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Sci-fi reboot is smart and exciting, but is it a nihilistic fantasy?
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a smartly made, effective movie — but what sort of movie is it, exactly?
An origin story, oh yes, like so many others this summer, including X-Men: First Class, Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger. Like First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a prequel/reboot to an existing cinematic franchise; and, like both First Class and Captain America — the best popcorn action movies of the summer — Rise tells a well-crafted back story about biologically enhanced beings.
In a number of respects, Rise of the Planet of the Apes plays as a sort of mirror image of Captain America. Instead of a research project intended to create an army of super soldiers that, due to unforeseen misfortune, never gets beyond the prototype, Rise offers a research project that produces an accidental prototype that eventually leads to an unforeseen army — not of super soldiers but of super apes, who, of course, do not champion the American way, but will eventually destroy it. Think of the famously iconic climactic image from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes: the downfall of everything Captain America represents.
Like Captain America, Rise is based on a ridiculous premise, but takes it seriously, spending a great deal more time on the pseudoscience and, despite some lapses, investing it with a greater sense of plausibility. In some ways, Rise is a better-made film, particularly in the final act, where it builds toward an inevitable climax like a crescendo.
Yet, how are we meant to feel about that crescendo? That iconic final image in the original film was horrifying because it represented the downfall of humanity’s best and noblest ideals and aspirations. For those who haven’t seen the original, I won’t spoil what that image is, but I can’t avoid taking for granted that Rise of the Planet of the Apes must put mankind’s planetary dominance on the path to collapse.
Rise doesn’t want to end on a downer, though, and the swelling score during the final scenes underscores the film’s sympathy for the ape uprising, and specifically for its leader Caesar, a computer-rendered chimpanzee whose movements and expressions are supplied by Andy Serkis via the same sort of performance-capture technology that he used to play Gollum and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s films.
The original film, scripted by Rod Serling, was a Twilight Zone-esque inversion story with a subtext about race relations and an explicit anti-war twist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t pack much cautionary punch, though, notwithstanding a few Jurassic Park-y lines about the consequences of scientific overreaching. San Francisco researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) isn’t developing weapons, nor is he an entrepreneur creating a theme park. His motives are nobler and more personal: He’s trying to cure Alzheimer’s, which his father (an affecting John Lithgow) suffers from.
Of course, Will’s wonder drug doesn’t just restore lost brain function in test chimpanzees, but elevates their brainpower — and a test subject, Bright Eyes, somehow passes on a capacity for higher cognitive function to an infant chimp who will be Caesar. (One of the more glaring early plausibility gaffes: Neither Will nor anyone else in the lab knew Bright Eyes was pregnant or had delivered an infant on the day of a critical demonstration.)
From its opening scene, Rise establishes a theme of innocent apes terrorized and abused by human beings. (Contrast Jurassic Park’s first scene, in which human beings are terrorized by predators of their own creation.) Ape-on-ape cruelty is seen, but in captivity, where the apes are mistreated in a bleak animal-control facility by the facility director and his sadistic son (Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton).
Rise tells Caesar’s story slowly and with pathos, creating a level of sympathy remarkable for a computer-animated character who doesn’t speak (or rather who generally communicates with limited bits of sign language). Caesar is brought up not in a lab, but in the home Will shares with his father and later with his live-in girlfriend, a gorgeous chimp specialist named Caroline (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto). Like many adolescent chimps, Caesar develops the potential for frightening violence, but it’s given a sympathetic spin in a fateful episode that’s one of the film’s more complex and effective moments.
There are striking resonances with the current documentary Project Nim, about a chimpanzee initially raised as a human being, but eventually transferred to less stimulating and comfortable quarters. Nim’s handlers strove to teach him sign language, though the project’s director, Dr. Herbert Terrace, ultimately judged the experiment a failure, concluding that Nim had merely become a “proficient begger.” Of course, Nim’s mother wasn’t Bright Eyes.
On the other hand, Rise ascribes super simian capabilities even to non-enhanced apes — notably a preposterously proficient orangutan that Caesar meets in the animal-control facility. (“You can sign?” Caesar signals incredulously to the orangutan. “Circus orangutan” is the other’s laconic explanation. A response truer to the gibberish that ape signing generally produces might have been something like “Sign me orangutan me me want sign orangutan” — and, if Terrace was right about Nim’s proficiency being begging rather than verbalizing, the orang might have had no interest in signing to Caesar anyway. Other insights from the non-enhanced orangutan include things like “Apes stupid” and “Humans no like smart apes.”)
The gap between ordinary apes and enhanced once — and, by extension, between apes and humans — is further blurred when a small mob of enhanced apes descends on the San Francisco Zoo, liberating the apes in captivity and swelling their ranks with additional troops who all apparently follow Caesar, and instructions, as readily as the enhanced apes. (The movie cheats with numbers: Caesar’s original force can’t be much more than a few dozen — an implausibly high number to start with — and the zoo can’t have that many more; but, by the end, it appears Caesar’s army somehow numbers in the hundreds, at least.)
This glossing over the linguistic and cognitive gap between humans and apes is more problematic here, in a story about the beginning of ape ascendancy and human downfall, than it might be in another story. The film suggests an incipient posthumanism in more senses than one: Not only does it depict the beginning of the end of the age of humans, it doesn’t seem to recognize anything precious or unique being lost with human nature, since people and animals aren’t that different to begin with.
On the contrary, the ape uprising is depicted as an oppressed population rising up against the oppressors. The climactic set piece, a clash of human and ape forces on a mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, echoes all sorts of monster-movie scenes — a scene in James Cameron’s Aliens, in which the Marines know the aliens are approaching but can’t see them, comes to mind — but the film’s sympathies are with the approaching creatures, not with the humans. Nothing identifies the humans making their stand on the bridge with anything as nobly human as the ideals evoked in that climactic image from the original film.
The last act of Rise is both compelling and troubling in a way that reminds me of the History Channel’s series Life After People, a surprise hit that vividly extrapolates the science of how the natural world would reassert itself over the works of man if human beings suddenly vanished from the earth. The science of how abandoned buildings decay and crumble, domesticated animals return to feral conditions and so forth is fascinating, but there’s something disconcertingly nihilistic about the sensationalistic evocation of the world going on in the sudden absence of people.
The show’s tagline, “Welcome to Earth … Population: Zero,” captures the spirit of what troubles me. In a world rife with posthuman philosophy, in which human beings are often seen as a blight on the planet and eco-nihilists like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement fantasize about “phasing out the human race” to “allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health,” it seems to me that there is a potential posthuman porn effect in the likes of Life After People. We’re invited to contemplate a world without people, not in existential terms, but in terms of how fascinating the results are. In a world without people, it may be felt that the achievements of human civilization no longer have meaning. If the Washington Monument falls in D.C. and nobody hears it, does it make a difference?
I’m not necessarily indicting Life After People, or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as “posthuman porn.” For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Rise while I was watching it. It works well as a prequel to the original film, complete with obligatory quotations and clever visual references. My concerns may be as much a matter of cultural context as content. Still, cultural context can be as important as content in what a work has to say to us.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Scenes of violence and menace, including mistreatment of animals by humans, conflict between apes, and a battle between apes and armed humans; an apparent live-in relationship; some cursing and limited profanity. Teens and up.