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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Your ape...he spoke: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

There's a lot to unpack in this film. Of all the Apes movies, this one feels like it was written with somebody like me in mind.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011, directed by Rupert Wyatt.

At Gen-Sys, a laboratory in San Francisco, Will Rodman (James Franco) is trying to cure Alzheimers's disease with some kind of virus. They test on apes, and one of them shows results. But that ape goes on a rampage and is killed. They then discover that she has a son. Ordered to kill all the apes, Rodman brings the baby home to hide him. They name the baby Caesar (Andy Serkis).

Caesar inherited whatever changes the virus/drug wrought on his mother--specifically, he's extremely intelligent. Pan sapiens. Eventually his presence in Rodman's house is discovered (eight years later) and Caesar is taken to an ape sanctuary place. He's tormented by the apes and the men who run the place. But he's smart, and rises to the top of the food chain among the apes. He then steals the virus that Rodman used to make them smarter and exposes the rest of the apes to it. Then the apes kill one of the guys who run the place and escape. They set loose the apes from the zoo and Gen-Sys lab, and make their way to a redwood park north of the city. On the way, they wreak havoc in the city and confront the authorities on the Golden Gate Bridge. They win the big battle, and go to the park to make their new home.

Then there's the virus. Rodman gave it to his father to see if it would work, and it does for a while. Then the Alzheimer's gets worse, so Rodman makes the drug/virus more aggressive. During one trial on a chimp (named Koba), one of the guys in the lab is exposed to the new virus. He gets sick, spreads the sickness to a pilot, and dies. The pilot then spreads the virus, and eventually it goes global.

Also, we're told that NASA has launched the first manned mission to Mars, which disappears.

This is Caesar's movie. Andy Serkis and the technology are great. I like the story itself, which has an ambiguous relationship with the previous Apes movies. Based on just this film, we can say for sure that Escape, Battle, and Conquest didn't happen, at least not precisely the way they played out. This Caesar isn't the son of Zira and Cornelius. Yet the mission to Mars leaves open the events of the first two films.

What I like about this film is that it jettisons the time travel components. I found Taylor going forward in time okay, but once the apes came backward and planted the seed for apes evolving and taking over, I was sort of disappointed. I'm not much of a fan of stories that devolve into a "loop of inevitability." It's okay, but it's not terribly compelling. At least to me.

In addition, this film provides a more realistic way for the apes to develop intelligence. Instead of a single generation, in which apes evolve without any explanation (as in Conquest), we're given the Alzheimer's therapy. It's still easy, but it allows for several generations to develop sapience and fully upright posture. And the fact that Caesar inherits the changes allows us to accept, if we want, that he's even more developed than the first generation. He can talk, which means that the difference is physical, not merely neurological.

Then there's the virus, which allows humanity to descend as the apes rise. So from my reading, Rise presents a more streamlined (as in no time travel) sequence of events for the ape ascension. It also shows them as being apes, which makes sense because they're just regular apes for most of the movie.

There are still references to Apes 68--"Bright Eyes" being the first. And Draco Malfoy utters Heston's "stinking paws" line. I watched one of the special features and learned that the writers named the drug ALZ112 because the first apes movie was 112 minutes long. That's...well...I guess, why not? Apparently the story took shape because of the little bit of ape lore from Escape, in which Cornelius tells us that the first ape to speak said, "No." In the earlier version, the defiant ape certainly wasn't Caesar. Still, I like that they went that way with it.

It's Caesar's movie, and it's only because of him that it works. In the beginning, I pitied him. He was stuck in the house, watching the world around him, unsure of what kind of creature he was. It gets worse when he's taken to the sanctuary, beaten by Rocket the chimp. Then the emotion he evokes changes; he becomes chilling as he takes over. When he's teaching the apes sign language and the human owner of the sanctuary sees him, the look on Caesar's face is calculating, cold, and confident. At this point, he's kind of a villain, from a certain point of view.

It's interesting that the movie doesn't make any substantial comment on the animal drug trials. We're not invited to condemn Rodman for testing on chimps. We might interpret the virus and the subsequent downfall of human civilization as comment enough, but it's not framed that way (and by Dawn, the drug is all but forgotten, along with Rodman). We are invited to despise Rodman's boss, whose motivation for sponsoring the drug research isn't so much to cure a disease as it is to make money. His story doesn't end well. Rodman's, on the other hand, who illegally tries the drug on his own father and illegally keeps a chimp (though it might be legally done; we don't get the details), doesn't really end at all. He wants to help Caesar, and he's turned away at the end.

Yet we're invited to root for the apes. Americans tend to root for the underdogs, and a bunch of apes facing off against machine guns and helicopters is an underdog story. Point of view matters a lot in the apes movies. Who's dehumanized, who advocates war and bloodshed, who faces insurmountable odds? These questions matter. I'm reminded of the shift in tone that happens during Escape; in the first bit, things are meant to be light and fun, but then Cornelius has to kill a dude, and things get tense for the rest of the series. Here, we begin with pity, for Caesar as well as for Rodman and his father. That leads to simultaneously rooting for Caesar to escape and worry about what will happen when he does. Is Caesar a hero? Of course; he's an ape hero. And we're apes, albeit with considerably less hair.

Watching this film, you can't ignore the ambiguous relationship it has with its predecessors. Will things turn out as they do in Apes 68, with an ape society that's strictly hierarchical in terms of its distribution of knowledge, that's slave-based, that's essentially no better than anything humans have come up with? Or will Caesar learn anything from how he was treated and pass that on? Then again, Apes 68 takes place well into the future, so things will have changed regardless. Caesar's best intentions might not matter in 1500 years. A lot of movies can take place during that time frame.

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