This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to consider truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Alex Pappademas and Mark Lisanti tackle Dawn of the Planet of the Apes … in 4-D!
Mark Lisanti: Before we get into our chat about box office champ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Grantland’s Alex Pappademas, let me set the stage for this conversational experiment. We decided — perhaps foolishly, perhaps sagely — that a regular viewing of the film would not be challenge enough. We needed to layer our apes-going experience with a little something extra, a little something dangerous. A little sensory-exploding, lumbar-pounding, scalp-moistening something carrying a hefty ticket surcharge, because the powerful and deep-pocketed Walt Disney Company would be footing the bill.
That something was a trip to the just-opened, state-of-the-body-punishing-art 4DX theater at L.A. Live’s Regal Cinemas, which, conveniently, is Grantland’s home-field multiplex, located mere paces away from our downtown headquarters. For those unfamiliar with the 4DX concept (that might be the majority of people reading this — the new L.A. auditorium is the first one opened in America, which despite being the producer of 99.9 percent of international blockbuster content, continues to lag maddeningly far behind the rest of the civilized world in cinematic-upsell technology), maybe this warning that greeted me as I attempted to purchase the tickets will give you a taste of the mortal peril that awaited us:
NOTICE: By purchasing this ticket you confirm that you understand, agree to and will comply with the 4DX Safety Guidelines. You enter at your own risk and the Regal Theater and 4DX accept no liability for any injury or damage suffered as a result of viewing a presentation in a theater equipped with 4DX Motion Chairs.
Despite this boilerplate legalese version of pike-mounted human heads festooning the path to the cannibal village, we soldiered on … and were then confronted with these primitive pictographs of the Eight Terrifying Trials awaiting us inside the looming Cave of Four Dimensions:
Water! Rain! Fog! Wind! Lightning! Bubbles! Scents! Vibrations!
Bubbles? OK, bubbles. Bring on your bubbles. Hand me the wand and the neon-pink bottle of soap water. I can handle some bubbles.
But it wasn’t until the moment we took our seats — in the second row, because if you’re not allowing for the possibility that the 4DX mainframe might decide to launch you headfirst into the screen at any moment, you’re not living — and noticed the glowing control panel on the armrest that the whole thing became real.
I think our gasps were simultaneous. At least that’s how I remember it.
Alex Pappademas: For sure. There were about 10 previews before the movie started, and I spent that whole time looking down at that safe-wordish little button, wondering what kind of messed-up George Saunders story we’d signed up to live through and whether I should have worn goggles and a poncho.
But the most telling part of the pre-movie experience, for me, was the ad in which they show a little bit of the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer, and then the image shrinks and shrinks until it’s the size of a television or a computer, and some Don LaFontaineish voice-over guy comes in to remind us that there’s no substitute for seeing big movies on the big screen. It’s an antipiracy PSA that never mentions piracy by name — the 2014 version of those “You wouldn’t steal a car” ads that used to run before the ’90s feature DVDs. Movie-theater chains feeling the need to run ads touting the superiority of the theatrical moviegoing experience is one sign that they’re nervous about theatrical moviegoing becoming a thing of the past; that they’re experimenting with technology that makes movies more like theme-park rides is another sign. There’s always a surge in “immersive” technologies when the industry feels an ice age in the wind; 3-D and Cinerama and CinemaScope were all introduced by the movie studios of the ’50s to give people a reason not to stay home and watch this new thing called television.
But the real spiritual father of the 4DX experience is producer/director and master huckster William Castle, who made a string of B horror films in the late ’50s and early ’60s and concocted a different branded promotional gimmick for each one. I got obsessed with Castle as a teenager after I read about him in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and John Waters’s Crackpot. He was the Steve Jobs of cheesy in-theater value-adds. He passed out fright-death insurance certificates in the lobby, stationed nurses on duty in front of theaters to tend to the faint of heart, and inserted a “fright break” in one film, during which anyone too scared to keep going could retreat to a specially marked “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby for a full refund. 1959’s House on Haunted Hill was described as the first film “with the amazing new wonder Emergo — the thrills fly right into the audience!” (in the form of a skeleton with light-bulb eyes that zoomed around on wires). Also in ’59, Castle released The Tingler, about a creature that gloms on to people’s spines and shivers them to death unless they manage to scare it away by screaming. He wired certain seats at theaters showing the movie with vibrating motors — military-surplus airplane-wing de-icers, according to Wikipedia — and used them to goose unsuspecting audience members during the Tingler-attack sequences. The posters for this movie asked, Do you have the guts to sit in this chair? It’s hard to look at all the 4DX branding stuff you described above — all those “warnings” about how this shit might be TOO INTENSE — without feeling like nothing has really changed.
