Friday, August 5, 2011

Man vs. Ape: Fact Trumps Fiction

A scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The five original movies in the Planet of the Apes series, which came out between 1968-1973, were entertaining fun, though only the first one, Planet of the Apes (1968) – which was loosely based on  Pierre’s Boulle’s novel La plan├Ęte des singes (Monkey Planet – 1963) – could actually be called a quality film. Yet as enticing as the concept of apes taking over the Earth with mankind reduced to the status of ‘animals’ was, the films copped out when it came to explaining how apes actually came to dominate our planet. In a nutshell, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) saw three apes escaping from future Earth when it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb and reaching our present day Earth through a time warp. While there, one of them gave birth to a son, who, in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), eventually led the rebellion that brought the apes to power. But how apes gained super intelligence and learned to speak was never dealt with since the time travel scenario neatly avoided that subject. It was one of those wrap-around puzzles – human astronauts travelled into the future and landed on a planet run by apes, eventually destroyed the planet but not before some intelligent apes escaped and came to present-day Earth and created the future where apes ruled until human astronauts landed on the planet. It never made real sense. The latest movie in the Apes series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, aims to remedy that conundrum. But though it offers a (tepid) explanation for how and why the evolution of the apes began, it’s not a very satisfying answer (I won’t spoil that revelation for you), much like the film itself. 

Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes
As was the case with Tim Burton’s undistinguished remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an overly earnest, lackadaisical science fiction movie, populated by gifted actors who either condescend to the material or are stuck with roles that waste their abilities. They pale in comparison with Charlton Heston, the powerful force in the original Planet of the Apes. Though Heston was never a great actor, he had genuine presence and could, as he also did in Ben-Hur and The Omega Man, command the screen as a lone wolf confronting an indifferent and dangerous world. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we’re saddled with James Franco (Howl, 127 Hours) who, frankly, doesn’t work very hard at his role as noble scientist Will Rodman, toiling for a nasty pharmaceutical company on a cure for Alzheimer’s, who eventually sets in motion the genesis of the superior ape(s). (His relationship with a kindly veterinarian, played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Frieda Pinto is equally perfunctory.)

That ape – a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis), a nod to the character of the same played by Roddy McDowell in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes – is first glimpsed as one of the subjects Will is experimenting on. But he soon becomes part of Will’s household, when a lab setback is followed by a demand by Will’s bosses that the test apes be put down. It is something Will’s assistant (Tyler Labine – Invasion) can’t bring himself to do, instead foisting off the chimp on his boss. Brought into Will's home, Caesar bonds with Will, his girlfriend and Will’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (John Lithgow). The film thus spends an inordinate amount of time showcasing Caesar’s growth and intelligence rate before, finally, allowing the main plot to be set in motion. That plot development takes place with barely a half hour left in the film, which is a little late. And while the sight and scenes of a squad of very pissed-off intelligent apes running riot on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and facing off against the cops is undeniably exciting, it’s also the only time the movie comes to life.

Frieda Pinto and James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Only Serkis, who’s making a habit of finely playing digitally enhanced, costumed non-humans (see also his Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and his stellar turn as Gollum in the Lords of the Rings trilogy) registers at all in the film. Brian Cox as the disreputable owner of a primate facility where Caesar, briefly, becomes an inmate, is wasted in his thin role, as is Lithgow in his. And why, after offering up such complexity and shadings as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, is Tom Felton taking a step back playing the one dimensional part of Cox’s mean son who delights in tormenting his simian charges? The movie even botches Heston’s iconic line from the first Apes movie when Felton exclaims, “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape.” The point, of course, in the original is that Heston’s comments stun the apes who realize that he, unlike the humans they’re used to, can speak. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the line lacks any shock value or resonance other than as a throwaway pop culture reference that some in the audience may get.  Flatly directed by British filmmaker, Rupert Wyatt, yet another unremarkable neophyte director taking work away from greater talents, and lazily scripted by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes little impression. That’s pretty much the way it's been at the movies for most of this uninspiring summer, but revisiting the fascinating world of Planet of the Apes ought to have resulted in a juicier, meatier film instead of the wan, pale facsimile now screening at your local bijou.

