don't like the Planet of the Apes remake. In fact, it gets worse every time I see it. However, I do owe it a debt of gratitude because I probably would never have seen the original without it - close to its release the 1968 classic was on TV and I watched it with my family... and the rest is history as they say. It might be better-made than Battle, but the Apes remake is a hollow husk of weak characters and a crappy plot with a totally idiotic ending to boot.

3/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 7 of this retrospective series as we wrap up with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!

*Research on the development/production process comes from David Hughes' fascinating insight on the Hollywood machine, Tales From Development Hell and from the remake's Wikipedia page.