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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 7, 2014

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


Guardians and Dawn

Guardians of the Galaxy was promoted in two ways ---- as a comic-book action movie, and as a sci-fi comedy.

And it delivers on both promises, but not in the ways I had expected.

Sci-fi comedies are usually spoofs. Like Spaceballs, they play around with the cliches of the genre and, like Spaceballs, they achieve humor only occasionally.

The great exception was Galaxy Quest, which was meant to be more of a spoof on the Star Trek fandom phenomenon. And it became memorably and genuinely good because the writers shunned the anything-for-a-laugh attitude of most spoofs, and instead created a script with a heart and a brain.

Add to that the brilliant performance of Enrico Colantoni as the alien Mathesar, and you had something fine.

People kept comparing the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy to Galaxy Quest, and that could have meant very different things.

It might have meant nothing more than that both films have ""galaxy"" in the title, or that both of them were ""sci-fi comedies.""

Or it might have meant ---- and in fact did mean ---- that Guardians of the Galaxy was striving to be, not a spoof, but a genuine action comedy.

One of the things we loved best about the original Star Wars was that it was funny. Guardians seems to have aimed at Star Wars rather than Spaceballs as its model.

Unfortunately, however, Guardians is based on comic books, and the mistake that damages most such movies is this: The filmmakers assume that the audience is already familiar with the basic elements of the story.

This is a safe assumption with Superman and Batman and Spider-Man flicks. But those had already penetrated the wider culture ---- they weren''t just comic-book insider stories.

X-Men worked as a movie because the writers did not assume that we already knew all the characters. They were introduced carefully and effectively.

Guardians of the Galaxy is based on a comic book series that has almost zero penetration outside comic-book fandom. And the writers did a perfectly lousy job of introducing us gradually and clearly to the characters and situations driving the story.

For the first twenty minutes, we see some amusing action sequences done by an actor with exactly the kind of insouciance that made Harrison Ford so successful: Chris Pratt, who buffed up from the sloppy-pudgy character he played on Parks and Recreation.

But one actor, plus some mildly interesting tech effects, is not enough to engage us in a story ---- especially when we''re getting all kinds of different players thrown at us, all of them aliens of one kind or another (which often means nothing more than dyeing the actors'' skins an improbable color and dressing them in 1950s costumes).

Our twenty-year-old, who is conscientious about these things, had looked up information about the comic-book storylines and so she was not at all confused by the too-fast infodump in the first twenty minutes.

But my wife and I found it needlessly baffling. Everybody was introduced in medias res (something Homer never did, ye literature teachers!), already engaged in activities that we (1) did not understand and (2) did not care about.

Fortunately, the charm and the action and the clever bits were enough to keep us going until the story started to become intelligible about twenty minutes in.

Helping Chris Pratt along were Zoe Saldana, fresh from her gigs in Avatar (Neytiri) and Star Trek (Uhura), and ... well, that''s it, really, in terms of leading roles.

We had the voices of Bradley Cooper, playing a hyper-raccoon named Rocket, and Vin Diesel as the voice of a tree-creature named Groot ---- whose dialogue consists of finding different ways to say, ""I am Groot,"" a running gag that paid off well.

John C. Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Gregg Henry, and Glenn Close do a decent job in small roles, but they aren''t given much to work with.

The movie really is Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, David Bautista (as Drax), and the animated characters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Everybody else does a good job in support, but the movie works so well because of dead-on performances by these five.

For me, the measure of a movie is whether, without the visuals, there''s still anything there. Guardians has some genuine wit in the writing, and the actors bring relationships to life in the midst of action that, let''s face it, we''ve pretty much seen before.

They give most acting awards and nominations to actors who radiate anguish or give us humorless portrayals of various eccentrics. But to bring off good characterization and effective relationships in the midst of explosions, computer graphics, and absurd events takes at least as much skill as playing one-note eccentrics like Rain Man or Christy Brown or Nell.

Here''s what matters: Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun, it''s better than I expected ---- by a lot ---- and the filmmakers are getting the very tangible reward of having the largest August opening in film history.

This is, after all, the dumping ground of summer. All the movies they really thought would be hits came out in May and June, with a few holdovers for the Fourth of July.

Disney believed in Guardians when they gave it a $170 million budget. But then, with the film in the can and plenty of chances to see what they had, they promoted it like an August movie.

The audience defied their low expectations and made it clear that this was the movie they''d been waiting for all summer.

And in this case, the audience was right.

*

How clumsy of the producers, to swap the titles of the two most recent Planet-of-the-Apes movies.

The James Franco story about how the apes got smart and humanity was mostly wiped out by disease should have been ""Dawn of,"" and the Jason Clarke/Gary Oldman movie from this summer, about how the apes fight their first war with the human remnants, should have been ""Rise of.""

But titling is a difficult art, and there have been worse errors than that.

Where it counted, I think the writers of both movies did everything right that could be done right within the current world of commercial movie-making. As a novelist, I would have spent a lot more time in Dawn on the development of ape society. But film offers no such luxury as ""a lot more time.""

