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Non-Review Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Why would have thought that a monkey rebellion could be the stuff of great tragedy? That, in a Simian  revolt, we may yet see the best and the worst of ourselves reflected back? The leading monkey of the piece is named for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but its to the credit of Rise of the Planet of the Apes that it evokes a wonderfully powerful observation repeated many times throughout both history and fiction, perhaps best articulated by Ghandi, “We are the architects of our future, not its victims.” I think we’ve come a long way in how we use computer-generated imagery in cinema, and I would suggest that Rise of the Planet of the Apes stands as something of a signpost. For the CGI Caesar stands as one of the most tragic and compelling protagonists of the year, in a film that manages to cut to the heart of a franchise in the way that decades of sequels and prequels and a remake could only dream of. It’s undoubtedly the best film to include the words “Planet” and “Apes”in the title since Charleton Heston had a mental breakdown on a beach.

I don't have no time for no monkey business...

Don’t let the publicity fool you. James Franco is not the lead here. In fact, the movie’s lead character is hidden away with a tiny “and” credit at the end of the movie’s cast list. It’s Andy Serkis as the chimp Caesar. Truth be told, I don’t know who deserves the credit, or how it should be divided between the special effects company and Serkis, but the film rises and falls with the chimp at the centre of this origin tale. in order for the movie to work, Caesar needs to be “real” to us. I don’t mean the CGI needs to be convincing – when we care to notice, there’s no denying it’s all CGI – but rather that the monkey needs to foster an emotional connection with the audience. It’s more than a spark of life in his eyes, which is present here, it’s the combination of movement and body language and communication – all of which has to be so pitch perfect that we don’t really consciously pick up on it.

It’s easy to decry Rise of the Planet of the Apes as another prequel churned out by the Hollywood machine, as unnecessary as the complexity of its title. However, such a narrow view ignores how much a risk that a film like this represents, particularly in a climate where cinema revenues are down, and the movie studios are more liable to opt for safe and conservative options. Even the “Planet of the Apes” title and the presence of James Franco couldn’t have made the movie that much of a safe bet, centred as it is around a CGI monkey who decides to lead a rebellion that will wrest control of the planet from mankind. Imagine basing a major special-effects-laden blockbuster around a central character who is rendered entirely digitally, and who doesn’t speak for most of the movie (though he does occasionally sign). It sounds like an art house picture when you look at it in those terms.

Caese the moment!

Still, Fox bet heavily on Caesar, and I think they won. And, to be frank, I think we won. The movie works because it treats its inherently silly concept matter – hyper-evolved apes conquering the planet – with a lot of pathos and weight, opting to give us character development in place of exposition, and trying to engage with its audience emotionally, rather than through special effects. There’s a wonderful shot near the start of the film where a three-year-old Caesar swings through his adopted house, with such energy and joy that it’s hard not to smile. You’re aware that this isn’t a real monkey (for the special effects are impressive, but not groundbreaking), but the movie treats him as if he were. That’s what makes the movie so effective. A lesser, safer film would treat Caesar as a plot device and build itself around the scientist Will Rodman, but the film works because it dares to build itself around Caesar. Many of the better sequences in the film don’t feature the nominal “lead” cast members.

In fairness, there are a host of other aspects of the film that work really well (and a few that don’t), but Caesar really is the movie’s main selling point. Aside from the monkey genius, the film does well to tap into the core themes of that very first, very famous movie. The ending of that film is spoilt by the very premise of this film, so I don’t feel too bad discussing the rather clever idea that Rise of the Planet of the Apes picks on, so very well. This film quotes Heston’s famous “damn dirty ape!” line, but it’s not the most important line of the original. As Taylor lies in the sand, discovering this post-apocalyptic wasteland is really Earth, he declares, “Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it. You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”The apes aren’t the real villains of the piece, they were simply opportunistic – picking up the shattered remains amid the arid wasteland that humanity’s inherent destructive nature left behind.

There's beauty in the beast...

Like so much socially conscious science fiction of the sixties, it was a cautionary tale about the dangers of mankind’s darker impulses harnessing the raw power that science affords us. We were victims of our own arrogance, gambling recklessly on something that was ultimately completely pointless – and losing everything in the process. Rise of the Planet of the Apes picks up on that core theme, with Will Rodman confessing, “This is my fault. This is all my fault.” The destructive force is no longer the atomic bomb, but the very genes that make up life itself. The purpose that distorts them is no longer ideological warfare, but pure human greed.

