“A Boy and His Monkey”

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since Tim Burton’s re-imagining of Planet of the Apes.  Thanks to a smart script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Rise of the Planet of the Apes provides not only a true re-imagining of this universe, but a surprisingly enjoyable romp.

GenSys scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, uh, Will Rodman (James Franco) experiments with a new Alzheimer drug ALZ 112 in the secret hopes of curing his father (John Lithgow).  The drug is deemed a failure when the female chimpanzee he was testing it on goes berserk, attacks her handlers, and is ordered put down by his we’re-never-quite-sure-what-mood-he’s-in boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo).  Will discovers that she had just given birth to a baby and takes it home.  Naming him Caesar (Andy Serkis), Will treats him as part of the family, which means he monitors  and charts his intelligence and development as much as he does his father, whom he is also conducting tests on.

“You’re trying to control things that aren’t meant to be controlled.”  -Caroline

Along the way of their misadventures, Will  meets primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto), whose sole role seems to be to deliver the fact about ape supplication gestures and be nominally romantic interest.  After a mishap, Caesar is sent off to a chimpanzee sanctuary, guarded by less-than-hospitable keepers, and he stages an uprising.

Yes, this is the simian version of Spartacus.   Yes, ridiculous as it sounds, this movie works.

In fact, Rise of the Planet of the Apes works best when there are no humans on screen at all.  With little to no dialogue, Caesar’s hero’s journey is both touching and thrilling.  This is due largely to WETA FX and Andy Serkis’ motion captured CGI performance, which is amazing and holds the film together.

The movie touches on a lot of hot-button issues without getting bogged down by them:  the plight of research animals, the ethical questions of when science goes too far, corporate greed/excess, the nature of families, the triumph of the outside, and how all it takes is a little thing (like a virus) to bring all of civilization crashing down.  But it is essentially about Caesar as rebel leader.

“Apes alone … weak.  Apes together strong.” -Caesar

Caesar is the Christ figure, a product of an engineered birth.  Not initially accepted by his own, yet calling for a revolution in both thought and how life should be.  His is the true “rise”, as his ascension brings with it the pursuit of freedom.  The first step on this path to freedom is realization of the dilemma that they find themselves in. In their world, there is something terribly wrong. Their brethren live lives of coerced conformity, their freedoms curtailed.  Because their world seemed so dark, hopeless, and full of despair, they traded their freedom to secure a measure of order and peace. On top of that, they weren’t even aware of who they could be.

The next step in the journey is a kind of conversion experience, a paradigm shift as one moves from one kind of worldview to another.  This is where revolution begins, with a new idea and faith in a new hope. For such a revolution to take root, it needs messengers to carry the idea forth and converts to live out the mission.  Caesar’s was a simple message, one of the hope of freedom. The world as he knew it would have to end and a new planet would have to begin.

“Some things aren’t meant to be changed.” -Caroline

Since we know where the movie is going to end up, its job is to entertain us along the way.  Granted, during their tribute to The Great Escape, the chimpanzees keep jumping through glass windows without getting hurt (in fact, for such smart creatures, you’d think they would turn the occasional door knob to make their exit).  Caesar comes alive as a character, eliciting true emotional resonance with the audience who get swept up in his performance without realizing it.  The climactic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge alone puts most battle scenes to shame with its simplicity and originality.

The movie works by staying true to itself:  telling a small story against a huge back drop.  We know the mythology and where the story has to end up, but it’s the characters and emotions of the core story which makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes the most enjoyable entry in the series in a long time.