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Downing

What's good: the rise of the apes, and the fall of a chemistry teacher

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Toward the end of the far-away 1990s, I was a full-time movie reviewer for a couple of years, which, among other things, cured me forever of wanting to go to movie theaters. I still like movies, but I learned to really despise the "movie-going experience."

I'm hardly alone. Given the way technology has evolved, I can't understand how the industry could be surprised by declining domestic ticket sales. With a high-definition TV and a DVD player or Internet hookup, why would anyone want to drive, park and pay for anything other than a genuine blockbuster that has to be seen on the big screen? (OK—restless, crowd-seeking teenagers would. That's why so many movies are now made exactly for them.)

Last year, Ed and I went to see Avatar in 3-D. (Totally worth it.) That was it for 2010.

This summer, I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes with my son while he was in town, because a) the word on the film, unlikely as it seemed, was excellent, b) Dave (my son) was interested, and c) I knew Ed would rather be shot with tacks than watch a movie with digital chimps. (Blue people, yes; special-effect apes, no.) So, equipped with sweatshirts—why are theaters such nasty iceboxes?—we braved the heat-shimmering parking lot, food-court smells and garish airport ambience of Park Place late one August afternoon for what turned out to be a pretty great show. It's not every day you get to run up a redwood with a chimp, or see a gorilla stop a galloping horse. When you do see something like that, you want it to be big.

I'm warning you, though, that the first three-quarters of ROTPOTA are heartbreakingly sad, shot through with the agonizingly bad conscience of the human race toward the rest of creation—and, particularly, toward other primates. The only way Dave and I were able to tolerate it—he's almost as big of a sap as I am—was by reminding ourselves that the suffering animals torn from their forest, locked up in cages and experimented on were not apes, but wonderfully transformed human actors of surpassing skill. (If the great Andy Serkis, who was Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, doesn't get an Oscar for his performance as Caesar the chimp, it'll be a crime.)

These are deep emotional waters that several great sci-fi films—notably 28 Days Later and the South African masterpiece District 9—have entered but not come close to plumbing. ROTPOTA is in some ways a less-sophisticated film than either of those—the story, while serviceable, is pocked with classic movie plot devices and character holes. (Could the genius scientist played by nice James Franco really be that stupid? Repeatedly?) Yet it has so much heart and mythic force, and is so beautifully crafted, that it gets into your head and stays there.

And, boy, does this movie makes its argument, to the point where a beautiful visual of a lethal, explosively spreading epidemic over the closing credits sends you home with your spirits soaring: There's hope after all! We could all die before we kill off the rest of creation! Somewhere, quite early on, you've completely switched sides.

There's a kind of general disillusionment with ourselves in the air these days; maybe it's the recession. Personally, my sense of human frailty and the hopelessness of redemption have definitely deepened (in a profoundly enjoyable way) as Ed and I have gobbled up the extant episodes of AMC's astounding show Breaking Bad. Watching the first 3 1/2 seasons via Amazon streaming video has been evil bliss: no commercials, and no waiting for a week—or a season—to see what terrifying, darkly comic situation Walter White et al. will stumble into next, as one bad act leads inexorably to another. The show's creator, Vince Gilligan, starts the ball of sin rolling with a stroke of terrible luck—lung cancer—but from that moment on, people in Gilligan's sun-drenched Albuquerque industriously make their own hells, one step at a time. Human-style.

This is dream television, storytelling that's detailed and resonant in a way that a two-hour movie can never be. Sadly, though, we're nearing the show's event horizon, the black-hole point at which we'll have to start waiting for episodes to appear, delaying our contemplation of our species' absolute corruption. Darn.

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