Well I’ll be the rise of a monkey’s uncle – this movie actually is good! I’d heard all good things, but after seeing the trailers and TV ads it was hard to get my hopes up. Boiled down to basics and money shots it’s just some dumb bullshit: James Franco making speeches about a miracle cure, quick shots of every scene where a CGI ape jumps into the air, dramatic trailer music squeals and buzzes. I didn’t even think the much hyped special effects by Weta looked that good. Instead of the people in makeup as evolved apes from the original masterpiece they gotta have Andy Serkis or Tom Hanks or somebody controlling a computer animated chimp with humanized eyes and expressions. They show a baby chimp, it’s digital. Do they not know there are chimps? They think they can’t film a real one ’cause it’s a made up creature like a Smurf or an Avatar? I wasn’t buying it.
But in context all that stuff is fine. What the trailers underemphasize are two somewhat important elements: the story and the characters. James Franco (General Hospital) is the human lead, and he’s only pretty good, I think he’s a better character actor than generic summer movie hero. But the co-lead or main character is his ape, Caesar (Serkis, computers) and he’s a truly interesting character, a sympathetic animal who you feel for and root for, but who also is flawed and at times scary. Having a chimp in your house is a great time until he grows big enough to hurt you, this is kind of the same thing. Having a super-intelligent chimp is a great time until he grows smart enough to start a revolution.
Franco plays a scientist on the verge of a breakthrough in treating Alzheimer’s patients. His experimental drug has apparently increased the intelligence of a test chimp, and he’s anxious to move on to human testing because his own father (John Lithgow, RICOCHET) suffers from Alzheimer’s. But a disastrous (and awesome) chimp attack shuts down the program and through accident and desperation Franco ends up secretly bringing home the test chimp’s baby, Caesar, who seems to have inherited his mother’s advanced intelligence.
As the years go by it brings to mind that PROJECT NIM documentary that’s out now (or at least the trailer, since I haven’t seen it), and Michael Jackson raising that chimp Bubbles, and also that crazy Richard Franklin movie that I loved, LINK . In all these cases people were raising apes in their homes, treating them as humans, not realistically taking into account the inevitable dangers of the apes as they grow bigger and stronger, or the troubles they would have integrating with other animals or humans. Caesar is a tragic character. At home he sits in the attic staring longingly out the window at children playing. Later, locked up in a home for apes, he draws a chalk window outline on his wall so he can imagine staring longingly out the window. It’s lonely being an ape on the planet of the men.
My favorite section of the movie is when it turns into a prison movie. That’s when Caesar really comes into his own because he’s abandoned, he’s lonely, he’s bullied, but he figures out what to do. He outsmarts the other apes and his human abusers. An ape named Rocket makes fun of him and steals his shirt, so he creates and executes a plan to free and befriend the gorilla named Buck and use him to make Rocket his bitch. Soon after that he becomes a leader.
Caesar is kind of Machiavellian, or even Caesarian, I guess. He does good things for the other apes, but is he doing it out of genuine caring and brotherhood? The way he explains his philosophy in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes it seems more like strategy. He knows there’s strength in unity, but I think it’s the strength he cares about most, not the unity. But maybe that’s okay when his goal truly is freedom. If he wanted to be a tyrant he could stay in the zoo and be the cookie master, and that’s not what he does. He’s ambitious, but I don’t think he foresees a Planet of the Apes. He just wants to climb around in the Redwoods and be left alone, please.
Or that’s how I read him, but there’s some ambiguity there. I guess it can be more dramatic when a character can’t fully explain himself.
The advertising emphasizes the climax of the movie, where the apes are starting a revolution against man. That part is fun, at times thrilling, but it never feels like the point of the movie. It’s just part of the pay off. It’s the intimate parts that work best, the emotional parts. The scene where Franco has to leave Caesar in a zoo is painful like the scene in A.I. where the mom ditches the kid in the woods. And there’s a sad discomfort in the relationship between the human and the ape. This guy obviously loves Caesar like a son, but he has to keep him on a leash when he brings him out in public, and even that scares the shit out of people. You’ve grown to accept Caesar as a man but his keeper can’t ignore that he’s still a beast.
Sometimes the emotional scenes are kind of subversive in the way they manipulate us. There’s a part where some of the apes attack the villainous owner of the drug company, and have a choice of either showing him some mercy or letting him die. I was hoping they’d choose the nice one, but understood why they might go the other route.
Then, immediately after we’ve sympathized with animals killing a human, we’re asked to mourn the death of the gorilla that did it. And we oblige. Poor big fella. For some reason Caesar thinks to push the ape’s eyes closed after he dies. Must be all that TV they watched while they were locked up.
If I got one complaint about the movie it’s that the bad guys are too one-dimensional. This includes Draco Malfoy as evil animal-abusing assistant primate keeper, but the worst offender is the asshole neighbor who gets mad when Caesar runs into his yard and when Lithgow crashes his car. In both cases he has legitimate reasons to be upset, and still makes you want a chimp to bite his face off. It would be very easy to have all these same situations but with a believable and nuanced response where he’s upset but he’s not the bad guy.
When the rising started happening I realized that might’ve been an intentional choice to make some of the humans one-dimensional so it’s easier to root for a bunch of escaped zoo animals to kill them. But I think if it let us be a little more torn, a little more sympathetic toward our fellow humans, it would be even better.
