Welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast as hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are joined by Callum Petch, fresh from this year’s London Film Festival.
As London Film Festival kicks off for another year, we sent Callum Petch to collect his press pass, find the wi-fi password and report back to Failed Critics HQ right away on opening gala screening of Andy Serkis’ debut, Breathe.
My love affair with Star Wars began in 1997 when they were re-released in to cinemas for the 20th anniversary of A New Hope hitting the silver screen. I was 10 or 11 and had not seen them on television before – or at least not to my recollection.
Sure, I’d seen other big action films before. I had certainly seen Jaws and Jurassic Park – and I am sure that I had seen Apollo 13 too. All great, but nothing blew me away quite like Star Wars.
When ‘A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away’ hit the screen, followed by the fanfare, opening crawl and shots of spaceships in battle, I was overawed and in love straight away.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no geek or nerd, and you won’t find me at Comic-Con or bidding on eBay for the mint condition collectable of ‘second alien from the right in the Mos Eisley Cantina’. But if there are two things I’m obsessed with, then it’s football and Star Wars. That’s in spite of the prequels trying to dampen my love for them.
So, when Disney bought the rights from George Lucas and announced a new trilogy plus spinoffs, bidding to build a Star Wars version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my excitement was tempered by trepidation. Would this be another Gungan filled Phantom Menace, or a return to form?
I’m happy to say it was the latter; a fun film that just felt like Star Wars. There were no trade disputes or convoluted issues in the senate hall. It was fun, it was exciting, it was intriguing, it was emotional, it was laugh out loud funny and it was dark.
Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2D2, C3PO and The Millennium Falcon all return to the franchise along with a number of background and secondary characters, giving call backs to the original trilogy (not much, if anything, from the prequels found its way to this to this corner of the galaxy) making certain that you are in Star Wars territory.
In fact, Han and Chewie are their usual, roguish, all-action selves. You can’t help but love the pair and feel a twinge of joy and nostalgia most of the time that they are on the screen.
However, it’s the new cast members that steal the show. This was John Boyega and Daisy Ridley’s big screen debut – arguably Adam Driver’s as well – and they perform admirably. Certainly adapting to and growing into their roles, as the reluctant heroes Finn and Rey, and the villainous Kylo Ren.
Kylo Ren is dark. Really dark. Darker than the darkside dark; conflicted and irrational. You get this real sense of menace from him. Although Snokes (his ‘boss’) lacked that and one of the downsides was his CGI appearance – not to give too much away, as I’m sure there’s more to come.
The Tarkin, to Ren’s Vader, was played by Domhall Gleeson. A small role performed well – again, hopefully there’s more to come in subsequent films.
It was as though Ridley and Boyega had to come out of this on top. One minor gripe from me: Their thick British and American accents respectively did grate a little bit.
Other than that though, they were both excellent. Especially when you consider it was two relative unknowns taking over the reins in cinema’s biggest franchise. I’ve no doubt big things await the pair.
Finally, Oscar Isaac was great in the limited role he was given as an X-Wing pilot and modern-day Han Solo, Poe Dameron. Charming, funny and adventurous; it will be good to see an expanded role for the Resistance’s best pilot in future films.
The action was as you would expect: Fast paced and fun, with jokes aplenty (more than any of the originals). Whereas the comedy in the prequels fell flat, this hit all of the right notes. And, of course, John Williams scores the film perfectly.
JJ Abrams has proven that he was the right choice for director. He rebooted Star Trek well enough for the big screen – although Into Darkness had its problems – and was trusted with this. He put the right team around him and successfully pulled it off.
I’m sure the film has its faults. Maybe once I calm down I’ll notice them? Still, it was a joy to watch and left me with a smile on my face, but still wanting more.
It’s not the best Star Wars film, but it is better than any of the prequels by some way and I think it is as good as Return of the Jedi, if not better.
Welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast as we use our words to describe the eleventh and latest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron! This week we also celebrate our third birthday (hip hip!)
Joining Steve and Owen for this extravaganza is the returning Carole Petts, for the first time on a proper feature podcast this year – although she has appeared on our Avengers Minisodes and reviewed Age of Ultron on the site of course! Also on this episode is Matt Lambourne, fresh from the humiliating defeat in our very own Quizcast.
