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Same Movie, Different Audience & The Variables of the Movie-Going Experience…

I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes again. I was with a relative who hadn’t seen it, and I thought I’d tag along. Part of it was to determine whether the fact that I so thoroughly enjoyed the film had been a fluke, perhaps due to relatively low levels of anticipation going in, but also because it was a good movie, and one I thought might be worth watching again. Truth be told, I enjoyed the film as much the second time, perhaps even more. However, something occurred to me while I was watching it – the audience I was with reacted quite differently to one or two key moments, which (to be honest) also impacted how I looked at those scenes. I don’t think it radically altered my opinion of the film, but I found it interesting to note how watching the film with a different group of people could lead to a slightly distinct viewing experience.

Paws for thought?

Note: This article, by its nature, will include spoilers for two key moments in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I suspect, if you’ve seen the film, you know which ones I am talking about. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend you do before reading the article.

Okay, not that that warning is out of the way, let’s talk about the two key scenes I hinted at above. They basically involve the movie’s protagonist, the monkey Caesar, speaking. I’m not really sure it’s fair to call them a “spoiler”, since we all know (given the title) that the creatures will go on to speak and communicate in a manner as elegant as humans, but a lot of people have been asking me, “Do they speak?” I fob off the answer, because it’s the kind of thing people seem to be genuinely curious about, and I suspect it’s a big thrill if they do. It’s not my place to ruin that in casual conversation.

Anyway, I saw the film twice. Once was in a large auditorium with about eight-hundred people, a preview before the film’s opening night. I do love events like that, because the atmosphere is electric – I do typically like to watch blockbusters with larger crowds, and smaller movies with more intimate groups. I don’t know why I prefer it like that, perhaps it reflects the scale of the movies in question, but I suspect it might have to do with the fact that it’s nicer to see films with broader appeal with a larger and broader audience, while more complex movies are fun to share with a tighter group. Then again, perhaps that’s something for a pop psychologist to dwell upon.

Seeing films through a different lens...

The second time I saw the film, it was in a smaller group. I estimate there were around forty people there. Given this wasn’t a big cinema, that it was the middle of the week, and that the film had been in major release for a while, I was pleasantly surprised to see it drawing such a nice crowd. And I think they all enjoyed the film. In fairness, a lot of the emotions were mirrored across the groups. People laughed at the same points, winced at the same cruelty, jumped a little bit at the same moments. There was enough in common between the audiences that the differences become notable.

Anyway, the scene where I noticed the difference came as we entered the big finale, while Tom Felton’s cruel gamekeeper was swinging his electric cattle prod, trying to catch Caesar. He misses, and moves to swing again, when the ape in question catches his hand. “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” the boy shouts, echoing the famous line from Charleton Heston’s original Planet of the Apes. Both audiences burst out laughing at the remark, appreciating the reference to the much loved original film. However, the divergence occurred with the next line.

This sh!t is bananas...

“NO!” Caesar declares, the first word articulated by a monkey in the film, and perhaps the key moment in the entire movie. Being honest, I thought it was a bit cheesy, but didn’t mind so much since the subsequent shots of Caesar yelling it at his fellow monkeys make it sound more like a strange fragment half-way between a growl and a word, rather than immediately having the monkeys converse in English. However, the two audience reactions could not have been more different. The larger audience burst into laughter, spurred on from the initial spate of laughter at the throwback to the first film. On the other hand, the second, smaller, audience stopped absolutely silently as they looked at Caesar.

This sort of scenario repeated itself later on, as Caesar offers his first complete sentence. The laughter from the larger crowd wasn’t so intense, but still happened. The smaller crowd seemed more genuinely moved by the sentiment, accepting that Caesar had completed his hero’s journey. Before I continue, I should clarify that both audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy and appreciate the movie. In fact, everyone I have talked to seems to have honestly and deeply enjoyed it – which is great.

An 'Andy man to have around...

However, I wonder how that audience and viewing experience shaped my enjoyment of the film. I think the talking monkeys were “cheesy” (regardless of the fact they talk in the original film). Would I have thought the same if the first audience had fallen completely silent? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a seismic shift in my opinion of a film – I don’t know if I’m happy or sad at how rarely that shift occurs (happy because it vindicates my earlier position; sad because perhaps it illustrates how stuck in the mud I might be). I thought it was a very good film the first time I saw it, and that position was reinforced the second time I saw it. In my subconscious mental rankings, I was playing with the idea of placing it in my top ten films of the year. I still am.

It gets me think of how strongly external factors can influence our perception of the film. This might be something as simple as the preconceptions around “classic” films or as mundane as the surroundings where you watched the film. I’ve always argued that a great film is a great film regardless of the size of the screen or the quality of the sound system, but it’s hard to argue that these sorts of factors don’t play into our enjoyment and perception of films. Do I, for example, only rate Ringu so highly because I watched it at an impressionable age in a dark room where I would be sleeping with a television?

Going ape...

It’s a tough question to answer. I honestly don’t think I can. As much as I like to try to be objective, there’s no denying the myriad of factors that can impact a viewing experience. However, the fact that I came out of the same film with two very different viewing experiences sharing pretty much the same opinion fills me with hope that perhaps it’s not quite as serious a concern as I might have feared.

What do you think? Sound off below.

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4 Responses

  1. Not the same thing, but you reminded me of another thing I’ve noticed: when I get used to seeing a movie with an audience, seeing it alone without reactions feels strange.

    I saw Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film in theaters three times, having only paid to see it once (I got invited to a pre-screening, then to a free showing of the director’s cut months later). The first time I watched the Blu-Ray at home, I realized how much more awkward the sex scene was without hearing people laughing, and how a lot of things that were “badass” seemed more cheesy because no one was there to cheer. I didn’t really like the movie and wouldn’t have seen it so many times if it wasn’t free, but it definitely affected my opinion even more negatively to have the audience removed.

    • Not quite the same thing, but I think you hit on a lot of the stuff that I do feel or worry about (or even just idly contemplate). I’m the opposite, I liked the film a lot more watching it alone. (Although my better half really didn’t enjoy it in the cinema.)

  2. Laughter seems odd considering how tense those scene are. I’ve never been a big fan of watching films in large crowds simply because of the reasons you stated above.

    You can’t tell if your reaction to the film is being manipulated by the larger crowd feedback.

    • In fairness, I think it was a sort a laugh at the idea of monkeys talking – and it kinda rolled out of the Charleton Heston reference. I agree it’s something you can’t predict or control, but I do wonder.

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