The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

Tim Burton revived the series in 2001, with a frankly throwaway film, which restored a version of the original novel’s ending, and just confused the hell out of everyone — adding to my impression that he’s hardly made three decent films since Edward Scissorhands and that Helena Bonham Carter is sufficient reason to skip a movie. It made money, but Fox went a reboot route in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where motion capture and CGI evidently improved on Burton’s make it, but I found the shakeycam somewhat nausea inducing. I skipped out on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and I don’t even know who Dawn was. Now we presumably conclude a trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

A simian flu seems to have rendered apes intelligent and killed millions of humans or struck them dumb. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is hiding out with other intelligent apes in the woods of the northwest US, trying to build a life, but the military are seeking them out and raid their enclave. The apes are planning a move to the promised land, but there is another raid and Caesar’s wife and eldest son are killed. Caesar sends the apes off, whilst he, with a small party, seeks revenge on Colonel McCullough, the killer.

Oddly, given what is to come, the film begins from the human perspective, following the raid, and we seem to be in Vietnam War movie territory, with the apes as Vietcong or giant Ewoks. McCullough will emerge as a crazed military figure, rather than a sensible defender of humanity, a Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — although technically that is Cambodia rather than Vietnam. We cannot help but be moved by the death of the apes and the mercy Caesar shows.

But with a shift of viewpoint to the apes, we are in revenge western mode. A small party track the colonel across the mountains, picking up a mute human girl and a talking chimpanzee along the way. The posse evade capture initially, but on discovering that the rest of the apes have been captured and turned into slaves, Caesar has no choice but to enter the military base. The second half of the film is the attempt to rescue the apes before the cavalry arrive and the way Caesar’s revenge pans out.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, the film’s allegory — if indeed it is one — is less than clear. Several Black human characters act as an alibi against such a reading, but the treatment of the apes recalls the treatment of slaves in pre-civil war days. A recent reading of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad inevitably set me down that road, too. At the same time, the appearance of an equivalent to the syphilis-infected blankets recalls the white treatment of the Native American, and the apes seem to have a manifest destiny in their land by the lake. The mute girl, meanwhile, seems to be saying #notallhumans.

Several of the ape characters who have turned traitor are able to redeem themselves and Caesar learns that revenge will not bring closure. Or the dead back to life. We are, again, in western territory, with the itinerant outsider leader being able to save the community but not return to it. John Ford’s movies are clearly part of the palette, but he increasingly brought a mythic ambiguity to his films and John Wayne’s heroics are frequently undercut.

Almost inevitably we turn to Moses, who led his people out of bondage and to the edge of the promised land. But Moses died before he got there, of course. And the suspicion that all but two of the apes we have seen are male may make us question how long this community will survive.

The special effects are faultless — Andy Serkis is Caesar, even more than he was Gollum. The fur looks real and solid, and they are definitely in this landscape rather than seeming superimposed. The other apes convince equally. McCullough, Woody Harrelson who has spent a lifetime not being that guy from Cheers, tends to the gurn and his evil nature is meant to be rendered more complex by a long speech explaining his motivations, which brings the film to an shuddering halt and should have been closer to the end rather than a preview to three or four set piece sequences (like most blockbusters, this is a good half hour too long). I can’t help but feel that he is falling into the trap that so many Bond villains fall into — explaining their scheme rather than killing their antagonist.

But obviously spending so much money on a movie leads to a sense of incoherence, even if it better than any other blockbuster I’ve seen since Rogue One. But that is damning with faint praise.

Peter Parker’s Day Off

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)

I can remember standing in a queue for the Spider-Man reboot, worried that it would be rebooted again before I got to see it. And here we are, a new Spider-Man, now part of the Marvel Comics Universe, after what I assume is a cameo in a Captain America movie.

The positive is that they’ve decided they can dispense with yet another origin myth depiction — so many superhero movies are broken back as the first hour is them getting superpowers and then the second hour is them getting their first mission. He gets to tell his best friend Ned about the radioactive spider and here we have him as a fifteen year old, desperate to join the Avengers (the silly American rather than the British version) rather than being a friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man (and dammit that hyphen is beginning to annoy me), in the meantime dealing with the traumas of high school.

