Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #4!!! (Rise of the Planet of the Apes/Sunshine)

It's the end of the world again (and again) as another pair of movies get their turn to fill out the double bill of Summer Movies on a Train: 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2007's Sunshine.

There are a couple of different reasons why a person might want to make a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which overlap pretty closely with reasons why a person might want to watch such a movie. Set aside all the considerations of mining the nostalgia value and built in fanbase of a beloved old property via the ubiquitous reboot, along with the economic appeal of launching a new franchise to flog to death (for now, at least, though we will come back to franchise-launching later). Purely in terms of the creation or consumption of a story, here are the Big Draws:

1. To examine weighty ideas via allegory, from the safe distance of separation between our real world and the imaginary near-future or alternate world of the story's setting

2. The Promise of the Premise

And in all honesty, this applies to just about every science fiction story, movie, novel, whathaveyou that's out there. For Rise of the Planet of the Apes in particular, there are numerous thought-provoking concepts that could be explored given the subject matter: scientific and corporate ethics, responsibility to society versus responsibility to family, animal rights, the list goes on and on. These points could, theoretically, be raised but never settled, resolved definitively or ambiguously, form the basis of a preachy parable or a sobering cautionary tale - a lot of it comes down to execution. But it's a valid reason to justify the existence of the movie, to those who created it and those who paid good money to see it.

The Promise of the Premise is a term screenwriters and film critics tend to bandy about which I've latched onto, and it refers to some visceral aspect of the high concept of the piece which could, again theoretically, make sitting through the entire film worthwhile. If a movie were about an antagonistic alien fleet on its way to Earth to conquer or destroy humanity, and the race on earth to build our own space fleet to defend ourselves, the Promise of the Premise is that at some point there will be mind-blowing scenes of Earth spaceships and alien spaceships whizzing around in outer space blowing each other up with laser cannons. It is of course possible to construct a story that subverts its own premise, but the caveat for writers is that such a subversion essentially constitutes a broken promise so it had better be done right or not at all.

Clearly for Rise of the Planet of the Apes the Promise of the Premise is that the chimps will band together, escape their confines, and start down the path of overthrowing human society, with a certain amount of physical violence. It is, I would argue, equally valid to go into Planet of the Apes excited to see a barehanded but pissed-off gorilla take down a police helicopter because that is an inherently awesome spectacle, regardless of what points are made before and after that sequence about who really deserves to inherit the earth and whatnot.

Indeed, notwithstanding that a lot of it was given away by the various trailers and commercials for the movie, the big payoff scene where a small army of chimps, orangutans and gorillas do battle with a bunch of cops (and one evil pharmaceutical exec) on the Golden Gate Bridge is a pretty successful piece of action film-making. Premise = fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the symphony of ideas that Rise attempts to orchestrate is a bit of a cacophonous mess. Concepts aren't so much left intentionally ambiguous as abruptly abandoned or outright doubled back on and contradicted as per the dictates of the plot, such as it is. There's a scientist character (James Franco) who is gung ho about testing his new wonder drug (actually a neuro-retrovirus, I think) on human beings because of one successful trial on a chimp. The reason for this is because he's desperate to cure his father's Alzheimer's. His hubris, of course, will lead to his project being shut down, which backs him into the corner of adopting a baby chimp that inherited the wonder drug's effects in utero. By raising and teaching the wonder-chimp, Caesar, the scientist inadvertently creates the future leader of the ape uprising. But meanwhile he continues to do research and cures his father's Alzheimer's, which gives his former bosses the idea to re-open the project. But of course the cure is only temporary, and after the father dies, suddenly Franco is adamantly against the project and any testing on chimps or humans, which is not very inconsistent. Accurate, perhaps, as far as human nature goes, but it makes for a fairly unsatisfying story when the main (human) character is primarily defined by his selfishness, and doesn't have much of an arc to speak of: selfish in Act I, selfish in Act III, just selfish towards different ends depending on whether the movie needs him to be maneuvering Caesar into place as primate revolutionary, or needs him to be opposing The Man as embodied by greedy corporate bigwigs and sadistic animal control employees. Yes, seriously.

