Friday, August 12, 2011

Rise of the Convergence

There are a lot of theorists who will tell you that the face is the most emphasized part of cinema. "The Close-Up" certainly meant a great deal to D.W. Griffith -- who would build entire films around one climactic close-up -- and Sergei Eisenstein -- who integrated it into a broader part of image montage. Contemporary Hollywood has only encouraged our association of cinema as a place to see spectacles of faces. Notice how most conversation scenes are shot in close or medium-close ups, rather than longer camera positions.

Devotees may remember I noted many of these aspects last December in my "Black Swan" review, where I called a lot of attention to how that film turns the close-up into a site of oppression and anxiety rather than a site of identification.  I turn to "the close-up" or "the face" again with sheer peculiarity to talk about Rupert Wyatt's "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Silly titles aside, this reboot/prequel is indeed as Time declares -- a moment in movie history. Utilizing motion capture technology and the best visual effects house in the business, Weta, "Rise" does things not even James Cameron's "Avatar" could do -- it integrates effects and people into real spaces. In Cameron's sealed off fantasy playground, he could build worlds on computers. Impressive, yes, and a necessary step forward for sci-fi and action effects extravaganzas. But now, taking it into sunlight and shooting in zoos, on the Golden Gate bridge, and in forests, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a thing to behold.

But to know that motion capture works in real space isn't REALLY much of a surprise. Weta Workshops did, after all, create Gollum nine years ago for "The Two Towers," an effects performance that remains one of the touchstone achievements in the field. But in "Apes," those effects are amplified because these characters lack voices. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is an intelligent ape made even moreso by scientist Will Rodman's (James Franco) miracle drug that he thinks will allow the human brain to not only repair itself but increase its intelligence.

He's designing the drug for his Alzheimer's-ridden father (a rather enjoyable John Lithgow), and in Will's home he plays God to both his father and his primate son. He is ostensibly a Frankenstein archetype, and Franco manages to wrangle some real sympathy for how badly he wants to cure his father, and how he actually comes to understand Caesar's revolt against humanity.

The arc of "Rise" is also one of its chief problems. At only a brisk 100 minutes, the thing feels alternately too rushed and too slow (counterbalancing a need to explain with a need to save room for sequels). While it starts as a scientific exploration film, filled with great little tracking shots of Caesar in Will's home and in a redwood forest, its second act shifts gears to a prison-break film when Caesar is confined to an experimental ape institution after attacking a neighbor. From there, the title's promise is fulfilled in a third act where all hell breaks loose and the visual effects team can finally add some spectacle.

These different acts truly feel like three different films, and that makes the film feel stunted and awkward. What binds this together is Caesar. He is the film's sole reason for existing, and director Wyatt makes that known almost every second. Every moment seems crafted for us to look at how real Caesar behaves, how much emotion he's able to display on face. And, to their credit, it is rather astonishing. A voiceless performance by an actor whose actual face is never seen (Serkis), he is still able to convey his innocence, his anger, and ultimately his command of something terrifying and devastating to humanity.

But apart from a visual effects touchstone that joins the ranks of Weta's most impressive work and certainly stands a chance at netting the studio its fifth Visual Effects Oscar in a decade, the rest of the film doesn't really signify anything. While the 1968 "Planet of the Apes" gets remembered most as a feature-length "Twilight Zone" episode with one hell of a twist ending, it's far more notable for its satire on race relations, something that actually makes the film look and feel tired on a recent viewing.

If "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" signifies anything, it's the age-old tale of mankind extending his reach, using technology to override nature, but it doesn't have any sense of immediacy to our contemporary moment. At times, the film doesn't really talk enough about what's at stake (of course, the characters only gradually realize this) and it makes the whole thing seem rather abrupt. It's as if the film exists in an expensive visual effects bubble. Aiding this is the fact that Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are incredibly sympathetic to the apes, meaning what should be a terrifying final third is turned into a "Spartacus"-type slave revolt.

That's all well and good, but the fate of the world is on the line. There are some moments that are downright jolting, particularly a confrontation between Caesar and one of his prison oppressors ("Harry Potter's" Tom Felton) that serves as a turning point for the whole film. Others, like a shower of leaves falling on a suburban street before the apes descend, or the monkeys using the fog of the Golden Gate Bridge to conceal themselves, certainly hints at some great sequence ideas.

Taken as a whole, however, Caesar's revolt seems like something to be glorified, and not at all feared. This might be because humanity is never shown as worth saving or caring about. Even Will is clouded by his good intentions, and Franco can't seem to wrest much of a personality for his character aside from what's made obvious through voiceovers in the first third.

More than what its plot signifies, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" as a product heralds a moment when sci-fi can take another step forward. It's a moment where animation and live action truly collide such that one blends into the other. This is convergence, certainly, but this "Planet of the Apes" suggests that the animation is more important than its counterparts. As in most cinema-of-spectacle of late, it wants you to care deeply about its special effects. So deeply, in fact, that it doesn't matter if those effects are going to take over the world, so long as you feel lots of sympathy for them.

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