Monkeying with destiny

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a plausible prequel and a sobering cautionary tale

by Syd M
August 11, 2011 12:15 PM | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Still from Rise of The Planet of the Apes
Still from Rise of The Planet of the Apes
We have a bad track record with our simian cousins the chimpanzees. We poke them and prod them, eat them, kidnap them and raise them in laboratories, steal their babies, put them on TV, put them in zoos, try to make them pets. In the 1980s, we tried to infect them with AIDS (it didn’t work) – an effort that led to what is now a surplus of chimps bred for medical research. In a brief moment of sanity, the US government decided that we ought not to be euthanizing “surplus” chimpanzees, and established sanctuaries and retirement homes for former research chimps.

Sometimes the apes fight back, and who can blame them? Not me. I’m solidly on the side of the apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the Planet of the Apes movies of the 1960s and ‘70s (and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake). The prequel explains how apes come to rule our world in the future. Long story short: It was our fault. No surprise there.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a well-meaning geneticist who is trying to create a gene-therapy cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. He experiments on chimpanzees with a new treatment. One of the chimps, nicknamed Bright Eyes for her green eyes (a telltale symptom of successful infection and mutation), goes bananas in the lab. Predictably, it does not end well for Bright Eyes, but she leaves behind a surprise: an infant. Will takes the little orphan home to his ailing father Charles (John Lithgow), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Charles names the little green-eyed ape-man Caesar.

Caesar proves to be a quick study, a cute, cognitively enhanced little fella. He learns sign language, solves puzzles and, as he grows into adolescence, longs to go outside and play with the other primates. He’s smarter than the average ape – and the average Homo sapiens. He’s compassionate, gentle, loves long walks in the woods and has a great sense of humor; his profile would be awesome, but for a few missing chromosomes.

Caesar is a remarkable digital creation; no actual apes were used in the making of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Using state-of-the-art motion-capture technology developed by Weta Digital, an amazingly realistic “humanzee” performance by actor Andy Serkis (who gave movement and life to Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) is transformed into a lifelike digital creation.

The great technological achievement of this movie is in the creation of the eyes. Dead, soulless eyes have been the creepy shortcomings of motion-capture animation, but the eyes are critical to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The green color of the eyes of infected apes is important, but their eyes are telling of so much more: of intelligence, insight and emotion, of thinking and scheming, of an inner life and inner complexity. By getting the eyes right, the filmmakers create substantial, lifelike apes with personality and character – apes who are complex, fascinating and sympathetic enough to be heroic freedom fighters, and go eye-to-eye with living, breathing actors.

Director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver do something else right: They take the story seriously, and don’t treat it like a campy redux. For fun, there are nods to the previous movies sprinkled throughout Rise of the Planet of the Apes, including a cheeky tribute to Charlton Heston (of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes). For all its seriousness and thematic richness, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more fun than a barrel of monkeys – an enjoyable sneak preview of the coming apocalypse in which there’s just no getting around the fact that humans get what’s coming to them.

There’s a pretty long build-up to the movie’s fast-paced climax, during which life gets harder for Caesar. He encounters abusive keepers at a gulag-like ape “sanctuary,” where he also recruits other great apes to his occasionally violent (but only when provoked) cause. True to his name, Caesar is a born leader with big ideas. He’s not the only one; Will develops another wonder drug that make apes smarter, and makes his Big Pharma boss (David Oyelowo) see dollar signs.

As a paranoid cautionary tale, Rise of the Planet of the Apes explores themes of scientific hubris, corporate greed, cruelty and inhumanity. Will is a latter-day Frankenstein, but his creation is no monster. Caesar is a tragic figure – a genetic chimera who doesn’t belong in any world that exists (yet). But Will is tragic, too; he has good intentions, and deeply personal reasons for wanting to conquer Alzheimer’s Disease. In raising Caesar to his revolutionary adulthood, Will becomes a simian sympathizer.

In the end, it is not that the apes rise up to conquer humans (although with their strength and smarts, they could), but rather that humans outsmart themselves. The effort to defeat that which robs us of cognition and understanding, of our superior intelligence – the very characteristics that set us apart from other animals (or so we think, anyway) – is our undoing. Rise of the Planet of the Apes administers hard truths with a smart, lively, highly entertaining dose of poetic justice.

Syd’s pick: Check out Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys

Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), based on Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi short La Jetée, features a dizzying kaleidoscope of labyrinthine plots, Byzantine conspiracies and temporal leaps. Decades from now, the last straggly remains of humanity live underground in dank, dark bunkers. A deadly virus has killed five billion people, and in this future, wild animals rule the ruins of civilization. Beneath the deserted streets of Philadelphia, scientists enlist human “volunteers” from a prison colony. Among them is James Cole (Bruce Willis), who explores the bleak, snowy world above in a plastic bubble suit, collecting insect specimens. Cole is cursed with a talent for remembering things, so he’s recruited for a special assignment: The scientists strap him into a time machine and send him back to the pre-plague days of the 1990s so that he can discover how the deadly virus was spread.

Sent back to 1990, Cole ends up in the cruddiest, grungiest bedlam that ever there was, and encounters Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), nut-case extraordinaire and snake-pit charmer. Goines puts the tic in lunatic, twitching, jabbering and carrying on like a sportscaster on speedballs.

Back in the future, the scientists pluck Cole in and out of the past and present, and his time-warped mind starts to unravel. As Cole gets lost in it all, the audience is pulled through his dark, violent, hallucinatory fever dream. Maybe Cole is crazy; maybe this is all a madman’s nightmare. Then again, maybe the plague is real, and the virus that started it was unleashed by Goines and his guerrilla animal rights group the Army of the 12 Monkeys, and maybe, just, maybe, Cole gave him the idea back in 1990.

Such are the vagaries of time travel, and this movie exploits them all, with a twist. As the movie – one of Gilliam’s best – careens toward its delirious conclusion, the pieces start to fall together, though the puzzle is never exactly finished.

@ Syd M
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