Friday Movie Roundup: The Perils of Technology

Jaws was on TV the other day. Though too young to have caught its initial 1975 theatrical release, I've since watched it at least a half-dozen times, each exposure inevitably sucking me back into its simple but exhilarating story all over again.

This time I was struck by how different Jaws is compared to the sleek, sequel-laden, CGI-driven summer fare of today. Watching a drunken Quint (a thoroughly convincing Robert Shaw) stomp around Jaws' grimy, pathetic boat — which is a character unto itself — is welcome aesthetic shift from the alienating pixelated mayhem of Thor, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Captain America and the like. —-

While it's true that Steven Spielberg's career kick-starter changed expectations (largely for the worse) of summer blockbusters forever — with its terrifying yet suburban subject matter, Jaws was an instant sensation, the first movie to cross the $100 million mark and the first to employ wide multiplex distribution — it also made the most of its modest budget and star-free cast. The lack of a convincing-looking shark forced Spielberg to keep it out of sight and in the water much more than he wanted, which unintentionally amped up the tension by forcing the audience (and the characters) to employ their imagination in a more visceral way. We fear the unknown.

Then there's Jaws' casting — three relatively normal-looking character actors (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Shaw) who allow the audience to identify with them much more than if they were played by better-known pretty boys of the day. Think about it — no doubt Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio would be cast today, and the shark would be completely CGI rendered, thus losing the physically tangible element that made the original so compelling and realistic despite Spielberg's effects constraints. (For more proof of this unfortunate technological trend, see George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy, which actually used shoes to create some of the space ships, vs. its three computer-aided “prequels,” which seem as if they were made by and for robots.)

Which brings us to this week's highest profile release, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Like Jaws, the original Planet of the Apes (and a couple of its five follow-ups, though not Tim Burton's lame 2001 reboot) wasn't hurt by the fact that it featured a bunch of actors in apes suits. In fact, it literally humanized the apes. I've yet to see the new Apes movie, but I'd be willing to bet my Return of the Jedi Burger King collector's cup that it won't be as compelling as the series' allegedly cruder original.

Opening films:

THE CHANGE-UP — Director David Dobkin (Fred Claus, Wedding Crashers) now bears responsibility for helming a tale so devoid of originality, wit or humanity that it has obliterated any and all of the good will that costar Jason Bateman has amassed over the course of nearly the last decade. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) —tts (Rated R.) Grade: F

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES — Director Rupert Wyatt guides this CGI-heavy prequel/origin story to the Apes series, which centers on a present-day scientist (Jason Franco) who is researching genetic modification as a cure for Alzheimer's. The cast also includes Brian Cox, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow and Andy Serkis. (Opens wide today.) — Jason Gargano (Rated PG-13.) Review coming soon.

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN — There is something sterile and joyless about the combination of director Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan) and screenwriter Ron Bass (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Entrapment) teaming up, for the first time, most notably since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993, when both were seemingly on the verge of storming the gates of Hollywood. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Kenwood Theatre.) — tts (Rated PG-13.) Grade: C

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