We start off the podcast as always with a short quiz (shorter than last week, anyway), followed by a very special triple bill. The team were each assigned a random actor from Age of Ultron and pick the three films featuring those actors that they’d like to share. We also have the return of Spoiler Alert at the very end of the podcast. But don’t worry if you’ve not seen the film yet! We retain our usual spoiler-free review before that if you’d just like to know if the film is any good or not.
Join us again next week as we take a look at what else has managed to miraculously squeeze its way into the cinema whilst Marvel have a film out.
2011 seems so long ago now. It’s hard to imagine films even existing back then. The fields were all green, the sky unpolluted and movies were just a figment of the imagination.
That’s clearly not true. But certainly Failed Critics didn’t exist until the following year, so anything that went before it was obviously just practice until our arrival. Film criticism in particular wouldn’t reach its zenith until 2012 with the inception of this website (……)!
OK, so that might not be true either! Nevertheless, Liam, Paul, Mike, Andrew and Owen all return for another entry to our Half A Decade In Film series as they cast their minds back all those years and each take a look at their favourite film of 2011 as we continue with our Decade In Film spin-off series.
It seems insane to say it now, but I wasn’t always a Jake Gyllenhaal fan. Not least of all because just typing his name for this article brings up that obnoxious squiggly red line that tries to convince me that I can’t bloody spell!
I liked his earlier films. Brokeback Mountain and Jarhead are great. But for the most part they are great in spite of Mr Gyllenhaal’s inclusion. I tended to judge him more on rubbish films like The Day After Tomorrow and stuff I just didn’t like, like Donnie Darko and with those in mind I just never saw the appeal of Jake and his performances. Until I saw Source Code that is.
The weird thing is that Gyllenhaal’s performance wasn’t anything special! It wasn’t crap, but it was one of those times when you could name any number of half decent actors that do the role just as well. But the direction, was absolutely superb and anyone in the role of Gyllenhaal’s Army Pilot would have been great as Duncan Jones (the guy that made the excellent Moon) dragged the best out of everyone involved.
Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, an Army Pilot who’s last memory is of being on mission in Afghanistan. Suddenly waking up on a train opposite Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) he takes a few minutes to figure out what is going on and where he is. In those minutes, his train explodes and kills everyone on board.
Waking from the explosion like a bad dream, Stevens is told he is part of an experiment called “Source Code” and he is being used to stop a terrorist attack that is due to happen in the next few hours having already blown up a commuter train. He is being sent back to relive the last few minutes on that train and find the bomber.
Annoying and silly tacked-on “Hollywood” ending aside, what should be a so-so plot to an average screenplay (written by the guy that wrote Species 3 and 4, for Christ’s sake) is brought to brilliant life with Duncan Jones’ direction as Gyllenhaal thrillingly races against the clock time and time again in a sci-fi Groundhog Day with a shorter memory span, for a generation that’s grown up with The Matrix!
by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
After the success of JJ Abram’s Star Trek, there was a buzz about Super 8, a creature-feature which many now consider to be Abrams homage to the Spielberg films of the 80’s. There are some similarities that’s for sure; it uses the same heartbeat, the same suspense and creates a great character dynamic that some of Spielberg’s films have used. Yet it never really reaches the dizzy heights or emotions that those kinds of films hit. E.T broke your heart, The Goonies made you really care about a bunch of misfit kids, and Close Encounters left you in awe. Super 8 never gets there for me, yet that said it is still a great film and one which really does entertain me.
Abrams doesn’t just follow one Spielberg film, he amalgamates a collection of them. A group of friends: not as misfit as the Goonies but pretty close. The broken home: here the family is ripped apart by tragedy and the husband left to bring up his son in a haze of grief and loneliness. Friendships torn apart and rebuilt, romance and of course let’s not forget about the alien. The alien is along ET’s path, while it’s a bit more ferocious then ET, Abram’s alien is just as lost and alone has the little planet loving alien we all cried over (well some of us) back in the 80’s. Being held in captivity and under constant scrutiny and testing, all the alien wants to do is go home.
