11 July 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Dawn of the Rise of the Beginning of the Sequel to the Remake Sort-of of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

It's another Summer Friday which typically means there's a new loud crazy dumb blockbuster clamouring for our attention. Each week we take a look at the critical, commercial, and cultural potential of that next big thing, and today I think we have a rare winner in just about every category. For today is the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014).
Apes! Apes with guns!

I love the Planet of the Apes franchise. No other franchise teeters so often from camp to tepid to genuinely interesting on significant levels from politics to pop culture. It all spawned from a book in 1963 by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai. Apparently Charlton Heston loved it, pushed desperately for a film to be made, and what we got was one of the more significant touchstones of 20th-Century Science Fiction, The Planet of the Apes (1968).

The thing about The Planet of the Apes, though, is that it really is totally campy B-movie stuff, except for its A-list actors, cutting-edge make-up effects (which won an honorary Oscar), and then damn that ending! The idea of an astronaut landing on a planet filled with Apes that have replaced humans is ridiculous, but the film is filled with so many iconic moments that it forever latched itself on to the public consciousness. It's the sort of film you really don't need to actually see. I mean this is the just of it. Even if it takes Homer a while to realize the ending, that's really the crux of what made this film great - suddenly this B-movie premise had this really thoughtful and dire commentary on the inherently destructive nature of humanity.

That was followed up with no less than four sequels in the 70s. Ready for the pop quiz? Name them! First there's Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), then Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and finally, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Modern audiences have famously seen none of these, but of the lot, I generally dig Conquest the best, although the general consensus is that Escape is the best and Beneath and Battle suck.

It was incredible how much this franchise was able to mine out of what was really one unique premise that pretty solidly had a finite ending with a big twist that re-justified much of the story. But Beneath is actually full of all these awesome insane moments like a horrible Charlton Heston replacement, even though Heston still appears in the film at the beginning and end (he falls down a lava shaft for some time), Forbidden Zone mutants, and a giant atomic bomb they all worship, that eventually explodes and kills everyone. Yes, this is exactly what tentpoles need to do more often - blow up the planet and ensure that no more horrible sequels can be made!

But screw that - we have time travel, and so in Escape, a bunch of super-intelligent chimps are sent back to the 1970s. This franchise is spectacular - atomic bomb-worshipping mutants AND time-travelling chimpanzees?! What more could you ask for? Eventually these chimps are shot because they're basically harbingers of doom - which ends up completely fucking true in Conquest, where their Chimp son, Caesar eventually leads an Ape revolt against their human oppressors. Battle didn't really need to exist, it's sort of this in-between movie that shows Apes and Humans kind of getting along, but the Apes getting the upper hand via really really cheap effects and very sparse actors and scenery.

So flash forward thirty years and there was talk of a re-make, so in stepped Tim Burton to deliver what is actually by far considered the worst of the entire franchise, Planet of the Apes (2001). While its predecessor is famous for its incredible, ground-breaking ending, Burton's version is famous for its insane, incomprehensible ending. This vid does a nice job of actually explaining how it makes sense, but it still ultimately just serves whatever the hell the writers wanted to force it to be without any real thematic weight to it. Not to mention that within the text of the film itself, none of this is really that logical or apparent upon first viewing. The 2001 Planet of the Apes dared to re-make this grand, classic mainstay of science fiction and just absolutely butchered it. It's a pale, disappointing comparison that created one of the foundations for the contemporary collective groan that lets out each time a new remake is introduced. It just gets everything wrong while trying to get everything right.

When I first heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) I thought it was moronic. Really, considering that no one in my generation cares about anything in this franchise beyond Beneath, and most of our knowledge of the original comes from Troy McClure musicals, it was tough to get behind. It's also not exactly a prequel or a remake of anything, although it may align the closest with Conquest. I didn't even see it in theaters, I think I Netflix'd it about a year after it came out.

