Tuesday 5 February 2019

Your Move, Darwin #9: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

In a sense, I can't help thinking, how did this even happen? I mean, I know how it happened technically, factually: someone said, let's revive the Planet of the Apes, and the right combination of executives, creative talent and money providers happened to be in the right place at the right time and they made another (Noun) (Preposition) the Planet of the Apes. But that's not really what I meant there. What I mean is that I can't help but marvel at the simple fact that anyone might think that making what amounts to a prequel series to a screen sci fi franchise that had at this stage been dead in the water for about 35 years – and yes, that includes the Tim Burton attempt a decade before, which if anything just provided a practical demonstration, a reinforcement that the franchise was over – was a good idea. OK, we're doing Planet of the Apes again. Which version, though?

Hollywood generally, if given the choice between the safe and predictable course and, you know, the interesting one, will take the former every time So you would naturally assume that if someone wanted to defibrillate the Planet of the Apes franchise, they’d do what they did with the last three goes, that is, go with the Space Gulliver option, where someone heroic lands on an actual Planet of the Apes. Full of apes. Where the apes got smart and took over.

But they didn't. 

Apes together strong.

I mean, look, I already know that this is going to be controversial as far as Planet of the Apes fandom goes, because these three new films are not at all like the originals. The marvellous practical makeup effects of the original films (and indeed some of the effects in the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes) are not used here. The apes are still performed by human actors, but they're hidden by motion captured CGI, the 21st century inheritor of rotoscoped animation.

And a lot of Planet of the Apes fans hate that, and are never going to get past that, and OK, I can't argue with that. Either you buy into it or you don't. I have no doubt that I'm not going to change hearts and minds (but mostly hearts, because fandom is a labour of love). But I'm working on the principle that if we're going to survey the Planet of the Apes we're going to do the whole thing, including the departures, and whatever you think of these movies, they're part of the series. I think they are worthwhile. My Ape Rankings so far have gone quite far adrift from fan orthodoxy, and that's going to get increasingly acute as Your Move, Darwin comes to its final lap.

And I think the big surprise of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was that it did pretty well, making over $470 million at the box office, which isn't like a super blockbuster, but it's definitely more than you would expect from a film in a franchise that isn't one of the big fandoms. I placed Planet of the Apes somewhere between Dune and Doctor Who in terms of its fanpower; I stand by that. But franchises don't live or die on their diehard fans. Franchises survive on people who aren't fans, the people who have heard of the property without, you know, owning the T-shirts, action figures and spin-off novels. And so, consequently, A hell of a lot of people who were not what you'd call fans cared enough about Planet of the Apes to go and see the thing, enough that a sequel was thought worth making. And I don't know, with a film as perverse as this – and it is perverse, because you're rooting for the figure who is indirectly responsible for the apocalypse as the hero, and you're unequivocally rooting for an ape to win out over humans – that kind of gives me hope that mainstream American cinema isn't entirely without value still.

So, from the start, I'll be straight with you. I do quite like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I do genuinely think it's an interesting film. It's not a fantastic film. I mean, what we wound up with doesn't quite map onto perfection. This is 21st century studio genre cinema, which is not my favourite thing, so you can't expect much. But in effect, director Rupert Wyatt got hired to make a Planet of the Apes movie without a planet of the apes in it, which has happened before, but not like this. Whereas Escape from the Planet of the Apes had inhabitants of the Planet of the Apes crash into a world that wasn't yet the Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes starts without that. And this was probably the best possible tactic to take.

To reiterate one of the central conclusions of this project, once you've found the Statue of Liberty, there's nowhere else to go. That is, the discovery that this isn't an alien planet with the trappings of space opera, but in fact a postapocalyptic earth where two specific conditions occurred – namely the humans finally did it (you maniacs!) and the apes got smart and took over – isn't the beginning of our adventures, but the natural end. And that the most important question we should ask when we've found the Statue of Liberty isn't “Where do we go next?” but “How did this happen?”

But it's an oblique question, a difficult one.

