I'll spare everyone the suspense and tell you upfront that I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But that was almost a foregone conclusion. For months now I've been pestering friends about going to see it -- and meeting almost universal skepticism. To which I responded with something like, "Apes running through the city, attacking helicopters. Do you understand? Apes. What's not to love?" As someone who has watched Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong at least twice a year since it came out, I was going to love this movie, even it was just a bunch of CGI scenes spliced together with no plot or substance to support it.
Fortunately for all of us, that's not the case.
The first Planet of the Apes movie came out in 1968, when I was five years old. The final movie of the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes came out in 1973. In between came Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. There was a short lived television series in 1974(which starred Roddy McDowell and Mark Lenard, Star Trek's Sarek) and an even shorter lived animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975. For geeks of my generation, it is impossible to overestimate how big a part these movies played in our lives. In a time before Star Wars, when the only Star Trek was the original series in re-runs on television, and when big budget science fiction movies were almost unknown, Planet of the Apes loomed large.
And for me, at least, the two that loomed the largest were the last two (possibly because I was a little older when they came out). I've never been overly fond of the first movie, with Charlton Heston, or the second, with it's weird underground mutant bomb worshiping cults. But starting with the third movie, when the Chimpanzees Cornelius and Mira return to earth in the 1970's, I began to get really interested. "Conquest" tells of the revolt of the enslaved apes -- all of whom are Mira's descendants, we must assume -- and "Battle" picks up about ten years later with Apes in control and Caesar trying desperately to find some way for them to co-exist with humans.
You can't re-watch the movies now without seeing the heavy-handed racial allegory everywhere. The various directors were determined to make their relevant political statements at the time, and the result is that the old moves feel dated in a way that has nothing to do with their basic ideas. Only "Battle", which is mainly a full out action melodrama, escapes this overt politicizing.
Even as a kid, I knew enough about apes (I read about Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey, and Washoe and others in National Geographic, for instance) to know that the portrayal of the different ape species was all wrong. Gorillas were the heavies, the military complex. In the real world, of course, gorillas are peaceful vegetarians who's aggression is mostly bluff and bluster. Orangutans, bearing almost no resemblance to their real ancestors, were the administrative class -- Church and State, which didn't seem to be very separated in the first movie's world. And the Chimpanzees were the counter culture -- scientists, hippies, war protestors -- naturally, in the late nineteen sixties in the United States, they were the heroes.
The reality of course is that chimpanzees are Machiavellian political animals who scheme and deceive and go to war almost as well as humans -- capable of the full range of goodness and badness that we are. In any multi-ape society they would most likely be on top -- the gorillas would be the hippies. But of course, the old Planet of the Apes movies weren't really about apes at all.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes", directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is a whole different species. Being a creature of its time, it has its axes grind as well, but it does so for the most part subtly, letting the characters and the story carry the message. And it is (oh frabjous day) that rarest of mass media beasties -- The Well Written and Scientifically Plausible Science Fiction Movie.
And in this movie, the apes really do take top billing. (Despite the heavy hitters in the "human" cast -- James Franco, Frieda Pinto, and John Lithgow) it is Andy Serkis -- behind the motion capture and CGI -- as Caesar (along with the other apes) that carries the film. A couple of chimps in the movie show the battered old faces you see in sanctuaries and Nature documentaries -- the Orangutan Maurice is cool (he has a background in the circus, and like Caesar, he knows how to sign) and the one gorilla in the film -- perhaps a little too Kong-like despite his normal size -- is very impressive. Some of the films more moving scenes -- and important points -- are carried in the non-verbal interaction of the apes. Serkis, who was grossly cheated out of Oscar recognition for his role as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings", again deserves the highest accolades for this performance. (In an interview with NPR he explained how much the technology of motion capture has advanced since he played Gollum.)
Director Wyatt and the rest of the team behind "Rise" deserve the loud praise for their decision not to use any actual apes in the film. They recognized that the issue of apes in entertainment is a serious ethical problem, and they made the humane choice. The film doesn't suffer from it at all. This is a fact that other filmmakers should take note of. (I wish the makers of Water for Elephants, Zookeeper and "The Hangover" had made similar kinds of choices.)
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is not a perfect film. I'm not overly fond of the "there are some things science is not meant to delve into" trope. (Interestingly, it is Frieda Pinto who gets to voice those sentiments in "Rise" -- perhaps so her Indian beauty and exotic accent can lend them portent). I would like to see a serious movie that tackles the question of Uplift -- to borrow David Brin's term -- in all it's implications, without resorting to disaster/horror movie form. I'm also not fond of end-of-the-world stories. I would rather see stories about how we might grapple with and even solve our problems -- about the possibilities of the future -- than about how we will inevitably destroy ourselves. In this case, though, those are minor quibbles about a very good film.
It seems that I seldom see movies any more -- no matter how much fun they may be while I'm watching them -- that can stand the weight of serious thought. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a movie both to enjoy in the moment, and to ponder afterwards. That is a pleasure too rare to take for granted.
(Attentive viewers, who are familiar with the original movies, will see that the filmmakers have subtly set the table for the sequel. If it rises to the same high standards as this film, I can't wait.)
On the question of animals in entertainment, interested readers might like to check out my previous postings Tears for Elephants and A Sad Digression.
Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.