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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 11, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ape Rise, Guest Judges

So let me tell you how much I care about the whole Planet of the Apes franchise:

Not one little bit.

First movie: Cute gimmick. Nice ape suits. Always loved Roddy McDowall, but he was better as Henry Sawyer on the 1973 TV movie of Miracle on 34th Street, mostly because the ape suit interfered with his facial expressions. And nobody has ever played incredibly bad dialogue with more verve and passion than Charlton Heston.

Later movies: I only saw Beneath the Planet ... and it was so badly written that it almost reached the level of unintentional farce. Really, a bunch of mutants with varicose veins on their bald heads chanting in worship of a nuclear missile? I'm sorry, there are some writer crimes that even the finest ape suits can't overcome.

The recent remake of Planet of the Apes looked stupid and was unnecessary -- at least I don't think anyone had gone around and erased all the copies of the original. So I never saw it.

Why did I even go see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then?

Hope springs eternal?

Not really. I went because I'd heard good things about the ape CGI, and about the brilliant Andy Serkis as the hero of the story, the chimpanzee Caesar. No, Serkis didn't get to wear his own face -- neither did the guys in ape suits in the original movie. But Serkis's performance as Gollum had been breathtaking, and I expected no less of him in this movie.

I didn't even know James Franco or John Lithgow were in it, though I regarded the presence of both as a happy surprise, and their performances were wonderful.

What really surprised me was the writing. The team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were unknown to me (they wrote movies I wasn't interested in), but in writing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, they pulled off the same trick that Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin did in Twister back in 1996 -- they took a cynical project designed solely to make money, and turned it into something surprisingly wonderful.

Sure, the fake science made some mistakes that could have been easily fixed -- I would have helped them do it, and it wouldn't have taken a moment longer than the fake science they used. But they didn't call. Go figure.

Still, they were way above average in their efforts to make good fake science, and I have to honor them for doing better than most sci-fi movies even try for. They do tributes to the original movie and they also set up that movie so that if you know the tale, you can see all the seeds being planted.

Stop right here. I'm going to now tell you why it's such a wonderful movie, and in doing so I'm going to tell you large swaths of the storyline. It won't spoil the movie, because this is a see-more-than-once movie, but if you want to be surprised, skip it. If you've seen it, or don't mind spoilers, go ahead.

The whole point of the movie is to show us how mutton-headed scientists managed to turn planet Earth over the sentient apes. In other words, the story is about our species losing to the apes. Oh, what a winner!

Here's what the writers actually wrote: The story of a genius child trapped in a situation completely out of his control, his reality shaped by his masters, so that even the ones who loved him and cared about him treated him as property. A commodity.

So what does he do? He yearns for freedom, but never harms anyone who does not force him to harm them by attacking someone he cares about. He's deeply good.

And yet he is going to lead and win a war, saving all the living members of his species in the process.

Here's what bad writers would do. They would tell us the chimp was smart, but never actually show him doing anything smart, because that would have required them to think of something smart. They would show his "leadership" by making him bratty and defiant and destructive, but really good on tests and then he would miraculously win the war.

Here's what these writers actually did: Yes, Caesar was good on tests, but that was easy, a throwaway. They showed him in believable relationships with good people and bad people. They showed his moral choices and made sure we understood that when he did violent things, he had a good reason for doing them, even if he had misunderstood the situation.

Then Caesar is put in a holding pen with a lot of not-so-smart chimps. He quickly games the system and gets access to things he shouldn't have, and uses it to help other chimps. He has an enemy determined to subdue him or even kill him if he can, and Caesar finds a genuinely smart way to overcome him without killing him; using male-chimp protocols, he actually wins his allegiance and makes him a lieutenant.

Then he breaks out of the holding pen, finds containers of a highly contagious virus that will make all the other chimps even smarter than he is. Then he goes back to the holding pen, doses all the other chimps, becomes smarter himself, and ...

He has become their benefactor. He has earned their trust. He has put himself at risk repeatedly for their sake. They would follow him anywhere.

So would the audience. Because when you're telling the story of a character who leads others in war, you have to show how he earns their trust. And you do that by showing him doing things that make the audience trust him, too.

This is a very, very hard thing to do. It's impossible if you don't even try. But these writers tried, and they succeeded.

Now I have to get personal: Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first truly successful adaptation of my novel Ender's Game to appear on the screen.

Oh, I have no idea if the writers ever read or even heard of my novel. But they faced very nearly the same set of challenges, and they made most of the same choices I made in creating my most popular character. That they were working with a chimp and I was working with a human child made scant difference.

If you've read Ender's Game and seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you are already nodding your head and saying, Wow, RotPotA is even more like Ender's Game than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

If you haven't read my book, well, you're part of the majority of the human race, and you'll just have to take my word for it: This is a hard thing to bring off, and these writers did it well. If they learned some of it from me, that's cool and I'm glad. If they did it all on their own, then I salute them all the same.

