A person weaned on contemporary cinematic blockbusters would probably greet the 1968 Planet of the Apes with befuddlement. It’s memorably spare when seen by the light of the convoluted hurly burly of today’s action extravaganzas, in which entire swaths of cityscape are often demolished indifferently for our bored, frustrated gratification. Director Franklin J. Schaffner portrays a desolate world governed by apes with a handful of actors in costumes and a few haunting desert vistas and little else. We don’t even directly see the crash landing that brings the Earthling astronaut (played by Charlton Heston) to the ape planet, as it’s rendered with first-person shots that put us in the spaceship as it plummets into a body of water. The film is elegantly, almost abstractly, visually streamlined, with the bold, clean through lines of an inventive low-budget western.
It’s also a comedy. This is the key to the film’s weird power: the lonely apocalyptic visuals and the impish monkey puns (such as “human see, human do”) don’t really fit together. This discontinuity keeps you unsettled, particularly in the second half of the film when the astronaut enters into a legal battle with the apes that pointedly takes the shape of an inverted Scopes Trial. The astronaut and a few sympathetic apes must fight against a power structure that values superstition under the guise of science and that discourages the notion that apes might have evolved from humans because it impedes on the ape society’s pride, which in turn threatens a classist status quo that resembles America’s. (The politically powerful apes, in a comparatively subtle joke, are even lighter colored.)
These resonances are all right there on the surface in preachy ghoulish jokes that are familiar to co-writer Rod Serling’s other pop cultural totem, The Twilight Zone. The jokes build toward the big reveal (a variation of a classic Twilight Zone twist) that this planet is actually Earth a few thousand years in the future. The astronaut’s distaste for his own species for its war-mongering feelings of superiority, which is hypocritical considering his own rampant indulgence of said feelings, is justified by the final despairing shot of the Statue of Liberty in ruins on a beachside. Even if you’ve guessed the ending, or, more likely, already known it through cultural osmosis or through your exposure to the newer films, the final image hits you straight in the gut, burning the humor away.
It’s startling to remember Planet of the Apes’ looseness in the context of the contemporary blockbuster movie. That ending is such a shock because the film’s tone up until then has been all over the place, waffling from adventure to juvenile comedy to Civil Rights parable to horror film. It’s clear that no one had a fifty-year on-and-off-and-on-again franchise in mind when they made this film. If there’s one criticism that the new apes movies—Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, respectively—can be said to confidently elude, it’s accusations of looseness. These films take the central premise and attempt to inform it with the emotional gravity of King Lear. Rise of the Planet of the Apes had moments of playfulness, and it generally benefitted from the fact that no one expected anything from yet another Apes reboot. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, emboldened by the last film’s acclaim, is an ape of a different color.
Director Matt Reeves is talented, and, as his remake of Let the Right One In illustrated, unusually soulful for a tent-pole orchestrator. He has an authentic love of pop iconography. At its best, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a majesty that recalls the best portions of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. But Reeves’ earnestness is the only emotion you’re given to respond to, and the film eventually stalls out, offering dozens of variations of the same scene in which apes misunderstand humans or vice versa. You twiddle your thumbs awaiting the inevitable warfare, a.k.a. the good stuff. In terms of narrative scope, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is similar to the original film, as both choose to represent Earth’s evolving societies through the conflicts of a handful of ape and human characters. The vistas of the new film are, of course, much larger—and lifeless. You look at these decimated cities and see the toil that goes into making a huge tent-pole summer film. Dawn’s near-apocalypse is oddly comforting and impersonal, as compared to the unnerving honest-to-God emptiness of the original film.
The evolution of the Apes films is as good an illustration as any of how American pop cinema has evolved. Schaffner’s film was made to make money, and there was no shame in it about that. The film isn’t afraid to be amusing, and, though it’s pitched at children as well as adults, there’s a distinct carnality and liveliness to it. It’s clear that Heston’s astronaut isn’t merely cuddling with the comely human slave that the apes give him for company (By contrast, Mark Wahlberg didn’t shoot Estella Warren a second glance in Tim Burton’s remake) and that casual sexism un-fussily affirms the general theme of subjugation that runs through the film. But Planet of the Apes is still essentially a joke, and a funny and occasionally scary one.
Contemporary pop, however, is cursed with self-consciousness: a determination to justify its existence for its fealty to previously established properties. These films are no longer B-movie alternatives to more ambitious productions: they’re the whole kit and caboodle. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to the second remake of the first film, can’t risk not being seen as absolutely essential, and as a result it’s ludicrous in a way that the first film never was: It never, ever, flirts with acknowledging that the notion of talking apes as a symbol of man’s egotistical fallacy, while enjoyable and resonant, is also stupid.
