Screening Log #26: Rise of Planet of the Apes (2011)

Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver based on the novel La planète des singes by Pierre Boulle
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, and John Lithgow

 

 

 

It was perhaps one of the most startling moments of my life, when I first saw the face of an ape at the Toronto Zoo several years ago. Their faces, eyes especially, were alive in a way that ensured me I was not merely projecting a complex internal and emotional life onto these creatures the way I had with my cold-blooded pet lizards and snakes when I was younger. These animals were thinking, processing, feeling. One female orangutan had turned a plastic kiddie pool upside down and placed on her head. She would walk around peeking out at us visitors, curious and playful. At once I felt the breadth of what I considered “human” widen; it was a strange and humbling experience.

Charged with functioning as a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes films – if not Tim Burton’s regrettable remake, which doesn’t exist, right? – Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes faces the challenge of bridging both a narrative and chronological gap while generating interest in a franchise long fetishized as somewhat kitschy – in addition to its being saddled with an unwieldy title. The film successfully embeds its connecting ties within a well-paced and well-constructed film that manages to also interrogate the apparent dichotomies between both nature and nurture and the natural and scientific worlds.

The development of the virus that enables the chimps and other primates to transcend their natural cognitive limitations begins as James Franco’s Will Rodman seeks to find a cure for his father’s, played by the always solid John Lithgow, Alzheimer’s disease. Science is plied in the hope of circumventing the natural course of the disease by stimulating brain cell growth and development. Initially this experiment has catastrophic results, ending the life of a misunderstood chimp and crippling both Will’s career and his attempt to cure his father. Due to these events, however, Will is left with a baby chimp, named Caesar, played in performance-capture by the inimitable Andy Serkis, who has inherited his mother’s augmented brain capacities.

The relationship between Caesar and Will, as Caesar is raised at home, generates much of the film’s emotional gravity. Wyatt faces a compound uncanny valley insofar as his film and its effects must first replicate human emotion via CGI, which is difficult enough, and secondly communicate this emotion through the face of a chimp. That they succeed handily is a credit to their abilities and to Serkis’ invaluable performance. For long stretches of the film exposition and action are carried only by the facial cues of the primates and the film manages to succeed even in the vacuum of language.

Naturally the situation escalates toward the revolt of the primates, as they bust out of their prison led by Caesar, to emancipate a shockingly high population of chimps, monkeys, and apes in the greater San Francisco area. The film ends with a valorization of the natural, framing the primate revolution as a project of reclamation, while gesturing toward Jame Tiptree Jr.’s (or, Alice Sheldon’s, if you will) SF story “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” to provide added context as to what precipitates the fall of man. There’s even a “get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” in the film, yelped by none other than Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and I can’t shake the notion that Harry Potter would have been an entirely different series if Chuck Heston was a member of the Slytherin house.

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