Dr. Zaius Facepalm

     You might not know this (or care) but there is a new Planet of the Apes movie on the horizon.  Supposedly this will be a new “reinterpretation”, “reimagining”, or whatever you want to call it of the origin of the Planet of the Apes.  There are some interesting actors attached to this apes remake including James Franco, Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Andy Serkis (Gollum), John Lithgow, and Brian Cox just to name a few.  News has recently popped up on several entertainment sites that the movie’s release has been pushed up, from November of this year to early August.  There are all kinds of opinions already about this movie, most of them negative, and you’re about to hear mine!

     First off let me just say that I am an avid Planet of the Apes fan.  All five of the original movies left quite an impression on me in my teenage years with their scope and twisting continuity.  I spent a good two years of my life obsessing about the apes movies and digging into their mythos.  Those movies had me thinking differently about the sci-fi movie genre, and hell, movies in general.  From my interest in the Planet of the Apes, and Charlton Heston I went on to discover a greater love for movies from the 60’s and early 70’s, especially other sci-fi outings like Soylent Green, West World, and the Andromeda Strain.  The one thing that hit home with me, although I probably didn’t fully grasp it at the time, was the social commentary delivered in the planet of the apes movies.  Complex, thought provoking themes that were mingled throughout what some consider to be a schlock premise.  The futility of war, the arrogance of mankind in the face of nature, the destructive power of nuclear weapons, and all the intricate and ambiguous overtones that go along with those things.  Long story short, I appreciate the Planet of the Apes series for what it is and what it was trying to achieve.

Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, and Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius

     Now onto this new Rise of the Apes movie.  When I heard the first hints about this movie, and read that James Franco was involved I was pretty excited.  For the most part Franco has been making some very smart, calculated movie choices and seems to really take an interest not only in giving a good performance but the content of the script as well.  Of course we all remember the last “reimagining” of the Planet of the Apes under the direction of Tim Burton.  Now I love Tim Burton and most of his body of work, but that was not a good apes film.  It was a soulless outing that relied exclusively on the novelty of talking apes in a world turned upside down, and offered up nothing in the way of thought provoking storyline other than vague themes of overcoming oppression.  It was like Gulliver’s Travels, without the satire, just a few trips to some zany places.  I still don’t think Burton’s apes can be completely admonished though.  The makeup, costumes, and sets for that movie (as with most of Burton’s movies) were fantastic, visually it kept what was great about the originals and improved upon it.  But visuals and special effects was never what the Planet of the Apes was about.  It wasn’t a technically difficult sci-fi movie in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars, its strength was in its message.  The talking apes weren’t supposed to enthrall the crowd with the mere spectacle of their presence on screen, these creatures that thought so highly of themselves and their post apocalyptic culture were meant to make us look at ourselves and think about our behavior and its impact on the world as a whole.

     When it comes to Rise of the Apes, there are seemingly already several things stacked against this ape production.  First off is the moving up of the release date.  You might be thinking, “But hey it’s coming out earlier, that’s a good thing right?  We’ll get to see it sooner!”  Ah, not really.  If anything it implies that the studio doesn’t have much faith in it and will move it up to a time when the summer movie heavy hitters are dying down, eliminating competition while keeping it away from the more intense holiday movie season. 

     Secondly there’s the talk that the apes in this movie will be CGI, or motion capture, or some other kind of digital effect.  The Planet of the Apes movies are known for, in fact heralded for, their ape-man makeup.  Eliminating this element of the franchise seems wrong, almost shameful.  Regardless if such complaints are simply nostalgic or old fashioned the fact that the movie is now moving up its release date also means they have three less months for finishing those complex effects, which means it will be rushed, which of course means it will most likely be crap. 

