posted Sunday 7 August 2011 @ 11:27 am PST
by Gary Westfahl
Lest anyone suspect that I am a hopeless curmudgeon, ardently devoted to classic science fiction films and persistently disdainful of their contemporary equivalents, let me first acknowledge that Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes invites consideration as the very best of the Apes films, artfully conveying and updating the bitterly misanthropic message that reverberates through Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel and its big-screen and small-screen offspring: that human beings are unworthy rulers of their planet, properly destined to be supplanted by their more virtuous simian cousins. True, it might be said that I am damning with faint praise, since few people have had kind things to say about any Apes films other than the first Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston (1968); but since so many remakes, sequels, and reboots have so conspicuously fallen short of the films that inspired them, as documented at this website and elsewhere, one must celebrate that rare film that is demonstrably better than all of its predecessors.
While criticisms of the damned human race are always central to the story, of course, each age will have its own opinions regarding the particular traits that will bring about humanity’s comeuppance. For Boulle, still influenced by 1950s fears that scientific progress and automation would sap our energy and sense of initiative, it was their laziness that allowed the humans on a distant planet to be overthrown by their ape servants. Michael Wilson and Rod Serling’s 1968 film script built upon another common postwar concern, that unwise scientific advances and our innate aggressiveness would lead humanity to destroy itself in a global nuclear war. In the fourth and fifth Apes films, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), writer Paul Dehn drew upon attitudes inspired by the civil rights movement to suggest that people’s mistreatment of other races might lead to their demise. And perhaps the best way to castigate Tim Burton’s vacuous and misguided Planet of the Apes reboot (2001) is to note that, in its story, one can’t really be sure precisely what human foibles are being emphasized to justify our coming subjugation to the apes; it just sort of happens, and hey, isn’t it cool to see Charlton Heston playing an ape with a gun, and an ape statue in the Lincoln Memorial?
What is striking about this film is that Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s screenplay both summarizes and adds to all of these themes, suggesting that people today can find many reasons to fear that humanity is heading for disaster. The issue of our increasing physical inactivity is understated, but Tyler Labine’s overweight ape handler, Robert Franklin, is surely featured to epitomize today’s obesity epidemic, and one searches hard to find any person in this film engaged in strenuous exercise (I can only recall some children riding bicycles and one leisurely jogger); while the leader of the ape rebellion, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his followers consistently display enormous energy and superb athleticism. The casual cruelty of humans is exemplified by the hot-headed neighbor Hunsiker (David Hewlitt) and the sadistic employee at the primate center, Dodge Landon (Tom Felton), and although we have little fears today about a nuclear war, we understandably worry that some devastating disease might be created and unleashed by irresponsible scientists or executives, here represented by the well-meaning but reckless researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) and his greedy boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo).
Finally, while the apes visibly came to represent oppressed African-Americans in the original film series, it is possible to argue that this film’s apes correspond to another minority group still suffering from overt intolerance, homosexuals. After all, the story takes place in San Francisco, the center of American gay culture; while Caesar does interact with the female chimpanzee Cornelia (Devyn Dalton), he seems to form more powerful emotional bonds with several male apes; his very Aryan tormenter, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Landon, seems precisely the sort of fellow who would engage in gay-bashing; and a curious scene in which Caesar silently observes Rodman in bed with his girlfriend Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto) suggests his growing alienation from both human culture and heterosexual romance. One might also note that, unlike the clumsiness of the apes in previous films, the apes in this film consistently display remarkable grace and agility (traits associated with gay men), so that their movements, while sometimes ominous, also seem a form of aerial ballet. (Imagine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon  with apes as its heroes, and you can envision the strange power of this film’s scenes of apes advancing upon and attacking San Francisco.)
