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MindFood: How Fox Did Justice To Its 'Apes'

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Aug 10, 2011 | 9:06am EDT

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It’s been nearly a week since seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, frankly, I cannot stop thinking about it. That simply has not happened with any other studio film this year. So for today’s MindFood, I’d like to put forward some lessons I hope other studios (and 20th Century Fox themselves) learn from Rupert Wyatt’s surprisingly resonant film about a damned dirty ape that’ll have you rooting for the downfall of man about an hour after you first meet him.

CaesarSmart Scripts Forget the Lowest Common Denominator

The biggest problem with remakes, reboots or prequels (and Rise of is a little of each) isn’t the fact that studios are too lazy to come up with new, original ideas so they just cash in on old properties, it’s that they’re simply too afraid to do that. I guarantee you that for every remake that’s come out in the last ten years, studio heads heard at least one very smart, but very risky pitch and decided to pass. It’s not that smart script ideas don’t exist for remakes, it’s that studios are too wary to commit to them because they fear audiences need to have a film be as close to the original as possible in order to relate to it.

What works so amazingly well in Rise of is the script’s ability to seamlessly bridge the world of the old Apes films with a new world. It doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t consistently take breaks to make sure even the slowest person in the room can connect the dots. The story just unfolds organically, and if the viewer happens to be on point, they can pick up nice little hat tips to the original like Caesar playing with a Statue of Liberty toy or a background TV news report on a manned flight to Mars having gone missing. We don’t need to constantly be reminded of the past, present or future.

That was a problem Fox had with X-Men: First Class earlier this year. They were brave enough to let the film be set in the swinging ‘60s, but the script suffered because it constantly had to pause to forecast the future (“Hey, remember those mutants and actors you already know all about, we haven’t forgotten about them!”). And it looks like the same problem we’re going to get with The Thing prequel, as the trailer makes it look like the film is just a compilation of Greatest Hits from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Let the Little Guy Play With the Big, Fancy Toys

Caesar and FrancoI bet Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt was as surprised he got the job as the rest of the world was. We’re talking about a sophomore feature director whose first film, The Escapist, is a relatively low key drama about a prison break. There’s no obvious reason that a studio would hand him the keys to a movie that would seemingly require a long, proven history working with visual effects crews and motion capture artists. And yet something Wyatt said in the pitch process must keyed in Fox to the fact that you don’t have to be James Cameron to make movies like James Cameron.

I actually think that Wyatt’s inexperience with big budget, action-packed feature films is what makes Rise of so successful. He didn’t have any preconceived notions about what you do and don’t do for a tentpole movie like this, so he did radical things like bring the motion capture performances out of their normal, green screen-laden background (the warehoused, climate-control “volume,” as it’s often referred to) and into the real world where the actors have much more to play off of.

Play it Cool With the Trailers

One of the reasons I was so pleasantly surprised by Rise of the Planet of the Apes was precisely because my expectations were so low. Obviously setting low expectations isn’t exactly a marketing strategy studios should start adopting, but I do wish marketers would take a page out of the Apes playbook and not cram every single thing into the trailer. Because the Apes trailer did, despite featuring footage from pretty much every stage of the movie, hold onto the secrets, there was a constant spark of excitement while watching the movie. Hell, and this is a SPOILER if you haven’t seen the movie, but I flat out forgot that six previous films had already established that the apes would wind up talking. So when Caesar roars, “No!” the hair on the back of my geek neck stood up.

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