Jul 19, 2014

what the hell happened to movies

I have no idea. I used to love movies. I would have my Netflix DVDs cued up 3 at a time each week. And then I cancelled Netflix. And then I stopped going to the movie theater. And now I can barely get the energy up to watch one.

Sci fi in particular has gone to hell in a hand basket. We used to have 2001, Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, and even the critically flawed Dune. And now we have Elysium and the Planet of the Apes reboot and all these monotonous repetitive super hero movies. And what's changed?

Here's what's changed. Movies used to be about exploring themes. And now they largely don't do that. The best example is a set of movies I binge watched last weekend. The Planet of the Apes series. Both the 5 original (made back in 1968-1973) and the last reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I skipped Tim Burton's reboot because it was universally panned).

Here's there Rotten Tomatoes scores:
  1. Planet of the Apes (1968) - 89%
  2. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) - 41%
  3. Escape From Planet of the Apes (1971) - 78%
  4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) - 44%
  5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) - 38%
  6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Reboot, 2011) - 82%
It's easy to make a little fun of the original series. There are some awful special effects. Some awkward editing and even some awkward script writing. But how the new reboot earns a score just below the original is beyond me. Let me explain.

The original movie was written based on a book by a French author, Pierre Boulle. That book wasn't particularly clever. But the concept was handed over to its first screenwriter - Rod Serling. Yes. That Rod Serling. He's the one who came up with the twist ending. And then Michael Wilson fixed some problems that were driven by a limited budget. Here's why that movie is still relevant and still interesting to watch. Themes. 

There are lots of them. Orwellian class struggle, Darwinian survival of the fittest, evolution, religious theocracy, nuclear war, McCarthyism, animal testing, the morality of zoos, slavery, and subjugation. All of this in this old cheesy film. Consider the legal proceedings of Taylor (Charlton Heston). This is very slow scene and quite long. No action. Just discussion. And we all know Taylor will be found guilty; that the legal proceedings are a farce. Most of this scene is really about McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Hollywood workers. Michael Wilson, wrote this part of the film and for good reason. He was blacklisted at the time. He wrote it 'under the table'. In this context the scene is fascinating. The Congressional inquests regarding communists were also a farce and this was just a play on it. But the whole movie is engaged like this. The racial and slavery themes are obviously very interesting. Even how the primates themselves have segregated themselves into class structures (apes - low class warriors, chimpanzees - peaceful intellectuals, orangutans - political and economic power leaders). This stuff was thought out carefully.

And the later movies expanded on these themes in very intense ways. The poorly viewed Conquest movie is very clearly a statement about the rise in Black Power and the riots associated with that movement. The two primary (non-primate) lead characters are minorities: Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and African American (the awesome Hari Rhodes) and are both obviously sympathetic to the primate's cause. It is thematically really "in-your-face" race relations stuff and it's really thought provoking and frankly powerful. After the movie I went down to Century City where it was filmed just to be on the set.

And then we come to the reboot. Which seems to be universally loved. And what's that movie about? I haven't got a clue. There's action. There's almost no character development. I don't give a shit about anyone in that movie. There's a plot. Shit happens. None of it particularly surprising or unexpected. Oh. There's some awesome special effects. Thematically? Perhaps animal testing and the usual 'people-in-science-are-thoughtless-and dangerous-and shit-always-backfires'? And maybe, owning apes is bad (LOL). These are so heavy handed as to be annoying though. This is like 3rd grade writing level. It's completely pedestrian. The actors are asleep at the wheel. Caeser, the main monkey who you HAVE to sympathize with is creepy and shifty. The eyes are all wrong. And the ending is a ludicrous, endless and gratuitous action sequence. And worse, it's an origin film clearly made to setup another set of serial movies. Ugh.

And yet apparently this movie is as good as the original. This movie is worth your hard earned dollars. Don't even get me started on the superhero movies. But this stuff sells. And it's moving serious box office numbers and even critics are giving these movies high marks. I don't get it. Do we not want movies that are thought-provoking anymore? Are we not interested in being challenged. Just a bit? Because movies lately are passive vehicles. You sit and take in explosions and special effects and superficial script writing. It's banal. And for me, as a movie lover it is seriously depressing.

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