Rise of the Planet of the Apes

| August 23, 2011

I am a huge fan of the POTA films. Have been ever since I saw the original 1969 Planet of the Apes at the Central Drive-in when I was all of seven years old. Every since then, they’ve become a touchstone of my movie watching experience throughout the rest of my life. I’d always enjoyed the marvel and excitement of the Ape world, but, as well, I’ve come to deeply appreciated the commentary the films provide. Even as a 7 year-old I could see that something else, besides action and adventure, was going on in those stories. The imagery, the words, all looked and felt familiar. I may not have understood a lot what was going on at age 7, but with the wisdom of years, the older I got, the more I understood the deeper messages of the POTA films.
The huge POTA fan that I am, however, I am not wrapped up in the so-called mythology of the series. I don’t theorize how the Earth was taken over by Apes, or try to map out the genealogy to trace Cornelius back to modern day, or theorize on Ape history and culture. I never felt the need to wrap myself up within that world. I just love watching the movies and analyzing the commentary. The mythology aspect seems to be the hobby of the newer generations, where shows like Lost require mandatory Internet research, and true fanmanship is gauged by your CosPlay status. It’s this over-involvement in things other than the story that eventually eroded my overall enjoyment of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So much attention is given to the invention of a new franchise backstory and hidden clues, and tying them together with the homages to the original POTA series, that it felt as if the actual story being told on the screen was second hand business.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not without its merits. Like the original film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a visual treat. The cinematography is wonderful, and the visual effects are astounding. You may already know this about me — that I am not a big special effects kinda guy — so, for me to sit back and enjoy CG animation, it’s a big thing. I have always been fine with the rubber masked look of the original Apes — and the transparency of all the effects of those days — because I’ve always felt that it was all a part of the showmanship. The Harryhausen models never looked so real, but in my imagination. For me, that was the point of movie magic, that we understood it was all fake, yet we were still so taken. The updated effects of the 2011 film are surely a treat, though. Caesar was done with such CG artistry that I fell for him as a full on character. The only flaw in the CG effects came with some of the peripheral creatures. With much effort and attention given to the main Ape characters — Caesar, the gorilla, the orangutan… — the supporting cast of monkeys seemed wooden at times, their movements not jibing with the masterful animation of the main cast.
Story-wise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes did hint at some good ideas… or a good idea. Caesar, the central chimp of the story, asks “What is Caesar?” The simple question is asked of his owner, scientist Will Rodman, played by James Franco. Will has sneaked Caesar out of the labs at Gen-Sys, where he has developed a drug for Alzheimer’s called ALZ-112. Caesar’s mother was the primary lab animal being tested by Will’s team, who has discovered that the drug has improved the chimp’s brain functions. When the chimp, named Bright Eyes (get it?) goes ape in Will’s sales pitch meeting with the pharm companies, Bright Eyes has to be put down, with all the rest of the lab chimps. It’s at this point that Will discovers that Bright Eyes has been hiding something in her cage… a baby chimp. So, it wasn’t the ALZ-112 that made her violent! She was only trying to protect her baby. Wracked with guilt, and not prepared to put a baby chimp down, Will takes the chimp home to raise it on his own. Will’s father, played by John Lithgow, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s himself, names the chimp Caesar (another get-it?). Caesar becomes not just their secret pet, but more of a son and grandson. As Caesar grows older, he progresses in intelligence, even developing communication skills with Will through sign language. But then, when Will requests that Caesar wear a leash while on one of their regular visits to the Muir Woods, Caesar is saddened and confused, asking that disheartened, but all-encompassing question: What is Caesar?
The question is pointed at the fact that Caesar is confused as to whether he is a pet that needs to be collared and leashed, or is he something more… maybe Will’s “son”? The question also means something more: what are animals to humans? In the opening sequence we watch as men cruelly hunt down chimpanzees in the jungle, capturing them in boxes and exporting them to the labs at Gen-Sys, to be lab test animals. Is this the purpose of animals on Earth, to be whatever humans want them to be? A pet? A lab animal? Not only is Caesar asking about his own identity, but he is speaking to the greater arrogance of humankind — who are we humans, to take charge of creatures below us in the food chain, just because we can?
