Friday, February 08, 2013

Go Ape Day! Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)



Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is not only a great movie, it's a terrific Planet of the Apes movie too.  The film's special effects are downright astonishing, but more importantly the "human" story -- concerning an evolved ape seeking his destiny -- proves wholly affecting. 

In terms of the franchise, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes features perhaps a dozen hints or links to future (or past?) events in the series and most of all, doesn't spoon-feed the audience all the answers regarding them.  Therefore, as much as the film sets up a new Apes franchise (in the mold of Star Trek [2009] or Batman Begins [2005]), it also showcases more than enough mystery to stimulate the mind. 

A new "future history" has been initiated here, and that hard work is done with real intelligence, detail and depth.  Just please be certain you don't leave the auditorium until after the end credits, or you'll miss the film's final (terrifying...), information-age coda.  I have the distinct feeling some major critics may have missed this coda, based on their reviews.  They seem to think that the apes only get so far as Golden Gate Bridge, when in fact another entire subplot reveals why Earth could very soon become a planet dominated by apes.

In assessing the quality of a Planet of the Apes film, one has to gaze at several criteria.  Does the film permit the audience to see human beings in a new light; from the outside (ape perspective) as it were?  Does the film then comment meaningfully on human nature, and compare it to ape nature?  Does the movie boast a convincing narrative with closure and distinct purpose while -- all the while -- laying the groundwork (or tying the knot...) for other entries in a film series that is a giant loop?  And, of course, is the film thrilling and action-packed in a way that supports that narrative?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds admirably in every single one those arenas.  Actually, I'll go further: it's the best movie I've seen theatrically in some time, and perhaps the best genre film I've seen this year.  In large part, the re-boot's grandest achievement is that it focuses so powerfully on one character, Caesar, and takes the audience through almost his whole life, from birth to young adulthood (ten years, perhaps).  Given that Caesar is created via digital special effects (and through the incomparable talents of Andy Serkis), the film's success is all the more surprising and admirable. 

"You'll learn who is boss soon enough..."


In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco) at Gen-Sys develops the cure of Alzheimer's, called ALZ-112.  The chemical causes damaged brain cells to repair and re-build themselves, a brand of "Neuro genesis." 

The test of ALZ-112 on Chimp # 9, "Bright Eyes," has proven that it works admirably, but when the affected chimpanzee suddenly goes crazy and breaks out of confinement, the Board at Gen-Sys opts not to pursue human tests.  Later, Will and the chimpanzee handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine) discover that "Bright Eyes" may merely have been protecting her newborn infant.

With his work shut down, or at least set back, Will brings the orphaned baby chimp home, where his father, Charles (John Lithgow) names the ape "Caesar."  Charles suffers from Alzheimer's and Will, acting in secret, gives him the ALZ-112.  The cure works its wonders, at least for a time, and Will learns that Bright Eyes passed on the ALZ-112 to her son...meaning that Caesar possesses incredible intelligence.  By the age of three, Caesar is already smarter than his human counterparts...

As the years go by, Caesar becomes like a son to Will.  Along with a lovely zoo veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), Charles, Caesar and Will often visit Muir Woods, where the ape can climb the tall redwoods and roam free.  Unfortunately, Caesar acts violently against a cruel, callous neighbor when Charles' Alzheimer's returns, and for his defensive action is remanded to the San Bruno Primate Shelter run by the cruel Landon family (Brian Cox and Tom Felton).

While Will attempts to bring Caesar home, he also develops ALZ-113, a new strain of his cure that may have side-effects the scientist has not foreseen.  This fact does not stop Will's profit-hungry boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), however, from pursuing development of "the cure..."

"What is Caesar?"


Early in this film, animal handler Franklin reminds Will (and the movie-going audience) that apes boast "personalities" and that they "form attachments." 

In many ways, this line of dialogue is  the key to the film.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes concerns an orphaned chimp of extreme intelligence who becomes part of a family, Will's human family. 