So we are in Buffy territory, although in someways John Hughes movies such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are stronger incipits — a clip from the latter even being used in a throwaway line. Parker is part of the school quiz team, headed for a national final at Washington DC, but is looked down on by the other geeks. He attempts coolness by admitting to knowing Spider-Man, but has the Clark Kent/Superman issue of not being able to be in the same room at the same time.

The casting of his classmates is typical of how the film tries to be, but can’t quite be, radical. He seems to be about the only white male pupil — his friend Ned is Filipino-American, the object of his desire is Liz and so on. In too many examples of big city American popular culture, it is as if a cataclysm has wiped out anyone who isn’t white. At the same time, aside from Ned and Liz, the substantial characters — the hero, the villain and all but one of his sidekicks and all the visible Avengers are white. Background colour is fine, but let’s not get too radical. There is a nice line from Liz not wanting to visit the various key Washington building because they are built on the back of slavery, but that is the only explicit nod to ethicity.

Meanwhile, chief villain, Toombs or Vulture, is making his money turning alien technology into weapons. He gets a couple of speeches about the plight of the working man, and how Tony Stark is a weapons dealer too (to middle easterners if I recall). This is a dark side to the hero that I don’t think the films ever quite deal with, which do make them marginally more interesting. Casting Michael Keaton allows a richness to a villain — and we have the baggage of the first two Batman movies and of course Birdman to resonate with the role. Given his techno assistant, he forms a criminal counterpart to Parker and his guy in the chair, Ned. There is a penultimate reel twist I didn’t see coming, that brings us back into teen movie territory.

We have some decent set pieces — a bank robbery, a crisis in the Washington Monument and an attack on the Staten Island Ferry, the Spirit of America — but it still feels a little baggy. The CGI is variable. Admittedly there is fun to be had with Parker learning on the job, and dealing with his impatience. There are some interesting throwaway lines, such as protest being patriotic. And there is a post credits scene that plays with the pointlessness of staying to the end of the credits.

I’m not convinced that the world needs another Spider-Man movie, but I guess boys are these days running out of supposedly non-violent hero role models.

Blood is Thicker than Water (and as Thick as Two Short Planks)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

I confess I had a sneaking liking for Guardians of the Galaxy, in part because I went in with no baggage and low expectations — although clearly that’s a contradiction. I quite liked the ironising, which under cut the macho posturing, but I was left with the sense of the displacement of ethnicity onto different coloured aliens and a near absence of women (a green heroine and her blue sister, who apparently was Amy Pond).

Vol. 2 comes with the baggage of the original and the risk of a joke being dragged too thin. It begins mid-caper, with the Guardians protecting batteries for a alien species called the Sovereigns in return for the return of Amy Pond who had previously tried to steal them. Unfortunately Rocket Racoon steals some himself, and they are chased across the galaxy by the Sovereigns, who seem rather weaponised for people who employ mercenaries. The Sovereigns then employ Yondu Udonta, who brought Peter Quill up, to go after them. Quill, meanwhile, is rescued by his father Ego, who turns out to be somewhat of a God and who has created a paradise. Perhaps.

By now, the pattern is established — witty banter between the central heroes punctuated by fights and capers, synchronised to a seventies soundtrack. We reach the diminishing returns pretty early on with the fights, but be reassured that no one will really die that you care for. There is the Unspoken Sexual Tension between Peter and Gamora, and Drax gets a few more lines, and Groot is cute, as baby Groot. A new character is brought in — Mantis, an empath with feelers, oddly Sino-French, but apparently German-Vietnamese in the original comic appearance — and adds a little to the cringe factor.

The casting of as Kurt Russell as Ego is genius — bringing with him the baggage of cult director John Carpenter such as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., The Thing from Another World and Big Trouble in Little China, heroic but seedy, not entirely trustworthy. If you can’t afford Jeff Bridges, Russell’s your man. I could totally believe in him as love ’em and leave ’em immortal, but I definitely didn’t buy the plot gimmick as to why he needed his son. Ah well.