Beneath its strained, heightened air of portent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offers less than the original unassuming Planet of the Apes. The first film parodies creationism as an egotistical dodge from true open scientific curiosity—an assertion that might actually draw more heat in our society now than then. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offers the usual vaguely liberal bromides about guns and war that are inarguable and nerveless. Reeves doesn’t even do anything with those sentiments, as he still delivers the same (bloodless, must earn that all-important PG-13 rating) violent set pieces as a more openly mercenary genre film. This meaningless anti-war or anti-classicism ideology is to contemporary Hollywood what a criticism of mob rule was to the pop cinema of the 1930s and 1940s: a fairly easy way to inject a little frisson into a picture without changing in any significant manner the presiding formula of the film.
This pretentiousness is the newest incarnation of Hollywood’s compensatory bigness, as movies are always said to be imperiled by new technology. Superman can no longer be a well-meaning alien boy scout who masquerades as a bumbling reporter. He must now be a Christ surrogate who trades portentous looks with Lois Lane in place of banter. The Transformers movies can’t be tidy little toy advertisements that deliver their set pieces in a reasonable ninety or a hundred minutes or so. They must be three-hour war films that are blessed with the production values that are pragmatically denied of filmmakers who might have an actual vision to impart. And so on. Jettisoned for this seriousness is everything else a pop movie can be reasonably expected to provide: characters, plot, dialogue, comedy, sex, or, in short, the expansive possibility of untethered imagination.
In the 1950s, 3D and wide, wide screens were devised to compete with TV. Now, you can watch a movie on one of a dozen gizmos that are probably in your pocket as you read this, and TV is undergoing a renaissance. So why should you pay movie theater prices, which are exasperatingly unreasonable, to watch something next to self-absorbed viewers who’ve grown increasingly unable, from their own techno-enabled myopia, to engage in a public exhibition with respect for their fellow humans? Because of those conditions, there’s talk about what merits a “big screen viewing,” and so a movie trip is normally thought to be justified by a spectacle. A wonderful, frothy character study can just as easily be watched on your laptop.
But the spectacles of yesteryear, as politically and aesthetically dubious as many of them were, often had a sense of human scale, of purplish comedy or sexiness. The new spectacle in the wake of Batman Begins prides itself on functional inhumanity, however: on providing clipped dialogue that sets the stage for forgettable visions of mass destruction. Pop filmmakers can’t let any frivolous, throwaway gesture get in the way of the big serious business, which almost always involves guys, superheroes and toys, at hand. Hell, even the scores are forgettable, bludgeoning: many perpetrated by Hans Zimmer or an obvious acolyte. (Pop films that actively evince a wide variety of living, breathing emotions, such as last year’s also-apocalyptic The World’s End, are now released as art films.)
There isn’t a single joke in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the primary romantic couple is played by the attractive and normally charismatic Jason Clarke and Keri Russell with so little sense of sexual tension that one could easily mistake them for siblings. There isn’t a line of dialogue that’s memorable. The color scheme is dominated by the usual important blockbuster colors: ash grays, charcoal blues, sewer greens, and other barely discernible darks. The poetic possibilities of bright colors, let alone Technicolor, are relics of the increasingly distant past.
Two films from the late 1990s, The Mask of Zorro and The Thomas Crowne Affair, both remakes with big stars, themselves appear to have sprung come from an alien time. They are two of the sexiest and most inventive and stylish of all Hollywood pop films, as well as two of the most purely enjoyable spectacles in the Hollywood canon, most importantly, because the actors respond to one another—they aren’t merely spectator surrogates placed on the screen to absorb CGI fireworks. What pop film in the last ten years has offered their sense of life-affirming pleasure? (In fact, there have been rumors of a new “gritty” Zorro film in the works. No doubt it will be an origin story cribbing from the Christopher Nolan playbook. A pox has been placed on pop that isn’t gritty.) The contemporary blockbuster takes pride in pushing derivative doomsday aesthetic expansiveness at the cost of playfulness—filmmakers don’t seem willing to risk money on the implication that an audience might pay to simply enjoy itself, and it’s easier to numb than to stimulate anyway. The blockbuster justifies that fifteen-dollar theater ticket by pummeling you: You’ve seen something, but what? Are American blockbusters now catering to your sense of nihilism, or vice versa?