There are plenty of silly aspects to this movie. Are there really that many apes in San Francisco? How did they get the regular-intelligence zoo apes to, uh, rise with them? How did Franco date Frieda Pinto for five years without telling him why Caesar was so smart? Why did he still have the experimental drug in the refrigerator when Caesar needed it? How did Franco never get in trouble for having a chimp in the middle of the suburbs? This is not “hard sci-fi,” but because it focuses on a pretty simple character story none of that seems like too much to swallow. The only part that made me groan was when they crowbarred “get your paws off of me you damn dirty ape” into it. Also the scene after the credits where all the apes are shoveling sand onto the Statue of Liberty.
I’m no James Goodall, but in my opinion the science of this movie is not 110% accurate. If there was a way to make apes smarter it probly wouldn’t be instant, or in gas form. And if it affects apes how do we know it doesn’t affect other animals? What about that horse Caesar rode in that one (incredibly awesome) part? What if that horse turned super-intelligent? Would a planet of the horses be possible?
What makes this a real good summer movie is that all of that stuff occurred to me while watching it and none of it bothered me. I never felt like I was being forgiving or “turning off my brain.” It’s just some poetic license. I am a poet, I get that license renewed every four years or whatever. In, say, a Roland Emmerich movie, the characters are so dumb and obnoxious that I don’t think about them, I just laugh at the stupid shit that happens to or around them. In this I’m focused on Caesar’s journey and if he happens to become involved in a full scale ape riot then that’s even better.
You guys thought I made up the idea of a “prebootquel,” but it’s a real thing now. Even more than X-MEN: FIRST CLASS this one takes an existing series, tells a story before the series started (or honestly needed to start), but also re-establishes things so by the time it gets to the time period of the movie that’s being prequeled it would be a totally different version of those events and characters. This is probly the purest prebootquel yet, but the term would also work for STAR TREK and even BATMAN BEGINS. Prebootquels are the future, man. By which I mean they’re the past. They don’t have to be as lazy as remakes and if done right they can mess with the storyline a little instead of just trying to lead up to what happened in some other movie. I mean technically this is a new telling of what led to a planet of the apes (the story of Caesar sort of comes from CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) but it doesn’t really feel like that’s the whole point. To me it never once feels like a set up, it just feels like a new story.
I gotta say, the ending does not have quite as much of a shock as the original, though. I figured out at least 20 minutes before the end that it was taking place on earth.
But now it’s a big hit and everybody likes it so I’m sure they’ll do a next episode. Do you think it’ll be BENEATH THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or more of a RISE OF THE BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES? I’m interested to see where they’ll go with it. We know from TV broadcasts that some astronauts went up to Mars and got stranded – that could be to set up for a sequel, or it could just be a little homage to what happened in the original. We also know from some interview with director Rupert Wyatt that he’d like to do “FULL METAL JACKET with apes.” I don’t know what that is, but I like it.
I do think they’ve painted themselves into a hell of a corner, though. A big part of the appeal of this movie is watching the apes communicate through posture, facial expressions and subtitled sign language. It’s nice that they can’t talk. But by the end they can. Especially if they’re gonna skip forward a bit like “FULL METAL JACKET with apes” seems to imply, it’s gonna be a bunch of apes talking to each other. Possibly with recognizable celebrity voices. Unless they evolve the apes to a more human form like in the original movies it might seem pretty silly. It’s a little hard to swallow in this one, but I think it works because it’s minimal.
But you know what, I liked the Bruce Wayne parts of BATMAN BEGINS better than the Batman and worried about how they would deal with that in a part 2. They did fine. So I shouldn’t write it off yet.
One aspect of the movie I’ll have to give more thought over time is the politics. If I ask what the movie is about, you might say it’s the old “man cannot play God” deal, they caused this by messing with things they weren’t supposed to mess with. I’d prefer to think it’s not about that because that’s just stupid. Superstitious anti-science bullshit. I got people in my family with Alzheimer’s, and it sucks. I don’t think we should stop trying to cure it because we’re afraid it might cause monkeys to talk and knock down helicopters.
I mean I guess “hey scientists, don’t rush it” is okay. They should’ve done more testing first.
But the apes movies have always had parallels to what was going on in our culture at the time. They’re not about animal rights – the apes, obviously, represent people. Does this version of the Caesar story say something that is unique to our time, or is it an age old story of rebelling against your oppressors? CONQUEST of course had more humanized apes, and different political factions. Some just wanted to go along with the status quo, some were militant. There were ape protesters and ape sellouts. Does the lack of those aspects in RISE reflect a more politically apathetic time, or just a logical extension of a movie where the apes are more animal and less human? Probly the second one. I’ll have to reflect on this.
There’s a book I liked when I read it years ago called Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture. I was wondering what that book’s author, Eric Greene, thought about RISE. I found this video where he brings it up a little and seems to be at about the same place as me on that question. “It’ll be interesting to see.”
* * *
I think we can now say officially that this was a pretty weak movie summer. We had some fun ones, but very few classics. I think RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is my favorite “popcorn movie” since FAST FIVE a couple months ago. Maybe this and ATTACK THE BLOCK. None of these are T2, but they give the Summer of 2011 enough dignity that it should be able to look itself in the mirror briefly tomorrow morning.
Long live Caesar.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.