Talking Movies

August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

James Franco, as smugly self-satisfied as ever, develops a cure for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately he also manages to bring about the apocalypse. Dude… Not cool.

This movie has been almost destroyed by its unusually long TV spots, which added to the cinema trailers that consisted solely of plot points and thematic statements masquerading as dialogue, leaves precious few surprises for cinema viewing. Franco’s scientist makes a breakthrough on a drug which repairs cognitive functioning in one chimpanzee, however, when she runs amok the entire research programme is canned. Everyone’s favourite slacker Tyler Labine doesn’t have the heart to put down the baby that chimpanzee had been protecting and so gives it to a reluctant Franco. Franco raises it at home where he discovers that it has inherited the effects of the drug, resulting in super-intelligence. Eventually he decides to test the drug on his own Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow). Frieda Pinto’s vet warns him about messing with nature, but he convinces his boss Jacobs (a nicely cavalier David Oyelowo) to allow him develop an even more potent strain…

There are similarities with this week’s other chimpanzee release Project Nim, as Caesar is raised in a human setting, and shown using sign language and displaying very human traits, before his increasing viciousness sees him abruptly removed to live with chimpanzees who ostracise him. But this is a wild animal, a point made needlessly nastily when Caesar very deliberately bites off and eats a man’s fingers when attacking the angry next-door neighbour to protect a confused Charles. Caesar’s incarceration is interesting as Caesar is subjected to humiliation as the new inmate before using his superior intelligence to rise up the food-chain. It’s like watching Audiard’s A Prophet in a zoo. I’ve said it before but Andy Serkis is an unappreciated marvel as he does so much acting work in motion-capture. His performance as Caesar is wonderfully nuanced; you can see in his eyes the dawning of responsibility for his fellow less smart primates. John Lithgow does wonders with the material he’s given, though his transformation from mangling ‘Clair de Lune’ to concert pianist as the Alzheimer’s drug works is tasteless in its emotional manipulation. Characterisation isn’t this film’s strong point though. Frieda Pinto in particular has a barely written character.

There are a number of deliriously showy moments by director Rupert Wyatt, such as the montage of Caesar climbing a giant redwood that takes us thru 5 years in about a minute (please copy Terrence Malick), a panning shot thru a building as the apes rampage thru office space before tumbling onto the street, Jacobs entering a deserted building and not noticing what’s above him (a homage to The Birds), and a delightfully Spielbergian touch in the first arrival of the evolved primates in San Francisco being conveyed by a sudden gentle rain of loose leaves onto the joggers on a suburban road. Other highlights are an iconic line from the 1968 original, a hilarious moment when the signing circus orangutan gives the raspberry to Caesar’s grandiose plans, and a startlingly well-staged action finale on the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is a vast improvement on Tim Burton’s 2001 disaster but while it features a number of showy moments, and a nicely choreographed finale, the shallowness of characterisation holds it back.

2.5/5

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Project Nim

If you see only one film about a chimpanzee that’s smarter than your average primate this weekend then make it this one.

James Marsh, who’s becoming a regular Werner Herzog in alternating acclaimed documentaries with features, returns to the 1970s milieu of his previous hit Man on Wire. The setting is again New York but this time the dare-devil antics are intellectual not acrobatic and the span being traversed is not the gap between the Twin Towers but between the human and chimpanzee species. Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee baby taken from his mother in 1973 for a Columbia University experiment. Marsh mixes archive footage and still photos with a number of interviews he’s conducted with some of the principal players in the experiment which asked can a chimp, if raised as human, be taught to communicate in sign language? Marsh’s staged reconstructions and overly dramatic pans away from his talking heads are unnecessary, there’s drama enough in the story without inserting the visual clichés of 1970s thrillers. Startlingly enough the relevant clichés are Woody Allen’s 1970s films as nearly everyone involved was sleeping with everyone else, while maintaining that this in no way affected an experiment originally intended to provide a stable family environment for Nim…

Dr Herb Terrace, a psychologist, gives the baby Nim to his ex-lover Stephanie Lafarge, a former graduate student in Oedipal psychoanalysis, who promptly breastfeeds said chimpanzee before moving on to investigating his masturbatory habits and getting him high on marijuana. Nim’s lack of progress in learning sign language sees Terrace hire Laura, a linguist, as a teacher. Hardly a surprise given that Stephanie, obviously railing against her poet husband, reveals that she thinks word are bad and that Nim lost his essence by having language foisted on him… Bob and Joyce, another couple, arrive to help in the teaching, later joined by Renee, but as Nim grows up he becomes more dangerous and Terrace abruptly terminates the experiment. It’s radically unclear from the film who collated the data, or indeed why Terrace got all the credit. Project Nim loses its way in dealing with the endless post-experiment life of Nim. Sent back to the Oklahoma facility where he was born he is treated as another dude by hippie psychologist Bob Ingersoll, who eventually forms an unlikely alliance with British veterinarian Mahoney to give Nim the special attention he deserves.

While it’s heartbreaking to see an animal being made exceptional only to be casually discarded and cast back with other chimpanzees who now regard him as a freak, Marsh forces the pathos with continual emphasis on Nim’s humanity. Nim could never remain with humans as he always remained a wild animal, a point proved by his vicious attack on Renee in which he gashed a whole thru her cheek, and then attempted to re-open it months later, from pure instinct. The true fascination of this film is the conflict in Nim between nature and nurture, to wit – the experiment. Terrace concluded (all visual evidence to the contrary) that Nim never learnt language but was merely a beggar using signs. This seems to ignore the work of Eric Berne who posited in Games People Play that all social situations were transactional, one interpretation of which is that everyone always wanted something. By which yardstick Nim mastered language’s ultimate purpose perfectly…

Columbia University won’t thank James Marsh for it but this is a fascinating study of how science can be derailed by the human factor.

3/5

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