Once the alien escapes after the rather over-the-top yet quite spectacular train crash, the hunt is on, a town in fear, the military spinning the truth and we are back to Close Encounters. Objects going missing, strange sounds in the distance and of course we need one of the kids to go missing as well. Abram builds the tension from the train crash slowly and surely to he finally reveals his alien in all its glory. While I do like the final third of the film, the ending seems a little flat after everything which has come before it. I was just lacking a real connection to the alien, the kids or even the grieving father and son, and it just feels a nice and satisfactory end to the film, but it doesn’t really spoil it for me.
There isn’t really that much I dislike about Super 8 (except the end). It has a superb score from Michael Giacchino, some wonderful cinematography from Larry Fong and a really solid cast of kids and adults. Kyle Chandler is superb as the father, along with the gang of kids led by Joel Courtney and the wonderful Elle Fanning, they all give solid performances from a decent script. Visually the look of the film is stunning, the train crash without doubt one of my favourite scenes of the whole film. As I said Abram’s is channelling Speilberg but never really pulls it off completely but even so it’s a rather brave attempt and one of my favourite films of 2011.
by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)
I’ve written and talked extensively about my fondness for the Planet of the Apes films, book, comics, TV show and remakes. Most recently in my review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I explain a little about the time I first saw Rise of… in the cinema upon its release (coincidentally on my birthday!)
At the time, I absolutely adored it. After the terrible trailer showing apes leaping off bridges onto helicopters, I half expected a dreadful, CGI filled blockbuster with less redeeming qualities than Tim Burton’s attempt to tell Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet tale. However, I was pleasantly surprised as this clever little sci-fi began to carefully tell a story of an old man with dementia, a potential cure being tested on an ape (Caesar) that begins to grow in intelligence, learns to communicate and, er, leads an uprising.
I’ve since watched it a couple of more times and although that surprise is obviously no longer present, it’s still no less entertaining. It’s everything that’s required of a sci-fi blockbuster. It’s got heart, a great story, decent performances (brilliant performances in the case of Andy Serkis and John Lithgow), an epic climax and it looks utterly breathtaking.
The fact that director Rupert Wyatt and his writers got the tone so absolutely spot on that it completely fits in with the Planet of the Apes franchise, yet felt fresh and modern in a way that some of the dated original sequels don’t any more, is testament to not only their ability, but also to the source material. Quite simply, as much as I loved Conquest of and Escape from, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best film in the series since 1968. And probably the best science fiction blockbuster released between District 9 and a certain Marvel movie a year later.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
One of my favourite Korean films is The Chaser (2008), the tale of a cop/pimp and a serial killer, which as the title suggests, has an awful lot of chasing. The team behind it, director (Na Hong-jin) and stars (Kim Yun-seok & Ha Jung-woo) team up again for The Yellow Sea. That the phenomenal The Chaser was a debut effort put The Yellow Sea top of my ‘to see list’ for 2011.
It’s a simple set up, gambling debt ridden cab driver is offered a way out of his problems……..go to Korea and kill someone. It takes a while to get going, and I can’t deny the simplistic plot is then burdened with a sub-plot about his wife and a small army of characters that you don’t care about or are just not fleshed out that well. So why do I love this film so much…?
…A good Korean gangster caper needs the following ingredients. A completely inept Police force, people being hit around the head repeatedly, ridiculous melodrama, no guns, the main protagonist being outnumbered to a ridiculous degree in fights and chase scenes and of course, close combat involving knives.
The Yellow Sea does all of this. It’s very, very stabby…..and axey….and er…large unidentified animal boney…if it can be used to beat, stab and kill people, it will be. Rivers of blood, things being chopped off, lots of screaming and of course….lots of chasing. This is to The Chaser, what The Raid 2 was to The Raid. All the fun of the first film is there, but they’ve shoe-horned in a proper film too.
I’ve seen this 3 times, this was my first look at the slimmed down directors cut for US audiences. I still don’t understand a lot of it, but you can’t help but enjoy spending time with the main characters, and that alone made this my favourite film of 2011.
by Paul Field (@pafster)
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre is a wonderfully karmic comedy drama set in the titular French port.
Marcel Marx is a financially struggling shoeshine who comes across a young Gabonese boy desperately trying to hide. The shipping container he and his compatriots stowed away had been delayed & diverted from its intended destination of London and opened by heavily armed immigration authorities. The boy, Idrissa, is the only member of the party to make a bolt for the door and get away.
The film follows Marcel’s struggles to help the boy evade capture and make his escape across the Channel to join his mother in London.
