Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: Apes together strong


Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback

Spoilers: severe

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
 strikes me as rather unique in the annals of 2010s popcorn cinema, which is, of course, largely coextensive with the sequel/remake/reboot cycle of IP exploitation that Rise represents so emblematically that its damn title even starts with the word "rise" (though, really, it's only fulfilling its own series' time-honored naming convention, and Apes movies could get away with a Rise more easily than anybody else).  But I do think it's interesting in just how unusual it was, while still remaining such a textbook expression of the spirit of its age, which is still the age we're living in.

As far as I can determine, it was basically a spec script written by married screenwriters (who also got to produce) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, prompted by something Jaffa read in a newspaper about pet chimpanzees, and thereafter sold by the couple to 20th Century Fox, as a prospective new take on Planet of the Apes.  It's inspirational for middle-aged wannabes: Jaffa and Silver, reasonably big deals here in 2024, were scarcely even working professionals beforehand, with no more than four film credits (and that's between the two) since 1992, and despite my instinct that they were somehow involved in the industry beyond those credits (for Silver, movies were the family trade, with her writer grandfather Sidney Buchman being a multiple Oscar nominee), I can't find much else regarding their careers or livelihoods.  Their previous work (and Silver's pedigree) might've gotten them a meeting, but it couldn't have been that a Fox executive declared one day, "bring unto me that writing duo with nary a hit nor even a remotely similar project to their names*, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, for only with their help can we relaunch our IP about talking monkeys," especially considering that Fox couldn't have been that enthusiastic about this particular IP anyway, obviously not disinterested, since they made the movie, but likewise not actively looking for some way to continue the franchise beyond Tim Burton's 2001 PotA remake, which had turned a substantial profit, but was (and is) considered something of an embarrassment.

The upshot of this was a great deal of freedom for Jaffa and Silver to pursue their muse wheresoever it took them (Mark Bomback script doctored, and was rewarded by getting to co-write the sequels), and they fixed upon a radically different approach to the basic material of the franchisea reimagining, if you will, and unlike Burton's, it isthat also has the distinction of being channeled through a nigh-on perfect screenplay.  The tilt of the franchise in all its previous iterationsstarting, really, with Pierre Boulle's novelwas increasingly focused upon its ape characters as metaphors for people, finally arriving at a point with Burton's remake (if the classic series' ending, Battle For the Planet of the Apes, wasn't already there) where it didn't really matter that they were apes, and they'd practically lost any ability to even use them as allegorical figures in the bargain.  Jaffa and Silver take entirely the opposite tack.

"What if the apes were apes?" they ask, and they pursued this question literally, with about as much commitment to hard speculative fiction as has ever existed in a movie script.  As a collateral bonus, Rise is the very first film in its franchise that doesn't need total bullshit to grease its wheels, and it's most agreeable that the suspension of disbelief required here is basically just the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any sci-fi actionerless!so that the biggest "ah, I dunno if I buy that" in the whole thing is only that I emphatically don't buy that chimpanzees can leap through plate glass windows any more harmlessly than humans can.  Even when it arrives upon its (remarkably!) sparing incidences of talking apes, these moments are earned beyond all objection, nor even entirely implausible to someone who, admittedly, has no deep biological knowledge of chimpanzee vocal apparatus, but has definitely attempted, every single time he's seen this movie, to replicate that labored, guttural "NO," without engaging any of the specifically human parts of his anatomy.  "Caesar is home," on the other hand... well, fuck it, it's great anyway.