Thus Caesar wears clothes like a human child, plays games like a human child, and forms attachments to those he loves.  He views Will as his father, and Charles as his grandfather.  Caesar even gazes out the attic window of his house and -- we can see it on his expressive face -- wants to play outside, like human children.  His happiest moments are those in Muir Woods, where he can fully exercise his ape heritage.  But importantly, even those wonderful moments are spent with his human family...the other part of Caesar's equation or make-up.

As Caesar grows, he begins to wonder explicitly about his nature.  "What is Caesar?" He asks Will, rather pointedly (in sign language).  The answer is that he's not quite a human and no longer a mere, unevolved ape either. He's something singular; something different.  And in that difference Caesar is lonely and confused.  Caroline warns Will at one point that as Caesar grows, he will no longer be the obedient, supplicating son, but rather a rival, a competitor.  In this dynamic, quite clearly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes develops a metaphor for both human adolescence and the perils of fatherhood.  

When Caesar's home is taken away from him and he's remanded to a facility where the apes are treated cruelly, we see what happens when an emotional, vulnerable being is abandoned by family.  To quote the film, evolution becomes revolution.  After a time, Caesar gives up the hope and belief that he will return home to Will, and turns his attention to the apes incarcerated with him. They are treated -- again to quote the film's most important dialogue -- as if they don't have personalities and as if they don't form attachments.  They're just stupid prisoners to be controlled, and Caesar's evolved mind becomes awakened to the idea that such captivity is wrong.  He finally sees a place for himself where he does belong...as a leader of his kind.

Again, this process very much mirrors the journey into adulthood we humans face.  There's the inevitable rejection of the "father" or the previous generation, and the search for one's own purpose, outside of "family of origin" definitions.  There's the leaving of home, and the discovery and building of a new home.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes feels very personal in its depiction of this theme.  Will's character proves very interesting in that he is both  a son and a father, and in some sense, he fails in both roles. 

The film largely adopts Caesar's perspective, and we sympathize with the character as he loses his mother, his home, and then even his already-limited freedom.  When he leads the apes on an escape from captivity (again, to Muir Woods), it's not so much a rebellion against humanity as it is a flight to a better life.  Again, this idea is very easy to sympathize with.  Growing-up and finding one's place can be a tempestuous process.  We all ask ourselves the questions: Who am I?  Who do I want to be?

The social commentary in this film arrives in  few key points.  Other than Will's family and Franklin, humans in the film are seen in light of the old proverb that money is the root of all evil.   Landon and Jacobs put profit ahead of humanity, ultimately to the detriment of humanity itself.  They would rather be rich than be good, and though this leitmotif doesn't equal the powerful anti-war sentiment of the original franchise, this idea is certainly timely in our culture right now, following the Great Recession.  Wealth -- the accumulation of money -- has become more important than safety concerns to many businessmen, as we saw in the BP Oil Spill of 2010.   Helping people seems secondary to lining pockets, or protecting interests.

Like Jurassic Park (1993), Mimic (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also about the common horror movie idea of science run amok; of science unchecked.  The film glides past the idea that "some things shouldn't be changed" in relation to Will's experimentation, right to the idea that business can't regulate itself when it comes to new (and potentially profitable...) science.  In other words, Will may have been wrong for testing ALZ-112 and ALZ-113 illicitly, but his actions weren't a threat to the world until his creations fell into the avaricious hands of Big Business. 

In some way, the film is very much about human arrogance too.  From Rise of the Planet of the Apes' first frames -- a brutal chimpanzee hunt in the jungle -- it obsesses on the almost casual way that humanity assumes that other creatures (such as apes) are his to do with as he pleases: to abduct, to experiment upon, and to imprison. 

