Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Caesar X, no sell out?
Ok… So… Ok… How to start? I was sitting in the cinema…
Top tip: this is often a sensible precursor to watching a movie in the cinema. So I was sitting in the cinema and we were most of the way through the first act. Yeah, that’s the moment I worked it out. Hey I’m a bit slow, I’m sure most of you got there way before me. But I worked it out eventually and, when I did it felt like I had made a false start. I worked my way back to the beginning and tried to think about the movie from scratch.
Let me start again. There was a moment in the first act of Rise of the Planet of the Apes when I ran up against my usual semi-conscious habit of ticking off story beats as a movie plays out. Apart from a very weak opening sequence in the jungle, I had been going along quite happily. I was noting smart, professional story development. I was appreciating a well shot, tightly structured piece of mainstream Hollywood exposition. Tick, there’s the premise. Tick, that’s James Franco’s character goal. Tick, there’s our hero’s initial refusal… and then I asked myself – hold on, why is this movie about James Franco?
I mean I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke, but I came to watch a Planet of the Apes movie. I don’t care about James’ subplots. I don’t care that his science is motivated by his father’s Alzheimer’s. I don’t care that he will go on to have a relationship with a cute vet. I don’t care about everything this movie seems to want me to care about. I care about the apes. Let me lay it out: this movie is about the wrong hero. This movie doesn’t have the courage to place its subject at the center of the story. Just as the original Planet of the Apes needs to be led by Charlton Heston’s discovery narrative, so its descendent needed to be led by Caesar’s own discovery of his potential. It ends up being the Schindler’s List of intelligent ape movies – and, let me tell you, that’s not a good thing.
Whenever Rise of the Planet of the Apes does allow us to see the world from the perspective of Caesar, the whole thing comes alive. You can see the spark there, you can see the transgressive potential but most of that potential is diluted by the assumption that an audience will not take a movie without a sympathetic human protagonist. Judging by the little empathic noises directed at Caesar by my fellow audience members last night, I think this assumption is seriously mistaken. Who doesn’t love a little neotenic baby chimp with the potential to overthrow human civilization? I don’t know, have you seen Bambi?
So Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends up being a story about turning a chimpanzee into a white liberal San Franciscan. Indeed Caesar becomes so white, liberal and San Franciscan that, when the revolution finally starts, he tries to keep it bloodless and politically correct. The apes end up sitting politely in Redwood trees in Muir Woods while the gene therapy that made them smart works its way through the human population like a virus. They succeed in escaping from the city, but are denied true agency in the radical transformation of society the humans have brought upon themselves.
There is so much more one could say about this movie. On its own terms it is beautifully made. The writing is often clever, the technical execution is terrific, the ape performances are really impressive – take a bow Andy Serkis. Taken on its own, the action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the best I have seen because it is smart as well as dramatic. It plays to character and to empathy, we care what happens to the apes in a way we never do, can or will with giant space robots.
But, in the end this is a cult film franchise bled mainstream white. It is a safe, well meaning liberal movie scared of its radical black shadow. Caesar is what happens when you take a potential Malcolm X and raise him as a Barack Obama. You get in trouble any way you look at that problem, but you can’t discuss these movies without entering the deeply problematic territory of racial (and species) symbolism. (For those who don’t know the original movie, it was an obvious allegory, which condemned racism by reversing the power relations of white and black.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes recognizes this from the very beginning with a transparent association of its apes with slavery. Let’s just say it would have been nice to have given those slaves more fight.