The little bit of character development Franco gets is at the very end of the movie, when instead of demanding that Caesar come home with him to be his weird intelligent pet locked up for his own safety, Franco allows Caesar to stay in the Redwoods with the other escaped intelligence-boosted apes, where the chimp can be free. I guess? It kind of falls apart the second you start to think about it: this massive troop of clearly aggressive apes has just run pellmell through the streets of San Francisco, killing several police officers before escaping across the bridge and into the Redwoods. Despite being the biggest threat to public safety northern California has seen in, maybe, EVER, the only person who follows the apes across the bridge is Franco. And then he wishes them well and takes off, as if everyone else is just going to let them be. Super-strong, hyper-intelligent wild animals hanging out in a national park? Sure, we're cool with that. The movie ends with all the apes climbing up the sequoia trees as triumphant music swells, and then they look out across the bay at the city. All the cues are there for a feelgood ending, the misfit outcasts having finally found a place of their own, a sanctuary in this crazy world ...

Which gets us back to franchise-launching. There's a subplot in Rise about how the retrovirus boosts ape intelligence but is fatal to humans. It infects one of Franco's scientist colleagues, who passes it along to Franco's jerk neighbor when he comes looking for Franco. Jerk Neighbor happens to be an airline pilot, and the movie really ends with the jokey coda implying that Jerk Nieghbor still goes to work despite sneezing blood due to picking up the virus, and he's going to be a vector for the plague that will wipe out most of humanity and allow the apes to not just co-exist but take over. Of course, one of the prompts for me watching Rise was the fact that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out this summer, and I felt like it was time to start catching up, and Dawn does in fact pick up well into the plague years with humanity barely hanging on. So really, it's little wonder that Rise is kind of a hodge-podge that doesn't necessarily hang together that well; it's really just a teaser setting the stage for future installments that will push further and further away from reality. It remains to be seen (for me, at least) if it was worth it.

Sunshine, on the other hand, is an intentionally standalone movie, which is somewhat refreshing in this day and age of serial adaptations ad nauseum. (It's seven years old, and maybe couldn't even get made today, but regardless.) Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Sunshine doesn't get bogged down in pseudo-scientific jargon trying to explain the elements that put the "fiction" in its sci-fi. It's honestly a fairly ridiculous set-up: our sun is dying, and seven astronaut-scientists (solarnauts?) are on a dangerous mission to fix it. Right off the bat it's bad astronomy, because rather than the sun slowly expanding and roasting planet Earth to a cinder, as experts anticipate will happen in a billion years or so long after we're dead and gone, the sun in Sunshine is just running down, getting cooler and threatening to leave Earth a frozen wasteland, and it's all happening in the near future when human society is basically the same as we know it now. Crazy talk.

All is forgiven, though, because the whole movie is just one big metaphor (stop me if you've heard this one before) for life. A unfolding suicide mission to re-ignite the sun might seem like a depressing way to spend an hour and a half, but it simply exaggerates the fundamental questions of the human experience: if we now we're going to die some day (and deep down, we do, or we should) then what can we do to make the time that we're given meaningful? And every single plot twist and piece of dialogue in Sunshine finds different ways to comment on, or attempt to partially answer, that question. The movie slowly ratchets up the tension and the threats until it winds up in completely insane territory, with the last surviving physicist fighting against a monster (SPOILER: an astronaut from an earlier doomed mission who has absorbed so much solar radiation he is insane and emits his own distortion fields) to buy enough time to detonate The Payload, which contains every last scrap of fissile material Earth had in order to create a "miniature Big Bang" inside the sun, assuming the calculations of scientists back home are correct, which can't be guaranteed because the relativistic effects of the sun's gravity throw everything into doubt. But by the time the movie reaches that point of no return, it's already made it very clear that this is a struggle we all face: mortality, uncertainty, the temptation to succumb to nihilism, and so on. And ultimately it conveys a message of hope.

Plus, it's particularly freaking gorgeous. I'm starting to think Danny Boyle may be criminally underrated as a director. Between Sunshine and Trainspotting, he's been able to use his own stylized approach to cinematic imagery to convince me, however briefly, that I know how it feels to shoot (or go through withdrawal from) heroin, and to fly into the surface of a star. That's no small feat in my book.

So, what have we learned? Selfishness is bad, a life worth living is going to entail a certain amount of sacrifice for the greater good. And gorillas will always be awesome.

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