But it makes me happy that I've seen it done right. It really does work on screen to create a real hero, a real leader, in a realistic and powerful way -- when the writers care enough to attempt it.

Most writers would have made The Last Starfighter and left it at that. People who don't understand heroes and leadership think they've done just fine when they make empty stuff like that.

And for a lot of the audience, it makes no difference. For a lot of people, RotPotA is a cool ape movie and nothing more, and they don't even want it to be more.

To me, though, and to some of you, this movie transcends the camp-classic tradition it arises from, and it's worth seeing. Maybe even more than once.

*

Guest judges on So You Think You Can Dance are such a mixed bag. Coming on to a show with a long tradition and joining a panel of judges who are genuine experts who are trying to help the young contestants improve their art -- that requires some real chutzpah.

But over the past few weeks, we've seen that it takes more than that to do it well.

There have been, this season, a couple of excellent guest judges who were delightful and respectful and really contributed to the show. There were also a couple of stinkers.

I was surprised and disappointed that one of the stinkers was Neil Patrick Harris. I've known and admired his work for a long time, but on the SYTYCD panel, he was more than slightly awful. All his comments were pretty much worthless -- but that's not the problem. We expect the comments of guest judges to be worthless, if they aren't professionals in the world of dance.

Ellen DeGeneres came on a few years ago and delighted us because she wasn't trying to impress us. She knew that she enjoyed dance but knew little about it, and so her comments were admiring and in some ways helpful, and always focused on appreciating and encouraging the young contestants.

But every comment Harris made was designed to show us how wise and cool he was. It's as if he thought that simply by showing up, he was now the star of this panel. Not cool. I was more disappointed with each comment he made.

To be fair, however, part of the reason for my disappointment was that the guest judge from the previous week was so wonderful. I have never watched Modern Family, so I had never seen Jesse Tyler Ferguson at work. But on SYTYCD his comments were self-effacing, kind, generous, and funny. He didn't act as if he thought he was cool -- he made it clear that it wasn't about him at all. We loved him. I wanted to see more of him.

So the contrast when Harris came on the next week was all the more shocking.

But then they brought on Lady Gaga, and she made Harris look like the best judge ever.

Honestly, folks, it's not that I "don't get" Lady Gaga. It's that I'm embarrassed to belong to the same species. I'm not quite sure that I even do.

She guests on American Idol last year, too, and she was appalling. Her comments were amazingly stupid. She was truly offensive when she tried to shock some of the more naive contestants.

And when she performed, she made it clear that every one of those kids on Idol had more talent than her. All she has is a willingness to offend. But any idiot can do that. It's the first resort of the talentless.

And here she was on a dance show, and she spent the entire time intruding on the other judges. Far more than Harris, she truly thought that she was the star of the show. She kept sticking her face and hands into the camera frame when Nigel Lythgoe was talking. She made stupid, ribald comments to which the contestants could not possibly make any response, and which helped no one.

In fact, it was plain that besides being untalented, she isn't very bright. She was guest-judging on a show that she didn't understand, and I have never been more grateful that we had TiVoed the show and could fast-forward through her comments. It didn't stop us from seeing her, but we could mostly avoid hearing her.

Inviting Lady Gaga to be a guest judge or "mentor" on a talent show is like asking Jack Elam to give tips to beauty contestants. She is out of her depth just by walking in the room. On shows like Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, the contestants are taking it seriously, and to bring a Lady Gaga among them shows contempt for them and the art they're trying to master.

This pathetic attention-hunger fakeuse should be invited, in future, to stay home and count her money. She has nothing useful or entertaining to say to people who take their art seriously.

Which brings me to Christina Applegate. First, she actually is a dancer. She may have won fame first as the airhead slutty teenage daughter on Married with Children, but this is a smart, talented actress who also trained as a dancer her whole life.

Yet she didn't put herself forward as an expert. She made it clear that while she knew some dance vocabulary, there were genres she knew nothing about, and she asked for help in finding the terminology. Yet it was also clear that she understood which moves were difficult and which were executed with extraordinary grace.

She understood performance as no other celebrity guest judge had. She actually belonged on the panel. Oh, and yes, she was as funny and likeable as Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

I can readily forget Neil Patrick Harris's weak performance as a judge, for the very good reason that all his behavior could very well have been the product of his nervousness because he knew he was out of his depth on a dance show. Besides, Harris is so wonderfully talented that it does make up for a bit of uselessness now and then.

But Lady Gaga? What in the world is there to compensate for her ugliness of soul, except for her deliberate ugliness of body and song? It is impossible even to pity her, since her wretchedness is continually self-inflicted.


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