We have an actual movie to discuss here, too — a pretty good and surprisingly somber one, I thought. But I’m finding it hard to make myself think about the possibility of a world in which what’s left of humanity finds itself on the brink of war with a newly evolved race of superintelligent apes, because I can’t stop thinking about the possibility that what we submitted to on Friday will become the industry standard. We paid $27 per person to be repeatedly rabbit-punched in the lumbar vertebrae by weapons-grade Brookstone technology. There was mist, there was stage fog. We were, I’m pretty sure, spritzed here and there with contextually appropriate chemical scents, although that aspect of the experience seems a little underdeveloped; I guess it’s hard to engineer a smell that can cut through the popcorn-funk that provides every multiplex theater with its olfactory bass line, at least for now.
This will probably be a pretty great way to watch stupid movies, and I’ll definitely see you at the 4DX for Into the Storm. But for me it was a pretty stupid way to watch a good movie. I found this supposedly immersive experience to be sort of the exact opposite of immersive, because whenever my seat would jerk to the side or rattle or blow a puff of air directly into my ear — a sensation that so creeps me out in life I’d normally pay $27 to avoid it for two hours — there would inevitably be this split-second lag as my brain tried to process how the physical sensations I was feeling corresponded to the action onscreen. That took me straight out of the movie, every single time. It was as if the theater itself was constantly elbowing us in the ribs, going “Did you see that? How about that, did you see that?” Andy Serkis and a small army of digital-effects artists have put staggering creative and technical effort into the verisimilitude of every last little ape face twitch in this movie, but the 4DX thing bulldozes all that nuance; it doesn’t trust that we’ll be enraptured by our first glimpse of the apes’ tree fort unless we’re also being spritzed with pine scent. Is this the world that’s coming, Mark? Will our children someday groan and roll their eyes if we propose going to see a 2-D movie in a theater where the seats don’t move, the way we as kids might have recoiled from black-and-white or subtitles? I’m way more weirded out by that thought than I am by the prospect of societal collapse brought on by a simian-flu epidemic.
That said, 4DX did literalize and lay bare some basic transactional things about moviegoing in a way that I found fascinating. I was hyperconscious of how the action onscreen was spiking my adrenaline at regular intervals, which made me feel like a lab rat, a subject; I thought about my friend Jon, who when he’d had a couple of drinks used to argue that movies were a fascist art form because you’re sitting in a dark room, dwarfed by an enormous screen that tells you how to feel. I don’t want to take this conversation too far into the realm of the theoretical — because again, we have an actual movie to discuss, a movie that features what one character describes as “TALKING APES WITH BIG-ASS SPEARS!” But I think this is relevant, because the movie’s about empathy and humanity and sentience. Sometimes, when your 4DX seat moves, it just feels like you’re riding in the crane with the camera operator. But sometimes, like in the fight scenes, it’s as if the 4DX thing gives you a kind of bodily point of view that’s perpetually jumping from character to character, scrambling your ability to empathize. You’re the human shooting a machine gun, feeling it kick, and then you’re the ape, feeling a bullet whiz past your head. You’re vicariously the aggressor and the victim. I’ve been watching movies for 37 years, give or take, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been so conscious of how much that blurring of the projected self is always what’s for sale, the degree to which movie-watching is always about imagining ourselves both doing and being done-to, if that makes sense.
Anyway. Did you like the movie? I did.
