Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the most surprising film of the summer. The mere mention of the film brought out of me a mirthless sigh, “Why is Hollywood doing this again?” I had the terrible misfortune of seeing the Tim Burton/Mark Walhberg remake- what a waste of time, talent and money. Yet, everybody who caught Rise reported it being one of the best films of the summer, if not the year. After seeing it for myself, I have to agree. Rise of the Planet of the Apes not only launches another intriguing franchise for a new generation taking full advantage of remarkable film technology, but it also is a riveting action story exploring the themes of freedom, ethics of animal testing, and leadership.
Will (James Franco) is on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s disease through some breakthrough genetic testing on apes. He’s personally invested in the project having to watch his father (John Lithgow) slowly lose his faculties from the illness. Will’s promising work comes to a halt when their prime ape subject, a female ape called Bright Eyes, destroys the lab in a maternal motivated rampage. Will takes Bright Eyes’ offspring home, seeing his accelerated intelligence and development within a few days. Naming the young ape Caesar, Will and his dad raise it as their own while Will starts using the treatments responsible for Caesar’s advanced state on his father.
For a while the dangers of playing with nature evade Will. His father is sharp and well again, while Caesar is a remarkable creature and friend to him. Will derives joy from teaching Caesar to use sign language and taking him to the nearby Redwoods to enjoy swinging from the high beautiful trees. Yet, all of Caesar’s days end in being put back in Will’s attic, staring out the window at life happening outside. Will’s idyllic existence comes crashing down when Caesar, now a forbidding powerful animal, attacks a neighbor in defense of Will’s father. Caesar is forced out of his home and sent to live at an animal control facility under the cruel treatment of a sadistic youth, Dodge played by Tom Felton. Caesar’s early days away from Will are quite heartbreaking. He draws the shape of his familiar window on the wall of his cramped cell, gazing at it to find some comfort in this dark place.
Spending more time among the apes, getting harsh tutelage in power from Dodge, and surveying the potential strength in his fellow apes; Caesar begins to apply his advanced intelligence to escaping- not to the comfortable captivity of Will’s attic, but to something more. Caesar begins organizing the apes, building alliances, and arming them with the drug that makes him so smart. Seeing his time to strike, he provokes Dodge and his handy stunner in a fight. In taking Dodge down, Caesar shocks us uttering a guttural and determined, “No” (to which I responded too audibly in the theater, “Whoa”). This ape-human combat riles up all the apes to make a dramatic, thrilling, but also quite tense prison breakout and clash with police. The effects here are spectacular, making you feel for these apes and scorn the humans. Caesar proves to be an incredible leader, outsmarting the police in a siege on the Golden Gate Bridge. Breaking down the cops’ stronghold, Caesar leads his companion apes to the Redwoods, climbing to the highest tree, gazing out onto the endless horizon- the only view fit for a free creature.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is visually dazzling in its way of bringing each ape to life and making their violent clashes completely believable. Andy Serkis does a mind blowing job of bringing Caesar to life, showing a full range of emotion and eliciting empathy and even respect. I agree that Serkis deserves awards consideration for his performance. While a film like Avatar wonderfully employed technology and captured human expressions and movement on screen, there was nothing to grab onto after the thrills ended. Here Rise actually deals with questions of animal treatment and what it really means to be free.
We keep returning to Caesar’s view of the world. In Will’s attic, he can see and participate in a small portion of life. Being at the Redwoods expands his reach, but he still has to walk home on a leash, like a pet. His melancholy realizing his constraints is palpable. Serkis brilliantly conveys Caesar’s sharpening anger when he’s held by Dodge. In the facility, Caesar moves from sorrowful confusion to outright anger then finally to a calm, calculated coolness that drives the film home to its spectacular conclusion. Seeing Caesar atop those Redwoods like a master of his life and community was a beautiful and powerful image. We too would prefer and fight for that endless horizon, true freedom, and real control over our destiny. The film provokes questions of animal testing and using other beings for our benefit without preaching or getting sidetracked from the action story. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, like Caesar, packs a punch under-girded by its intelligence.
Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers would make an excellent double feature. One, based on a true story, follows a group of girls, with one boy in tow, who break into celebrity mansions and cheerfully lift their excess Chanel, Prada, and cash. The other dwells on an fictional nightmare of four friends who go from drunken beach revelry to armed robbery and bloody turf wars during spring break. When arrested, the Bling Ring garners media attention and the kind of flimsy fame that motivated their crimes.
The women in Spring Breakers emerge unscathed after a neon-light bathed shoot-out so ridiculous you’ll cackle with glee instead of disgust. Both films examine how materialism, the pervasiveness of pop culture, and performativity motivate and escalate the respective criminals. With so many television shows, movies, and cultural examinations of the morally vacant anti-hero, it seems fair we should also discuss girls and women behaving badly.
Materialism in both films is a visceral experience. The objects of desire carry powerful meanings for the characters. For the women of The Bling Ring, the jewelry, purses, and furs are sacred artifacts of the celebrity lifestyle. Fashion and celebrity culture imbued them, and us, with preternatural desire and reverence for these things. The girls handle the dresses and shoes with care, like works of art. The stealing is a part of the worship experience: to take these items out into the world, feed off their power, and live the good life.
The women of Spring Breakers have more simple and deadly tastes: guns and money. Before their crime spree, Brit (Ashley Benson) fiddles around with a toy squirt gun, caressing it adoringly. In the presence of the real thing, Brit, Candy, and Cotty (Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine) use automatic rifles as batons to play “Ring Around the Rosy.” The guns give the women power, sexual power in particular, as exhibited in a scene too wild to spoil with Benson, Hudgens, and James Franco. Money has a similar effect. After robbing a chicken shack, they flash their pilfered gains seductively. The money represents freedom, not only to go to spring break, but to cast off moral constraints on their behavior. The women here are less concerned with what money can buy than with how it makes them feel.
Both films explore the deep and symbiotic relationships young women have with pop culture. In The Bling Ring, the girls consider themselves on a first name basis with their marks. Why shouldn’t they with almost unlimited access through celebrity gossip sites, magazines, and tweets. Taking it all in, they want in. Breaking into celebrity homes is more about participating in the lives of the people who’ve shared everything else with them, crossing that final line between the famous and everyone else. In Spring Breakers, the young women find inspiration in darker elements of pop culture: our collective fascination with violence. To fund their vacation, the girls decide to rob a chicken restaurant with fake guns and hammers. They tell themselves “Pretend it’s a video game” which, like many lines in Breakers gets repeated like a rallying cry fueling their destruction. Video games, movies, and TV furnished these young women with the steps and passion to commit these crimes.
At some point, the young women in both films take their pop culture obsessions to a higher level, making themselves the stars of their fantasies of choice. Taking their cues from reality TV stars with no discernible talent, the girls in The Bling Ring kick their narcissism into high gear. This especially applies to Nicki, played wonderfully by Emma Watson, who uses her infamy to launch her own vapid celebrity career. Always ready for the press, Nicki refers to her legal prosecution as a “learning lesson” for her future of running charities or a country.
Bling Ring leader Rebecca, played by Katie Chung (a Chicago native and amazing new talent) meets her arrest with complete calm. Using the language of every legal show and film ever made, Rebecca guilelessly proposes a deal to exchange all the stolen merchandise for her freedom. Self-deception, image control, and constant promotion of the brand come second nature to these young women because those are the core talents of their admired reality TV celebrities. They know the game and play it like stars.
The women in ‘Spring Breakers’ up the ante as well. After getting bailed out by a colorful drug dealer and amateur rapper, Alien (James Franco), the girls make themselves at home with his massive collection of firearms. In a scene that would be shocking if it wasn’t set to Brittany Spears’ ‘Everytime,” the girls and Alien return to the party hotels in pink ski masks and assault rifles to rob everyone. It’s not about the money though, the girls thrive from dominating others. You can glimpse their darker impulses before Alien appears when they relate their chicken shack robbery tale, aggressively threatening their friend to get down on the ground and pointing a gun-shaped finger at her with a convincing intent to kill. These women quickly go from consumers of pop culture violence to expert purveyors of it.
Materialism and pop culture looms large in both The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, but the young women in both film aren’t merely empty disciples to fashion or violence. Each film depicts the importance of the desired items in the character’s psychology and traces how the women move from admirers to experts, taking the items and creating their own world of beauty or horror.