It's good to acknowledge, however, that Jaffa and Silver happened upon their premise at exactly the right moment in film history, as their movie couldn't really have existed without the technology that an Apes movie actually about apes, and for reals this time, was going to require.  Makeup, obviously, was right out.  I guess, hypothetically, someone could've tried it with stop-motion animation or animatronicsor, you know, actual trained chimps (best of luck!)but I expect the screenwriters knew, or soon figured out, how perfect their timing was, with CGI and motion capture just now reaching the point of more-or-less completely-persuasive visuals, but before completely-persuasive CGI could seem normal, so it was still capable of blowing audience's minds.  It's building, of course, upon the success of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the titular gorilla from Peter Jackson's King Kong, and in another ace bit of timing, Rise got Weta Digital, the studio behind Gollum and Kong, and the actual meat-and-bone basis for Gollum and King Kong, Andy Serkis, the promethean hero of his medium; and Serkis's chimpanzee, Caesar, remains his masterpiece.  (Though it's correct to note that Serkis had help, not just from Weta's animators, but stuntman Terry Notaryalso the performer of another chimp character hereand a small ensemble of stand-ins for retakes.  Serkis's performance was, at times, too forceful and gesticulatory; I'm not sure I love that you can fiddle with performances that way with mo-cap, though my understanding is that most of the fiddling was due to actual technical limitations rather than directorial or studio manicuring.)

Anyway, thirteen years later, Rise will sometimes show its agewhich is always a little surprising to me whenever I rewatch it, because I remember being just flabbergasted in 2011 at how credible the animation, texturing, and rendering was, on top of Serkis's all-timer performanceand, looking back now, it might actually not all be as well-done as the then-six-year-old Kong.  But that's the "timing" I was talking about, because by 2011 the technology, even on behalf of heavily-furred animals where you have to get all that surface area right, and which are sufficiently humanoid that uncanniness becomes a pitfall, could already be terrific, even at (somewhat) lower budgetary levels.  And it's pretty rare that it's not convincing here.  There's an orangutan that's straight-up flawless, notwithstanding how ludicrously large he is; and if that answers the immediate question your brain forms, "shit, is that an actual orangutan?", your brain would still be hard-pressed to determine that it's CGI.  Is is, all told, some revolutionary stuff.

So, as our ape hero's name implies, it's sort-of a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but mainly just because they both involve ape revolt, rather than because of any particularized similarities, and before it even gets there, it's already become its own thing, jettisoning the baggage of franchise continuity so completely that its showy callbacks to a couple of the original PotA's immortal Hestonian howls ("take your stinking paws off me" is as forced as anything in Burton's film, but pays off nicely; "it's a madhouse!" is recontextualized extraordinarily well) could, conceivably, just be the character quoting the original film, that is, this is such a complete reimagination of Planet of the Apes that the movie, Planet of the Apes, could comfortably exist in this universe, without it even causing an itch.  (At least at this point, Caesar could be named after the movies; it's true that by Rise's sequels, people would be referring to the Apes movies as a way to understand their new circumstances every third line or so.)  And I think that's neat.**

In any event, we start with the worst VFX shot in the film (the compositing makes it look like chimps on a conveyor belt), which gets immediately better, when a female chimp, amongst others of her kind, is captured in Africa to be sold to Bay Area big pharm for experimentation.  Enter Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), who's on the cusp of a breakthrough virus-delivered therapy for Alzheimer's patients, and has a very personal need to cure that disease now, for his father Charles (John Lithgow) is presently dying of it.  But Will's therapy, tested on the female chimp, "Bright Eyes," works, and works well; it's a pity that he winds up with a fiasco that sees his subject smashing up the joint and subsequently getting put down, placing a significant roadblock in the way of further progress.  But, as it happens, she was only defending her newborn son (so maybe the actual biggest "I don't buy that" is that the pregnancy of a medical research chimp went unnoticed), and while Bright Eyes's whole cohort is ordered euthanized, the infant is entrusted to Will, and he just doesn't have the heart to end him.

