By Richard von Busack
It’s surprising how much you want to see a gorilla in a helicopter, without every really knowing you wanted to see it until you see it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is superior prequeling, but it’s also is a reminder of something disturbing to even long time fans of science fiction’s strangest franchise (1968-1975, counting five movies, a live action TV series, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a 2001 remake). How exactly did the orangutans, gorillas and chimps take over when there’s so many of us and so few of them? And you’d have to point out that they hadn’t previously evolved into talking sapiens during the last 2000 years…If there are two words that sum up Rupert Wyatt’s film Rise…, it’s “strangely plausible.”
At Genesis, a genetic tech lab of about 2012 or so, scientist Will Rodman (Palo Alto’s own James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s. He has a personal reason; his father Charles (John Lithgow), who lives with him, is afflicted with the disease. A drug is tested on a lab chimp named “Bright Eyes,” so-called because the drug gave her green human eyes during the rise up in intelligence.
The test goes catastrophic, but Bright Eyes’ infant Caesar carries some of his mother’s intelligence. The baby chimp is ordered to be destroyed, but Will brings it home to save it, and to watch the results of the intelligence-raising drugs in person. He teaches Caesar sign language, and he gets medical help of a vet from the San Francisco Zoo, Caroline (Frida Pinto).
As Caesar grows, he’s played by synthespian modeled on the always-amazing Andy Serkis. Serkis has gone ape before; he did the modeling for Peter Jackson’s King Kong). Staging scenes of this ultra-chimp, Wyatt brings out the kinetic pleasure of watching it frolic in Will’s San Mateo Victorian house. But the undertones are clear in the chimp’s face; as he ages, there’s a progress from curiosity to mischief, and from mischief…if not to malice, than the edge of adolescent resentment.
He becomes the protector of the ailing old man of the house; Lithgow’s highly-unmovieish, highly uncute portrayal of that disease bringing out the tragic undertone of this tale.
The lead humans have to play catch-up compared to this creature. The emo-struck Franco forges along in his usual heroically depressed way as the transitional hapless character, a step behind his cold boss (the Nigerian born David Oyelowo) and the authorities. As for Pinto, she shares the problem Olivia Wilde had in Cowboys and Aliens. A beautiful rising starlet is used to being appreciated, being stared at in wonder and awe; it’s hard for them to change places and stare in wonder and awe at a spot where the CG is going to be. (And no one wants to be the third wheel between a man and his chimp.)
Caesar is eventually interned in some kind of privatized ape-shelter in San Bruno, a habitat with painted landscapes and cruel bars. The boss is Brian Cox (demonstrating the subtle difference here between an actor playing an inwardly dead, checked out individual and a bored actor); his no-good, sadistic son is the night warden of what’s essentially a penitentiary for chimps.
Let’s return to the word “plausibility”—the documentary Project Nim shows just what happens when adorable baby chimps age, especially after being raised with humans. The wormwood-bitterness of these scenes are tangible; the kidnapped companion-animal left to being caught between inmates and warden. The wise parallels between the real life story of Nim “grounds the balloon” as James Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum out it.
It’s what they used to call “radicalizing”. Serving time in the chimp jail, Caesar rallies the others. (Though he makes a friend, a circus orangutan who signs to him, “Humans no like smart ape.”)
The last third of the film, thrilling and fast, takes over Caesar’s story, marshaling the apes on an escape; the troops stop by the SF Zoo to get reinforcements. A gorilla smashing the cages and the chimps deftly seize the pointed metal of the bars as spears; hundreds of the creatures descending on downtown San Francisco. In a time of extreme political strife, these images have as much zeitgeist as the first Apes movie did in 1968. And this time we’re on the side of the monkeys. References to the original is minor but pungent, as well as to other ape movies; Caesar escaping with the lights of the San Mateo Fair Ferris wheel nearby (a ref to the two versions of Mighty Joe Young).
Wyatt’s staging of these battle scenes has terrific facility and visual thrust, and just the right amount of violence. We can see how part of Caesar’s generalship is a moral high mindedness, to push through the humans instead of tearing them limb from limb.
It’s as if Wyatt had thought everything out for maximum visual symbolism. In Caesar’s first lesson to his fellow chimps, he shows them the lesson of the strength in bundled sticks (the unbreakable fasces, a symbol of government from Roman times on). Caesar, a bridge between humans and animals, takes his stand on the Golden Gate Bridge. Like the J J Abrams remake of Star Trek, this isn’t a demolition job but a handsomely done renovation of an old property, accentuating everything that made the great edifice so striking.