…is the seventh film in, and second reboot of, the Planet of the Apes franchise, even though the last one was officially marketed as a “remake.” It wound up being an incredibly stupid mistake that exposed Tim Burton for an idea-starved thug he’d become by then and apparently staked this entire franchise through the heart. But let’s be honest with ourselves and admit these movies hadn’t been “relevant” for years. Most intelligent fans trace the decline of the franchise back to the moment they stopped being about Planets full of Apes and became all about justifying the existence of said planets to fools who won’t take these movies seriously no matter how many prequels you roll out.
Ten years after that debacle, a hit-starved 20th Century Fox unearthed the franchise’s corpse and removed the stake, like many a Hammer horror victim. I didn’t expect much going in, being long-since burnt out on reboots. Director Robert Wyatt didn’t help things by explicitly compared it to Batman Begins. You could go either way with that one. Everybody wants to be the goddamn Batman, but not everyone has the chops. I can remember thinking, “From the writers of The Relic? Are you fucking kidding?” So before we do anything else, I’d like to personally apologize to Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, one writer to two others.
Guys: I’m sorry I doubted you. Your movie’s awesome. In fact, it’d be prefect…if it didn’t insist on featuring James Franco.
I’m surprised I liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes as much as I did…except that’s not true. I know exactly why I liked it. It did the same thing the King Kong remake did – employ Andy Serkis and Weta Workshop’s special effects teams to create a collection of remarkably expressive and dynamically mobile cartoon apes. (And why else do we watch these movies? For the humans? Fuck that noise!) Along with a heaping dose of flagrant emotional manipulation. This means we care about the apes, no matter how cartoonish they are, because they’re trapped in a story that’s unrepentantly mythic. As it should be.
That’s how we met first Caesar during Escape from the Planet of the Apes: as the foundational myth of Ape society. (Even though this was never mentioned in the previous two films. You’d think it might’ve come up at Taylor’s trial. Ah well.) According to the time-displaced Dr. Cornelius, the Ape revolution began when a chimp told his human captives, “No!” Rise tells the story that will go on to inspire those myths, in the same way that Peter Jackson’s King Kong (intentionally) feels like a depiction of the “true” (if sentimental and maudlin) events that inspired Merian C. Cooper’s.
Rise tells the story of corporate biochemist Will Rodman (Goblin Jr.), desperate to invent a cure for the Alzheimer’s that’s slowly killing his father, Charles (John Lithgow). His star test subject is a female chimp nicknamed Bright Eyes…who escapes the lab in the opening minutes, forcing the guards to put her down with their pop-gun Glocks. In the face of this, Will’s board of directors shuts his Cure Alzheimer’s project down, apparently unaware of what happens to corporate boards who piss off Green Goblins. (Short answer: the get turned into CGI skeletons.)
Turns out Bright Eyes pulled her little rampage because she thought the lab jockeys were set on harming her newborn baby. As Will’s head lab jockey, Franklin (Tyler Labine), says, “They carry light.” Faced with the choice of putting the little one down or carting it home, Will carts it home…and quickly discovers there’s more to this baby chimp than meets the eye.
Naming him Caesar (the Rodman home is lousy with paperback copies of Shakespeare, as it should be – this is, after all, a grand family tragedy), Will raises the chimp to adulthood, continually fascinated by Caesar’s increasing mental capacity. By age eight (which we reach quickly thanks to the Power of Montage) Caesar’s signing words, wearing clothes, and running around the redwood forests with his “father” and his “father’s” hot vet girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto). As modern, stone age families go, this one seems to be getting along fine. Sure hope some tragically ironic circumstance doesn’t force the Rodman family apart.
Oh wait: yes I do. Once that happens, the movie can stop pretending James Franco’s our main character and things can start to pick up. The movie becomes (to borrow one of Joseph Campbell’s phrases) a mythopoetic rocket ride that shoots over the first third of its own end credits before it slows down. The best thing about it, from a shameless fanboy perspective, being the conscious effort taken to parallel Caesar’s journey in this film with Charlton Heston’s in the first one. These include, but are not limited to:
-being mistaken for a normal (if particularly dangerous) member of his species by everyone besides the Enlightened Scientist and His #1 Girl.
-getting led around on a leash, even by the above. There’s a great scene were Caesar, after passing a family walking their dog through the Redwoods, asks Harry Osborn if he’s a pet. Franco says, “No,” and I didn’t even need him to verbalize Caesar’s next question: “So what the fuck am I, then, ‘Dad’?” Yer a hero, son. A bona fide Ape Messiah. But Will Rodman can’t know that, so he makes the mistake of driving Caesar by the lab and telling Caesar a G-rated version of his origins.
-being imprisoned with mute members of “his own kind.” Thankfully, Caesar avoids any pace-destroying romantic entanglements with a cellmate – though she is introduced, and even named “Cornelia.” (Har-har.)
-getting blasted with a high-pressure hose by his most dickish captor (in this case, Hogwarts graduate Tom Felton). And of course,
-surprising everyone (in the movie, that is) with his ability to speak. Those of us out here in the target demographic already knew where this story was going the minute Fox announced it. We all rolled our eyes and tensed our buttocks in preparation for the inevitable disappointment. Which allowed the movie to blindside us with its quality. None of us imagined Andy Serkis could come anywhere close to topping Roddy McDowall’s turn as basically the same (but not really) character in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Which was the movie we all assumed Rise would most closely resemble.
The great thing is it doesn’t, because Conquest was a dystopian future movie; Brave New World with a whole shitload of face make-up. Rise is a Frankenstein story, with Franco as the new Modern Prometheus. Its set-up (testing cures for Alzheimers on animals, which makes them smarter, which makes them dangerous) is right out of Deep Blue Sea. But who cares about sharks, right? Sharks can’t complete the Lucas Tower in fifteen moves (a perfect score).
