Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular apes all over the country are learning to speak. This week they go bananas for Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Hey, Ben—best movie of the summer, right? I came into it pretty intrigued by what I assumed had to be a necessarily unhappy ending, just like Revenge of the Sith couldn't end well. As a franchise-rebooting prequel to 1968's Planet of the Apes (and not 2005's Franco-directed The Ape), which famously ends with the revelation that the earth's human population has been decimated and its civilization destroyed, this movie had to climax with a great war, or a great plague, or both, or something equally depressing—a human-and-humanity-ending apocalypse. But, rather terrifically, director Rupert Wyatt makes this devastation a bittersweetly happy ending; he aligns our sympathies with the apes, and so as they battle the humans in the awesome climactic action sequence, we're rooting for them—even as they're beating up police officers and civilian bystanders. In other words, we're rooting against ourselves! Ben—how does he do that?
Well, Henry, long answer short, by making the film's most powerful human characters sadistic and greedy assholes, and portraying its chimp and ape characters as deeply empathetic and just. Our species' authority figures in Rise are profit-driven pharmaceutical company CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) and cruel monkey prison warden John Landon (Brian Cox). On the apes' side there's wise elder and former circus monkey Maurice (Karin Konoval), and of course Caesar (Andy Serkis), who is not only incredibly intelligent on account of the potentially Alzheimer's-curing drug that surrogate daddy Will Rodman (James Franco) injected into his mother (symbolic bestiality?), but also very just and noble—and introduced as an adorable one-day-old baby chimp. Coercive cuteness aside, Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's most effective move is to gradually shift perspectives from Will to Caesar, the film's true star—did you notice that in the closing credits the apes were listed before the humans?—setting up the brilliant prison-allegory mid-section. In Rise the apes don't just take over the planet, they take over the movie while we cheer them on. But of course they aren't just apes, right? What do you think, Henry, are they ultra-liberal San Franciscans, animal rights activists, prison gangs, libertarians?
They're certainly not just apes, Ben, though I think their simianity is essential; summer blockbusters don't usually express such remarkable sympathy for abused animals. Rise is a real tragedy of animal exploitation, about the inherent cruelty of animal testing (regardless of its utilitarian benefit) and the folly of raising a chimp as people—to try to tame the untamable—also evidenced in the serendipitously recent Project Nim. For much of the dispiriting second act, Caesar fits in with neither man nor fellow ape, stuck in that animal sanctuary-cum-jail. I think the prison-movie aesthetic is there less to serve as an allegory for the abuses prisoners can suffer at the hands of cruel guards and indifferent officials than as a way to fit a story of animal abuse into the familiar tropes of an established genre (Prison Break!) and thus elicit our sympathy. How else do you get huge groups of Americans to feel bad for animals? I mean, half the audience is probably chewing on concession-stand hot dogs, right? Aside from its familiar portrayal of unjust imprisonment, Rise also follows the arc of the radicalized moderate; Caesar's political awakening in prison feels like a familiar story of the oppressed becoming aware of their own oppression, whether it's a young Che Guevara motorcycling across South America or a college freshman taking a history class. The apes, then, become rebels engaged in revolt, an archetype that Americans of all political stripes love, right? As long as they don't feel threatened by it. Take away the apes' allegorical cover and it might be a different story!
Well, sure, it taps into some pan-American revolutionary spirit, although remember that the apes' rebellion in Rise remains relatively confined to the redwood forests north of San Francisco. Like the first settlers, they just want to claim a little corner of the continent where they can thrive and create a more just and peaceful society. Humanity's downfall is precipitated, as we learn in the epilogue (spoiler), by the spread of a deadly virus brought on by the new prototype Alzheimer's cure—not unlike the way Will Smith's miracle cancer cure wipes out humanity in I Am Legend, a reboot of The Omega Man, which starred the original ape-fighter Charlton Heston, who died of Alzheimer's... Weird. Where was I? Despite a few terrific ape-on-human-on-horse fights, the humans precipitate their own demise by playing god, by attempting to drug themselves super-smart and potentially immortal—pills may be the only things Americans love more than revolution. They're punished by mass extinction, a fittingly biblical type of justice. But doesn't that go against the implied evolution-preaching politics of this whole franchise? How can Rise maintain such a skeptical and fearful view of science, Henry, while so thoroughly undermining distinctions between man and monkey?
That's a good question, Ben. Usually you can parse a science fiction's politics by its opinions about science: if pro, it's progressive; con, conservative. But Rise has a conservative attitude toward scientific hubris without feeling like a conservative film. Or is that just me? Aside from its pro-PETA partisanship, I guess the movie's revolutionary spirit is more archetypal than allegorical; tea partiers could find inspiration in it as much as socialist guerillas. (Oo! Spin-off! Guerilla Gorilla!) It is science that proves man's downfall here: the drug's side effects kill us off, but the disease is spread globally by plane travel, as the coda suggests. (Wasn't nuclear war involved in the original? My, how anxieties change, here to accommodate our post-9/11 aerophobia.) Although maybe we could say that the movie makes a distinction between science and technology, the latter being the human application of the former. Could the movie be less anti-science, perhaps, than misanthropic? Because, while the movie abhors man in its present state, Rise promotes the potential of evolution. As this movie reboots a franchise, its diegesis reboots a species, initiating a fast-motion evolutionary do-over in which apes go erectus, but become noticeably superior to their human counterparts: more merciful, for example. They're already building a greater ape society, choosing to follow as leader the smartest among them (Caesar), not the strongest (gorilla). A respect for intelligence? That's something that's too often lacking in our body politic, Ben.
Well, sure Henry, easy to build consensus among a small rebel cell living in a forest commune in northern California. Just wait until Caesar meets the Magneto to his Professor X, the Megatron to his Optimus Prime, and things get all, "man is a nuisance." Or will that never happen as mankind has engendered its own mass extinction? Does this prequel's narrative rejiggering for a post-Cold War, SARS-esque scenario of airplane-spread contagion weirdly rob Rise's rebel primates of their allegorical might? They're not stand-ins for San Francisco liberal extremists, or PETA separatists, or rioting prisoners, just the deserving inheritors of a planet from which we'll soon disappear. Unless this is just an elaborate eduction reform metaphor: children home-schooled in liberal, open-minded, emotionally earnest households, like Caesar, will be our next world leaders, while the ape-children reared in fancy private fortresses (like the film's evil pharmaceutical company) or filthy prison-like public schools (Brian Cox's primate prison) will be, at best, docile followers, and at worst violent delinquents. I guess we should sign up for James Franco's summer school program, huh?
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