Will takes this chimp home, dubbing him Caesar, and it turns out that Will's therapy isn't just a cure for Alzheimer's, but a cognitive super-drug.  Gestating in a womb full of neuron-generating virus has given this chimpanzee the intelligence of a humana smart humanand soon, Caesar can understand spoken human language, and speak back in ASL, astonishing, in turn, Will, Will's eventual girlfriend, chimp vet Dr. Caroline Aranha (Frieda Pinto), and Will's boss, venal pharmaceutical magnate Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo).  Though Jacobs only learns this much later; he's interested, for now, in Will's semi-successful rogue treatment of Charles with stolen doses of his drug and Will's idea for a new, even more aggressive viral delivery package.  In the interim, Caesar has grown up, with the intellect of a man, the emotions of a teenager, and the experience of an unsocialized eight year old.  He badly mishandles a situation that triggers his instincts for defending his family, and he's thrown into ape prison"sanctuary"where he's mistreated badly enough by his keepers (principally a freakish Tom Felton who understands, above all, how undignified being cruel to animals is) that he turns his intelligence towards a new object: the heist of his "father's" primate-uplifting drug, and a breakout to the redwood forests beyond San Francisco, where Will used to take him, the only place of freedom he's ever known.

Leaving everything else aside, this is unnervingly plausible sci-fi (not in its technical details, obviously, but in its broad strokes), but that's, like, the eighth or ninth most important thing going on here.  I'm not sure where I'd rank it as far as "importance to the film" goes but somewhere high on that list is that this is an incredibly robust deployment of "easy" melodrama that never feels like it's gotten too easy, or too gooey, in its end-of-life movie with Franco and Lithgow, which has been carefully maintained so that it feels like it's almost ready to be its own sci-fi story, even though by any analytical measure it's still just a subplot in an Apes movie, so even in the "human" part of Rise, the most important feelings are necessarily going to come out of how Serkis, under Caesar's pixels, reacts to his grandfather's plight and how his own origins relate to it.  But it's significant I don't want to use scarequotes around "grandfather."

Throw in a good ensemble cast, and Will's hubris, and the way a son has been wrenched away from him along with a fatherand the way his broken promises finally outrun Caesar's patienceand you've got a rock-solid emotional foundation for whatever the movie wants to do next.  It's a curious anomaly amongst 2010s blockbusters, in that its stakes are both world-historically vast and minor-national-news-story small: in cosmic, name-of-the-franchise terms, those stakes are the downfall of humanity; in concrete, here-and-now terms, the stakes are whether Caesar and a band of fifty apes can successfully traverse maybe eight miles of dangerous urban terrain, and successfully force their way across a Golden Gate Bridge held by the California Highway Patrol, to get to a forest.  (Which isn't the best plan, but even the movie knows this, offering Caesar the clearly tempting option of betraying his own revolution.)  But those stakes feel bigger, and fuller, than the stakes of virtually any movie of this classcertainly any other Apes filmbecause they're so well-grounded in Serkis's almost-entirely-silent performance, that's both "intelligent" and "chimpanzee" at all times, brought to life with tremendous technique.  (There are points, here and there, where the human-ness punches through too much and a certain cartooniness follows.  These aren't serious faults, and Rise wisely errs on the side of making Serkis's Caesar an inescapable force of audience empathy.  But it is highlighted by how astonishingly simian some of Caesar's allies, like the aforementioned orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), as well as the scarred bonobo Koba (Christopher Gordon), look.)

"Where Rise wants to go next" is "an action movie": the breakout and city trek are absolutely perfect action move filmmaking, coming after an hour of absolutely perfect set-upat 104 minutes, Rise is a work of supreme concision, especially in light of where blockbusters were headingand it's so perfect that I'm perplexed what happened to director Rupert Wyatt's career.  For all its possibilities of heaviness, there's a deft touchit's weepy, but not immiserating, then it's incredibly excitingand there's real excellence in how his movie's been put together, on a shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene basis, with a nice sense of place and mood in the golden shift in Andrew Leslie's often-cozy, increasingly-melancholy photography, as well as a strong eye for iconic imagery, carrying across a certain productively-unresolved mix of feelings and tones; we get shots that are, simultaneously, pure brash CGI spectacle, revolutionary triumphalism yoked entirely to Caesar's protagonistic perspective, and the uncanny terror of apes overcoming the supremacy of man.  Those iconic images come often in the latter third of the film, especially during the tactically-oriented setpiece on the bridge that effortlessly cross-cuts between all the moving parts of the battle, and still finds time for such forlorn visuals as riderless horses in a fog.  (Though maybe my favorite incongruity is Caesar and company riding atop one of those Rice-a-roni cablecars and surveying the brave new world before them.)  And it's a well-built piece of editing outside of just its action, sometimes intoxicatingly so, like in the collapse of years in a CGI montage that confirms the redwood forest as Caesar's promised land, and establishes the Golden Gate as a motif representing Caesar's yearnings.  The weakest thing in the film is possibly what has been, historically, one of the stronger elements of Apes cinema, the musical score, but frankly that says more about this Apes movie than about Patrick Doyle's score.  There's a certain "generic orchestral track" quality, so that even the best cues, evoking Caesar's freedom in the treetops, are cliche soaring.  But it is, at every step, great cliche.