To make their arguments work, all Apes films must get audiences to root against humans and for the apes, a tricky challenge requiring a clear contrast between ineffectual or unpleasant people and thoroughly admirable apes. Successfully ineffectual heroes include James Franciscus’s John Brent in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and this film’s Rodman, while the classic unpleasant hero remains Heston’s George Taylor in the first two films. (Another problem in Burton’s film was its counterproductive efforts to present Mark Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson as a conventional hero.) And though the original film series came to rely upon Roddy McDowall’s Cornelius, and later his Caesar, as its central admirable ape, that talented actor is here outdone by Andy Serkis, who with the assistance of remarkable motion-capture animation takes command of this film with a power that McDowall never achieved. His brilliant Caesar embodies all of the fine qualities that humans lack: he is in fine physical condition, and the green color of his eyes and his fondness for the redwood trees of Muir Woods National Monument suggest that he is more attuned with nature than humans dependent upon technology; he is tolerant toward all other apes, including the one who initially assails him; and he is fair and judicious in his exercise of power, sparing the humans who treated him kindly (Rodman and Landon’s coworker Rodney [Jamie Harris]) and punishing only those who thoroughly deserve it (Landon and Jacobs). Someday, the Academy Awards must confront the question of how to honor performers who excel in this mediated form of acting, and Serkis’s work in this film may well bring that issue to the forefront.
While the apes in this film are, as they should be, morally superior to the humans, they also manifest a fascinating sort of physical superiority, unrelated to their strength and dexterity, which demands attention. Attentive viewers might wonder why, in the closing scenes of the film, there are fleeting references to a manned spaceship heading for Mars, named the Icarus, which apparently goes missing, as suggested by a briefly glimpsed newspaper headline, “Lost in Space?” Dedicated fans of the series will know that Icarus is the name bestowed after the fact on the spaceship that brought Taylor and his crewmates back to Earth in the original Planet of the Apes, so that Wyatt’s film, in the proper manner of a “prequel,” is laying the groundwork for the future return of astronauts to an ape-dominated Earth which begins the first film. But the reference to the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew with his father’s wings until he ventured too close to the Sun and fatally fell into the sea, also suggests a fundamental human limitation: masters of the two-dimensional realm of Earth’s surface, people are less effective when they attempt to emulate the birds and venture into the three-dimensional world of the sky. Thus, as another visible contrast between the humans and the apes, the people in this film almost invariably stay on the ground, while Caesar and the other apes repeatedly and effortlessly climb to the tops of trees and buildings and travel through them, showing that they, unlike humans, can move in any direction they choose. And this human lack of mobility, along with their sloth, cruelty, greed, and insensitivity, emerges as another reason why apes deserve to succeed in their revolt against humanity.
If all of this seems far-fetched, there is a crucial scene in the film which drives this very point home. To prevent the apes from leaving San Francisco, the police set up a barricade on the Golden Gate Bridge and prepare to shoot them down as they advance across it; but Caesar is undeterred. Not restricted to ground level, he and the other chimpanzees can easily climb up the cables and move above the bridge, while the orangutans can swing underneath the bridge on its girders; and able to attack from all directions, the apes can easily overcome their human adversaries, despite their superior firepower. And when a man in a helicopter is momentarily effective in firing a machine gun at the apes from the sky, the gorilla Buck (Richard Ridings) is able to leap from the bridge into the helicopter to overcome the shooter and make the helicopter crash – demonstrating how vulnerable humans are in the air, despite their flying machines. Recalling a brief glimpse of the Mars astronauts in their spaceship, and recognizing that Caesar would be ideally suited for such a weightless environment, one might even infer that apes, with the sort of increased intelligence that they gain in this film, would prove better space travelers than humans, another reason to support their ascendance; perhaps an ape mission to Mars, unlike the thwarted Icarus, would be successful. (And though it might be carrying this line of reasoning a bit too far, one might additionally note that the name of the first intelligent ape, Bright Eyes, is also the nickname of the female space pioneer, Colonel Briteis, in Robert A. Heinlein’s film Project Moonbase .)
