Ape . . . not . . . kill . . . ape . . . unless . . . situational . . . ethical . . . concerns . . . dictate . . . a . . . temporary . . . revision . . . of . . . practical . . . application . . . of . . . apes’ . . . moral . . . code. I suppose it lacks the declarative grandeur of the more abbreviated thou-shalt-not, but it has the more singular advantage of being accurate. That Whatever of the Planet of the Apes finds itself praised as a great movie, a great scifi movie, or even just a pretty good summer action flick for what it’s worth is testimony mostly to just what a lot of lousy crap Hollywood puts out these days. At least the Marvel flicks are buoyed—most of them—by a degree of humor and insouciant pleasure at bringing a grab-bag of oddball superpowers to life; Planet of the Apes is dour, rain-soaked, and cod-epic: grim, overlong, humorless, and suffused with an utter weariness that comes to life only when it butts up against an even more boring stuffing of cliché.
What was it that Chekov said? If in the first act there’s a moral precept on the wall, then in the second or third act there’d better be a father vowing crazy revenge? I dunno. A global pandemic of MacGuffins has rendered humanity nearly extinct and apes, or at least, a cadre of apes, super smart. I am quite convinced that our childrens’ generations will regard our belief that laboratory viruses will perform such dubious miracles with the same amused contempt we reserve for the giant atomic insects of the 1950s. The apes have decamped from San Francisco to Muir Woods, and despite the fact that there are hundreds or thousands of apes and hundreds or thousands of surviving humans not twenty miles apart, they’ve gone ten years without noticing one another. Then they happen upon each other. Violence ensues. The Leninite apes overthrow the Trotskyite apes in a manufactured coup that image-checks the Reichstag fire. I shit you not. The whole thing would be a glorious hash if it managed a single joke over its geologic running time. The preceding are not jokes, by the way. They’re carried off with the gravity of a Bayreuth production of Parsifal.
Briefly—and I suppose these are spoilers, if you’re an idiot—the movie takes as its central principle that in acquiring human intelligence, so too have the apes acquired our human flaws. Their society is destined to recapitulate our own. Four legs good, two legs bad, but some animals are more . . . oh, fuck it. The apes, in living memory the captive medical test subjects of we vicious, baldy simians, don’t trust us and have an interest in self-preservation. There are good guys on both sides whose efforts to broker a peace are doomed to fail because of the plot of the movie. “If . . . no . . . inevitable . . . conflict . . . then . . . no . . . third-act . . . CGI . . . battle . . . scene,” the apes’ soon-to-be-deposed leader grunts at one moment. I thought it was a little weird that they included that line in the script, but hey, you know. What do the kids say these days? That’s so meta? Personally, I thought it was pretty ratchet.
By the way, the bad evil ape is a scarred victim of torture. Needless to say, he is an Insane Psycho Killer, as are all victims of torture, as well as all disfigured people. One of the glories of cinematic science fiction is that it permits us to recreate the phenotypological shorthand for moral character content that out-of-control political correctness ruined in art and literature, sometime between Dickens and the Civil Rights Movement, if my facts are correct. The noble appear noble, the evil are orcs, and you can’t trust a man in glasses.
The movie is supposed to be a new revolution in CGI, but in fact is back in Jurrasic Park territory, ape feet that don’t quite seem to touch the ground and fur that doesn’t quite move in the wind or rain. An early stampede of elk–these, too, are computer-generated–is especially appalling. The big orangutan’s face manages to fool you most of the time, but only because the architecture of an orangutan face is alien enough that the human eye has a hard time detecting its fakeness; the more human-standard chimps and gorillas look ridiculous. As hokey as the prostheses in prior runs around this particular fictive property now appear to us, this is worse. Small inconsistencies are often worse than big ones. An overabundant realism makes it impossible to suspend your disbelief.
Anyway, this movie is bad, but it’s so emblematic of a prototypical American cultural attitude toward conflict. “Poor Africa.” “The situation in the middle east.” “President Obama needs to be tougher on Putin.” It imagines war as fundamentally gestural, a signifier rather than a graveyard. Oh, if only two leaders could learn to trust each other, then the underlying questions of land and resources could all be banged out. Alas, evil monkey and Gary Oldman can’t get along. Yeah, yeah. Meanwhile, the apes launch a frontal infantry-and-cavalry assault on a fortified position, which would be crazy were it not for the fact that apparently the humans left the armory undefended? Boy, apparently the Simian Bird Flu also genocided common sense. As it hauls itself out of its climactic battle, the movie leaves one deep philosophical question unanswered. Could a chimpanzee really survive an uncontrolled vertical fall of greater than fifty feet onto a platform of steel rebar and remain effectively unharmed? Reader, the answer to that question is also the answer to the question of whether or not you should see this movie.