But it is, to some extent, a film about family and the coming together of estranged families, whether or not there is a blood tie. Yondu and Amy, recurring villains from the first film, are, after all, family, and family is family. They can be forgiven remarkably quickly and given a shot of redemption. Perhaps that’s what makes it comedy.

Meanwhile, as the Marvel Universe expands, the cameos and the injokes expand, with seemingly never ending closing credits, more Howard the Duck, too much Stan Lee — who has hardly improved as an actor since Mallrats — and Easter Eggs for future movies.

I can see how if you like this kind of thing you’d love it. I’d even go back for a third dose, but Ego is not the only thing to be indulged.

Waiting for Gadot

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Of course, this is an important film — women directors are pretty rare and women directors given a big budget are even rarer. Whilst I am hardly disciplined in seeing DC and Marvel superhero movies, my experience is that women are mostly there to be rescued, with the few female superheroes rather sidelined. This is, I understand, the first female superhero movie (Supergirl aside or presumably Catwoman). I confess I’ve yet to have the pleasure of Batman vs Superman, a film seemingly so long in the making that I suspect they wanted us to forget about it. So this is my first meeting with Diana, Princess of the Amazons (Gal Gadot), at some point to be called Wonder Woman.

She is brave and headstrong and heroic, and refuses to be put in her place, with a string duty of care and a sense of ethics. As action figure, she fits in that line that started with Buffy and went through Catnip Evergreen to Rey and the ex-Emma Grundy née Carter. We need strong women. We need strong role modes for women.

Note the plural.

And we need a world in which $149 million can be wasted on tosh starring a woman as well as on tosh starring a man.

Because, it is, don’t get me wrong, tosh.

There is something that makes me feel awfully uncomfortable about a superhero movie set so firmly in the real world that the First World War features and which has the superhero also living in present day Paris. Paris. Of all cities. And obviously it raises questions about the Second World War, as well as more recent tragedies, and where the hell she was.

So little Diana, princess, has grown up on the island of Mascara, ok the island of Themyscira, passing through a series of different accents until she comes of age. After being forbidden to train as a warrior, she gets her way and is beefed up just in time for American spy Stephen Trevor to literally crash into her life, with boatloads of Evil Germans on his tail. These are soon seen off — although the battleship seems to be conveniently forgotten about — and Diana decides she wants to go to the Front, to find and defeat Ares, the God of War.

It is at this point that the idiot gear is engaged. She sails with Trevor, apparently overnight to London, waking up for Tower Bridge, which is closer to St Paul’s than you think and even closer to Selfridge’s, where they get her some clothes, with the aid of the former Hayley from The Archers aka Dawn from The Office as Etta Crumb, perhaps the most interesting figure in the film, who can more than hold her own, even when they are mugged in the surprisingly close by Sicilian Avenue.

Meanwhile, a mission is afoot: to stop the evil Dr Moreau (who spells it Maru) from developing a nerve gas even worse than the Mustard Gas used by the Germans in Ypres and elsewhere and indeed by the Allies in 1917 when they found some and started developing their own. This will also get Diana closer to Ares. And so Trevor recruits his team, Sameer and Charlie in London and Chief, a Native American, in Belgium, to go after the bad guys.

Of course, it is hard to think of Spud from Trainspotting as a sharpshooter, indeed he is not as good at it as you’d think, and when he raises his kilt to warm his, er, sporran over a fire, he clearly turns out not to be a true Scotsman. And there are unexpected twists that make absolutely no sense and an embarrassing and hideous mass killing, albeit of Evil Germans, by Dr Moreau and Herr General Evil German, who cackle with laughter in a callousness that feels poorly judged. Especially in a 12A. And the Evil Germans keep shooting at Diana, but unaccountably aim for her wrists or her shield, rather than, I don’t know, her ankles. But there’s hugs all round by the end. The surviving Evil Germans aren’t so evil after all.

Of course, I was under the impression that Trevor was Rogers and was going to turn into Captain America, but that was Chris Evans rather than Chris Pratt, an entirely different universe. Silly me. Too many Steves and Chrises.