     Third.  This movie is an origin story, the name Caesar has been thrown around and was at one time part of the title (Caesar: Rise of the Apes.)  The plot of this “new” origin has been described as: a young super intelligent chimp, Caesar, rallies his comrades and other apes to revolt against their human captors.  Ok sure, sounds alright, except it really means this movie isn’t a true reimagining of the origin, it implies that it is more or less a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth segment of the original apes saga.  In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes two of the apes from the timeline of the first two movies escaped the complete destruction of the world and are hurtled backward in time to the era when Charlton Heston’s character first left on his mission (stay with me).  There the surviving apes are questioned with curious suspicion and misunderstood, flip flopping the premise of the first movie in a very creative way.  Those apes of course are inevitably killed by an arrogant world that fears them, but they have a baby who survives and who is the subject of the fourth movie Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (pause for breath).  In that movie chimps and other apes have replaced cats and dogs as the world’s most popular pets, the now fully grown evolved ape from the future has been renamed Caesar by his benevolent master.  Soon Caesar embraces the legacy of his parents and more or less teaches the domestic, slave apes to be more self reliant and fight for their freedom thus completely altering the entire timeline of the Ape Multiverse in the process changing the way the apes actually rose to prominence (shew!).  That movie completely sent the whole concept of the Planet of the Apes in a new direction while still bringing along the previous social and political issues of the other movies.  This remake of Conquest, which Rise of the Apes seems to be, looks to be trying to utilize that innovative climax of the fourth movie, without the crucial continuity of the other films.  Without having all the information about this film, Rise of the Apes sounds to me to be more of a Planet of the Apes rip off, rather than an actual part of the franchise.  It’s almost as if the producers decided that they wanted to take the peak of the action from the original saga and redo it in a modern style.  That idea of starting in the middle of your story might have worked for George Lucas and Star Wars, but the real impact of that peak in Conquest of the Planet Apes is lost when taken out of context, and we are left with what will most likely be another vague tale of generalized oppression as with the Tim Burton movie.

     And lastly, speaking of not having all the information about this film, where is the information about this film??  It is now coming out in August of this year and we have very little information, images, script details, or anything else even remotely promoting this movie.  That is perhaps the biggest clue that this movie will be terrible.  From where I’m sitting it looks like the studio (Fox) is going to put a minimum of effort into promotion, move it to a timeslot that has weak competition, and simply hope for the best.  With such low expectations from the movies producers how can I be optimistic?

This lackluster photo is one of the only images currently out from Rise of the Apes.

     I will however defiantly do my best to keep some hope out for this film, I love the Planet of the Apes series and I really think there is some potential left in the message and tone of the original movies.  I would also like to see a sci-fi movie reclaim the genre’s place in legitimate cinema.  Too often these days sci-fi movies are simply dull, action and effects driven “summer movies” with not much to say.  If Rise of the Apes can bring back sci-fi that also has a message, that means there is also still hope that there is a movie going audience left who aren’t all glassy eyed morons mesmerized by big explosions, thoughtless dialogue, and CGI goofiness.

(Not that those elements don’t have a place at the movies, but when that seems to summarize most of the movies out there, things start to seem bleak.)

That is all!

Human or not, Charlton Heston knew how to handle any leading lady.

Some Thing Old, Some Thing New.

     Today I had the chance to rewatch John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s been several years since I’ve seen the movie and I was pleasantly surprised how well it still holds up. I know there are a great many people out there who hold The Thing to be the pinnacle of sci-fi horror movies. There are certainly plenty of reasons for someone to think that, and I won’t argue. Though I don’t think it is my personal favorite, it certainly is a quality flick. One comment I regularly hear that I have a small problem with however is that John Carpenter’s The Thing is far superior to the original. I’ve read that folks don’t believe it should even be called a remake, and that the 1982 version is such a completely different, better type of movie that the two are incomparable. As much as I have to admit that the newer movie is a much scarier movie with truly superior effects I think there are really far more similarities between them then most people want to admit. This is not at all to detract from Carpenter’s movie, in fact if anything it should add to his praises for such a boffo adaptation! John Carpenter’s The Thing should really be a guide for making any type of “reboot” especially in this day and age when it seems every movie is a remake. (And there is actually a remake of this movie coming out this year some time . . . )