The best of the original run of sequels – namely Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which is brilliant, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which is powerful and thought provoking and horribly flawed – come up with an ingenious if slightly tortuous rationale for the ape-pocalypse, as we've seen. And so far it's the only version we've seen on the screen, while we've had four distinct iterations of Space Gulliver (to wit: Planet/Beneath, the TV series, Return and the Burton film). Space Gulliver may be played out, but Hollywood is not one to stop flogging a dead horse, ape or Statue of Liberty. With that in mind, retreading the midstream origin story seems frankly a perverse move, since it's frankly not the first thing you think of when you think of the Planet of the Apes.

But this is what Rise of the Planet of the Apes does. And it makes some very canny decisions, the cleverest of which is making the two conditions for the birth of the Planet of the Apes one condition. Instead of

(humans destroying civilisation) + (apes getting talkative and uppity) = Planet of the Apes 

...we get

(humans destroying civilisation while making apes getting talkative and uppity) = Planet of the Apes 

That is, the apes getting smart and human civilisation collapsing are both the result of the same act of well-meaning scientific hubris.
So cute.
So it works like this. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist for GenSys, and he's working on a genetic therapy for Alzheimer’s, not least because his dad Charles (the always excellent John Lithgow) is in the grip of the disease. He's made a breakthrough: ALZ-112. A chimp named Bright Eyes (performed under mocap by Terry Notary, who also performs alpha ape Rocket later on), injected with the drug, has become superintelligent as a result. But during the actual meeting where Will is trying to get the board of directors to agree to human trials, Bright Eyes flips out and ruins everything. The test animals are all either destroyed or given away. But the reason Bright Eyes flipped out is this: she'd just had a baby. Will takes this animal home, and brings him up as his own. Early on, it becomes apparent that Caesar (mocap veteran Andy Serkis – you might also know him as Gollum, Baloo, Snoke and King Kong) has inherited the intelligence that had been artificially bestowed on his mother.

Meanwhile Will tests ALZ-112 on his dad.

And OK, it works. Charles becomes consistently lucid again, for some years. It works, and after a while it doesn't. But the fact is, this does not hide the fact that Will Rodman is a terrible, terrible scientist.

Now, not once in the entire film does any human make any statement about the ethics of animal experimentation and all right, the only sympathetic human who isn't invested in animal experimentation is Will's love interest, zoo vet Caroline (Freida Pinto), but even she doesn't get to say anything about it. To be fair, Caroline doesn't get to say anything much about anything, because she is literally there because someone thought they'd better have a human female lead, and that's near-unforgiveable because Freida Pinto will always deserve better than that.
Left: Freida Pinto, utterly wasted.
But even leaving aside that every human in the film apparently thinks testing drugs on chimps is OK, shall we just for a second take an inventory of Will Rodman's dangerous relationship with science?

Point one. He steals a lab animal from quarantine. OK, yes, he saves the little guy. And that's morally perhaps not the wrong thing to do. But this is an animal from a testing lab. This isn't a moral issue. This is a safety issue. This is an animal that is abnormal, the result of a trial of an untested drug. This alone is a “never work in this industry again” action.

OK, but if Will didn't steal Caesar and bring him up as part of the family, we wouldn't have a plot. So let's allow that one to slide.

Point two. Will, as we've said, tests ALZ-112 on his dad. His uncomprehending dad. OK, maybe he's got power of attorney or something, but still! There are ethics forms! There are ways you do this! There are legalities! Yes, it makes Charles better. But then it doesn't!

All right. So Will goes to his rapacious, besuited boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), and comes clean about Caesar. And ALZ-112. Jacobs is at least explicitly uninterested in ethics, and while he does to his credit have a “Holy shit, Will!” reaction, he also knows about the bottom line.

This brings us to point three. Will thinks, "I know what will make ALZ-112 better, let's make it work with a viral vector." I mean, nice one, Will. That will make it absolutely better, because it is completely reasonable to make ALZ-113, an untested and hence potentially dangerous pharmaceutical, a virus you can catch.

No, wait. I am wrong. It is absolutely insane.