That's altogether enough for a great movie, then, and Rise still isn't done.  It's a movie with the moral urgency of a bullhorn on a quiet morning, and it achieves everything it sets out to do as regards its disgust for how humans treat animals, particularly our fellow apes who ought to be nearest to our hearts; I'm less sanguine about its broader "meddling in God's domain" pretensions, simply because I don't really have a lot of time for that theme, and it's unfortunate that it has enough hectoring arguments against the concept of "advancing medicine" generally that it's clear it's not being deliberately smart when it juxtaposes the permitted, "ethical" testing of Will's (it turns out very dangerous) therapy on chimps against the impermissible, "unethical" testing of the therapy on an actual Alzheimer's patient whose alternative is to wait for his mind to rot inside his skull.  On the other hand, "viral delivery of gene therapy" does suggest some heightened caution was warranted.  That's certainly the case here, when Rise, already done with its story, goes into a mid-credits punch to the gut, delivered principally with an infographic (but what an infographic) that turns this into one of the most bizarrely subversive movies ever released as a summer tentpole, even prompting the one part of Doyle's score that has an unexpected personality, as the music manages a weird cast of enthusiastic doom.  Presently, most of the world perishes thanks to Will's scientific arrogance (the new virus is deadlyto humans), and the movie gets us to root for it, partly because the end of the world is just what Apes movies have trained us for, mostly because it guarantees our hero's victory, and the movie has made us like Caesar more than we like people.

I will offer, controversially, that this didn't leave much room to actually continue: its two direct sequels are both good movies, but they're also five hours of epilogue. Even so, Rise was distinct in a franchise almost invariably powered by equally brutal and misanthropic twists.  This is the one that does it with a happy ending, with the caveat that the happy ending is human extinction; hence it's the most nihilistic Apes of all, and paradoxically the least.

Score: 10/10

*The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, written by Silver solo, was a hittwo decades earlier.  Latterly, though, the couple have something like an auteur obsession: nearly every single screenplay they've written since Rise has been to some degree about animal rights, sometimes stupidly, like Jurassic World, but they've written two movies about whaling, In the Heart of the Sea and Avatar: The Way of Water.
**Whatever the hell it thinks it's doing with news reports about a space ship with the same name as Taylor's ship, which definitely wasn't heading to something as local as freaking Mars at relativistic speeds back in PotA, I assume it was to leave open a door to a more conventional Apes riff later on, which nobody ever bothered walking through.


  1. Having seen KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES just yesterday, I definitely think it far more interesting than it has any right to be: please watch it, there’s some very chewy stuff at the heart of it.

    1. Oh, I'm gonna see it. I would've gone earlier but I was never going to have a better excuse for a series marathon, which, by my extremely relaxed, Jimmy Buffet song-like standards, was accomplished at a lightning pace.

      And despite being very dubious about it, I've heard pretty much only good things. Will I, like, need to watch the Maze Runners now, or what?

    2. I have absolutely no clue about the latter, not having seen those films.

  2. Also, reading your praise of the great Andy Serkis gave me the mental image of other motion capture actors instinctively doing the ‘You King Kong, me good ape’ gesture from his APES movies (I think this is actually a joke, but given it’s Andy Serkis one can’t be entirely certain).