And damn if it wasn't an awesome flick. It was incredible. Here you have a thoughtful, philosophical study of humanity, corporate responsibility, animal cruelty, the difficult nature of genius, scientific responsibility, and extremely competent character work, all wrapped up in a ball of CGI fur that culminates in a mayhem-filled romp through San Francisco. It is appropriately restrained but still full of tension and iconic, interesting moments punctuated by long stretches without dialogue. It's what makes Caesar's "NO!" to Draco Malfoy so monumentous. By all regards it's really the kind of film that shouldn't be great, which makes it seem really really good by way of our expectation. Unfortunately, when a prequel like this lands as well as it did, expectations for the sequel are appropriately high.

See, Planet of the Apes now has this reputation for smart filmmaking. This has never been the case for the past forty years. It's like if some nobody at Universal suddenly came out with a remake of JAWS 2 (1978) that was actually incredibly good and then planned on remaking JAWS 3-D (1983). It's this really odd mix of expectations. There's the loftiest of highs in the original material, the dredges of that material's direct sequels, but then an incredible remake. So many of these sorts of films have faltered. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) really could live up to the goodwill made by Star Trek (2009). Quantom of Solace (2008) really screwed up where Casino Royale (2006) did so well, even if Skyfall (2012) repaired a lot of that damage. Making smart movies is difficult by any standard. So what does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes have to offer us?
Apes! Better-looking apes with spears!

Apparently, fucking everything. On aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, it's so far apparently outranking every previous film in the series, including the Charlton Heston original. This is curious because it's ostensibly a remake of Battle, which is typically considered the shittiest entry in the canon. Anticipation is very high, probably because to be honest, there's nothing else around this film for miles this Summer. There's a distinct lack of blockbuster material - overall Summer 2014 is down 19% from Summer 2013 and hell, the Fourth of July weekend Box Office was down 46%. It's bonkers, people. Totes bonkers.

Studios may say that audiences are breaking apart due to home theater systems and Netflix. AMC is trying to convert its theaters into red plush recliner paradises to stem the bleeding. Critics bemoan the death of the traditional movie star in favor the flash in the pan Twitter celebrity. All this is bullshit, namely because it only points to domestic concerns, which frankly, are not and should not be the concern of any major studio anymore. American Hollywood is failing because they keep throwing ridiculous amount of money at terrible properties. Look at The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), or the rest of the real mild Summer 2014 flicks. They are barely making back their budgets in North America for sure, but cranking out $700 million worldwide. That's what bright colours and name recognition will do for you.

But most importantly, let's look at something like this: The Top Movies of 2014. Holy shit! The top two flicks, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and The LEGO Movie (2014), are two of the most intelligent wide-release films of the year. If we go back to the past 365 days, which Box Office Mojo will also kindly show us, this list expands to include huge cultural forces like Frozen (2013) and Gravity (2013) which were also extremely well-made films. What am I saying? We need to disregard the big dumb action film as a thing of the past and actually start rewarding big smart action films. People will go to the Box Office if you give them something worth seeing and something that's rewarding that they will want to talk about positively and engage with. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has that along with a ton of cultural momentum to become one of the biggest hits of the year. And with TransFourmers (2014) pretty well at its back, and nothing till Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) stomps all over August, it's got plenty of room to flex its muscle.

I'm never one for really bold predictions here, because the whims of the masses really escape me, but I truly believe that Dawn is going to absolutely kill it in the trifecta. It's already a significant critical hit (Andy Serkis Oscar - c'mon! No, that will never happen. Maybe an honorary for visual effects again), it's absolutely primed for commercial success thanks to its schedule and the perceived rewarding intelligence of its brand, and culturally if it's really about to stack that well with Heston's original, fuck - you've got gold, mate.

So what do you think? Am I way off on this one? Are you pumped up for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? What will they do with Night of the Living Planet of the Apes (2016) now that they've run out of 70s sequels to kinda-sorta remake? Leave a comment below and see the flick in theaters today.

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