And that segues to point four, because they're blasting the bonobo Koba (Chris Gordon) with it and Will's assistant Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) has a mask accident and he gets a face full of viral ALZ-113. Oh God, Robert, everyone says, are you all right? And he says, oh, yeah, I'm fine. And they shrug and carry on.

Are you fucking kidding me? He's just been blasted with a viral agent, in the lab! Why is he not straight into quarantine? Why isn't the lab in lockdown? Because Will Rodman is an incompetent science bro. That's why.

They let Franklin out and about. He's sneezing and snuffling, right in front of the man who accidentally dosed him with a potential pathogen and his state no reasonable concern. This is bad.

And then, point five. Will gives his again-senile dad ALZ-113. And it kills him. This is criminal level incompetence. I mean there's a greater than 50% chance you could get Will sent down for murder for that.

|Except you can't, because Will's incompetence is directly responsible for the destruction of what we call human civilisation.

Because shortly before dying, Franklin sneezes blood on Will's asshole neighbour Hunsiker (David Hewlett) and Hunsiker winds up taking the disease across the world because he's an airline pilot, resulting in a global pandemic.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar will describe Will Rodman as “a good man”. That's arguable, because his moral decisions are at best questionable. Regardless of whether you think his good intentions absolve him or not, no one here is going to convince me he isn't a godawful scientist. Although there is a certain perverse satisfaction here too, because if I'm going to blame anyone for the fall of human society, it might as well be James Franco.
Smart move.
The other half of this, the Apes Getting Smart, that's down to Caesar. An altercation with Hunsiker leads to Caesar getting taken away by animal control, and placed in a sort of ape sanctuary run by John Landon (Brian Cox), which looks like a perfectly nice place, except it's actually not, it's basically Monkey Jail, and the worst of the warders is Landon's son Dodge (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton, victim to typecasting). Here, Caesar, radicalised by his experience, first works out how to make himself the alpha ape, escapes, goes to GenSys and steals ALZ-113, which he doses his fellow prisoners with. This makes the apes as smart as he is. They break out, and then bust the apes from GenSys, and then the zoo for good measure, before making for the redwoods via a thrilling showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge. Jacobs, as much the cause of the action as Will, gets his comeuppance, as Caesar leaves him to the desultory vengeance of Koba, and Will and Caroline are reduced to bystanders.

Dodge Landon as a character, although only really present in the middle act of the film, is hugely important in this whole process, and a big part of his importance is that he's both a problem and a corrective.

There are multiple references to the original Planet of the Apes series throughout Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as you would expect, because no 21st century film reboot is going to not have them. A news report shows astronauts heading for a Mars mission. The big gentle orangutan (mocapped over Karin Konoval) is called Maurice, a nod to Maurice Evans, just as the gorilla (Richard Ridings – the voice of Daddy Pig!) is called Buck, in honour of original gorilla actor Buck Kartalian.

And Dodge Landon's very name is a reference – that's two out of three original astronauts – and it's a weird reference because it's just, you know, there. It doesn't have any connection to anything. Except perhaps it's a signifier that Dodge is a sort of critical mass where references cluster.

When Dodge, having shut up the apes in their cramped cages, yells “It's a madhouse!” that at least is a good call back, one that refers to its original context, flipped in a way that inspires you to think back on how that line was used in the first film. When Taylor yells it, it's a cry of frustration, from one in the cage. When Dodge Landon cries it out, it's in mockery, an act of cruelty. It's a twisting of an original line, and a deliberate one.

All self referential points like this are in effect breakings of the Fourth Wall. They are talking to us, the audience, directly, in a sort of code. Dodge Landon's cruelty is so acute then, it's breaking the story. By putting the most direct wall-breaking reference so far in the mouth of a complete jerk, the film is essentially framing that reference as a crime. As an abuse.

And here then at least is the ethical heart that the story is lacking. Because the younger Landon is a villain for the hell of it, and his villainy is mainly framed as cruelty to animals. And he's so unforgiveable that he even breaks our suspension of disbelief. I mean, Tom Felton is excellent at playing a punchable little jerk anyway, it's the only thing he's really famous for, so having a bully, who torments animals, as a villain, makes perfect sense. Because he's also representative of the sort of person who thinks that making context-free references is funny or worthwhile.