In our arrogance, we believe that other creatures don't possess souls, or don't feel emotions  as we do.  In 2011, we have heard an awful lot in the media about government taking away our "freedoms" or "liberties," but how stingy mankind appears in regards to the freedom and liberties of other mammals or non-humans.  In that way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is very much about animal rights, and this brings us full-circle to the original Planet of the Apes.  There, we saw Zaius's religious hypocrisy and the ape belief that only simians possessed the "spark" of the divine.  Today, many people similarly believe that Man is made in God's image and other creatures are just...dinner.  These folks believe what Ann Coulter espouses "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.Rise of the Planet of the Apes asks us to question that kind of cruel, selfish thinking.

Before I saw the film, I was very anxious about the CGI aspects of the movie.  If they failed...the movie would fail too.  Fortunately, I had no cause for concern.  The apes in this film are completely convincing and "real," and -- mirroring the through-line about personality and attachment -- register as real, recognizable individuals.  Caesar is the film's crowning achievement, but a gorilla named Buck is pretty amazing too, as is a slightly-mad chimpanzee named Coba. 

I haven't read many reviews to mention this fact, but in terms of physicality, Caesar actually seems to echo the contours of Roddy McDowall's face, at least after a fashion.  And his responses also strongly echo details of McDowall's performances, particularly in Conquest.  There's an instant in the film where Caesar hisses at a threat and then, after a moment of reflection, seems to reconsider and actually disapprove of his own "animal" behavior.  If you're a fan of the series, it's an emotional response you'll recognize instantly as McDowall's.  Seriously.  The effects-work isn't only gorgeous and realistic, then, it is actually faithful to the franchise and succeeds in making us sympathize with Caesar to an incredibe degree.  James Franco does a fine, restrained job as Will -- by selling the reality of the special effects, essentially -- but Caesar feels like a flesh and blood person, or ape.

In terms of thrilling action, Rise of the Planet of the Apes features several incredible scenes of Caesar's apes on the loose in San Francisco.  On first blush, it might not seem plausible that high-tech human law enforcement officials would have a problem containing this escape of the apes, but the film makes the case surprisingly well that the apes don't think like humans, and therefore keep surprising the humans. 

For instance, there's a great exterior visual of the apes leaping out of a building -- through glass windows -- by the dozen.  In another impressively-staged shot, we see that the apes apparently believe the quickest way to their destination is to go through an office building, not around it.   Again and again, the movie reveals how the apes operate on different principles of behavior, and how that behavior prevents law enforcement from responding effectively to the crisis.  That the apes are "evolved" plays into the matter too, of course.  The police don't expect the apes to pick up spears, use city buses as barricades, or deploy advanced battle tactics. 

The film's final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is really fantastic work, in large part because we come to understand Caesar's tactics and movements, and the film doesn't cheat on spatial relationships or placement of the two "armies."  So many action films made these days rely on quick cutting and shaky cameras, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes builds its climax in relatively traditional film grammar terms, so that we understand where the characters are, who they are fighting, and what's at stake.  It's accomplished work, especially considering the complexity of the effects.

For the dedicated ape fan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an absolute delight. There are so many clever series touches here that it's difficult to remember and enumerate them all.  One involves Caesar's birth.  Nobody knew that "Bright Eyes" was even pregnant, and when Caesar is found, he's wrapped in a brown blanket....a blanket very much like the one that Zira wraps up baby Milo in during the conclusion of Escape from the Planet of the Apes.   To me, this raises a mystery.  Is Caesar really Bright Eyes' child, or the child of another ape, perhaps even Zira herself?  It's true that Caesare possesses the "green flecks" in his eyes that are a telltale sign of ALZ-112, but since this is passed on genetically, all evolved apes (even future apes of the year 3955...) would also possess them. 

Another mystery regarding Caesar's origin: What does the birth mark on his chest mean?  Is it present simply so the audience can recognize and differentiate Caesar more quickly and easily in the battle sequences?  Or does it carry another, deeper meaning?  Is it some kind of future-ape culture "brand" (in a caste system?) that was put on him by his real mother and father (whomever that may be)?  I don't know, and I like that the movie doesn't tell us too much.