Lisanti: I couldn’t agree more that the experience was the opposite of immersive. You go to the movies to be absorbed into the world unfolding on the screen; here, we were strapped into an apparatus that was kicking, punching, and hydraulically shoveling us back through the fourth wall into the spell-breaking reality of the theater itself. I spent half the movie observing the reactions of the other audience members to the unexpected barrage of sensory stimuli, or giggling at the precipitation falling on us like they were announcing the start of Half-Off Amazonian Apps Hour at the Rainforest Café, or puzzling at what ape-centric scent the very poorly calibrated musk-cannons were attempting to re-create. (Luckily, we missed out on the fecepults still being beta-tested in Europe; once they induce concussions in less than 5 percent of the audience, they’ll debut in America, and we’ll be able to run the full gantlet of four-dimensional chimp attacks here in L.A.)
However poorly and unnecessarily the 4DX experience translated to a movie like Dawn, I imagine that it performed seamlessly in its debut on Transformers: Age of Extinction last month — which is already more of a theme-park ride than a movie, complete with headache-staggered patrons shuffling to the exit to deposit their enthusiastic reviews in the nearest vomit receptacle — it seems clear to me that this, or something even more extreme than this, is the future of blockbuster moviegoing. If the studios are going to sell fewer tickets, they’re damn well going to sell more expensive tickets, the way they’ve already applied a 3-D surcharge to virtually every major summer release for years now to fortify their eroding bottom lines. They’re going to continue attempting to provide a reason to abandon the 60-inch screen in your living room, pile the kids into the Odyssey, and spend upward of $100 on four tickets for two and a half hours of being churned around inside your local multiplex’s version of Star Tours. Every town can have its own mini-Disneyland, but where the ride refreshes on a weekly basis. We’ll still have movies the “old-fashioned way,” so that octogenarian squares like us can roll up with a box of orally administered chocolate pellets and enjoy our 2-D “flatties” in communal peace, but we’ll also have the 4-D HeadSplodeDome lurking there right across the lobby, beckoning us in with the promise of an animatronic Michael Bay throwing lunch boxes full of loose first-gen iPods at our heads and spraying context-appropriate, orgasmic spittle at us through a bullhorn. I’ll pay 27 bucks for that once or twice a year, just for the shit cannons and giggle fountains. The flatties will always be there for us, at home or at the theater.
One last thing on this and then I’ll leave it alone: At a party this weekend, all anyone wanted to know about the movie was how the 4DX performed. The last time I can remember this kind of intense interest in getting the gory details of something I’d seen was when I’d just finished live-blogging Human Centipede the moment it came out. Make of this fact what you will, but I’m eternally grateful that that experience was not available in 4DX. Though a part of me fears that Tom Six might already be back in the lab, experimenting with S&M thrones equipped with feeding tubes and staple guns.
So: Other than the two hours of headrest-mounted air rifles strafing your earlobes as apes attempted to exterminate the last vestiges of humanity, how was the play, Mrs. Ape-Lincoln? I did like the movie! Very much so, despite the constant distractions of strobe lighting and emphysemic fog machines coughing out forest atmosphere and an entire row of hyperactive recliners galloping in unison. Probably the first thing anyone should talk about with Dawn (besides the very fact of AK-47-WIELDING APES ON HORSEBACK) is how seamless the CGI was. It’s perhaps not the evolutionary effects leap we like to bring up when discussing Jurassic Park or Avatar, but more of a perfection of what’s gone before, and what was promised but not quite delivered on in Rise a couple of years back. Every damn dirty ape was perfectly and convincingly rendered; if you want a neat counterpoint to the problem of the constant trance-breaking of our seats, the visual technology was purely in service of the storytelling. The apes became full actors, not dead-eyed invaders from the Uncanny Valley. You believe that a battalion of mounted and armed-to-the-incisors chimpanzees is actually riding up to the radically degentrified, postapocalyptic San Francisco, demanding that the helpless tech-yuppie scum stay on their side of the Golden Gate Bridge. We are “10 winters” hence from the events of Rise, arriving in a world decimated by the simian flu, where humans huddle in the ruins of the city, rapidly evolving apes have established a functioning society in the nearby forest, and Jason Clarke finally gets a post–Zero Dark Thirty role better than his White House Down mustache-twirler. He’s still second-fiddling to a superior performance, but this time it’s Andy Serkis’s ferocious and subtle mo-capped Caesar (James Franco’s surrogate chimp son from the last movie) rather than Jessica Chastain.
