X-Men: First Class carried through on the promise (threat?) to go back to the franchise that was dulled severely by Brett Ratner’s third installment, and tarnished even more by a loud, brainless Wolverine spinoff. With original X-director Bryan Singer back on as an executive producer, the need to tell a good story beyond lots of flashy effects (of which there were many) was put at the forefront again where it belonged. What hurt the movie a bit, on two fronts, was that there was an overall brutality to it that was off-putting. Even some of the “good guys” came off like terrible people, deserving of the bigotry and shunning that is the crux of X-Men’s allegorical construction. It’s easy to forgive a good bad guy, but hard to forgive good guys that are jerks.
The other thing that held the movie back was that even though it was necessarily set in the early-1960’s, and the production design kept insisting it was so, the viewer never could truly feel the time period was correct. It felt like a post-Matrix movie, not post-James Bond like the EPKs kept insisting. These were things that kept coming to my mind even though I was enjoying the movie for what it was. It’s what they call the “Uncanny Valley” effect that the viewer knows what is a real person and what is a computer animation even if it is stunningly realized in CG. When the visual effects in First Class take over, it’s hard to go with the story being set in the handmade, sometimes clunky Sixties anymore. It looks like the times but feels far too new, go-go boots and mutton chops be damned.
Yet I will say that, of the comic book flicks of 2011, X-Men: First Class stands out above the equally anachronistic Captain America, the formulaic Thor, and the just-plain-awful-and-ugly Green Lantern. It’s a good movie that could have been better if, only once in a while, the makers would have forsaken the mouse for the practical effect.
So that brings us to Fox’s other preboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and of properties that could have been resurrected for new audiences, this is one that felt the most necessary, the most “right.” Leaving the property to the infinitely silly Tim Burton revamp seemed like such a waste of good assets, and so this story regarding the first of the sentient apes Caesar, played so well in a motion capture performance by the talented Andy Serkis, works on that fundamental story level. That story, of how a pharmaceutical organization embarks on a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, uses lab animal simians as test subjects, and winds up playing god and setting the wheels in motion for their evolution, and man’s fall from grace, is smart and plays into the mythology novelist Pierre Boulle, original screenwriter Rod Serling, and director Franklin Schaffner conceived with the first Apes.
Had the filmmakers of today relied on such a strong foundation and rejected easy outs, my review would not now be heading into negative territory, but here we go. The script becomes so leaden with in-jokes and nods to the original story, those in the know can’t help but fall off the haycart to start looking for storyline easter eggs. Also, one of the “baddies” who is just more greedy and officious than pure evil, is Idris Elba who has a British accent. This convention, even though Elba is a very good actor, does some damage to the factor of suspension of disbelief. These can be glossed over when the character of Caesar takes the spotlight, but only to a point.
See, here’s the thing. Even though Serkis is giving his all for this part, and the interactions between him and the lead, played by James Franco, are alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, I as the viewer could never get past the feeling I was watching a special effect. Forget the Blu-ray’s special features that tout the effects as revolutionary and spellbinding. They’re actually some of the worst effects I’ve seen in years.
The awfulness is that, one assumes, because the movie makers were shooting for that 3-D sweet spot, there’s a lot of separation between the digital apes and the live action actors. With the glasses, sure they may pop from the screen but even without, they are uncomfortably apart from the narrative. At times, the apes feel like Colorforms stuck to the TV screen, floating above the story world and never living in it.
Moreover, the designs of the apes range from indefinably simian but not sentient to weird, hairy children that have no monkey-like attributes otherwise. Seldom if ever does effects powerhouse WETA Workshop strike that middle path where you believe these creatures are a) actually a part of the movie, b) the next evolutionary phase inflicted by the ‘disease’ of a radically altered consciousness, or c) not just there to add 3-D jolts. Again, were it not for Serkis’ very heartfelt performance, there would be nothing to recommend these characters for.
And that’s pretty sad, really. The story is full of potential and hits it on a number of occasions. That the demise of humanity as dominant species was caused by the liberties they take on the natural world is a very Twilight Zone/Serling-esque P.O.V. and makes the conceptual aspirations of Rise of the Planet of the Apes perfectly aligned with the series it hopes to meld with. It was our species’ hubris that was our undoing, as well as a kneeling before some technological deity and not considering what such a pact entailed. The story gets that. The realization, however, misses it entirely and hits that digital effect chord way too hard and way too often.
Would the movie have been better with real apes? Well sure, but that defeats the point of the story of animal exploitation. What about putting people in ape suits? Yeah, but nobody would have taken it seriously; not by today’s audience standards. No, what was really necessary for both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class was that they tried a little harder. Both movies were on the right track but both got caught up with what the digital Buddha could give them, and not remembering that you also have to work harder to earn it.