Caesar’s self-awareness question is unique to this movie, but the message of human arrogance is one that is borrowed from Rise’s POTA predecessors. In the 1968 film Heston’s character, Taylor, speaks quite boldly of his contempt for humankind, and the arrogance that humans display by going to war against their brothers, and starving others while building wealth and glory. However, unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the original Planet of the Apes demonstrates its commentary with much more discussion, and sharper writing and skilled character development. The undeniable references to the social upheaval of the 60s — race relations, Vietnam, class struggles, the environment — are deftly interwoven into the story, adding an element of urgency — images of Taylor being hosed down mimic the news footage of black Civil Rights protesters being hosed by police; Zira’s words “All humans look alike…” mimic the words we’ve all heard from our friends or acquaintances — which, if only as a historical lesson, are still resonant today. Rise of the Planet of the Apes lacks this urgency. The message of how we treat animals is certainly a current issue, but it’s delivered with the biased punch of a PETA ad — bad people are being cruel to animals! Besides this message, there is nothing more that really resonates to the current events of the day.
And this is the major flaw of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, that it didn’t dig any deeper than that simple question. Just here, in this review, I’ve invested more into that little question of Caesar’s than the filmmakers did. Unlike the 1968 Planet of the Apes, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. God knows, there’s so much that can be discussed related to the notion that humans arrogance has grown more intolerable since the 1970s. We’re in the midst of another tangled mess of a war. There’s global warming, and the “green” movement. Racism is still very much (and sadly) alive. There is so much that the original POTA films (along with the TV Drama and cartoon) tackled, that I can’t help but feel cheated by this latest re-imagining.
Instead of depth and conversation, Rise of the Planet of the Apes throws down a pile of characters who do nothing more than demonstrate that stale idea that humans can be assholes, or that humans can be complacent. The neighbor next door to Will is prime example. The man apparently lives for no other reason but to be a total and utterly un-compassionate prick. He threatens Will when Caesar breaks out of the house and winds up on his property, and then humiliates and berates Will father, when, in a cloud of confusion caused by his Alzheimer’s, he tries to drive off in his car. Oh, and he also yells at people who come to Will’s house and knock on his door. Then there’s the folks at the San Bruno Primate Shelter, where Caesar is sent after protecting his “grandfather” and assaulting the mean neighbor, after the whole incident with the car. What the purpose of the shelter is is pretty vague, but for some reason the family who runs the facility (headed up by Brian Cox) aren’t big fans of primates. They have elaborate dwellings for the primates in their care, decked out in trees and rocks and all kinds of things the primates love. And they show it all off with such pride to Will, when he comes to deliver Caesar. But them, when all the people leave, the primates are chased through a labyrinth of tunnels to be cruelly boxed up in tiny cages. But why? What’s worse is that one of the kids watching over the primates has an unsavory anger towards the monkeys. But, here’s the thing. The kid treats the primates as if he’s a bully in junior high. He yells insults at them and mocks them terribly… but, um, they’re monkeys. Insults and mockery don’t really come off as cruelty, when it’s animals who are being called names. But, with that aside, the vile anger this kid has towards the animals is never explained, so his cruelty towards them is shallow. Then there are the policeman, who have to deal with the rogue monkeys when they break out of the shelter. There never seems to be a moment of confusion or bewilderment from the officers. They simply attack the apes with impunity, mowing them down with machine guns and charging at them with helicopters. The anger towards the animals, in every aspct, is just plain confusing. People are bad…animals are good. Check. Here’s a bad human — he talks naughty to monkeys. Here’s a bad human — he talks nasty to his neighbors. Okay, we get the point… humans can be pricks. Now… what else you got?
What is frustrating about these stereotypes and their useless behavior, is that there are name actors in some roles that should really have had more meat on their bones. Why are award winning actors like Frieda Pinto and Brian Cox delegated to roles where their shining talents aren’t even used, let alone needed? Maybe they could’ve been used in the other roles, where they could’ve put some edge to the stereotypes? For some reason, I think these actors’ talents may come up in the already planned sequels. Let’s hope so. And let’s hope that the future new POTA franchise films will be stronger in commentary and story, as they are in visual wonders.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is simply too wrapped up in the mythology of itself, painstakingly paying homage to the originals series and their creators, and fashioning a history for the new franchise. This is probably why Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes off as incomplete. Planet of the Apes was its own story, with a beginning, a middle, and and end. They didn’t tie their writers up with leaving room for a sequel, yet alone a franchise. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems to have dropped off after a third act that seemed more like a second act plot point. Instead of making a nice third act, one that would wrap the story up, we’re left, instead, with all but a to be continued tag on the screen.

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