They face numerous obstacles; Marcel’s wife’s seemingly terminal illness, the media frenzy about immigration issues, the government authorities’ high profile crack down and the local police have Marcel marked down as chief suspect.
Those familiar with Kaurismaki’s work will recognise many of his signature touches. It’s a simple story about the basic, human decency of ordinary people. All his usual trademarks are present, the constant cigarette smoking, the dog, the importance of music and the wonderfully wry, deadpan humour.
One of the most interesting characters is Monet, the local Inspector. His morals and motives are far from obvious, you are kept guessing right to the end of the film. His encounters with Marcel are so uncomfortable. Is he speaking “Off Duty”, as he claims? Is he genuinely warning Marcel that the net is closing in out of compassion? Or is he slyly trying to wheedle out information by putting Marcel at ease? He brings to mind a slower moving, morose version of Columbo. Hardly surprising, as both are clearly inspired by Dostoevsky’s Porfiry Petrovich.
A highlight, maybe not entirely for the right reasons, is the Charity Concert performance of French recording artist Little Bob, making a cameo appearance. Imagine an elderly Ewok dressed in 1980’s biker leathers and you’re on the right lines.
The only slight disappointment in the whole film is the performance of Kati Outinen as Marcel’s wife Arletty. A truly superb actress, she is somewhat restricted by her character’s illness, but this is still far from the level of performance she’s given in any of Kaurismaki’s other films.
A hugely enjoyable film, with compassion and decency as its main themes.
by Liam (@ElmoreLTM)
Five films there that span a few different genres and continents but are all equally as excellent as each other, I’m sure you’ll agree. Or, maybe you don’t agree and think we’ve erroneously overlooked an obvious choice? Let us know in the comments section below. Otherwise, you’ll have to stew in your own angry juices until we return next week with five of our favourite films released in 2012.
Ahead of this week’s big release of the final instalment in The Hobbit trilogy,
There And Back Again— sorry, quick name change to The Battle of the Five Armies, Owen has rewatched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and first two Hobbit films as preparation.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Apologies for the profusely long title, but I felt it only fitting given the epic length of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga. Fans of these modern adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s iconic fantasy adventure novels are no strangers to things being stretched out for longer than is probably necessary. For example, within the last four weeks or so, I’ve sat through the DVD extended editions of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy (682 minutes all in all) and re-watched the first two Hobbit movies (a modest 369 minutes by comparison). With the release of the third and final part of Bilbo Baggins and his merry band of dwarves’ journey appearing in cinemas this Friday, re-titled The Battle of the Five Armies after it was decided There And Back Again made little to no sense any more since being split from two films to three, I will have spent a total of 1195 minutes in the company of hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, trolls and dragons. In that time I could have re-watched the entire first two seasons of HBO’s massively successful and increasingly popular fantasy series Game of Thrones! And I’d have seen more boobs. A lot more boobs.
Before I get any further, a bit of context as to my position on the Lord of the Rings movies prior to this not-so-unexpected journey through the series is probably in order. As I explained on one of our recent podcasts, whilst I appreciated the scale and ambition of the projects, I would not have considered myself a fan. “Hobbity tosh” was a phrase an old colleague of mine used to describe them – and I would nod in agreement whenever he said it. Quite how I ended up really enjoying both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug (in all of its 48 frames per second glory) when seeing them in the cinema is anybody’s guess! But I did. I mean, I really enjoyed them and was a little taken aback by how much fun I had with them when expecting so little.
It was with the release of The Battle of the Five Armies looming that I decided to give the entire series another chance. I reached for the unwatched copies of the extended edition DVD’s on my shelf (that I had stolen off my dad in 2012 with the intention of watching them before the first Hobbit film came out) and made my way through each of them. Starting with…
Well blow me down. It seems the only reason I can fathom as to why I did not enjoy Fellowship of the Ring the first time around is that it was missing 30 minutes of extended footage, because I really enjoyed what is the start of Frodo’s adventure. As I mentioned on the podcast when I reviewed it last month, it genuinely wasn’t a chore trying to finish it. I know that may sound like a back-handed compliment, but for such a long film, every bit of it was entertaining to watch. From our four heroic hobbits and their first encounter with Stryder, to Legolas and Gimli’s banter, to Bormoir’s battle with the orcs, it was (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) fantastic. I’m still not 100% certain that I like Elijah Wood’s performance as Frodo Baggins, bearer of the one ring on a quest to destroy it before Sauron enacts his dastardly plan, but everyone else seemed perfect. Perhaps none more so than Sir Ian McKellen who was born to play the part of the wise old wizard Gandalf the Grey. It was still as impressive an achievement as I remembered, with some gorgeous New Zealand scenery and beautifully framed shots, but it was probably the first time I really took notice of just how good a movie this is. A genuinely pleasant surprise.