Serkis is really the star of this, isn’t he? Is that so obvious it’s not even a conversation worth having? Unless you want to ride for Maurice the Orangutan for his taste in graphic novels? Or Gary Oldman’s latest exploration of his morally compromised paycheck-casher character? Or Koba, the Dick Cheney of warmongering apes?
Pappademas: “Koba” was Joseph Stalin’s childhood nickname and later his Bolshevik nom de guerre. I assume that’s an intentional echo. The chimp Koba is the best, most morally complex villain of the summer. He thinks he’s doing the right thing for apekind by overthrowing Caesar and starting a war with humanity, because he thinks war is not just inevitable but necessary. And if he has to violate the First Rule of Ape Club by shooting one of his own and planting a gun to make it look like humans did it, so be it. (Apparently you can’t get a summer-movie script green-lit anymore unless it contains at least one false-flag operation; somewhere deep in his luxury prepper bunker, Roberto Orci is grinning smugly.)
Koba is played by Toby Kebbell, who’ll be Dr. Doom in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four movie. Caesar is Andy Serkis again, and yeah, he’s extraordinary. Of course it helps that there’s literally not one human character who isn’t seriously underwritten, particularly Keri Russell’s Ellie, who gets to explore the entire emotional spectrum from worried to concerned. You’d think Felicity cocreator/Apes director Matt Reeves wouldn’t do Keri like that. Maurice the Orangutan Who Enjoys the Work of Charles Burns gets better pitches to hit. The fact that Burns’s Black Hole finds a new generation of readers after the apepocalypse was somehow a less funny pop-culture invocation to me than the scene in which electricity is restored to the Bay Area and the first thing some doofus does is put on a CD of the Band doing “The Weight.” Rockism will never die, even if nearly all the humans on earth do.
And at least in an Apes-film context, I kind of hope they do. The degree to which we can now create animal actors out of whole (digital) cloth sort of makes you wonder why they still bother shoehorning human protagonists into these movies, doesn’t it? By the end of this one, we’ve seen Caesar go full Michael Corleone; he’s embraced his destiny as a general and we know he’s going to fight Koba’s war, even if he does so according to his own code. And because these movies aren’t called Planet of the People Who Successfully Weathered a Pesky Ape Problem, we know humanity is ultimately going down. That’s what I love about the Apes movies; ever since the ’60s, it’s been simultaneously the cheesiest long-running sci-fi franchise and the bleakest. (Remember that the planet itself is destroyed by a nuclear bomb at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which didn’t stop the producers of the original series from making three more, including the shockingly radical Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which I wrote about here.)
I’d love to see a sequel that picks up not where this one leaves off, but after the war between ape and man is over and our new simian overlords are struggling with the question of whether to build a new world using human slave labor. Apparently during the long gap between the final original Apes movie and the Burton reboot, the writer/director Adam Rifkin wrote an unproduced script for an Apes film set in ape society’s Roman period; I want to see that movie, or something like it. Let’s see what happens when the apes don’t have us to blame for their problems, is what I’m saying.
Lisanti: I’d watch that. Enslaved eunuch humans tending to ape bacchanals, pushing mops across the spoiled floors of gorilla vomitoriums, catering to the debauched appetites of a syphilitic monkey emperor as they bide their time and plan a revolt … that’s a movie. Maybe we can start a letter-writing campaign (success rate: 100 percent if you bury the producers under crates of foam bananas) to fast-forward past the grudging-but-inevitable war promised in the final scene straight to Chimpligula. Or we can have it both ways and just wait it out, because with the success of Dawn this weekend — $73 million against the mere $16 mil and change of Transformers’ third go-round — we are officially in extended franchise territory. The only thing standing between us and the ultimate realization of our Roman-flavored fever dreams is a hasty reboot after the next installment, when the executive in charge of creative bankruptcy delivers the fateful, course-correcting note, “You know what? What if the humans win this one? People love a human winner.”