Of course, Trevor is given a wonderful speech in which he explains that evil is inherent in humanity and there isn’t really one Big Bad, and you wonder (sorry) whether it’ll turn out that Diana was deluded after all. But he has to go off and buy the farm, whilst she gets to kick Ares after all. Of course, this is her brother, whom she is able to Stop, in the Name of Love, as she gets extra powers when she’s mourning.

The box office success of the film no doubt means a second episode is forthcoming, although whether this will be present day stopping evil in Paris or we have another flashback to her, I don’t know, fighting Ares in a Berlin bunker, having stopped…. no, just, no.

Perhaps less of the stupid next time?

Look On My Prequels, Matey, and Despair

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

It really does worry me that with this and Prometheus I was looking at my phone at the fifty minute mark and was wondering when someone, anyone, was going to die. By now, the Alien template should be established — a small crew, who you’ll never quite be able to distinguish, stumble upon something nasty and are killed one by one until the final girl survives. In the case of the Alien franchise we know there are going to be aliens, but unfortunately they seem to want to delay gratification as long as possible.

Continue reading →

Or, the Modern Frankenstein

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

By design or accident, the Alien Tetralogy became interesting because each film had its own auteur or its own genre — Alien offered haunted house in space (and an uncanny double of the slasher), Aliens was a ‘Nam movie, Alien3 was a prison movie and Alien: Resurrection was. It simply was. So Ridley Scott decides he wants to go back and produce a new film in the Alien universe and make it a prequel — except for some reason it leaves the A-word off the title.

Continue reading →

But Not As We Know It

Life (Daniel Espinosa, 2017)

A year, maybe two years, ago there was viral footage of an octopus sliding around the deck of a ship and eventually escaping through a teeny weeny hole. Cute.

That wasn’t the only moment of déjà vu that I had watching this sf-horror hybrid — most obviously its DNA is infused with Ridley Didley’s Alien, with an alien inadvertantly being brought back on board a spaceship and killing the crew one by one until we’re left with the final girl. On a purely CGI level, you might well be able to make the case that the effects have improved in forty years and I do confess that the tension is satisfactorarily cranked up in the final third, but we will forget about this film before the next Star Wars release.

What was I writing about?

There is also no denying that there is an impressive single continuous take at the opening as we are introduced to a pleasingly international crew on the International Space Station, moving in and out of space and connecting corridors and so forth in a seeming cry of fuck you, Gravity, I can do this too. But this is presumably relatively easy in the motion capture and digital era — imagine what Hitchcock could do with Rope now.

So there’s a probe which has a soil sample (sans potatoes) from Mars that is going to be analysed on the ISS what with quaranteen and all, only it’s approaching too fast and is likely to collide with the ship or the astronaut playing catch. For the sake of the plot, the probe is snagged and, for the sake of no nausea, continuity editing is reestablished.

Ship’s biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) locates a cute little monocell critter, apparently dormant, so he plays around with the atmosphere in the lab vitrine and gives it some ECT and it yawns and says hello daddy. Before you can say that’s not a bleeding obvious subtext, school children have decided that the alien will be christened Alien McAlienface — sorry, no, Calvin. I mean, it’s not as if the crew is going to be divided into the damned and the elect, is it? I may have hallucinated a character saying “I have a bad feeling about this”, but Calvin is pissed at the electronic probing and fights back and escapes. It can squeeze through the tiniest spaces.

And so, eventually, we get a body count and the kind of random disaster plotting that has been played with most recently in The Martian and Passengers — being knocked out of stable orbit, using up too much fuel, losing radio contact with Earth… And having carefully established that each cell can do the same thing as all the other cells, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is more than one Calvin. And fewer crew.

There are further attempts at the Deep and Meaningful — one character is reading The Interpretation of Dreams (“Can you say, ‘Monster from the Id’*”) and a copy of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon is produced as a present for an astronaut who has just become a father (and that presumably has significance if you’ve read it).l

But the film cannot really recover from the sense that the characters are so shallow and lack sufficient back story to really make you care. There are some pretty deaths, and you do kind of root for the characters, but not with any enthusiasm. And even the almost obligatory genre ending can’t really redeem it.

* Anachronistic joke, obviously, as Interpretation is 1899, 1900, and The Ego and the Id (1923).