Whilst my colleague Gerry may disagree given his thoughts in our Decade In Film series, I personally found that there was a noticeable drop off in quality during the first half of The Two Towers. A title that I found slightly confusing, given the fact there are more than two towers in the film. In an article I read just this week, it seems that Tolkien himself was also of the same opinion that it was a rubbish title. The film started slowly, with perhaps the opening 90 minutes offering little more than a build up to what was to come. Pacing issues dragged this movie down to essentially a story about walking. Albeit one with a number of redeeming features. There’s more humour here than in Fellowship, particularly involving scenes with Pippin, Merry and Treebeard whose light-hearted scenes help brighten an otherwise dark tale of Mordor’s imposing presence as Frodo and Sam draw nearer. Speaking of whom, Gollum’s appearance also marks a turning point in the story as the fork between their relationship, foreshadowing what is to come of Mr Baggins (Sméagol’s dark and twisted nature) and what he once was (Sam’s friendly disposition and naivety). Narratively, its timing couldn’t have been better as an injection of life suddenly surges through the movie. Of course, also helping this film find its large and hairy feet is the political struggles between Madril and Théoden, Saruman’s corrupting influence (played sublimely by Christopher Lee) and the extraordinary Battle At Helm’s Deep. To coin a football cliché, it’s not just a film of two towers, it’s a film of two halves. The first, plodding and uneventful; the second, increasingly magnificent.
Winner of eleven (yes, ELEVEN) Oscar’s at the Academy Awards in 2004 – that’s seven more than Fellowship of the Ring and nine more than The Two Towers – including the big two (Best Picture and Best Director), it is arguably the most successful film in the entire trilogy. Or, possibly, a recognition of the trilogy in its entirety. The challenge Peter Jackson faced with this final instalment mainly consisted of topping what has preceded it in terms of narrative structure, visual flair and erstwhile adventure, whilst roundly bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. From its opening scenes with Sméagol and Déagol discovering the Ring, to its climactic battle sequence closing the movie.. or was that catching up with the gang back in the Shire? Or was it Aragorn’s ceremony? Or Gandalf shipping former ring-addicts Frodo and Bilbo off to the Elven rehab facility across the water (all in slow motion for some reason)? Or was it… you get the idea, there’s a lot of potential endings to this movie. Even so, from start to finish it was a truly deserving final piece and quite nicely ended the journey without feeling inclined to leave unresolved cliff hangers, include cheap shock twists near the end or unfathomably long indistinguishable CGI fight sequences. If Two Towers momentarily made me question whether or not I would actually enjoy completing the series of films, then Return of the King swiftly put to bed any such thoughts and converted me to a genuine fan of this Hobbity tosh I once pompously sneered at.
As I stated earlier, upon exiting the cinema on 21st November 2012, after just seeing this film in 3D expecting to be bored half to death three hours earlier, I was practically giddy about how much fun I had with Jackson’s triumphant return to Middle Earth. This was my first time rewatching the film since then and whilst I’d forgotten just how slow the opening 50 minutes were, as dwarf upon dwarf arrives at Bilbo (Martin Freeman)’s Hobbit Hole (careful now). It was something I didn’t mind too much in the cinema. It set the tone and jovial atmosphere that would penetrate most of what proceeded through these prequels, but witnessing it for a second time, it was rather tedious. However, things pick up once everybody has been introduced (or re-introduced as the case may be) and they hit the road, beginning Bilbo’s unexpected journey to the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarves reclaim their home from Smaug the dragon. What still holds up well, and has been one of my favourite aspects from any of these films so far, is the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum (which is even more creepy than Peter Woodthorpe in the 1978 rotoscoped animation Lord of the Rings, of which I also squeezed in a rewatch of before starting on The Hobbit). His utter disgust at being accused of sneaking in Return of the King is topped only by the game of riddles with Bilbo. It becomes the stand out moment across either Hobbit film so far and remains as darkly amusing now as it was the first time I witnessed it.