Speaking of which: I wanted the humans to lose this one. (Given the relative investment the film made in their side, I guess this isn’t too surprising.) Once Miguel from Oz, in the role of Hotheaded Dipshit Who Has to Ruin It for Everyone, violated the circle of simian trust by smuggling a gun into the ostensibly peaceful trip to restore the hydroelectric generator at Marin County’s famous MacGuffin Dam, I was Team Human Subjugation all the way. Cancel all the dialogue and often-ridiculous subtitles for the apes’ advanced sign language (“Makes me think about how far we’ve come, Maurice”), hypocritically mount the steeds, and make Gary Oldman eat all of his prison meals off the smashed screen of his suddenly restored iPad. (Note to future technical advisers: Adding juice to an Apple device that’s been powered off for a decade doesn’t make it boot directly into the Sad Pictures of My Dead Family folder. As far as I know.) The Great Ape Dynasty can’t come soon enough. I don’t care if Clarke’s Malcolm and Caesar have developed a hard-won and mutual respect templated upon James Franco’s loving relationship with a baby chimp. It’s time to start shackling dudes and hoarding them into bamboo cages decorated with Charlton Heston cheesecake photos. Koba had the right idea, even if he had to plant the WMD himself.
A quick highlight reel before you take it home, Alex: Koba’s “don’t mind me, I’m just a dumb monkey with a poor sense of direction, stumbling into your munitions storehouse” act, followed quickly by the even better chug-a-bottle-of-booze-and-gun-down-the-same-credulous-chumps scene; the simian flu street art of some Banksy clone who probably long ago choked to death on his own boiling, infected blood; anytime Caesar or Koba grunted out a thought more complex than HUMANS LEAVE; the Saving Private Ryan of ape invasions, complete with POV shots of a monkey-piloted tank; the RoboCop Directive Four workaround that allowed Caesar to kill Koba by declaring him not an ape. And, of course, Malcolm and Caesar’s pre-parting forehead-dap. War is coming, but not before man and ape share a final bonding moment. It’s how Franco would have wanted it.
Pappademas: You’ve itemized the manifold joys of this movie pretty nicely. (Clearly Maurice, played by actress Karin Konoval, needs a spinoff franchise posthaste. Best screen orangutan since Clyde.)
I’d add to that list Koba throwing poor [spoiler alert] off the [spoiler alert]. As Homer Simpson would say, that’s what happens when you don’t hail to the chimp. And the return to the old house from Rise, a potentially corny callback that the movie handles elegantly. Once it became clear where they’d wound up, I started writing jokes in my head. Caesar points to a picture of Franco’s Dr. Will Rodman, grunts “Fran-co. Mul-ti-hy-phen-ate. Faulk-ner. I-ro-ny?” while the score swells and the 4DX machine drips a single salty saline tear onto each of our cheeks. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead we saw Caesar in the attic, silently watching himself learning sign language from Franco’s character on video, saying good-bye to his Man in the Yellow Hat and a life he never got to live. Did I get a little choked up for a second in the theater, watching a CGI monkey have a private moment? Did I get choked up just now, thinking and typing about it? I’m not saying. But for the previous hour or so I’d been bombarded with 10 different kinds of sensory stimuli and felt nothing; now (fine, I admit it) I had a catch in my throat just looking at a picture of a monkey gazing sadly into a camcorder screen.
The dumb thing about 4DX isn’t the squirt guns, or the fog-juice, or the sacrum-pummeling seat backs, or even the various phantom smells. (One odd Odorama moment I forgot to mention: Jason Clarke ventures into the Carcosa-like forbidden zone around the apes’ Muir Woods tree house, and I smelled what I thought was death or guano, and then realized it was just popcorn.) It’s the fact that regular movies are already pretty good at making us feel things. It’s the one thing all of them do pretty consistently. Even bad movies can pull it off occasionally. To quote the Roger Ebert line that nobody reviewing Life Itself can resist quoting, they’re like a machine that generates empathy. 4DX is a machine that generates startledness, which isn’t an emotion. And damn if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes didn’t manage to clamber over that barrier and give my heart a little Caesar forehead tap anyway. I wasn’t sold on the revitalized Apes franchise after the Franco chapter, but now I hope it goes on forever. I think we should never stop rebooting movies about monkeys. I leave you with my best idea: The time has come for a gritty post-Bourne reimagining of this. I see Jeremy Renner as Lance, but I’m open to other suggestions.