Rand Richards Cooper August 31, 2011 - 8:48am
A cosmic sci-fi parable shot on an earthbound budget of $150,000, Another Earth stars Brit Marling as Rhoda Williams, a high-school senior newly accepted by MIT. Driving home late from a celebratory bash with too much drink in her, she leans out the car window to look up at a planet whose discovery has made headlines that day—and plows into a family stopped at an intersection, killing a woman and her young son. The husband, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother), survives the crash; and four years later, freshly released from prison, Rhoda undertakes to find him and apologize. Instead she befriends him—she was a minor at the time of the accident, and thus he never knew her identity—and soon finds herself in the precarious position of becoming the lover of a man whose life she has destroyed.
The “sci” part of Another Earth involves the planet that Rhoda spotted on the night of the accident, which turns out to be an exact replica of Earth. Its doppelganger nature raises the fantastic possibility (following an eerie scene in which a government scientist establishes radio contact with the other planet, only to find herself talking to herself) that all beings alive on Earth at the moment of Earth II’s sighting remain alive there still—which in turn raises, for Rhoda and John, the possibility of redemption, a chance to expunge a dreadful, life-altering tragedy.
Like 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Another Earth subordinates its futuristic elements to the familiar realities of loss, grief, regret, and the powerful human urge to rewrite the past. This is director Mike Cahill’s first feature, and it is far from perfect. Cahill’s script (co-written with Marling) is badly underwritten, and the attempt at a grief-struck solemnity instead produces borderline catatonia—offset by an ending so abrupt and cryptic that one audience wit called out, “When’s part two, next week?” Despite its flaws, however, Another Earth maintains a clear bead on the calamities of the heart, and does so in part by deftly keeping the specter of Earth II in the background. Passing scenes detail the growing clamor as the public keens with curiosity and anxiety over the mystery. But we are spending time with possibly the only two people on earth—well, on Earth I at any rate—who aren’t paying attention; and their obliviousness makes for a testimony to the annihilating power of sorrow. Animated by the protean beauty of Brit Marling, the film is shot in gloomy sepia tones, with wide-angle shots of shorelines and fields half-lost in winter fog, that make Connecticut look like Minnesota—a world of dreary sorrow, over which the specter of Earth II floats big, blue, and luminous.
What fiftysomething in America can forget the phenomenon that was The Planet of the Apes? The film burst onto the screen in the turbulent year 1968, not only heralding with doomful élan the coming apocalypse, but peering beyond it to a through-the-looking-glass vision of a world turned upside down—and offering, in the prospect of humankind enslaved to simian masters, a satisfying all-purpose scourge for our many sins. The film’s success sparked a seemingly endless series of sequels, in which humans and simians slugged it out in alternating rounds of supremacy and subjection. Planet and its successors drew from a bulging grab-bag of the era’s traumas and obsessions: Vietnam, the Cold War and fear of a nuclear holocaust, the civil-rights movement, the emergent animal-rights movement, space exploration, scientific triumphalism and its opposite...and, oh yes, the little wrinkling noses of those ersatz monkeys, so cute, like Samantha in Bewitched. All in all, a spectacular story. And now here comes Hollywood to tell it all over again for a whole new generation.
Like the earlier films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes welds its vision of a dystopian future to a warning—this time, about the perils of genetic engineering and the pharmaceutical industry. In a global corporation called, ominously, Gen-Sys, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is researching an anti-Alzheimer’s drug that seems to enhance intelligence in chimpanzees. Following a violent setback during a trial of the drug, however, he is ordered to destroy all the experimental simians—but secretly saves one, a baby he brings home and names Caesar. (Confusingly, the name evokes the chimp played in several of the earlier films by Roddy McDowell.) The babe has inherited the cognitive zip osmosed into his mother via the drug, and soon Rodman has a precocious three-year-old zooming around the house, conversing volubly in sign language, solacing Rodman’s elderly, Alzheimer’s-addled father (John Lithgow), and even dispensing dating advice. The fun ends when Caesar is captured and confined in a monkey house run by a crew of sadistic louts. Soon enough, he’s fomenting rebellion among his fellow inmates.
In many respects, Rise is a marvelously appealing film. It uses performance-capture technology to put before us, in the figure of Caesar, a seamless blend of acting and digital animation. (The actor playing the role, Andy Serkis, wears a wired-in armature on his face and body that feeds digital information to computer-graphic animators; videos of the filming, widely available on YouTube, are fascinating.) This is the same technology used in Avatar, and the results are even more visually arresting here, endowing the fur, body, and face of a monkey with a totally human gaze and affect.
Such technical virtuosity is arguably of a piece with the original Planet of the Apes, which spent a cool million dollars on makeup and costumes alone, showcasing the genius of John Chambers, the ex–World War II medical technician who became Hollywood’s prosthetic makeup guru (he did Spock’s ears on Star Trek). But replacing state-of-the-art prosthetic makeup with state-of-the-art CGI wizardry turns out to produce a paradigm shift—upward—in the film’s affective reach. Every time Caesar turns a gaze of smoldering, intelligent outrage on his human captors, the effect is unsettling, even mesmerizing. There are also family scenes that hit home with maximum pathos—one, for instance, in which the young Caesar gently, even tenderly corrects Lithgow’s grasp on a fork at the breakfast table, as Franco looks on in wonder and pity. Such moments elicit from us a kind of sympathy that was never at stake in the earlier films.
But at what cost? There’s a flip side to Rise’s technical virtuosity and the touching story it promotes. In an interview, James Franco asserts that the makers of the film “have found a way to be loyal to the original ideas of The Planet of the Apes, but to make it current—to continue the franchise.” Alas, what they have really found is a way to continue the franchise while jettisoning all the original ideas. There’s a lot to make you feel in this movie, but precious little to make you think. The earlier films, in comparison, were so overloaded with ideas that even passing plot developments (such as the revelation that one of Charlton Heston’s crew has been lobotomized by the apes) touched on social and political hot points. The original film’s screenwriter, Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted in the 1950s, and seemingly used Planet to unload years of political animus, right down to the film’s unforgettable closing scene, with its anguished pacifism. This reservoir of anger, along with a torrent of existential questions about the nature and purposes of man—Heston’s character as agonized philosopher, shouting “There has to be something better than man!”—gave the original its signature quality of cheesy yet trenchant pop profundity, a mass-culture movie that managed to take the temperature of a boiling Zeitgeist.
Rise, on the other hand, is all text and no context. Give it a ten for sympathy and a one for social commentary. The nods it makes to the earlier films fall flat. When Caesar is blasted with a fire hose in his cell, the scene evokes (and inverts) a similar one in Planet, in which Heston is tormented by a gorilla guard. But that scene, in turn, mirrored race riots going on in the country at that time, and packed a hard jolt for audiences seeing similar images on the nightly news. In Rise that dimension goes missing almost entirely—and so nothing more is happening in the fire-hose scene than a sadistic slug being mean to our hero. Where Planet churned with acid topicality, Rise for the most part is placid and rather sweet.
In classic Hollywood fashion, the producer of the original films, Richard D. Zanuck, worried that a “political” film would alienate audiences, insisting that the Apes movies were “entertainments” with “no message”—and repeated the mantra even as the films tended toward blatant allegories of class and race (the director of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, J. Lee Thompson, noted that he had modeled the film’s violent clashes after the Watts riots). Rise of the Planet of the Apes abjures anything remotely political or troubling, and provides precisely the kind of captivating, empty entertainment Zanuck promised but failed—happily—to produce.
About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.