Will the Apes Rise Again?


We’re past the halfway point of the summer, at least as far as the movie-release calendar is concerned, and what some pondered back in May looks ever likelier now: the entire summer movie season could go by without a single release crossing the once-vaunted, now-commonplace $300 million mark. If this happens, it would be the first time since 2001, when Shrek topped the summer with $268 million. 2014 would only be the sixth summer of the past twenty to lack a $300 million-plus hit, because even when this mark was a rarity, there were hotly anticipated movies like Phantom Menace or Independence Day and surprises like Forrest Gump.

In some respects, summer 2014 continues the usual gross inflation.

Three movies have passed the $200 million mark, with another two set to join them and at least two as-yet unopened movies that could easily hit that number. Seven $200 million-plus movies in a summer is actually on the high side; the problem (at least in terms of perception) as at the top, which seems destined to be occupied by default. Right now it’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the big May opener that has been able to hang on slightly better than Godzilla or The Amazing Spider-Man 2—but will only just pass the third and most horrible X-Men movie in its final total (at least in this country; internationally, it’s already the biggest ever). Maleficent has been hanging on well, so it could still pass X-Men by virtue of being a long-playing family film. Both will probably be ultimately surpassed by Trans4mers, nonetheless on its way to becoming the lowest-grossing (again, in this country) entry of that inexplicably popular franchise.

Of course, being number one doesn’t make studios any money; neither, for that matter, does the market being collectively “up” versus a year ago, beyond the vague idea that moviegoing encourages more moviegoing (and, again, lots of movies have been reasonably well-attended, so that doesn’t seem like the stumbling block here). Disney wants its Disney movies to make money; I doubt they care much about whether “the industry” is able to cross some arbitrary threshold. But the wide open top spot for the summer does bring some rooting interest for me: it is now remotely possible that if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a big enough hit, it will ascend to the throne, just as apes presumably ascend to the throne of Earth during this sequel to 2011’s wonderful Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

I haven’t seen Dawn so I don’t actually know if it “deserves” the top spot, but its triumph (whether by improving on its predecessor’s reach or actually vanquishing the giant robots) would be in keeping with the tradition of the Planet of the Apes franchise being surprisingly and resiliently popular. Even the lower-budget sequels cranked out early from 1970-1973 following the smash success of the first film were pretty popular and, more important, largely very good. In particular, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a charming, almost low-key sci-fi comedy, until its final stretch goes pretty dark, as it always must for the almost hilariously grim Apes series; and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (kinda-sorta remade in contemporary times for Rise) is a rousing (and, again, pretty dark) story of revolution and uprising. Given that, Dawn‘s status as a sequel to Rise with a mere ten-year jump in time does feel a little staid for a series that has featured century-jumping time travel, revisionist ape history, and multiple ends of the world (a perverse part of me would have loved to see a misbegotten sequel to Tim Burton’s disappointing 2001 retake on Apes, because that movie’s crazy twist ending is kind of amazing and, intentionally or not, promises the kind of weirdness the old series delivered in spades). But the trailers and early reviews have been fantastic, suggesting this one may actually clear the high bar set by its predecessor. It doesn’t hurt that the Apes movies tend to be about something, however heavy their metaphors; maybe this means summer movie audiences will grasp onto it and turn it into a $300 million hit!

As much as I loved Days of Future Past and its notes of time-bending melancholy and its strong character work, it feels more about the X-Men series than anything else. Similarly, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies have become all about Bay’s state of mind, reflecting his lack of engagement with anything but the process of marshaling a gigantic army of effects technicians and copping the occasional don’t-mess-with-Texas faux-populist pose. Maleficent has some provocative themes, buried in a movie that is profoundly uninteresting to actually watch. So basically, it’s up to Apes to engage us all as a nation. Good luck, apes and guy who worked on Felicity! If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes becomes the late-breaking summer-dominating smash by actually meaning something, it might balance out or even justify the weird pleasures of consensus that cause dopes (myself included) to wonder what THE cultural object of an arbitrarily drawn non-season (summer actually ending a couple of weeks past Labor Day) will be. It’s this kind of mentality that can prompt questions about whether we’re doing a good enough job of all liking the same song at once this year. If we’re going to play that game, it would be nice if we could all win something more interesting than Michael Bay or “Fancy.” As Caesar puts it: apes together, strong.

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