(SPOILERS AHEAD) One of the big and unexpected hits of the summer, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES benefited from unusually positive critical praise for a summer blockbuster. Playing now in Seoul, I decided to see if it lived up to the hype, especially since summer action movies are usually not my favorite form of entertainment. To my surprise, this is one of the best action films I have seen in a long time, and one of the best American films of the last few years. Part of its achievement rests in its CGI technology, which allows the main character, an ape named Caesar (played by Andy Serkis, who also played the CGI Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS), to have the facial characteristics of a human. But the film actually goes beyond this. I would argue that Caesar is the most sympathetic action hero lead I can ever recall because he is both human and also not human. In other words, the film calls upon a sympathy we extend to animals and not to other humans (Disney has made millions off this lesson) and combines this smartly with the CGI to give us a deeper connection to Caesar. The fact that Caesar leads a rebellion against humanity, wins this battle, and begins the destruction of mankind, all of which we are meant to celebrate, is what makes the film so remarkable.
The story of THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a prequel of sorts to both the original 1968 film (which is great as well) and Tim Burton’s terrible 2001 remake. But not really. It does not exist in the same universe as those films (for an excellent guide to all the movies in the series, including the numerous sequels and prequels, see this primer by Matt Singer of IFC). Instead of a society ruled by apes, as in the originals, we see how an ape revolution takes place. As usual, it’s a tale of science gone wrong. Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) designs a drug to cure Alzheimer’s. Of course, he also has personal motivation, since his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from the disease. He tests the drug on apes, and they show signs of increased intelligence. However, the experiment is shut down after one of the apes turns violent. Rodman discovers a baby born to one of the experimental apes, and it turns out the increased intelligence has been passed on to him. Rodman raises Caesar on his own, but eventually Caesar develops an identity crisis (“what is Caesar?”), unsure if he is a pet, a human, or something else. He is put into an ape sanctuary after he violently defends the father against a neighbor, and eventually learns of his place in the ape world and his ability to free his fellow creatures from their imprisonment. All of this is fairly generic, as are some of the character types, especially the villains, but complaining about these things in a Hollywood action movie is almost the equivalent of critiquing an art movie for its slow pace. What matters is the execution, which is very convincing and even moving, as our relationship with Caesar is formed with the great use of close-ups, Serkis’ performance, and an unusually methodical and effective build-up. The use of San Francisco as a setting is another big plus. This leads to a great extended action sequence at the Golden Gate bridge in which the apes try to escape the city into the Redwood Forest (which Caesar had visited as a child, and first experienced freedom). Not only are the apes successful, but all of the audience identification is with Caesar, who is portrayed as a great and heroic leader in a way that would be seen by the audience as propaganda if not for the fact that he is non-human. Furthermore, there is a release of a virus that will cause all of humanity to be wiped out, a fact that is presented almost joyously by the film, since we now feel that Caesar and the apes will be able to live freely without human retribution for their victory. To the movie’s credit, Rodman is not seen as a villain, and when Caesar tells him he is home at the conclusion, Rodman accepts and lets Caesar be.
Many reviews of the film have thus far noted the connection with another movie in limited release about an ape, PROJECT NIM, which details an attempt by a family in the 1970s to raise a chimp as a human. This of course overlaps with Caesar’s relationship with Rodman in the early segments of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (and may even have been inspired by the true life story). Unfortunately, PROJECT NIM is not yet available here in Korea, but I did think of another documentary from this year with similar subject matter: “The Monkey in the Machine and The Machine in the Monkey,” the third part of Adam Curtis’ three part BBC series ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE. The title refers to both the human experimentation on monkeys (especially space travel) as well as the notion that monkeys and all animals (including humans) have machines inside of us (our genes) that determine our actions. Both films have a rather bleak view of humanity, with Curtis especially making incisive and rather depressing links between colonialism and humans relationship with animals. These connections are impossible to ignore in all of the PLANET OF THE APES movies, and is especially prominent in the pro-revolutionary RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. But what Hollywood gives that the more pessimistic documentary doesn’t is a happy ending and a unmistakable feeling of euphoria. This comes at the cost of human destruction, but actually it doesn’t, since what we usually think of as “humanity” is embodied more in the apes than anyone else (and ironically enabled by human technology). The film’s optimism comes from the idea of starting over, with a society in its infancy, one perhaps capable of a society better than we have accomplished. Utopian indeed.
For an examination of the reasons for the film’s success, see this article on Grantland.
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