Many reviews have also made note of the TV newscast that reports the disappearance of the spaceship "Icarus" on a mission to Mars.  At least unofficially, Icarus is the name of Taylor's spaceship from the original film, and it's disappearance suggests the time-dilation or Hasslein Curve that we're expecting.  A sequel to this film could have that spaceship arriving on Earth in a thousand years and finding Caesar's progeny. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes also finds ways to work in Charlton Heston and famous lines of dialogue such as "take your stinking paws off me..." and "It's a madhouse,  madhouse!," but frankly, such touches aren't even really necessary.  The film works so impressively as a re-imagination of the franchise that the more overt pop culture shout-outs only seem to take away from the film's strong sense of dedication and fidelity to the source material.  My only wish is that in the primate shelter we had seen some ape name-plates that read Aldo, Lisa, and Mandemus.

I've read some critical complaints about the Tom Felton and Freida Pinto characters in the film, but these arguments largely miss the point.  These characters are not extraordinarily well-developed, to be certain, but they're as well developed, at least, as Julius in the original film, or Stephanie Branton in Escape.  Focusing on their superficiality misses the point: this is Caesar's story.  It's his story of determining "what he is," what he's supposed to be, and what purpose he is supposed to fulfill in his life.  The other characters are developed enough, but they aren't the focus.  In other words, you see about as much of them as you want to see, and no more.  It looks a lot to me like many critics were just trying to find things to quibble about in a movie that they largely liked, but didn't want to admit that they really liked.

Thrilling, intelligent, and emotionally resonant, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is everything I hoped it would be going in -- even with expectations high -- and perhaps more too.   When the film ended, I wanted to pay for another ticket and watch it again, to catch all the details I had missed.  I eagerly await the film's release on Blu Ray, that's for certain.

Finally, a re-imagination that doesn't make a monkey out of the audience.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    John, I agree. Finally, the Planet Of The Apes franchise is back on track. After Tim Burton's 2001 film we lost a decade.

    SGB

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  2. I'm the most militant Apes fan there is. Dearly, dearly love the original series and was beyond disgusted with the Tim Burton version. I would have been really sick if this one failed. Thank God it didn't. An awesome beginning for what will hopefully be an awesome series.

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  3. When 'Terminator 3' finally told the story of how humans lost control of their planet, it was plausible. That's really what I need from a origins story of this type, plausibility. The ubiquity of computer control in modern warfare means that this was not a stretch.
    Maybe I am wrong John, but you seem to be somewhat less critical of your reviews of sci-fi than on horror, (unless of course the director is Abrams). While this story is good looking as a franchise vehicle should be, it fails the plausibility test. While I appreciate themes as you do, this film is a origins story. Planet of the Apes right? Not City Block of the Apes. Not City Wide Disturbance of the Apes. PLANET! In the original with Heston, mankind blew himself up, the apes inherited the Earth. Explains getting rid of humanity. How do these sentient apes that are stronger, faster, and as smart, (but not smarter) than humans...overcome the fact that there are about a total of 350,000 apes in existence worldwide? And of course 7 billion humans on 'Planet of the Apes' that outnumber the apes 3 million to one. What happens when the US President suspends the Posse Comitatus Act and sends in combat US Marines with all the toys of a modern army to kill every sentient ape on the West Coast? Sentient apes without humvees, bulletproof vests, nightvision, etc, etc, etc. So while the apes may fight unorthodox,and that may throw local police off their game. The apes will very soon be up against the most violent, well-armed, most ruthless species on the planet in human beings. This film failed it's own title imo.

    And I do not think I am being overly critical because of that tile. I can watch 'The Birds' or 'Arachnophobia' because they do not have 'Planet Of' in it's title. Just my humble opinion.

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