So the apes are not the villains, and that makes all this rather powerful and tragic, more powerful and tragic than I really thought it could be – to be entirely honest. Caesar just wants to lead his brethren out of captivity and slavery and towards the promised land. The first sound he makes in a crude approximation of speech is a very telling one, and one that marks his defiance and resistance. The film is populated with such a variety of cruel and selfish human beings that it’s hard not to feel a hint of pity for the animals so carelessly and thoughtlessly treated by the characters.

Human nature...

In fact, even James Franco’s scientist is indifferent and aloof, even if he’s never an outright villain. He only comes to take care of Caesar when he’s unwilling to euthanize the baby chimpanzee with his own hands. Later on, he treats Caesar as something of a lab specimen he’s grown fond of – seemingly more interested in what Caesar means for his ailing father than in Caesar as an individual. When he defends the action he took for his ageing father, suffering with Alzheimer’s, somebody wonders about Caesar. Will’s first response betrays how little thought he’s really put into the future of his chimpanzee companion, “What about him?” When Caesar is taken away, Will is initially hesitant to abandon him, but then loses himself in his work again. it’s only when he loses his father that he realises how much he truly cares for Caesar… and the realisation comes far too late. It’s actually surprisingly effective.

Of course, the movie does wrestle with the fact that this is a film about super-intelligent apes rebelling against their human masters. That’s a pretty cheesy concept, to be frank, and today’s world is perhaps a far more cynical one than the world that so freely accepted a bunch of actors in ape masks all those years ago. It’s a credit to director Rupert Wyatt that it works as well as it does. The director shrewdly avoids taking too many “money shots”or going for obvious and easy compositions. There are several wonderful sequences as Caesar leads his army through San Fransisco, which work because of the restraint – disturbed trees suggest movement, in increasing numbers, and aerial footage shows the monkeys scattering through the city like a BBC nature documentary gone horribly awry. That entire final sequence is a wonderfully tight piece of cinema.

Going ape!

That said, there are some moments that veer a little bit too close to cheese for their own good. Giving Heston’s iconic line to one of the weaker actors in the cast feels like a mistake, and I’m not really sure if the movie goes too far with the hyper-intelligent apes. Some of the cruelty displayed to the monkeys, particularly by a young animal shelter staff member played by Tom Felton, goes too far into pantomime (to the point where it feels like Felton needs to grow a moustache to twirl and start addressing the apes as “my pretties”) – I think the more passive indifference to suffering displayed through the corruption of a warden played by Brian Cox (“they’re not people, you know”) and the greed of an executive played by David Oyelowo work much better (“you make history, I make money”).

There’s also a completely pointless character played by Freida Pinto, who just kinda clogs up the narrative with a pointless romantic subplot for two essentially secondary characters. The problem is that all of this takes up room, and so we don’t really get to see as much of Caesar growing up (especially in the earleir portions of the film) as we might like.

Hail, Caesar!

That said, it’s clear a lot of love went into piecing the film together, and I love the way the film ties all the plot elements together so seamlessly, with references to manned missions into outer space, a link between the fall of man and the rise of ape, and including a reference to “Bright Eyes.” None of these are layered on too heavy, and are quite skilfully suggested – like the model that Caesar is putting together at a key moment, or the references to Taylor’s captivity in the original film. I also admire the relatively subtle way that Caesar allows the window through which he looks at the world become a symbol for his movement. It does betray a lot of affection for the source material, without the mindless fidelity that kills a lot of similar projects.

There are a few blips in the road, mainly featuring the human supporting cast and the cheesier aspects of the production, but they are small prices to pay for what’s certainly one of the more original and unique big-budget motion pictures we’re likely to see this summer season. Okay, Tree of Life it isn’t, but it’s still a huge risk for the studio, and one that I think paid off really well. It’s a bold, creative and adventurous summer blockbuster, which also manages to be one of the better big-budget releases of the year.

2 Responses

  1. I’m curious if you’d go so far as to say that ROTPOTA is a “great” film, rather than just “good for a summer blockbuster”.

    It almost seems like the marketing of the movie was the polar opposite of what it is. The trailers made it seem like a dumb, special effects focused lazy movie with cardboard characters. But I guess if helps the movie do well, I can’t really complain.

    • That’s one I’m not really sure of. I think I’d have to see it again to be sure. It’s definitely “very good” and, at the moment, I feel it clawing up near the bottom of the annual top ten list I tally in my head, but Oscar season has yet to kick off and I can see it being displaced.

      I think it just blows away expectations, and I think it manages to tell an interesting and engaging story with what’s really difficult subject matter. I do think that the actual “rising” towards the end of the film is one of the better sequences of the year though.

      So, I’m not sure. At the moment, it sits between “very good” and “great” on my own personal scale, ahead of most of the blockbusters this year save Super 8, X-Men and (perhaps surprisingly) Thor.

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