Nor can they express themselves in ways that a human audience will recognize. Caesar can. And not just because his actor and his animators do everything in their power to pull at the heart strings. The success of this movie did not hinge on the fact that Serkis’ fake chimpanzee face can emote more than James Franco’s real one. At least, not on that alone. I submit that it had more to with the fact Silver, Jaffa and Wyatt knew exactly what story they wanted to tell. The twist being they actually knew how to tell it, both within the context of the Apes franchise (hence all the flagrant shout-outs) and the context of modern movie making.
See, modern studios are scared to death of making anything new because they have no idea what will or will not be successful. After all, you can’t leave things like that up to personal judgement calls. That could cost people money. And nobody knows how much anything really costs in Hollywood these days. Knowing that might cost people jobs. Thankfully for Hollywood, a development executive named Christopher Vogler figured out a way around this back in 1985.
It was a two page memo called “A Practical Guide to Joseph Cambell’s [sic] The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” previously alluded to last January in my X-MO:W review. I’ll cite that film as a prime example of the worst, laziest, most dunderheaded application of Volger’s ideas until my dying day but, thanks to Jaffa, Silver, et. al., I now have a positive counter example. Everybody loves apes. (Or “monkeys,” as idiots insist on calling them. Even the one’s in this film.) But to truly get Joe Blow Sixpack behind an armed ape uprising, we need to do more than believe an ape can talk. We need to make that talking ape a hero.
You could do that fairly easily in 1973, back when they made Conquest and used Apes as straight-up analogues for black people. The makers of Conquest were smart enough to admit as much. But without a good riot in the news to lend scenes of ape-on-human violence any socio-political street cred (and no, the outbreaks of police-on-human violence around the Occupy encampments don’t count), we need to follow Monkey Moses from his Miraculous Birth to his Return with the Magic Whatever-it-is (speech, in this case).
Look at Caesar’s life. Orphaned early. Raised by his oppressors. Feared and persecuted for his unique gifts. Unjustly imprisoned. And smart enough to know that, when you’re locked in the clink, the first thing you do is make friends with the biggest, meanest motherfucker you can find. In this case, “jail” is a primate shelter and the enforcer is a gorilla named Buck, in homage to Buck Kartalian, who played Julius the gorilla back in ’68 (played here by Richard Ridings). Caesar frees him through the expedient of lock-picking, gaining an ally, as any good hero should. And I could just see some gorilla mother a few thousand years down the line telling this bedtime story to her child. I don’t know if our writers worked backward from the original films, or simple plugged the appropriate words into their Joseph “Cambell” checklist. But it feels as if they did the latter, and if so, good show.
Enough gushing. The big downside of this film is – what else? – its humans, most of whom have the thankless jobs of playing one-dimensional sacrificial lambs. Lithgow and Franco are the only exceptions because they play such an integral part in Caesar’s story. Those few brief scenes where all three share the screen are fantastic. There’s this one, part of which you saw in the trailers, where a slipping Lithgow tries to cut an egg with the wrong end of his fork. Caesar fixes that, and then shares a look with Franco across the breakfast table – it’s the look of two family members heartbroken over their old man’s slow descent into dementia. He’s dying and there’s nothing to be done…except re-start up the old “cure” project. Which ensures Caesar can bring his fellow apes (I almost wrote “people,” but as Brian Cox says during his glorified cameo, “They’re not people, you know?”) all the enlightenment they need once he’s suffered enough trials. So he gets to be Ape Buddha on top of being Monkey Moses.
Dr. Franco’s cure turns out to be an easy-to-disperse, pressurized gas, which the Evil Capitalist pharmaceutical company for which he works proceeds to manufacture. Without proper testing. And against his recommendations. Of course. Can’t have James Franco play an unlikeable character, now, can we? Even if he is responsible for the rise of ape civilization. I know he has his fans, but I’ll never forgive him for Spider-Man 3, and his work here is blandly affect-less…unless he’s interacting with Caesar.
As to the rest, the Evil Pharmaceutical company (apologies for the redundancy) is represented by a suit (David “Lightning from Red Tails” Oyelowo) who’d be right at home in RoboCop‘s mega-corporation, OCP. Freida Pinto is beautiful, but she has nothing to do as Franco’s token Love Interest. Only John Lithgow winds up leaving any real impression, and he’s barely on screen. After all, he’s the Father Figure. What do you think happens to him by the end of the second act?
This is Caesar’s story, and it’s a good story, told well…after about twenty minutes of set-up. Wyatt’s camera follows it effectively, with many a great angle making for many a good picture. The cinematography’s wonderful, the score fits like a suit of Stark armor, and despite the trailer’s lies, this isn’t the brainless late-summer action movie bastardization we all feared. It’s actually a deft characters study that overcomes some early pacing problems to reach a kick-ass conclusion…with the Ape Army taking on (among other things) the SFPD’s mounted division. Now that’s a thing of real beauty.
If you haven’t yet, give ROTPOTA a look-see, though your enjoyment will depend upon whether or not you can you summon up the “humanity”(apologies for the species-ism) to empathize with and follow Chimp Christ through his Hero’s Journey. Maybe you can. Maybe not. But if not, here’s fair warning: when the revolution comes, you probably won’t be spared. Me, I’ll be one of those damn dirty collaborators you saw in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, trying to ensure some peaceful co-existence and (maybe) preventing the future of the original film from coming to pass.
If that doesn’t work, I’m sure we’ll bump into each other at some point. Probably on the inside of a cage.