When Caesar escapes, Dodge attacks him with an electric goad. And Caesar grabs Dodge's arm. And Dodge says, with grim inevitability, “Take your stinking paws of me, you damn dirty ape!” And on its own, that would be a groan, just as it is when Michael Clarke Duncan says it in the Burton film, except that immediately after, Caesar bellows “No!”
Take your stinking paws of me, you damn dirty ape!
It's the first word Caesar speaks, and it turns a scene that would seem to hinge on a cute reference into one that turns around, becomes the pivotal moment in the film, and pitches this, finally, as a Planet of the Apes film worth the name, because once again, we have the story turned upside down by an utterance.

When Dodge utters that lines, Tom Felton delivers it in a tone of panic, a whine, where Heston made it a stentorian, theatrical piece of grandstanding. It's a broken reference, and it's discarded instantly. Dodge is here to show us what isn't Planet of the Apes. Caesar breaks his hold over the plot by showing us what is. Dodge represents the letter of the canon. Caesar represents its spirit.

Dodge, the bullying, whiny representative of referential continuity, dies, a result, inevitably of his own stupidity and cruelty (pro tip: don't spark an electric goad when someone is pointing a hosepipe at you). Caesar's bellowed denial has become a repeated foghorn roar, and the film turns hairy in a way that Planet of the Apes films have never really managed up to now.

And the film is very hairy. The CGI apes are, well, about as convincing as CGI apes were going to be in 2011 – In some places it's brilliant, in others, it's a little too smooth, too waxy. Which means that I'm not sure you ever really forget you're watching CGI here, although advances in both technology and artistry in the subsequent films in the series do, I feel reach that point. But the CGI in Rise of the Planet of the Apes does at least escape the way that CGI is all too often weightless, spectral even, and that's not a criticism you can level here. Everything has a mass to it, an effect – or the illusion of an effect – on the world around it, and this is no doubt because this isn't wholly CGI, it's CGI painted over actors who are in fact there, acting, meaning that the eyes of human actors focus in the right place, body language responds unconsciously to proximity, and the air makes space for a figure, all things you can't fake with a computer generated sprite without a solid figure beneath it.
The CGI is the most obvious concession to twenty-first century film; but structurally too, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as much of its time as any of its predecessors were. And you can see that in the way that it uses the end-credits, which is pretty much a given in franchise movies now, to set up its sequel. You more or less expect that, to be honest, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes the end credits sequel setup so beloved of the Marvel movies and ties that up with the tradition of the Planet of the Apes bummer ending.

Rise ends with Caesar leaving Will to live in the redwood forest with the apes he's led here. It's an upbeat, even inspiring ending, and after the showdown on the bridge, it feels earned.

And then Hunsiker walks through the airport in uniform. His nose starts to bleed.
This is the way the world ends. With a snuffle.
The credits roll. People start to get up and leave the cinema.

But as the credits roll, the music takes a darker, minor key, where Caesar's final denouement was stirring. Under the credits, we see a map. A line goes from San Francisco to Paris. We understand it's a flight. These lines extend now across to a dozen other places. And from there a web of flights covers the world. And that's all we see.

It's not spoon-fed to us; we wouldn't have the map's meaning spelled out to us until the opening credits of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, three years later. But the meaning is unequivocal. We're watching the end of human ascendancy. The happy ending of Rise is also an apocalypse. And there is nothing more Planet of the Apes than a massive downer ending.

Rise is the least of the new films. It's the most uneven, and the most referential, the most tied to the past. It unironically expects us to be rooting for James Franco's criminally incompetent science bro, and the first half of the film is, ethically speaking, all over the shop. But in the second half of the film, Rise symbolically kills its ties to the past and finds the ethical and moral heart that is entirely missing up to this point. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good title in that respect: it's not just the rise of the literal phenomenon of a planet of the apes, it's the rise of the franchise itself, from the grave.

Increasingly Heretical Ape Rankings So Far:
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
3=. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
3=. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
5. Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)
6. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
7. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
8. Planet of the Apes: the TV Series (1974)
9. Planet of the Apes (2001)