One of the most interesting cinematic franchises of the last fifty years, Planet of the Apes makes a vibrant and fascinating return in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which classes itself as a reboot while holding true to the spirit of the original movies and charting its own modern day course.
Rupert Wyatt’s reimagining charts a very similar course to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes from 1972, the fourth of the original five film series after Charlton Heston famously shouted down those “damn dirty apes” in 1968’s seminal Planet of the Apes. In Conquest, the world’s pets have been destroyed by a lethal virus in the early 1990’s (here the series’ past, but the filmmakers’ future), which leads humans to begin domesticating apes as a replacement. The film even features an ape named Caesar leading a rebellion and the shouting of the word “NO!” as the first human word uttered by an ape.
Pointedly, Rise is not a remake of Conquest. It seeks to take certain essential pieces of that film’s DNA and place them in a contemporary context. This was deemed a necessary step after the critical and commercial failure of the first attempt to reimagine the franchise in Tim Burton’s awfully misjudged 2001 remake, Planet of the Apes, which sought to re-tell the Charlton Heston film for a new audience. Burton should have known better but his film fell in that strange nether zone of Hollywood blockbusters which was the early 2000’s, in which big budget cinema seemed locked in an awkward transition between brainless 90’s fare, the advent of popularised CGI, and a dearth of talented filmmakers wielding serious cinematic money.
A lot changed in 2005 & 2006 with both Batman Begins and Casino Royale, respectively. Those films, one made by an auteur and the other a stalwart, helped fashion the blockbuster landscape into one where talented filmmakers seemed to have a handle on quality scripting as well as major set pieces and computer generated effects. Rise took a big cue from Begins especially in quite how Wyatt, fresh of the low-budget but critically impressive The Escapist (2008), imagined reimagining the Apes universe and grounding the concept in more of a natural storytelling perspective than a high-concept vision of the like Burton tried and failed to achieve.
Rise may not be as strong a film as Begins or Casino, but truthfully its ambition isn’t a million miles away, and it certainly speaks to reimagining the premise at the heart of Planet of the Apes in a way we hadn’t quite seen before, or at least we hadn’t seen in many years. Rise, as suggested by its title, is the beginning. Genesis could have been an alternate prefix for relaunching the franchise (though it would possibly have been bludgeoned into a similar mauling of the word the Terminator franchise later had). Rise shows us a world before the apes rose and explains, clearly, the physical and sociological mechanisms which began giving rise to the titular planet of the apes.
The most fascinating element is how the ape domination of our species is caused by our own efforts to cure and enhance ourselves. James Franco’s scientist protagonist, Dr. Will Rodman, is Promethian in the tragic sense; a man who ultimately wants to cure his father (John Lithgow) of Alzheimer’s Disease and develops a compound, which he tests on chimpanzees, capable of reverse or eliminating the effects of the horribly debilitating disease. Inevitably, playing God with science causes a chain reaction in nature and he ends up creating the conditions which allows the birth of Caesar, the ape who will change the world (excellently motion captured by Andy Serkis).
Another major reason why Rise strikes a chord is because, much like the trilogy this film would birth, it’s *about* the ape. It’s about Caesar. He’s a complex character immediately in the sense of how Will, in his attempts to protect him after the mother who bore him is killed when she goes, literally, ‘apeshit’ in the Gen-Sys labs, homogenises Caesar to the point he strips him of his innate ‘apeness’ and treats him much like a young child; he dresses him like a little boy, keeps him in a bedroom that feels partly like a treehouse, doesn’t give him interaction with other apes, and teaches him sign language so he can converse in human terms. Caesar is different from other apes from day one, to the point he even asks Will at one point “Am I a pet?”.
That hubris, inevitably, is what causes the steady downfall Wyatt carefully escalates across Rise. Will isn’t arrogant in the sense his boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is, however. To him, developing the gene therapy drug is all about the bottom line, the potential financial rewards and applications, especially when Will begins to suggest the drug may not just cure Alzheimer’s but improve human intelligence. The drug becomes a cursed Holy Grail for several reasons and the film ends up a parable to dabbling, morally, in scientific areas we may not be prepared for. In that sense it’s a very Michael Crichton story, a cautionary tale, with issues of petting and animal rights undulating beneath the surface throughout.
Once Caesar ends up placed with his own kind, following a feral attack on a neighbour who was threatening Will’s dazed and confused Dad, the parameters begin to change. Caesar all his life has only recognised the kindness and care of Will in his closeted surroundings but in the zoo, he now witnesses cruelty from the heartless young guards who blast him with water cannons when he playfully dares to defy their will. With his enhanced intelligence combined, Caesar is able not just to interpret these emotions but logically act upon them, take steps to fight back, which ultimately leads to the rebellion which begins the chain of events leading us into the next film and beyond.
The blame for a race of super-intelligent apes, who eventually have the capacity for speaking human language, ultimately is laid at humanity’s door and that’s the most interesting message Wyatt provides in Rise. So many films over the last decade or more have depicted humanity destroying itself through its own sense of entitlement, or the belief we have mastery over our own domain. Caesar’s burgeoning ape rebellion is no different ultimately from Skynet in The Terminator or the machines in The Matrix, you can swop out the effects but the causes are always the same: flawed, greedy humans who pay the price for their scientific arrogance. The message Rise provides is no different.
Where the ambiguity comes is Caesar’s response to humanity. He has his *own* sense of humanity, of right and wrong, and simply doesn’t rise to a position of influence through his own sense of brutality. When he leaves Will, it’s because being with his own kind is the right choice, hence why Will doesn’t try and stop him. There wouldn’t necessarily have to be any war in the future, not with Caesar in charge. The subsequent events that play out come partly via the other chess piece to come out of Will’s Pandora’s Box – in this case, a deadly human virus born from the drug he developed, which by the credits begins its spread of infection across the planet. Unlike in Conquest, here it’s humanity and not its pets in danger of extinction.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes lacks enough deep and truly interesting human characters, some of which even skirt close to cliche, to connect on a human level but Caesar’s presence and the work done with him serves almost entirely to make up for it. The beginning of an entertaining and thought provoking modern movie trilogy, which more than lives up to its iconic cinematic roots.