Instead, we are shown the accomplishments of the apes by implication. We see the structures they''ve built, the nest-like habitats. The look and feel was wonderfully strange, with lots of sticks poking out. Never mind that there is no rational basis for such architecture. It looks dangerous and cool.

I also saw no reason for the apes to be mere hunters and gatherers ---- especially in a woodland as barren as the forests of Marin County. How long before their hunting methods completely depleted the larger game?

Again, those aren''t problems for moviemakers. And, to be honest, as a novelist it would take me about a page to justify or explain each of these decisions. So, within the constraints of expensive movie making, this movie was as smart and real-seeming as Rise of the Planet of the Apes back in 2011.

To me, the original Planet of the Apes series was quite thin. The first movie depended on two things: The role reversal of humans being subservient to apes, and the big reveal at the end. (No, not Phil Hartman running around screaming, ""Soylent Green is pee-pul!"")

The sequels seemed to be nothing but a cynical effort to cash in. The apes got steadily less apelike. Beneath the Planet of the Apes was so embarrassing that I cringed for the last half-hour, especially at the humans worshiping a nuclear missile. Dumber than the Ewok sock hop.

I didn''t even bother to attend the 2001 remake of Planet, because (1) it didn''t need remaking, (2) the apes were stupidly designed to look more human, which defeated the whole point, and (3) it was by Tim Burton, a filmmaker who goes dark for no reason and tries for coolness above believability and coherence.

I have never seen a Tim Burton movie that did not fill me with regret for the wasted hours stolen from my life.

Given the trajectory of the whole Apes series, I had little reason to hope beyond the fact that in the promos, the CGI motion-capture apes looked great, and I had a degree of trust in two actors who never give a bad performance regardless of the material they have to work with: James Franco and Andy Serkis.

They both came through in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was not only the best of the Apes series but was, in my opinion, the first really good one.

James Franco is not in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes except as a memory shown to us in footage that happened to be in a videocam ---- which either had the most incredible batteries ever made or had been left plugged into a wall socket; I forgive them, because the moment was quite lovely.

The writers of Dawn did a fine job of showing how two groups that overwhelmingly wanted peace got sucked into war by a few hotheads.

The pattern is identical to the way many of the wars between white settlers and Native Americans got started in the lands east of the Mississippi.

There would be a peace treaty, sincerely entered into by both sides. But then either white settlers would defy the law and move into forbidden territory ---- and the government lacked the will and the manpower to remove them ---- or angry young Native American males would go on a raid, provoking a new war fever among the whites.

Mutual terror ---- completely justified because of savagery on both sides ---- made the situation so volatile that there was no room to absorb and forgive acts of terrorism or abrogations of the treaties.

There could be no patience, and the situation invariably degenerated into wars of elimination. (Just because the whites always won didn''t mean that the will to destroy was not also present among the Native Americans.)

This is the pattern shown, quite intelligently, by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which the actions of a few ---- who are, by the way, perfectly justified in their own eyes ---- shatter every attempt at peaceful coexistence.

The movie is carried by Andy Serkis ---- whose brilliance within the constraints of motion-capture filming is undeniable ---- and by an actor I had never seen before: Jason Clarke.

Well, no, I must have seen him because he was in The Great Gatsby. But that movie was so overdesigned and overdirected that few performances were able to emerge and become memorable.

I hope that this movie provides ---- sixteen years after his first film appearance ---- the breakthrough Jason Clarke has long been hoping for. While he doesn''t have the instant charisma of James Franco, he has a deep strength that grows on the audience over the course of the movie.

We have time to get a sense that we know him, and he is able to build trust for his character. His is a restrained, moving performance, and I hope that he is still around for the inevitable sequel.

And who knows, maybe his role as John Connor in Terminator: Genesis, due to hit theaters next year, will give him an even stronger launch.

The one weird thing about Dawn is that it''s hard to know whom to root for, between the two sides in this war. It''s not like watching Dallas play the Redskins, where I hope they both lose.

This is a case where the audience really cares about avoiding the war, and wants both sides to survive undamaged. There are good people and heroes on both teams.

Emotionally, this is a very hard balance to strike in telling a story in any medium; in film, where characterization is by its nature cartoonish and iconic, it''s nearly impossible.

That''s why most movies have clearly defined villains that we can all feel good about hating. In fact, it''s a mark of shallow movie-making when they really pile on the evil, making the bad guy not only a murderer, but also fat or ugly, and rude to pets and children.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has no villains. No, not even the ape Koba, because his actions make perfect sense given his experience of the world. He is, in his own story, a tragic hero.

Most action movies are see-once experiences. When you try to rewatch them, the story is so shallow that there''s nothing there. Mocking them provides the only pleasure. Exhibit A: The Matrix series.

But a few action movies ---- notably the Terminator films ---- have a core of quality and integrity that make it a pleasure to watch them seriously a second time.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, to my surprise, eminently rewatchable. It got smarter and better on repeat viewings.

I will not be surprised if Dawn turns out to be that good, when it starts popping up on cable. It''s certainly good enough to be worth paying to see it in the theaters.


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