Just as An Unexpected Journey was a fun frolic through a fantasy world I had slowly become attached to, so too was its follow up from this time last year. In fact, I’d say that this was the much better film out of the two. The pacing was more even and the world expansion seemed more rapid and interesting. Suddenly these worlds and characters we’d glimpsed previously became worthwhile additions as Bilbo no longer had to keep proving himself to Thorin (Richard Armitage) over and over again. Meanwhile, Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) added some much needed romance to these stories. It’s not often I say that, but (excuse the euphemism) it had been a bit of a sausage-fest up until this point. Bromance can only take you so far in a world that explores all manner of creature and race. It also gave Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his moody glances a reason to be here. I can quite safely say that it also has some of the most exciting and amusing battle sequences from any of these five films. There’s never been any questions about Peter Jackson’s ability to shoot these moments; whether it’s a priest battling zombies in Braindead, or the sweeping epic Battle of the Pelennor Fields from Return of the King, it’s clearly an area he excels in. Here, there are numerous encounters that are immensely enjoyable. A barrel ride down some rapids, for example, is as fun as it sounds like it should be. A close-combat sequence in a Lake-town house between some orcs and elves is also fiercely engaging, even if it did look a bit too weird in 48fps. And, of course, the moment the audience were waiting for with Smaug’s awakening and subsequent run-around with the dwarves is totally engrossing, setting up a finale that just made me wish Battle of the Five Armies was due out a few weeks sooner so I could watch it straight away!
With all that out of the way, the only thing left to write is that if you haven’t gathered already, I have converted from cynic to fanatic as I eagerly await the release of what is likely to be Peter Jackson’s farewell to Tolkien. Where is there left to go now? A biopic of JRR Tolkien is a possibility but not likely to fit into this fantasy series. With Jackson having repeatedly denied any intentions to adapt The Silmarillion, works that feature familiar characters from Tolkien’s world but was edited and completed posthumously by his son, not to mention the legal battles there would be over the rights to the book which have never been sold, it seems this is the end for Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and co. Unless Guillermo Del Toro fancies a crack at it, of course…
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be in UK cinemas from Friday 12 December 2014, at which point Owen will return for a full review. It will also be featured as the main review on our next podcast, the Christmas Special episode featuring Matt Lambourne and Callum Petch.
That’s right listeners; this week’s podcast is dedicated to all things simian as we not only review Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but also discuss all the films that have gone before. Including the Tim Burton one. Sorry about that.
Another conquest in the revitalised Planet of the Apes series, ‘Dawn’ has further enhanced the reputation of its new director (Matt Reeves) and delivered on its promise to realise the potential of a truly sophisticated and intelligent blockbuster franchise that was displayed during Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
by Owen Hughes (Twitter: ohughes86)
It’s 11th August 2011. My 25th birthday and exactly one month after I first sat down to watch the 1968 science fiction masterpiece that is acclaimed director Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes and its four subsequent sequels. Enthralled by its epic story of ruling classes, forbidden zones, the devolution of mankind into speechless pets, time traveling hippies and Charlton Heston’s chest rug, I’m sat in the cinema eagerly awaiting the start of the latest sci-fi blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Regardless of my personal opinion on reboots, anything will be better than Tim Burton’s effort in 2001.
Within 10 minutes, I have already fallen in love with this dazzling new re-imagination of the origin of the Monkey Planet and its founder, Caesar.
Immediately after the credits have rolled, cleverly teasing what is to come in the as yet unnamed sequel, I breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate what has been a successful birthday treat. As hungry as I am for more, surely a blockbuster as unusually intellectually stimulating and exciting as Rise cannot be topped? After all, the second film in the original Apes series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, was by far the weakest of the bunch. If history does indeed repeat itself, then lowering ones expectations seems like the most sensible approach.
It’s now 16th July 2014. Obviously not my birthday, but once again I feel like I can already crack open a beer and toast another successful entry into a much beloved franchise having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at Cineworld’s surprise secret screening yesterday evening. It has achieved what I daren’t have dreamt it could; a worthy successor to one of the best big-budget films of recent times. Phew!