     Both of these movies were a part of my childhood in different ways. My dad is older than most dads in my age range, and as such always watched the classic movie channels. Turner Classic Movies seemed to constantly be on one TV or another in my house growing up. The original 1951 The Thing From Another World also just happens to be one of my father’s favorite horror movies and since it was one of the few horror movies to be regularly shown on TCM I was exposed to that movie on a regular basis. Of course what youth doesn’t rebel somewhat against their elders? Though my parents loved TCM I was not a fan as a kid. I turned my sights to basic cable and the wonders of the late night movie. By the time I was old enough to be sneaking downstairs to watch late night TV John Carpenter’s The Thing was hitting the airwaves of basic cable and even that edited for TV version was enough to make me piss a little.  Needless to say it left an impression, and brought to mind the phrase “This isn’t your fathers Thing.”   (Which is just creepy when you read it.)

     Before going into the similarities of the 1951 and 1982 versions let me state one difference I really enjoy about the movies. The beginning. At the start of the original movie the arctic base camp investigates and subsequently discovers the crashed UFO and the frozen space man. That scene is one of the most iconic and chilling of old school horror. The music along with the camera pulling up to reveal all the men standing at arms length forming the perimeter of the massive ship encased under the ice still has an impact. Thinking about how movies were made back in the fifties it even adds something more to the effect of the shot when you wonder where and how they actually got that shot of that icy plain and the huge dark disc embedded within it. They of course take photos, then cut around the frozen alien and haul the block back to base where it thaws and mayhem ensues.
     That type of beginning really works for the time period. However I really like the first few scenes of Carpenter’s version. It opens with a helicopter flying over the snow as a gunner onboard tries to shoot a running husky down below. Already you know something is wrong. The copter pursues this seemingly innocent animal across the snow until they reach an American research base at which point the helicopter lands and the gunner in a frenzy continues to try and kill the dog. Grenades are tossed, bullets are fired, the new arrival’s helicopter is blown up, and the American research team doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Already they are in the middle of the mayhem, they just don’t know it yet. I always like those types of stories. Of course it all becomes clear later when they travel to the neighboring base where they find everyone dead and records full of exposition relating the modern details of this alien reimagining.

Now onto the heart of this tirade! Why you should love both versions of The Thing, and perhaps appreciate even more the work of Carpenter’s Thing.

     An obvious one. Both movies are set in the Antarctic in a U.S. scientific base. This is an important element because this means that the characters are not only fighting some creature, they’re fighting the elements as well. A small group, fending for themselves, in the most secluded place on earth. I can’t think of anything more terrifying.

-Suspense Is Key
     Though both versions of the movie have their scary moments, what really draws you in is the suspense, an element both films make use of almost as soon as the movies start. In the original the main driving force for the suspense are the teams hand-held Geiger Counters which they use to track the alien through the base. Because of the time period the alien is obliged to be radioactive, and the gradually quickening pings of the Geiger Counters warn the men when the beast is approaching. This makes for some great moments as one of the men stares transfixed on the flashing screen while the others tensely check their surroundings waiting for the monster to come crashing through the wall at any moment. The ’82 version masterfully twists this intense suspense and mixes it with suspicion when they discover that their Thing can get inside of other living creatures, imitating and absorbing them devouring them on a cellular level. This creates fear among the men as they realize that some of them are not who they appear to be.

Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington

-Crazy Scientists
     Both movies have one wacky scientist who thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone else and thinks he has all the answers if everyone else would just shut up and listen to him! In the original that scientist is Dr. Carrington played by the eerie Robert Cornthwaite, who could be Dr. Quest’s evil twin. In the remake the “mad scientist” is Dr. Blaire, played by the one and only Wilford Brimley. 1951 – Carrington thinks he can reason with the alien, it is an intelligent being from a highly advanced society surely it will be open to rational discussion. He is wrong, The Thing kills him. 1982 – Dr. Blaire realizes fairly quickly that this alien is a high risk to not only their safety but the security of the entire world. In an attempt to isolate it Blaire tries to destroy all the radio equipment and their various modes of transportation. He is right. Unfortunately everyone else just thinks he’s lost it and attempts to stops him. The first movie was telling us not to listen to those God hating, free thinking, science commies. The other was saying, maybe we should have listened to the scientist, before it was too late. Very topical for their times.

Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blaire

-Creative Aliens in Cinema
     The two Things are quite different in each movie but they are both quite groundbreaking for their time. In 1951 any alien in a movie that wasn’t a martian or some kind of lizard was pretty unique. This alien evolved from plants and sought blood for its nutrients, a sensational idea at the time I’m sure. Though they don’t go into great detail about the Carpenter alien, there wasn’t any need to, it just sort of spoke for itself. That Thing was an effects masterpiece that tore into, digested, gored, and ripped its way across the screen and was groundbreaking in its style.

-Badass Leads
     Kurt Russell was just great in the 1982 movie, and it made me think about how many awesome movies he has been in. Does he intentionally pick cool, sci-fi, movie geek roles? Or has he just been typecast into those parts? Either way I’m not complaining. The ’51 version starred Kenneth Tobey an all-american military hero type who smoked cigarettes, barked orders, and killed ugly alien bastards. Both guys are badasses, though Kurt Russel is more of the Wolverine badass while Tobey was more of the Captain America badass.

-Dog Mutilation
     Kill all the scientists and military researchers you want, but when you kill an animal that’s when it really hits home with the audience. Both movies feature, pretty early on, some dogs getting eaten by hungry aliens.

-Fire Bad!
     Both versions make it clear that this particular brand of alien has no weakness for cold, it can stay frozen for thousands of years if need be. So if you want to kill The Thing, you’d better have some high voltage wires or a couple of flame throwers. This also creates a great dynamic between the setting and the action. There are several scenes in both movies where you have someone engulfed in flames stumbling through the blizzard conditions of an Antarctic storm.

-Memorable Endings
     Both movies have unique endings that leave the viewer with something to think about in terms of whether the threat is really over or not. In the original we are left with the now famous line “Watch the skies!” which is modern sci-fi legend. In the ’82 version we are left with an uneasy feeling due to the ambiguous nature of that films end. The final scenes of both Things leave the audience with some lingering questions and a few worries.

     So I guess what this has all been about is just me trying to tell you to love all Things equally. The 1951 The Thing From Another World and the 1982 The Thing have equal merits for different eras of filmmaking. John Carpenter clearly has a love for the original movie, as well as the original book “Who Goes There?” which both are based on. It is said that Carpenter based his take more on the book, than the movie however. I agree that John Carpenter really did a stellar job adapting the movie, and it isn’t simply some knock off attempt. I just hope that some of you also go back and take another look at the old The Thing and try to appreciate it for what it was at the time, and not simply as some old horror movie with bad special effects!  Oh and if this new remake/reboot/whatever is any good than perhaps I’ll have another post about it as well.

James Arness as The Thing (1951)

My All Time Favorite TV Show, Still My Favorite

IGN recently released their list of the top 50 greatest Sci-fi shows which can be found here.

My all time favorite TV show is of course one in the sci-fi genre, and it is not surprisingly on this list. I would have liked to have seen it placed slightly higher (it came in 13th) because as TV series go this show had a set goal in mind from the very start, it only ever grew in quality of story and design, and it broke away from the genre stereotypes of the day, that is to say it wasn’t simply a Star Trek rip-off. I am of course talking about Babylon 5, the brainchild of one of my favorite television and comic book writers J. Michael Straczynski. I should first explain that I hate Star Trek, though I suppose hate is a bit much. As an enormous Star Wars fan I am diametrically opposed to Star Trek in all its forms. I can watch the original series for the great cast, and I enjoy catching an odd episode of the Next Generation here and there, but Star Trek has just never gotten it’s hooks in me and I do not at all seek to further investigate the mythos of the Trek.