Project Nim

There's one scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wherein Caesar, tossed into the primate facility with others of his kind and thrown out of the human world he’s most familiar with, cowers in fear when he confronts other apes who are not like him. It evoked memories of James Marsh’s recently released superb, moving documentary Project Nim, the true story of a monkey, Nim Chimpsky, raised as human and then abandoned to a cruel existence in captivity. But the comparisons stop there as Project Nim succeeds, as gripping story, as emotional drama, as enthralling recreation, in fact in every way that the fictional ‘ape’ movie does not.

Snatched from his mother as soon as he was born back in 1973, Nim was used for an experiment in studying animal language acquisition, a study led by Columbia University’s Herbert S. Terrace. (Nim Chimpsky is a pun on Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist who argued that humans were ‘hotwired’ for language, a viewpoint considerably more convincing and honest than his better-known political scribbling.) Terrace eventually decided that Nim was not actually using language, as Chomsky deemed it, when he signed, even though the evidence, much of it on camera, seems to contradict him. (Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human assailed Terrace’s views, ensuring that this was one controversy that would not easily die.) But Terrace – who became involved with many of the women hired to teach and interact with Nim – is a problematic figure whose own prejudices, even misogyny, could not help but impact adversely on Nim’s training (Nim didn’t like him, by the way) and on the experiment itself.

Nim Chimpsky (Photo by Harry Benson)
Posing his interview subjects, like chimps in a lab being scrutinized by scientists, Marsh – a Briton who also directed the enthralling Man on Wire (2008), about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s remarkable high-wire walk between the Twin Towers on New York’s World Trade Center in 1974 – continues his investigation of unusual and forgotten figures in history. Nim, like the daredevil Petit who managed to pull off something deemed impossible by many, was unique since he displayed what we would call ‘human’ characteristics: jealousy, trust and anger. But Nim, of course, was not human, a fact lost on some of the people who interacted with him, including Stephanie LaFarge, the woman who breast fed him when he was a tot. (She tosses that revelation off so nonchalantly that it’s not as shocking as it reads in print.) Amusingly, Nim also liked to smoke pot, happily puffing on the joints given him by the adults around him. We never do find out if he got the munchies after inhaling.

The push/pull between human and animal actions, even in one as advanced as Nim, and what it means to be one or the other is never obviously manipulated by Marsh. He prefers to approach it obliquely through the surprisingly frank testimonies of the people Marsh interviews, individuals who display various levels of understanding of how they perceived Nim and whether he was indeed capable of ‘human’ behaviour. Certainly, some of them behaved like ‘animals’, manipulating Nim’s feelings, betraying his trust and leaving him at the worst moment of his young life. Others befriended him, played with him, cared deeply about him and some, disturbingly, loved and maltreated him in equal measure. In short, their treatment of Nim was as multilayered, as complex and as provocative as Nim himself.

As a filmmaker, Marsh displays the narrative control and thrust of a Spielberg or De Palma, expertly moving his story forward, enhancing it with dramatic re-creations, a technique I usually abjure but which in Marsh’s capable hands never seems inauthentic or fake. He also never forgets about the human or, in this case, primate emotions lurking beneath the surface of this bittersweet scientific adventure. Nim, and the humans in his life, are memorable and unforgettable subjects, proof that – as is often the case – truth is more interesting and compelling than fiction. And when the fiction is so lacklustre and lame as it's been lately, first-rate documentaries like Project Nim are more welcome than ever.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto . On Monday August 15 at the Carlton Cinemas at 7pm, Shlomo appears at the Toronto Film Society to introduce The Lost Moment (1947) and Raffles (1930). For details see

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