Deploying a multi-layered story of betrayal, family, home and tolerance, it once again draws you into its unlikely but bizarrely believable world through the meticulous undertaking that has gone into its conception and development.
Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s script begins by reminding us during the opening credits of the devastation caused by the outbreak of the ALZ-113 virus, as seen during the end credits of the previous film. A plague so devastating, it seemingly wiped out the human race. Shifting attention to the now ape infested (I mean, occupied) Muir Woods, California, over a decade later, we see the complex community formed by an older, wiser and greyer familiar looking chimp called Caesar. Juvenile chimps are being educated by orangutans in the laws of their society (ape shall not kill ape), the male chimps and gorillas are out hunting whilst the females stay at home. It’s a young and primitive society, but a functioning utopia for all ape kind. Aside from Caesar feeling a bit down about his old chum James Franco not being given a part in the latest flick, everything is now hunky dory in Monkey Town.
That is until the unexpected arrival of a trigger-happy Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who aimlessly drifts into the their territory. Unaware of the genetic advancements that ape-kind have gone through whilst humankind has regressed, feeling threatened by their sudden appearance, he promptly shoots one of them. Thus begins a calamitous clash of cultures so disastrous that not even Take That covering Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit compares.
What sets the Apes films apart from other big-budget Hollywood blockbusters this year (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Godzilla, Transformers: Age of Extinction to name but a few) is not so much the spectacular way Reeves’ shoots his bombastic action sequences. Nor is it solely because of its gloriously uncompromising script that refuses to dumb down (monosyllabic apes aside) or spare the viewer any of the meatier dialogue that often can only take place via subtitles. Not even its consistently mind bogglingly life-like CGI that is on another level to almost everything that came before it can be the only reason why Dawn is so impressive. It’s a combination of all of the above. It hits a treble 20 with every single shot its spear-tipped poky sticks are aimed at.
Well, almost all of its targets. The only real downside is how it struggles to pin down a genuinely sympathetic human character like Rise did with James Franco and his father, John Lithgow. Watching their relationship slip away due to dementia was heart-breaking, but more importantly, both actors were tremendous. Discounting Andy Serkis and his (once again) stunning ‘motion capture’ performance as the leader of the apes, struggling to contain a rebellious little git within his ranks who wants war with the humans at the same time as providing a future for his family, there’s nothing here that matches up to what we’ve seen previously. The closest moments this ever gets to that level are, at best, fleeting.
Jason Clarke, whole-heartedly playing a father and partner determined not to let humanity lose its only chance to return to the glory days of old, gets the closest to immersing us in any individual humans struggles. We see what his old life meant to him in snippets, rather than in anything satisfyingly substantial. His friend in the human colony and co-leader of the people, Dreyfus, played by the ever-imposing screen presence that is Gary Oldman, gives a first impression of a man grappling with his responsibility to preserve a crumbling civilization. Unfortunately, one short emotional scene aside, it’s not expanded on or developed far enough to push the boundaries, but it is most definitely an assured performance nevertheless. I would have been shocked if it were anything less from an actor of his calibre.
In context, this minor gripe is hardly detrimental to the overall quality of the film in the grand scheme of things. It manages to capture the essence of what makes the original Planet of the Apes films so much fun and clever, whilst continuing to expand on the mythology firmly established in 2011. Verging into b-movie territory occasionally with the explosive action sequences does it no harm whatsoever and only serves to recall the ambitious nature of those 1970’s classics. None more so than both Conquest of and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Making apes riding horses seem terrifying rather than silly (honestly) is an admirable achievement.
Quite frankly, whoever is writing / directing the next unnamed sequel (Night of the Planet of the Living Apes, anyone?) the foundations have been laid so sturdily by Rupert Wyatt initially and now Matt Reeves, that it will take some monumental effort to screw it up from here. Step up one Joel Schumacher? Nah. Please, no. No! It was a joke.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is out in cinemas nationwide tomorrow (Thursday 17th July 2014).
Owen borrowed all of his writing techniques from I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan and can be found regularly mumbling away in a soft-brummie accent on the podcast, using profane words to describe films on Letterboxd, or wondering what to tweet about now the World Cup is over on Twitter.