Babylon 5 however did hook me. When it comes to large projects on either the big or small screens I don’t insist on huge budgets and witty, clever writing. I look for something with some ideals and some heart, which is exactly what Babylon 5 brought to the table, the addition of excellent writing just happened to be a bonus for me. I was introduced to the show when my father told me there was going to be some new made for TV space sci-fi movie on. He couldn’t remember the name of it at the time, but said it looked interesting. Being the angsty teen I was, I thought to myself it would most likely be a terrible, campy, bad effects, TV movie. If my dad thought it looked cool, then it probably wasnt’ cool. Then the title came up and it was Babylon 5: In the Beginning. Then I was really pissed, because of what little I knew about Babylon 5 before this introduction, I assumed it was another Star Trek spin-off series and had simply written it off as nothing more. However I didn’t immediately switch the channel and within the first five minutes I realized Babylon 5 was something all its own, something original set in a unique universe. The movie we watched, In the Beginning, was actually a perfect jumping on point. It was a prequel movie that encapsulated some of the history that would often be alluded to later in the show and introduced me to all of the main characters, if only in brief snippets. The movie was shown on TBS or TNT or something and was of course a cross promotion timed along with the start of Babylon 5 being shown on the channel in reruns from season one.

The original Babylon 5 crew lead by Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

I of course tuned into the show, I started the journey through the series from episode one faithfully following through the shows ups and downs to the end of season five, and beyond to the brief and mostly forgotten spin-off show. I could go on and on about why I love this series. The characters. The politics. The mysteries within mysteries. The idea behind the Babylon project. The galactic United Nations concept. The characterization of the cultures. The full deep history of that universe which was presented in a way that didn’t drown you in details but rather delicately hinted at its fully fleshed out complexities. This show without a doubt had some of the best characters on television, who not only made for great stories but who each had their own story, every character evolved, grew, changed and adapted as the show went on which was one of the major selling points of the series. I have so much love for this show it is difficult not to get carried away in praise of it, I will continue to press this show upon the uninitiated until the day I die. The only problem I can pin on this series is that it relied on the viewer to follow the story, to get to know these characters, and thusly became very dependant on its own continuity. The idea of a TV show doing that today is nothing new, what with DVR, Hulu, and seasons of shows coming out on DVD like clockwork it’s much easier now to catch up on a show. For a long time however that was a major downside to Babylon 5, it was hard to go back and rewatch episodes past. In fact I made it a mission of mine to spread the love for this sci-fi realm to the point that I religiously recorded each episode, edited out the commercials on my rig of two VCRs, and struggled to put them in proper chronological order (remember, such information was not yet as fleshed out on the internet in those days, I had to hope the reruns were aired in the right order and if not I had to try to figure it out from episode to episode.) I showed those tapes to as many friends as possible, and eventually formed a small band of my friends into die-hard B5 fanatics. We had many a long evening where we played the Babylon 5 card game, while eating oven baked appetizers, followed by watching as many episodes as we could before passing out.

The gang from Babylon 5 under the command of Captain John Sheridan

From the start of the Babylon 5 saga creator J. Michael Straczynski had a story arc in mind which would take place over 5 seasons. Mysteries were brought up, histories revealed, characters developed, intrigues lingered, and epic wars were fought. The last season ushered in a new era for the characters and wrapped up the overall story excellently. There were no loose ends, and closure was achieved. There were of course things that crept into the spinoff and with such a huge and well laid out universe there were of course more stories to tell, but Babylon 5 the show, and the station itself, finished it’s tale in a grand style. For the longest time I expected Babylon 5 to be dethroned as my favorite show by the highly awesome LOST (which heavily features Mira Furlan, a Babylon 5 heavy hitter.) I wisely decided to hold back crowning LOST as my favorite until the series ended and wrapped up it’s winding enigmas. Personally I believe LOST failed in its conclusion. That is not to say LOST is not an awesomely terrific show, but the build up, climax, and ending of Babylon 5 will, for me, remain the measure of a well thought-out, smart, and unique television experience. Hopefully one day there is a show that can top Babylon 5, but as for the direct future I do not see any such show on the horizon.

Anyway, believe it or not I was hoping to keep this blog entry brief, so that is all!