Alien creatures threaten civilization as we know it, and humans must band together to defend themselves. Is this another review of Cowboys & Aliens? No — it's a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the iconic 1968 film Planet of the Apes that is earning praise from critics, moviegoers, and even PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, who sent picketers out to show support for the film when it opened. Now there's a switch!
The original Planet of the Apes was sort of a space age Gulliver's Travels: an American space crew, headed by Charlton Heston as the Gulliver character, discovered a planet populated by intelligent apes instead of Jonathan Swift's horsey Houyhnhnms. In both cases, humans in the strange new land have no language skills by which to prove their intelligence, and are used as breeders and beasts of burden. Interestingly, Jonathan Swift coined the word "yahoos" to describe the morally bestial humans in his fantasy world.
No one who has seen Planet of the Apes can forget the gasp of horrified realization that happens when Heston, trying to escape the topsy-turvy planet and return to Earth (he's riding a horse, in a deliberate nod to Swift's story), discovers the top of the Statue of Liberty submerged in sand. This scene has been immortalized through allusion and satire for nearly half a century. The message is clear: we cannot escape the future we create for ourselves on this earth.
The new film has its own gaspworthy instant, although it occurs midway through, not at the end. I won't tell you what causes the audible gasp in the audience, but I will tell you that I've asked everyone I know who has seen the movie if that gasp happened during their screening too, and all have said yes. It is a powerful moment, made more powerful by the astounding acting of Andy Serkis, an unsung hero of CGI technology. Serkis is the body behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002); the ape in King Kong (2005); and now the chimp, Caesar, in Rise. His movements, especially the expression in his face and his eyes, bring sensitivity, pathos, and life to what could have been flat computer generated characters.
Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes creates a possible backstory for how the apes became the cultured, speaking, master race, while humans devolved into brutish creatures. I say "possible," because I'm not convinced that the film's premise works. The idea is that scientists, experimenting with chimps to discover a cure for Alzheimer's disease, inadvertently create the master race of apes and destroy the humans at the same time. The story is smart and engaging and ties up all the loose ends satisfactorily. But it blames the mutation on a single manmade event, completely changing the premise of the first film, which suggested that evolution and devolution will lead to the rise of apes and the fall of humankind. The sand-covered Statue of Liberty at the end of the 1968 film suggests that the transformation happened over the course of many centuries, not in one generation.
Not surprisingly, capitalism (rather than science itself) is portrayed as the ultimate enemy to mankind. While research scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is motivated by a desire to cure Alzheimer's, the company he works for is owned and directed by the obligatory greedy capitalist who uses and abuses the chimps in his quest for profits. (Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?) This film goes a step further, however. For some reason I shudder to contemplate, the casting agent chose Nigerian David Oyelowo to play the brutish bad guy with a British accent. Not sure what the message of this decision might be, but it's hard to believe that the casting was accidental. Enough said about that.
Ironically, despite the filmmakers' obvious distaste for profits, they inadvertently acknowledge the power of money as a motivator when Caesar, the chimp who has been transformed by the chemical trials, wants the other primates to follow him: he buys their loyalty with Chips Ahoy cookies instead of fighting each one of them into submission. And it works! Now there's a message worth sharing.
A message that does not work, however, is the one that PETA especially liked — the portrayal of chimps as misunderstood neighbors who should not be feared. When Caesar makes his way outside to play with a neighbor child, the little girl's father picks up a baseball bat to protect her. He is portrayed throughout the film as a man with a bad temper (although he's an airline pilot; have you ever known an airplane pilot to be anything but calm and comforting?), and we are supposed to take the side of the chimp. However, the memory of the Connecticut woman whose face and hands were torn off by one of these animals two years ago makes it hard to sympathize with the man-sized creature and its lion-sized canines. Even if he does wear pants and a sweatshirt.
Several subtle moments add to the classy styling of this film. At one point, for example, Caesar sadly observes Will kissing his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), creating a poignant allusion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the creature's longing for a woman like himself. Caesar is like Frankenstein's "monster" — too smart to be an ape, but too much an animal to be a human. Where does he belong? Another example: the primate house where Caesar and dozens of other apes are caged overlooks San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island, where the notorious prison was located. And a third: a brilliant moment of self-parody occurs with the musical motif that begins when the apes start escaping from the primate house. We hear an undercurrent of the "Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius" melody from The Simpson's musical parody of the original Planet of the Apes. How's that for aping one's apers?
All the Planet of the Apes films can be seen as cautionary tales, warning viewers that power and authority are ephemeral. Although the specific catalysts and destructive philosophies are subject to change, the impending doom — transference of power — does not. On a weekend when the credit rating of the United States was downgraded for the first time in a century, this film is a timely reminder that there may, indeed, be real threats to our comfortable styles of living.
The Lord of the Rings