You should not trust me. I will lie to you about apes.
I do not mean to. But in my boyhood heart, the only movie that may be greater than Star Wars is the Planet of the Apes movie series. Once a year, Channel 7 had “Ape Week” for its 4:30 movie, and showed all five movies, and my best friend Bryan and I always watched them together. Planet of the Apes was the first movie I recall seeing with not just one unhappy ending, but a slew of them; Colonel Taylor discovering it was Earth all along, Colonel Taylor detonating the super-nuclear bomb that blows up the world, Zira and Cornelius being shot as they try to protect their baby.
It’s no lie to say that the Planet of the Apes series taught me the meaning of the word “tragedy.” It’s one of those film series that is in my DNA. And so I am incapable of bringing you an honest review, because Rise of the Planet of the Apes was made by fanboys, for fanboys.
It is the perfect movie if you loved the original series. (And no, I’ve never seen the Tim Burton version; when I heard what he did to the ending, I lost all interest.)
But let me take my pre-adolescent blinders off and tell you what Rise of the Planet of the Apes is: the best B-movie we’ve had in years.
The plot of Rise is simple: a kindly scientist, in his quest to cure his father of Alzheimer’s, infects a baby chimpanzee with a virus that boosts his intelligence. The chimp, called Caesar, is in danger of being put down; as any good person would, the scientist smuggles him home and raises him as his own son. But sad to say, the world is not quite ready to accept a super-intelligent chimpanzee.
…or at least this world. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a comic book movie, set in the kind of comic book world where everyone who are not the good guys exists for the sole purpose of oppressing them. The job is evil, the neighbor is evil, the primate refuge is evil. Literally everyone who isn’t the hero of the movie goes out of their way to be a complete and utter bastard to the noble handful of men at the heart of this film, often for no good reason.
(Ironically, it’s erroneous on every level to say “noble handful of men,” because there’s one woman and one chimpanzee. Such are the vagaries of language. Let us continue.)
In a lesser movie (or for those who can’t appreciate the starkness of a comic-book world), this might be ham-handed – but the goodness of Rise is that the kindly scientist and poor, clever Caesar are so sympathetic, so trying to be good, that all the meanness does is make them shine brighter. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar is brilliant, since Caesar has only three lines of dialogue in the whole film – and yet he is the protagonist, on-screen for long periods of time. It is a special form of physical acting where emotions can be conveyed so perfectly with a body movement that we feel Caesar’s betrayal at the world he was born into, burn with his desire to be free.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of what happens if you do the two things that are important in a movie: give us characters we can root for, and give them an emotional arc we believe in. We utterly believe that Caesar wants to be treated with dignity, understand why he becomes a leader, understand his motivations for ultimately leading (spoilers!) an ape rebellion against humanity. We utterly believe that the human scientist, so bland he barely deserves a name, wants to do the right thing in both curing Alzheimer’s and in protecting his friend Caesar. Their reasons for acting are clear, their goodness manifest.
This emotional truth salvages the monstrous plot holes in the movie. This is a comic book movie with a soap opera timeframe, and we have such corkers as:
- A chimpanzee in a testing facility can not only arrive pregnant, but give birth without anyone noticing it in the slightest.
- A man accidentally exposed to an experimental virus in full view of his co-workers, boss, and the CEO of his company, is allowed to go home without being tested. Furthermore, when he disappears from work for a week without calling in sick, not one person thinks to check in on and him and see if anything might have gone awry.
- There is a home for wayward primates in California (not the zoo, which is a separate place) that is a) large enough to hold about fifty various primates, b) is run by people whose sole job seems to be to torture monkeys, c) is under government control but run by a father-son team where the father seemingly expects this to be a family business, and d) actually has accumulated fifty monkeys, orangutans, and silverbacked apes. How many random monkeys are running around in California, anyway?
- Despite the fact that the Evil Corporation of Evil supposedly discontinued all development of the Mystery Drug three years ago, said corporation still has pallets of professionally-packaged ampules of the Mystery Drug being ferried about conveniently in plain view for the good doctor to steal. And nobody seems to notice these drugs going missing. Ever.
But you know what? You can pick holes in this film all day long, but the truth is that it’s no less enjoyable for having them. The film is not necessarily about the intellectual journey, but the emotional one, and Caesar’s journey from helpless baby to chimp commander is what rings true. The heart of Planet of the Apes has always been that monkey or man, what makes someone a thinking being is the heart – and Caesar has heart. It’s not a great film, but it’s a wondrous good film.
And it’s an even better film if you love the original movie, since there are all sorts of callouts to the original – yes, someone says, “Take your damn hands off of me, you damn dirty ape” and someone says “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” – but there are subtler tributes, such as a chimp being called “Bright Eyes” and Caesar playing with a model of the Statue of Liberty.
These in-jokes and tributes render me blind. It’s a movie that fits perfectly into canon – so perfectly, in fact, that if it didn’t negate the beautifully tragic time-loop of Zera and Cornelius, I’d cheerfully jettison all past history and slot it into 1968 canon. As it is, I don’t know which I prefer more, but I know this: it’s a good film. It’s worthy of the Apes franchise.
Then again, I might be lying. Don’t mean to. But you know, you should beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s spawn. A wise person once said it, and it never rings truer than when I am discussing apes.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.