The spaceship Icarus, as it happens, is only one of many references to the original film and its sequels, making Rise of the Planet of the Apes seem like a fond tribute to its precursors, not (like Burton’s film) an attempted repudiation (although oddly, the film fails to credit both novelist Boulle and key screenwriters Wilson, Serling, and Dehn). I am indebted to the Internet Movie Database for the information that the name Dodge Landon combines the last names of the two astronauts who accompanied Heston’s Taylor; Cornelia is the female form of Cornelius, McDowall’s name in the first and third films; and the name and character of Caesar, as well as the basic plot of an ape leading a revolution against human society, comes from the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. This film also borrows two famous lines of dialogue from the original film – “It’s a madhouse” and “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” – and wryly recalls its iconic conclusion in a brief scene of Caesar playing with a toy Statue of Liberty. But it might also be worthwhile to look for references to the actors in the earlier films. Charlton Heston himself actually makes a brief appearance, though incongruously in a televised clip from The Agony and the Ecstacy (1965), not Planet of the Apes; the name of the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) obviously pays tribute to Maurice Evans, the Shakespearian actor who portrayed Dr. Zaius in the first two films; and the name of the gorilla Buck less obviously recalls Buck Kartalian, the little-known actor who played a gorilla in the first and fourth films. Stretching a bit, one might regard Labine’s Franklin as a reference to the first film’s director, Franklin J. Schaffner, and the ape Rocket (Terry Notary) as a reference to its innovative set designer, Norman Rockett (who also worked on the fourth film). And might one see the name of Steven Jacobs as a nod to Arthur P. Jacobs, the producer of the first five Apes films? Both men might be admired for launching the provocative process of having apes become intelligent rulers of the planet, and both men might be criticized for carrying on with their work solely to earn money long after it clearly should have been brought to a halt.
For obsessive sorts of people taking notes while watching the film a second time, the filmmakers also include a host of other references and evidence of some extreme attention to detail. Rodman wears a Berkeley t-shirt and has University of California diplomas on his wall, so this San Franciscan clearly was fittingly educated at a nearby university. While living alone with his father, Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), Rodman reaches into his refrigerator and we see a bottle of Samuel Adams beer, which one might expect in a bachelor’s home; later, after Caroline has moved in, Caesar reaches into the same refrigerator and no beers are visible, suggesting a married man’s change in lifestyle. For no particular reason, Charles is inspired by his first sight of the baby Caesar to quote an appropriate line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – “But as for Caesar, kneel down, kneel down, and wonder” – foreshadowing the ape’s eventual triumph. Anticipating the bad luck that humanity will soon experience, little Caesar is the thirteenth and final ape who is destined to be slaughtered following an experiment that goes awry, until he is rescued by Rodman, and the virus that will cause a catastrophe is not Rodman’s original version, ALZ-112, but the purportedly improved ALZ-113. And then there are the cookies: in one early scene, Caesar effortlessly swings to a high shelf to grab a cookie from a cookie jar, and later, he recruits potential allies in the primate shelter by offering them chocolate chip cookies. It is just possible that one of the writers was recalling a famous line from one of the earliest installments of the anti-establishment comic strip Doonesbury – “Even revolutionaries like chocolate chip cookies” (published December 22, 1970) – by associating these furry revolutionaries with precisely that treat.
If there is a downside to this film, it is that its probable success will generate demands for a sequel, almost inevitably to focus on the return of the Icarus astronauts to Earth to discover a world dominated by apes – in other words, a replay of the original film with the surprise ending already revealed. If this tale of the demise of humanity and the emergence of another intelligent race is indeed worth telling again and again, Hollywood might at least experiment with different species – perhaps, a worldwide flood caused by global warming which gives rise to a Planet of the Dolphins – or, if apes must be the starring characters, those astronauts might be warped to another planet controlled by apes to figure in a genuinely unprecedented approach to Boulle’s novel: namely, a completely faithful adaptation, ending with the astronauts’ return to their similarly transformed home world. But one better-than-expected film based on a tried-and-true concept should not tempt anyone into believing that Hollywood is consistently capable of coming up with worthwhile new projects, when it is more likely that the next Apes films will be a matter of thoughtless imitation, or monkey see, monkey do.