Title: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Year of Release: 2011
Date Viewed: January 18th, 2012
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Is it possible that the modern blockbuster is being reinvented right before our eyes? That was the question I had asked myself mid-way through watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes: the first installment of an apparent reboot of the iconic science fiction franchise. At this point, the film carried itself almost exclusively on substance. A commentary on human nature using the species that are one step below on the evolutionary scale. Then the budget poured in. A long sequence of the rise itself in the form of an action setpiece at the Golden Gate Bridge. Then the unwelcome cliche arrived. The female love interest whom we barely know anything about steals a kiss from the likable male hero and then creates a diversion that helps him gain a temporary (and minor) upper hand. In due credit though, at least nobody pretended this person was anything more than a plot device.
I was disappointed to realize that the summer action film hadn't evolved as much as I was lead on to believe. But the same cannot be said for the featured apes who end up growing their intelligence level far greater than the human bystanders ever anticipated. The first of this kind is appropriately named Ceasar (performed by motion capture hall-of-famer Andy Serkis). Like the man who elevated Rome to an empire, this ape is born to lead an advanced species of his own kind to rule a new civilization. And in this case, eventually the entire world. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first official attempt to explain how and why this all happened. The answer is unsettling because of how the original intentions were worthwhile and conducted with so little recklessness. The power that humans take for granted with their position as the most intelligent species on the planet becomes fragile once the apes obtain a comparable level of power. And as the movie's plot wishes to teach, no species is willing to settle for second best.
Caesar is originally a house pet to scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Motivated by his father's struggles with Alzheimer's disease, Will devotes his work to the construction of experimental drugs designed to grow new cells within brains. Caesar inherits an upgraded mind from his mother who was used as one of the earliest test subjects. He is different than other animals and learns enough to understand this fact by adulthood. The key idea is that the drugs never alter the animal patients' natural behavior. They remain as unpredictable as wild animals ever have been. But they grow to become more self aware of their strengths and gain a strong sense of injustice that's done to them by human "caretakers." The only crime these apes commit, at least initially, is simply behaving the way nature intended.
Living up to the lore of protective nature that both fiction and nonfiction attributed to apes, Caesar is imprisoned for defending Will's father from a mild threat that appeared potentially fatal in his eyes. Like what many of society's outcasts face, what should be a place for harmony and negative reinforcement is instead a mere storage facility overseen by beings not fit to run their own lives much less others. During the viewing, my mother commented how certain moments reminded her of The Green Mile. Even in early scenes the human characters behave less human than animals. When confronted over a decision to terminate remaining ape experimentation subjects, the company's head manager rationalizes the decision by explaining that although scientists are there to make history, he is there to make money. All subsequent appearances by this character showcase him staying one step behind in logic. Whoever wrote the script holds a lot of contempt towards business leaders.
The scientists working for Twentieth Century Fox bring the apes to life using computerized motion capture that's not quite state of the art. Realism is sacrificed in exchange for breathtaking tracking shots of the apes at play. Their gracefulness behind traveling through natural environments plus the superior brawn add credibility to the idea of apes one day overtaking humans as the dominant species. What gets hurt is the ability to suspend disbelief over their existence. The computer generated imagery stands out from the real world backdrop like black and white. To curb the distraction, imagine an alternative Earth dimension where apes look a little different than how we accept. It wouldn't even be too far-fetched to assume this story takes place on an entirely different planet altogether; especially considering that's what the author of the original Planet of the Apes novel had in mind.
But the social commentary belongs right here on Earth. The apes rise because they learn to understand human values and how to obtain them. The need to be independent. To have control over personal destiny. To hunt instead of being hunted. And the one that mankind has yet to fully acquire; the ability to defeat death. Popular culture's history insists that particular dream cannot be realized without challenging nature; the most dangerous practice of all. The people behind this film are not shy about showing their staunch belief in that philosophy.